Will the real Eloise please stand up?

Now that "Eloise" is back in print, her fans can once again reclaim her as their own.


Amy Benfer
June 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I am Eloise. I am (almost twenty-) six. One of my friends agrees with me: after discovering our mutual love of all things Eloise, he has since refused to address me by any other name. Once, he even asked for Eloise when he called me at my mother's house. My mother, who introduced me to Eloise herself, simply handed me the phone.

I am not the only one who thinks she is Eloise. I have rivals. Apparently, Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair also believes herself to be Eloise; in her introduction to "The Absolutely Essential Eloise" she writes, "Eloise was not allowed to belong to anyone else. I truly believed that I owned her."

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Exclusive ownership of Eloise was presumably the motivation behind the theft of the Eloise portrait that hung in the Plaza Hotel in the mid-'50s. Kay Thompson blamed it on rowdy debutantes. I blame it on rowdy debutantes who believed themselves to be Eloise. The most likely candidate for the beguiling Eloise is Thompson's goddaughter, with whom she lived on and off until the end of her life. If nothing else, both Liza -- whose mother Judy Garland died of a drug overdose -- and Eloise shared a fabulous surrogate mother who was much more attentive than their own.

In fact, the similarity which Liza shares with Eloise is also the one she shares with her godmother. Eloise -- with her stick-straight, ashy blond hair, pot belly and circus-mime face -- is "not yet pretty though she's already a person." Neither Liza Minnelli nor Kay Thompson were ever considered ravishing beauties. An early profile of Thompson in Radio Guide declared, rather nastily, "Ugly Ducklings Can have Beaux Too." As an actress during Hollywood's musical golden age, Thompson was never cast as the drop-dead leading lady. Her most famous film role was in the 1957 "Funny Face" in which she played fashion editor Maggie Prescott -- a spoof of Diana Vreeland -- another ugly duckling who proved that fabulousness was more important than one's face.

Kay Thompson did not intend to share Eloise with anyone. "Eloise is me," she said, "All me!" She once called up Schuyler Hooke, manager of Books of Wonder in New York City, to voice dissatisfaction with a 40th anniversary window display because it did not feature Thompson's name in its trademark marquee fashion.

"What is the title of that book in the window?" she asked.

Hooke replied, "'Eloise.'"

"That is incorrect," screamed Thompson. "The title of the book is 'Kay Thompson's Eloise'!"

We Eloise impersonators are the reason that three of the four Eloise books were out of print for more than three decades. At first bewitched by our attention, Thompson courted us with myriad Eloisiana, which we fed on voraciously. In the 1950s, the list of items for purchase (licensed by Thompson's company Eloise Ltd.) included an Eloise record, a life-size doll, clothing, Eloise French postcards, wigs, luggage and toys. You could even buy Eloise's emergency kit: a hatbox containing bubble gum, crayons, turtle food, sunglasses, soap, notepads and "Please Don't Disturb" signs from the Plaza. In the 1970s, visitors to the Plaza could find an Eloise ice cream parlor off Palm Court, and Room 934 was displayed as "Eloise's room." In return for allowing Eloise to be adopted by the Plaza, Thompson was amply compensated: She lived rent-free at the luxurious hotel for nearly 20 years.

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But then Kay Thompson got sick of us. Our initial admiration -- a mass consumption of all things Eloise -- was viewed as imitation and she did not consider it a form of flattery. Adults and children flooded the Plaza, all insisting that they were Eloise. In 1962, Kay Thompson told Steve Silverman, "The book was out one day when Elsa Maxwell left a note that said, 'Dear Kay Thompson. How did you know that I lived at the Plaza?' And that is exactly what has taken place. The idea of these people playing child!"

Of course, the idea that "precocious grown-ups" (for whom the title page of every edition of Eloise insists the book was written) would want to play child was precisely the idea that inspired Thompson to commit her alter-ego to print.

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I think she became jealous.

So does Hilary Knight, Thompson's illustrator and collaborator. His pink-splashed black and white drawings of the child Maurice Sendak called, "that brazen loose-limbed delicious little girl monster" provide the punch line to Thompson's allusive, scatting prose. Knight's contribution to a 1996 profile of Thompson in Vanity Fair is an illustration that shows Thompson kicking the chair out from under Eloise to scrawl "I am Eloise" in lipstick on the vanity mirror in the Plaza's powder room.

Knight's illustration may seem a little tawdry. But then again, Knight himself got into something of a tangle with Ms. Thompson over the ownership of Eloise. Their professional relationship effectively ended when Thompson pulled from publication a nearly completed manuscript of yet another sequel; this one was entitled "Eloise Takes a Bawth." In later years, Thompson refused to return Knight's phone calls. Kay Thompson's sense of possession was so strong that she became unwilling to share Eloise, even with the person who literally animated the child in her head.

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Here's the thing of it: None of us are Eloise. Not even Thompson, who, when she was 6, was the daughter of a St. Louis jeweler, not a mysteriously absent New York debutante with seemingly endless credit. There was no British Nanny, no turtle wearing sneakers, no dog who looked like a cat and certainly no world-class hotel as a playground.

We're not Eloise, but we wish we were. We want to be her because she speaks to a most irresistible impulse: to be a child who can play with adult toys (room service, ballrooms, hotels in Paris and New York) without having to pay for them. Children love Eloise because she has more stuff than they do and no parents to tell her what to do. Adults love Eloise because she has more stuff than they do and no adults to tell her what to do. Wouldn't you love to be able to order a strawberry leaf and one clam in season for dinner or go to lunch in the Palm Court with toe-shoes on your ears?

