Who is Eloise? That’s what Lena Dunham fans were left asking last week when the Girls’ creator announced that her next project will be a documentary about Hilary Knight, the illustrator behind the much-loved US children’s book series and a man Dunham referred to as her ‘hero’.
The Eloise books are a big deal in America, a bigger deal in New York (where they are set) and an especially big deal to Dunham, who has admitted that she reads them once a month ‘or I’d perish’ and has a tattoo of the mischievous child heroine on her back.
So what exactly is Eloise’s appeal? In part it’s that Knight and the books’ author, Kay Thompson created a world that appeals to both children and adults. Six-year-old Eloise lives in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel with a pug dog, a turtle and her nanny.
Her absent parents are rarely mentioned and for much of the time Eloise treats the Plaza’s staff as her family, getting into and out of scrapes through a combination of charm, cheek and chutzpah.
Crucially Thompson never talks down to her audience. “Nanny says she would rather I didn’t talk, talk, talk all the time,” announces Eloise. “She always says everything 3 times like Eloise you cawn’t, cawn’t, cawn’t. Sometimes I hit her on the ankle with a tassel.” When I first read the books as a six year old I thrilled to that ‘hit her on the ankle’, yes it was wrong but didn’t adults realise how annoying it is to be told to stop talking when you’ve got the whole world to explain?
For it’s Eloise’s anarchy that’s at the heart of her appeal. She might live in the Plaza but she’s never a princess. She lets baths overflow. She jams elevators. She crashes wedding receptions and laughs at debutantes ‘prancing around’. For modern readers there’s the added nostalgia of a glimpse of a world long gone, a feeling only exacerbated by Knight’s witty black and white drawings.
Thompson, an actress best known as the fashion editor in 1957’s Funny Face, was rumoured to have based Eloise on her goddaughter Liza Minnelli, although she later insisted ‘Eloise is me’. She grew increasingly uncomfortable with the books’ success and withdrew the three Eloise sequels from circulation in the 1960s – they were republished after her death in 1998 – depriving Knight of income. He got revenge of sorts in 1996 with a portrait for Vanity Fair depicting an imperious Thompson scrawling ‘I am Eloise’ on a Plaza mirror while her famous creation aimed a sharp kick at her shins.
These days the newly refurbished Plaza has lost much of its old-world charm but little New Yorkers still queue each year for an Eloise tea, filing past the costumes from the 2003 TV movie and stopping to buy Eloise-themed merchandise on route. Her appeal endures even though her home is now more corporate temple than elegant palace. Brash, bolshie and, yes, beautiful, she remains the quintessential New York heroine. No wonder Dunham is keen to give her and her creators their due.
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