Eloise, the classic fictional picture-book heroine, is “a city child” who causes havoc throughout her indoor backyard, the hallways and public rooms of New York’s ultra-posh Plaza Hotel (“Oooo, I absolutely love the Plaza!” she says). The Plaza prank that always caught my brother’s and my attention, as city children ourselves, was her decision to pour water down the mail chute of the hotel. It prompted us to stand outside our own New York mail chute and ponder doing the same thing, on many a bored afternoon. We never committed, but something tells me that in childhood Lena Dunham, current proud owner of the world’s most well-known Eloise lower back tattoo, would have gone all the way with this endeavor.
It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise, the Dunham-produced and narrated documentary about Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight, airs on HBO tonight. Once you realize that Eloise, the cartoon girl Knight drew, is a talisman for Lena, the flesh-and-blood woman, you cannot un-see the connection between the two. It works on many levels, whether it’s their shared flouting of delicate femininity as deliberate fashion statement, their urbane humor and charm, or the semi-accidental disruption and provocation that is their shared calling card.
“Eloise does what she wants, doesn’t brush her hair, doesn’t care that her stomach hangs over her shirt,” says Dunham in the documentary, explaining that she was introduced to Hilary Knight due to her tattoo. She calls him “the creator of the creation that was my heart’s twin.” He’s even illustrated a visit to the set of Girls. As for Knight, “We totally bonded,” he says of Dunham. And he makes the connection between Dunham and the other strong women who have influenced his life: Kay Thompson, the socialite, singer, and “mad” eccentric who created and wrote the iconic character that Knight illustrated; and performer and artist Phoebe Legere whom he now directs in whimsical backyard musicals.
The documentary also trots out a group of strong women who pay tribute to Eloise’s power: “Eloise was a feminist primer for me,” says Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson. “She’s a little Napoleon, she’s not a little cutie pie. The spirit of Eloise is not a little blonde girl,” explains Mindy Kaling.
Kaling has a point. Eloise, as winning and memorable as she is, is also a spoiled, and somewhat forlorn, child of privilege. Her story isn’t a laugh-filled tale for kids, but something in between that and vicious satire. “It was labeled an adult book, “says Knight. “The New York Times never reviewed it because they didn’t know what it was!” Contemporary Eloise-spinoff satires like the hipster Ella who lives in Williamsburg, and “Eloise: an Update” are diverting and clever, but lack the perfect in-between quality of the original. Eloise’s parents — as another strong-woman fan of Eloise, Fran Lebowitz, notes in It’s Me, Hilary — are simply not in the picture, replaced by a number of pets, a hapless nanny, and the bemused staff at the Plaza, whom Eloise “helps” with their daily tasks.
And in this case, life imitated art. The quintessential New Yorkers whom Dunham calls Eloise’s fictional parents, Knight and Thompson, ended up divorcing and fighting for custody of their child, leaving her bereft of anyone to shepherd her into the modern era.
“I would dissolve into the background because of this powerhouse personality,” Knight says of Thompson. At first, he was fine with this state of affairs. Yet after an extremely successful initial collaboration, things soured when, as Knight puts it, Thompson began interfering with his drawings. Thompson then yanked new Eloise-related media out of circulation, depriving Knight of income and creativity related to his best-known work, which he says, in a gentlemanly way, was “demoralizing.”
But Knight is not without his own controlling qualities. Once Thompson died and he regained some ownership over Eloise, he became the overbearing shepherd, arguing with Hollywood and the publishing industry about Eloise’s essence. At home, surrounded by books and drawings and costumes, Dunham says Knight wants to live in a world that he himself has “curated.” With homemade movies, theatricals, and illustrations as replacements for material luxuries that a landslide of further Eloise royalties might have afforded him, “Hilary has found a way to make himself happy on a very light diet. He’s living like a princess on air,” Legere says.
It’s Me, Hilary, at a brisk 35 minutes, serves several functions. For Eloise-niks like me, it fills us in on the auspicious origins and juicy collapse of the team behind a children’s-book classic. For the art-curious, it introduces us to a working artist who, as Dunham says, is a secret for no good reason. But even for those who care nothing about Eloise, the little film has something to say about the nature of art, and artists: the difficulty and the joy in their process. “Play is important,” says one of Knight’s nieces, watching him direct the rather bizarre musical in his yard. And Dunham says he reminds her of the need to close off her skeptical side and see his visions as a kind of reality. As for the truth, that Knight will always be best known for the yellow-haired “imp of perversity” he illustrated early in life, a fact which gives him some regrets, Lebowitz says it best: “He made something that lasted. Almost nothing lasts.”