Eloise sits with her legs in an unladylike sprawl. She wears her signature accordion pleated skirt, white blouse and stockings. A red bow sits atop her fly away hair. Her often abused but faithful turtle, Skipperdee, sits in front of her perhaps expecting a raisin or two. Eloise has a sideways smirk and seems ready for some mischief making. The doll was a gift from my sister and a token of our mutual admiration for Eloise's bravado. It now resides on my bookshelf… a forgotten talisman lost among family photos and other memorabilia. Yet, I pick her up in hopes of channeling her swagger and maybe some of her joie de vivre.
I am not sure when I became enthralled with the Eloise books. I was four when Eloise was first published in 1955. I have no memory of my mother ever reading the books to me. However, I vividly recall spending hours stretched out on the floor of my bedroom pouring over Hilary Knight’s detailed ink drawings of a fantastical life so unlike mine.
Eloise, age six, lived on the top floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. I lived in a brick house in the quiet suburbs of Washington D.C. Eloise was an only child. I clamored for attention among three sisters. Eloise had a nanny and a mysteriously missing mother who was always “traveling.” I had an ever present mother, and a father who dutifully went off to work each day and returned. Eloise lived in a grownup world with a private tutor, the staff of the Plaza, and her beloved Nanny as companions. I had friends to play with at school and in the neighborhood. Eloise appeared to have no rules and caused all sorts of marvelous mayhem throughout the hotel. I on the other hand had rules and consequences: wash your hands or you’ll get sick; drink your milk or you will have weak bones; eat your vegetables or no dessert; do well in school or you won’t get into college. Eloise also had something that I found unimaginable…room service!
Eloise has been in the news of late. A special exhibition, Eloise at the Museum, is on display at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library. The exhibit focuses Eloise’s creators, Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight. Thompson was an actress, radio performer, and a popular cabaret star. Reportedly, she created Eloise as a sort of alter ego when she was a child. Thompson never outgrew Eloise and often brought her to life at parties. Hilary Knight was a young artist and coincidentally Thompson’s next door neighbor. The two friends were ideal collaborators. As Knight was quoted in a recent NPR story, “We would get ideas and we would collectively paste them together. You know, she would talk to me and I would draw them." It was Knight’s inked illustrations that brought Eloise to life in my pink bedroom on Scarsdale Road.
Surprisingly, Thompson never wanted her books to be for children. As Knight said, “To her dying day, she said it was not a child's book. It offended her, you know, that people considered it that." In fact, the book’s first subtitle was, “A Book for Precocious Grownups.” According Jane Curley, the exhibition’s curator, “She would waltz into Doubleday's [the bookstore] and pick up stacks of her books out of the juvenile section and plunk them down in the grown-up section, and then walk out.”
Clearly, there was much more to Kay Thompson than just being the author of Eloise. Throughout her life, Thompson strained against the mores of the 1950’s. She wore pants, and chose a career over family. As her biographer, Sam Irvin, said in a 2010 interview "I really feel that in the '50s, Kay was spearheading a lot of the early rumblings of feminism — being out there, having careers — and I really think that Eloise was a seminal influence on this."
As I learned more about Thompson, I decided it might be time to visit my old friend in a nearby library. I walked into the children’s section happily unnoticed by the small patrons and their adult companions. In the picture book section, I easily found Eloise and took her off the shelf. My memories were so strong that initially I wanted to sprawl on the floor, chin in hand just as I did as a girl. However, I chose a more decorous stance befitting my age. Once settled in, it was clear that Eloise still had the power to charm me. I poured over the delightful pictures, but it was Thompson’s prose with its childish lilt and invented words like “skibble” and “sklathe” that captured me. As I closed the book and tucked it back on the shelf, I wondered if maybe Thompson was right… maybe Eloise is a book for “precocious grownups.” Her wry commentary on the pomp and ridiculousness of the well-heeled was now evident to me.
As a child, I admired Eloise’s bravado and derring-do. As an adult, I now see that Eloise was indeed making fun of the world she found herself in but also challenging the values of the time. Eloise was paving the way for my generation of women. A generation that marched for equal rights, wore bell bottom jeans, burned bras, and began demanding equal pay for equal work.
At this juncture in my life, Eloise’s message also strikes a personal note. As I leave a staid, stable career in education and venture towards something entirely new…I need Eloise now more than ever. She reminds me to be brave, try new things, and imagine possibilities. And as Nanny might say, “Have some fun, fun, fun, for Lord’s sake!”