Precocious children, fans of children’s literature, fashionistas, and anyone who loves celebrity gossip all need to skibble over to the New-York Historical Society to see Eloise at the Museum, which runs through Oct. 9. It’s full of nifty illustrations, fun memorabilia, and delicious dirt about the adorable/horrifying little girl who lives at the Plaza, and her creators, Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight.
The first book in the series (actually called Kay Thompson’s Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups) was a sensation as soon as it was published in 1955. The Los Angeles Times called it “the Alice in Wonderland for the Atomic Age”; Groucho Marx said, “I admire Eloise enormously—and I am very happy that I am not her father.” That book was quickly followed by Eloise in Paris (“Oh my Lord il y a beaucoup de pigeons in our bawthroom”) in 1957; Eloise at Christmastime (“I’m giving the valet a beehive”) in 1958; and Eloise in Moscow (“I always ride my tricycle whenever I am on the Baltic Sea”) in 1959.
The Historical Society show features 75 objects related to Thompson and Knight’s work, including original manuscript pages, early sketches (Weenie the pug originally looked like a glamorous, feathery-tailed papillon), vintage photos, and first-gen Eloise merch (doll clothes! human clothes! Jujubes! toothpaste!). There are “house phones” you can pick up to hear snippets of Bernadette Peters and Kay Thompson reading the books. There’s a panel from Ronald Searle’s Belles of St Trinian’s, the comic strip series about murderous British schoolgirls that partially inspired Eloise’s look. There’s a re-creation of Eloise’s bedroom with shelves full of various books kids can lounge about reading, including many non-Eloise books illustrated by Knight. (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle FTW.) Pleasingly, the gin bottle, hacksaw, and The Little Beaver picture book from Eloise’s original bedroom are there, too, on a high shelf. (Thompson did not intend to write a children’s book. She did not like children.)
Visitors can listen to Thompson’s Top 40 hit “Eloise,” which will make you want to stab your eardrums with a parasol. This ignominious bubblegum number is no reflection of Thompson’s talent: She was a gifted cabaret singer, pianist, arranger, and voice coach (for Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Liza Minnelli, among others) as well as an author and fashion-show producer. Jule Styne said of her in 1957, “Kay Thompson, in my estimation, is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life.” The exhibit’s lone snippet of Thompson’s iconic, scene-stealing 1957 role in Funny Face—playing a fashion editor braying “Think Pink!”—is not nearly enough. (Here, watch the whole number.)
Though Thompson wanted the world to see Eloise as purely her creation, illustrator Hilary Knight’s kinetic images of the spiky-haired, pot-bellied, pink-loving, swaggering 6-year-old quickly became as indelible as the text. The duo signed a contract for a fourth book, Eloise Takes a Bawth, in 1962, but editor Ursula Nordstrom noodged Thompson to deliver a manuscript for six years without success. (In one letter, Nordstrom wondered, “I wonder if I’m dead and don’t realize it, and that’s why you can’t get in touch.” Rawther like the plot of The Sixth Sense!) The much-put-upon Knight quit at last when Thompson physically grabbed his hand to direct his pencil. The book was finally published in 2002, four years after Thompson’s death, with a bit of final editorial zhuzhing by Thompson’s friend Mart Crowley, author of The Boys in the Band. Thompson’s version ended with the Plaza flooding and everyone dying. Crowley changed the ending.
The star of the exhibit (other than Eloise herself, of course) is the restored 1956 painting of Eloise that mysteriously disappeared from the Plaza in 1960. There was a flurry of publicity; Walter Cronkite announced on the evening news that Eloise had been kidnapped; Thompson cast suspicion on youthful fratty dudes attending a debutante ball at the hotel. Two years later, Knight got a raspy-voiced phone call telling him the location of a trash can in which he could find the painting—slashed across the knees. The mystery was never solved. But oddly, in 1993, Thompson idly mentioned to a reporter that she’d found the painting in the trash. It was probably a coincidence that she’d been furious at Knight because critics had praised the art in Eloise in Moscow and panned the text. At the press preview for the show, curator Jane Bayard Curley mused with a little smile, “One can imagine Kay Thompson, in a trench coat and dark glasses, calling from a pay phone and watching from across the street as Knight raced to rescue his painting.” Knight, who assumed the painting had been stolen for its ornate frame, was heartbroken. He stuffed the rolled-up, destroyed original in a closet among tubes of wrapping paper, where Curley found it decades later. A video in the exhibit shows how, over three months, the fragile painting was painstakingly restored.