The adults in Eloise's world have a considerably more complicated time of it, although Thompson is careful not to overdo her character assassinations. To begin with, there's Mother. She shows up mostly by cablegram. (The one depicted through Nanny's glasses upon arrival in Paris reads: "Koki [her mother's lawyer's chauffeur] at your disposal. Let Eloise do anything within reason.") She has charge accounts at Bergdorfs and Neiman-Marcus. She wears a size 3 1/2 shoe. She's 30. No one mentions Daddy. By my accounting, this makes her a debutante who had a "little accident" at age 24. There is also ample evidence that Mother is something of a kept woman. Eloise's coy asides tell us that "my mother knows the owner." The same relationship applies to her lawyer (with whom she goes to Virginia), her stockbroker and the owners of Maxims and Christian Dior. The people Mother knows make sure that every expense incurred by la petite fille and Nanny are immediately taken care of. One suspects quite a few people who know Mother know her in the Biblical sense.

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Nanny, the only physical adult mainstay in Eloise's life, has a weakness for boxing, horse races, Pilsener beers and Johnny Walker straight. By all indications, the only way to deal with a child who steals the air conditioning control switch from the Plaza (and takes it to Paris with her) and spritzes pigeons with seltzer water is through a drunken stupor. Says the observant Eloise of Nanny's drinking,

You cawn't, cawn't get a good cup of tea

they simply do not boil the water

so you have to have champagne with a peach in it instead.

Although Nanny may be rather foggy in the morning, she still manages to take awfully good care of Eloise. When Eloise wakes Nanny in the middle of the night by shining a flashlight in her face, Nanny puts witch hazel on Eloise's toenails. (Apparently, this is absolutely the only way to comfort certain little girls.)

All this adult content in a story about a child is enough to make certain readers view Eloise with disdain. One person who does not believe herself to be Eloise is Anna Quindlen. In fact, she describes Eloise as "pathetic." In her introduction to a special edition of Ludwig Bemelmans' "Madeline," Quindlen writes, "When I think of Eloise grown up, I think of her with a drinking problem, knocking about from avocation to avocation, unhappily married or unhappily divorced, childless."

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In contrast, Quindlen sees the grown-up Madeline as "the French Minister of Culture or the owner of a stupendous couture house, sending her children off to Miss Clavel's to be educated." I see the adult Eloise scrawling obscenities in lipstick Chez Madeline and perhaps swatting madame with a feather boa.

Quindlen is right: Eloise is not Madeline. Both are versions of '50s upper-middle-class girlhood and we adore them for their naughtiness. But Eloise -- who writes on walls, slonks down hallways in her skates while dragging a stick along the walls and pours water (champagne in the Paris version) down the mail chute -- would never consent to being one of 12 girls in two straight lines.

I have more hope for the grown-up Eloise. When I think of Eloise as an adult, I think of her as a writer. She has an eye for social manners and mores that would make Jane Austen quiver. When Madeline and her cohorts smile at the good (a person in regal garb feeding a horse), frown at the bad (a jewel thief) and sometimes are very sad (when they see a disabled soldier), it gives me the distinct impression that they will grow up to be women who attend charity balls in couture gowns, nibbling caviar in the name of the poor.

Eloise is not a saint -- she is more interesting. Her musings on the adults around her are perfect thumbnail sketches with a shrewd eye for class, character and general human foible. Consider her take on Lily, the night maid: "She married the conductor of the subway and cut her hair but I think she's sorry." Of the Palm Court maitre d' she says: "Thomas has a son in the Marines who got married on a shoestring / Thomas has a Corvette." Or this description from "Eloise in Paris," of Mrs. Fifield, the nouveau-riche Texan on Parisian holiday who "smokes 3 packs a day" and "laughs rawther loud:

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she was absolutely breathing

and had spent all of her Travelers Checks at Pierre Balmain...

She speaks no French

so you can imagine."

When my daughter was 6, I took her to New York for the first time. She wore a pleated skirt and puffed sleeves. I covered my college-student clothes in an enormous fake-fur coat worthy of any 1950s society matron (but purchased in a thrift store in Brooklyn for $7). For three hours, we wreaked quiet havoc on the Plaza. We called on the house phones, she scrawled her name in crimson lipstick on the powder room mirror, we called my mother. In the Plaza gift shop, we asked for anything Eloise. But this was not the 1950s nor was it 1999; there was nothing Eloise to be found. Finally, I put a child-size Plaza Hotel bathrobe on my credit card.

Now that Kay Thompson is no longer around to censor Eloise, we will all be able to own her, and she won't just be living at the Plaza either. Simon and Schuster will reissue the three Eloise books and a feature film is in negotiation. There will be an exclusive Eloise lipstick and Eloise, like Barbie, will have a proprietary Christmas line of dolls, furniture and plush toys through FAO Schwarz. The Plaza will hold a "Black and Pink Ball" in honor of Eloise and, once again, the Plaza gift shop will sell Eloise dolls, books, and videos. They will even sell Eloise bathrobes. I'll be damned if I won't buy one of each and every item.

While I am as happy as anyone that Eloise in all her glory is once again alive and well and living in New York, Paris and Moscow, I am nostalgic for the time when it seemed Eloise could belong only to me.

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If you happen to spot a 26-year-old city child skibbling down the hallway at the Plaza in an Eloise bathrobe wearing Eloise lipstick, you will know that it's me, Eloise.


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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