Lena Dunham Reveals the Artist Behind Eloise in a New Documentary
If you grow up in New York City, certain landmarks become your own. For Holden Caulfield, it was the Central Park ducks; for Stuart Little, it was the boat basin. For me, it was always the Plaza. Maybe it started because my parents held their wedding reception there—I still have the little gilded room plaque with their names and the date. Then there are the many fond, if slightly dim, adolescent memories of ordering zombies and pupu platters under the thatched ceiling at Trader Vic’s. But first and above all there was Eloise. Every time my mother would take my sister and me for tea at the Palm Court (my favorite miniature sandwich was the shredded chicken with saucy stripes of emerald green), inevitably we’d go visit Eloise—well, at least the painting of her by her original illustrator, Hilary Knight, that still presides over the southern corridor. Standing hand on hip with a shy smile, she was like a third, devilishly unkempt sister—the one who might get away with plunking eight cubes of sugar in her tea or successfully sneak a second éclair.
So it was a delight to return to the Plaza last Monday to watch It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise, an HBO original documentary directed by Matt Wolf and executive produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konnerthat airs tonight. Nearly 60 years ago, illustrator Knight teamed up with author Kay Thompson to portray a pint-size Auntie Mame who rules over the Plaza in her own inimitable fashion. The result was an instant classic, with Knight’s drawings—finely etched black and white with hot-pink accents—indelibly capturing a day in the eccentric life.
Wearing a crisp turquoise-and-white-striped Tanya Taylor dress, Dunham greeted the suitably New York crowd—which included Bergdorf legend Betty Halbreich,Broadway staples Madeline Kahn and Alan Cumming, and Dunham pals Allison Williams and Zac Posen—in the Terrace Room. Moving easily between her ever-growing roles as a TV star, best-selling memoirist, and now power producer, she bantered with HBO’s Sheila Nevins as they introduced the 35-minute film.
In it, Dunham recounts how she and the now 88-year-old Knight met a few years ago after someone told him about the Eloise tattoo she has on her lower back. He sent her a stack of the books with a personal note, and they became creative compadres. “It was as if I’d known her all my life,” he says. As one might expect, the appeal of Eloise for Dunham ran deep: “She does what she wants . . . . There’s a lot to relate to when you’re a slightly weird child.” Her friends agree: Tavi Gevinson calls the book “a feminist primer,” Mindy Kaling describes its heroine as “a little Napoleon.” But the film really takes flight when it delves into the life of a man who has never let go of his belief in the power of the imagination.
Born on Long Island, where he lived until he was six, Knight grew up in New York with two artist parents: His father drew aviation models, his mother spun painted fantasies for children. Right away, he says, “I never thought of doing anything else.” We see him early on playing in water, a sweet square-jawed kid who looks like one of Wendy’s Lost Boys. And in some ways he never does grow up. The film breezes through his studying at the Art Students League, his stint in the navy during World War II, to get to the origins of Eloise. A slender bespectacled young man, he was working as an illustrator at Mademoisellewhen D. D. Ryan, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, introduced him to Kay Thompson in 1954. Thompson was a scenery-chewing diva of the first order who had made her name on the radio and lived at the Plaza. She had come up with the character of a little girl living at the hotel, and would apparently call her friends using the voice of Eloise. Knight and Thompson had lunch at the Persian Room and began brainstorming together; many of those original descriptions and drawings—“an egg cup makes a very good hat”—ended up in the finished book.
Thompson soon left for Paris to film Funny Face, in which she’d been cast as a demanding magazine editor. She invited Knight to come along, and they did a sequel, Eloise in Paris. There would be four books altogether before the collaboration fell apart. But even before then, there was a marked difference in temperaments. “You could not put us in a room together,” says Knight, “I would dissolve into the background because of her powerhouse personality.” One quickly gets the sense that Thompson didn’t like sharing the creative spotlight. Once the relationship ended—she had cut him off from his fair share of royalties—Knight never spoke to her again. “It was demoralizing,” he admits.
Although Knight would never be as famous for a single project again, in some ways his imaginative life was just beginning. The film’s glimpses of his Manhattan apartment, with its Bird Hall, book- and record-laden shelves, and original artworks, including many of the Broadway posters he’s illustrated over the years, reveal a life devoted to aesthetics and artistic freedom. As Dunham says: “He wants to live in a curated world that he’s created.” Or as Knight himself puts it, “I’m excellent at fucking off.” We see him fully immersed in play: having a cocktail in a gorilla suit, giving a mouse a proper funeral. We watch as he shoots a film, a sort of low-rent The Wind in the Willows,with his latest muse, cabaret singer Phoebe Legere(“completely mad, but has never been committed,” he says admiringly), whom he’s cast as a scantily clad mermaid opposite a man in a frog suit. As one of his nieces observes: “He has a child’s world view.”
It’s Me, Hilary is not just a portrait of an unsung hero of New York culture, but an unexpectedly poignant primer on how to stay true to one’s vision and fully engaged as an artist, for life. As Knight, nearing 90, says, “I just feel that there’s a lot more to do.” One can easily picture Dunham saying the same thing. At one point in Knight’s tchotchke-filled apartment, Dunham tries on a messy blonde wig and says, looking into the mirror, “I feel very Eloise-y.” As a child, she instantly saw herself in that girl who lived by her own rules, whose belly hung over her skirt, whose hair was never brushed. But as the audience drifted to the Palm Court for a celebratory tea afterward, it struck me that for those little girls who wore gleaming Mary Janes and velvet headbands that always matched their dresses, Eloise was irresistible, too. She reminded us that every living creature has a vivid personality, that bravura often leads to bravery, and that the world won’t end if we defy expectations—it might even be more fun.