Eloise in the City

Eloise in the City

“Illustration for the Plaza Hotel children’s menu,” 1957-8, Hilary Knight. Paper. Collection of Hilary Knight. ©by Kay thompson


Growing up, I totally identified with Eloise, the city child who lived at The Plaza (although I was a suburban child who lived in Louisville, Kentucky). Her flyaway hair resembled my unruly locks; her white puffed-sleeve blouse and navy blue skirt were a dead ringer for my school uniform. Only, the six-year-old picture-book princess didn’t go to school: While she occasionally met with a tutor, she mostly had the run of the grand old hotel— alternately terrorizing and charming the staff, guests and her Nanny—and ordering anything she wanted from room service or housekeeping with a cheery “charge it, please.” Reading her four books over and over, I did my darndest to copy her, from her pets (a dog and a turtle) to her speech, full of “rawther” and “cawn’t”, extended trills (“oooooooooo, I absolutely love room service”) and marvelous made-up words (like the “fiercely eyes” she fixes on her hapless tutor).


Eloise still lives at The Plaza—but also, for the next few months, at the New-York Historical Society, where she’s the star of “Eloise at the Museum.” It had me at the lobby, where life-size cutouts of Eloise and Nanny point the way up the stairs to the show. The galleries are set up like a stylized version of The Plaza, with sconces, columns and chandeliers drawn on the walls, and a cardboard grilled archway, complete with a sketched ornate clock and a doorman. At the entrance is a bank of black house phones; pick one up and you’ll hear actress Bernadette Peters reading from the books. Further in is a replica of Eloise’s pink-on-pink bedroom, filled with stuffed toys, doll clothes and a day-bed to loll on.


The exhibit (a concise two rooms, just the right size for young visitors) features succinct biographies of Eloise’s creators, singer-actress Kay Thompson and illustrator Hilary Knight, tracing the story of their collaboration in sketches, manuscript pages and photos. There’s a case devoted to Eloise press clippings and memorabilia (The Plaza was quick to cash in on the character, marketing themed events and items soon after her 1955 debut). Other items are quite precious. Hanging on one wall is an elaborate series of Knight’s finished pen-and-ink drawings for the book Eloise in Moscow, the sole survivors of a flood that destroyed most of his original renderings. On another, there’s a tempura portrait he did of our heroine, restored and on view for the first time since it was mysteriously stolen from The Plaza in 1960 – some say by Thompson herself, as a publicity stunt.


Ah, Eloise. You generate drama wherever you go.


>> Eloise at the Museum” on view thru Oct. 9, 2017, at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, 170 Central Park West, 212.873.3400.

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