Thompson, in general, was a piece of work. According to the meticulously detailed, name-droppy and super-gossipy Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin (one of Curley’s main resources; the paperback is available in the gift shop, alongside the Eloise lip gloss, glitter nail polish, and sparkly purses), Thompson was a consummate bridge-burner. The book’s opening line is “Like Eloise at the Plaza, Kay Thompson was a figment of the imagination.” Indeed, she invented her WASP-y, urbane, soignée persona out of whole cloth. In reality, she was Kitty Fink, the Midwestern daughter of an Austrian immigrant who spoke broken English with a Yiddish accent. “The Finks submerged their Jewish heritage in order to assimilate into mainstream society,” Irvin writes. Leo Fink came to the United States in 1886, at age 12, settled in St. Louis, opened a pawn shop, and married a non-Jewish coffee-shop waitress. Kitty, born in 1909, never let her friends see her father’s store; she told everyone he was a jeweler (pawn shops do sell jewelry). She’d surely be pleased that the New-York Historical Society show doesn’t mention her Jewish roots.
As a child, Kitty was said to have a good personality, code for her three siblings being way cuter than she was. She had the first of five nose jobs at age 18. She loved music, started taking piano lessons at 3, and at 16, she became a pianist with the St. Louis Symphony. A perpetual hustler, she also got herself a gig as an accompanist at a local dance school, charging $3 an hour, double the going rate. Irvin observes that she “longed to be taken seriously, like Fanny Brice, an ugly duckling Jewish girl from New York’s Lower East Side who had become a national sensation singing weepy ballads.” But instead of a balladeer, Kitty wanted to be a blues singer. This horrified her father. Back then, the blues were “Negro music.” Kitty worked to drop her voice an entire octave to sound more soulful, and radio gigs followed.
During the summers, she was a camp counselor known as “Finky.” Her former campers recall that she’d trot out her cloying Eloise voice when she had to discipline them: “You better do what I say, or you’ll have to answer to me—Eloise!” Almost as soon as she was out of her parents’ house, Irvin writes, she changed her name. “In addition to providing a clean break from her checkered past [she’d been fired from an early St. Louis radio gig for partying and missing half the broadcast], the new identity would forever erase her Jewish surname. Tellingly, she never again mentioned it to the press. As far as she was concerned, Kitty Fink was dead and buried.”
Throughout her career, Thompson burned bridges and sabotaged herself at every turn. She fought tooth and nail with Paramount Studios during Funny Face because Audrey Hepburn got to wear Givenchy and she did not. (Edith Head described Thompson marching into her office, issuing dictums “in the squeaky voice of a little girl shot with arsenic.”) When Eloise became a live-action TV movie, Thompson insisted on hiding under tables and voicing the part herself while the child cast as Eloise covered her mouth with a book or a doll. (She was finally convinced to let the kid speak.) She negotiated herself out of the juicy role in Mame that later went to Bea Arthur. (She claimed that Arthur’s husband, the director Gene Sacks, had sabotaged her.) She quit The Pink Panther. (Hated her wardrobe, hated the script, not a big Peter Sellers fan.) Her friend Noel Coward tried twice to cast her in Blithe Spirit, and then again in a musical based on the play; she waffled and waffled and turned him down. (In his diary, he called her “barmy.”) She was approached by Disney about animating Eloise; by Mike Nichols, Franco Zeffirelli, and Tracey Ullman about doing a live-action Eloise; by Jerome Robbins about creating an Eloise ballet. No, no, no. After Knight ran for the hills, Thompson approached Andy Warhol to illustrate, then rejected his work as “too decorative.” She got married and divorced, married and divorced. She became addicted to “vitamin injections” (aka amphetamines) from the notorious Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson. In 1992, she promised to let Simon & Schuster reissue Eloise in Paris; when the posters had already gone up in bookstores, she backed out. She decided to do a fragrance for Tiffany’s called Think Pink, then reneged. (Irvin quotes Tiffany’s director of design: “Kay had the mind of a grasshopper. Whenever she got exasperated with me, she’d go into her Eloise voice and say ‘Well, goodbye! I’m going to play in traffic!’”) Always thin, she became emaciated and malnourished; the Plaza kicked her out of her free room in 1973. Estranged from most of her family, she would’ve been homeless if her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, hadn’t put her up, rent-free, from 1973 until her death in 1998.
How can we know what made Thompson the difficult person she was? Why did she so ruthlessly erase her nose, her Jewish origins, her past in general? I don’t know. But I think Thompson’s own anger and loneliness are part of why children love Eloise. Yes, they relish Eloise’s imagination, sass, freedom, wealth, and independence. But they also see the darkness. They recognize that the story is thrilling and horrifying, like unexpurgated fairy tales. Eloise’s father is never mentioned. Her mother is perpetually absent. There are no other children in her life. The only human being who seems to love her is paid to do so. The Plaza is fun, but it’s also the Hotel California; Eloise is trapped. The wish fulfillment—being destructive without consequence, running around unsupervised, forcing adults to do your bidding, charging everything—is clearly double-edged, and kids understand that. The sequels don’t resonate as much because most children don’t want to go to Moscow or Paris. They want to be wild but also safe at home. It’s the same dichotomy explored in Maurice Sendak’s brilliant Where the Wild Things Are. Children understand greed, sorrow, rage, and mania more than we know.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.