Staying Power: Eloise Checks Into the NYHS

Friday, June 16, 2017

She is six-years-old, lives on the “tippy-top floor” of the Plaza Hotel, makes mischief in the “bawthroom” and continues to charm New Yorkers (and just about everyone else) with her audacious spirit. Yes, we’re talking about Eloise, star character in the book series of the same name that debuted 62 years ago. From June 30 to October 9 this year, you can explore her world at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) Eloise at the Museum exhibition. 

Throughout an intimate space of three rooms on the second floor of the NYHS, there will be 75-plus objects on view to show the creative collaboration between the late author of the book, cabaret star Kay Thompson, and illustrator Hilary Knight

“Everyone can identify with Eloise,” said Jane Bayard Curley, guest curator of the exhibition, which debuted earlier this year at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. “It’s the tip of the iceberg to see the show. What goes on behind-the-scenes in terms of research, finding the objects and writing the catalog takes time.” Visitors can see manuscripts pages, sketchbooks, portraits, vintage dolls and rarely-seen photographs of Eloise’s dog Weenie, many of which were sourced from Knight’s personal collection.

The most surprising moment for Curley during the three-year planning process was discovering the original Eloise portrait that sparked a media frenzy in 1960 when it was stolen from the Plaza. The mystery still remains regarding who took it. Many speculate it was Thompson herself, who apparently loved a good publicity stunt. In 1962, Knight received an anonymous phone call leading him to discover the damaged portrait in a dumpster. For years, he placed it in storage. “After nine months of searching, I found the portrait tucked in with the Christmas wrapping paper in the back of Hilary’s linen closet. It was rolled up and completely a wreck,” said Curley. After restoration by Lansing Moore and the team at Center Art Studio, it will be on view at Eloise at the Museum. “From a distance, the portrait now looks like a fancy 18th-century English work of art, but if you get up really close, you can see where all the tears were. It has a history and we didn’t want it to look brand new.” 

A number of family activities round out the programming of the exhibition, which includes story time sessions, parties, a special book signing with Knight and screenings of the film Eloise at the Plaza, starring Sofia Vassilieva in the lead role and Julie Andrews as Nanny. In addition, there is a corner where you can lounge on a Plaza chair and listen to Thompson sing her signature hit “Think Pink” from the 1957 film Funny Face.

Back in the day, Thompson was a vocal arranger, vocal coach and choral director at MGM, where she worked with musicians including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. She left the company to create a nightclub act with the Williams Brothers and often played in the Persian Room of the Plaza, where she was a long-term resident of the hotel. 

Eloise’s character started as a comic riff that Thompson created to amuse her friends. The book was originally written for adults and it was not until the release of the second one that Thompson accepted the notion, which she was initially strongly against, to market it for children. All of a sudden, Eloise was everywhere—then in the mid-1960s, she was nowhere as Thompson decided to pull the three sequels and a nearly-completed manuscript out of print. Only the first book remained in circulation until her death in 1988.

“It’s amazing that people are fascinated by Eloise after all these years. People still care about her and want the books,” said Curley. “The girl has true staying power.”

All illustrations by Hilary Knight.


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