Hilary Knight at 96: The Rockwell Museum presents a life well lived

By DON STEWART

For the Recorder

Published: 02-12-2023 12:06 PM

Baby Boomers growing up in the 1950s were full of adventure. We rode in cars lacking seat belts, sped in bicycles without helmets and were told, in the event of nuclear war, nothing could be safer than nestling under our school desks for protection. While we were learning to read we quickly blew off the bland “Dick and Jane ” sagas and moved on to the higher-brow picture books such as the original “Eloise” foursome. Through March 12 at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge you can view the works of “Eloise” illustrator Hilary Knight. He’s best known for his collaboration with writer and entertainer Kay Thompson in bringing the impish six-year-old to life.

“It was very specifically worked out in the beginning that it was not to be a children’s book. It was labeled (as) an adult book,” the illustrator notes in the 2015 documentary “It’s Me, Hilary … ”

Thompson, known for having no affection for tots or tweens, when visiting bookshops, would move Eloise from the children’s to the adult section. According to one source the many Eloise books have sold 15 million copies worldwide.

A brilliant alliance

Thompson (who lived from 1909 to 1998) was a Type-A, brassy songstress who, for four years, was an MGM vocal coach to such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Lena Horne. Her standout performance was in the 1957 musical confection “Funny Face” wherein she upstaged both Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. As an entertainer she was in high demand and was the first female nightclub singer to earn a million dollars annually.

“She had a style that was all invented,” Knight, now 96, said during the exhibit’s opening night. “She made herself into this extraordinary woman.”

Ever theatrical, the character Eloise was based upon her imaginary childhood friend and, as an adult, she would often answer the phone with a childish voice.

A mutual friend, “Harper’s Bazaar” fashion editor D.D. Ryan, invited Knight to meet Thompson when she was performing at the Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room. The editor suggested an artistic collaboration to capture Eloise in print.

Opposites attract. A colleague described Knight as “a charming, polite and ever so slightly self-deprecating” personality, a polar opposite of the entertainer. Thompson lived at the Plaza and the first book, published in 1955, the hotel was where Eloise wildly romped with her dog Weenie and her pet turtle Skipperdee.

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The children’s book author Maurice Sendak referred to her as “a delicious little girl monster.”

“One of the things that I loved about her and I’m sure all children did,” writer Fran Lebowitz notes in the documentary, “was that the parents weren’t there.”

The books brought fame both to Knight and to the Plaza. It increased business to the hotel and for decades Thompson lived rent-free in her apartment. That is, until 1988 when Donald Trump bought the building and, to be polite, ended the agreement.

Influences

Knight and his siblings were raised by artistic parents and their home was filled with images. His father Clayton, a fighter pilot during WWI, was shot down over Germany and made a career of painting aviation-themed images. He teamed with that war’s legend Eddie Rickenbacker in creating the cartoon strip “Ace Drummond,” later made into a movie serial. His mother, Katherine Sturges, was also an illustrator, steeped in the creation of fantasy and fashion costume design.

At the exhibit’s opening, Knight showed one of his mother’s books “The Rhymes of Goochy Googles and His Pollywog Named Woggles.” He explained that, as a tot, it was his first view of art.

“That was very much a part of what got me going,” he told the audience, “to see the world through entirely different eyes.”

After serving in the Navy during WWII, Knight studied at New York’s Arts Students League under icons such as George Grosz and Reginald Marsh. The latter was the creator of well-composed, claustrophobic, hurly-burly city scenes.

The illustrator said that his parents had hoped that he would become a big league, serious painter.

“Instead,” Knight once wrote, “I turned into an artist of nostalgia.”

The illustrator of some 50 children’s books and the artist and writer of nine of his own, he’d originally intended to be a set designer.

His first assignment, however, was for “Mademoiselle” magazine, and readers of “Vanity Fair” will remember his frequent satirical contributions as to what the elite and not-so-elite were up to. Yogurt connoisseurs will recall his cartoon commercial for Dannon.

“I’ve always been mesmerized by glamorous people,” Knight has said. “I was growing up in the period that’s considered so chic today – the 30s.”

Theater has been in his blood and, name the musical, from “Mame” to “Gypsy” to “Half A Sixpence,” and the poster has been his creation. His intricate compositions have the balance and harmony of an expensive Swiss watch.

As we walked through the three galleries of his works, the museum’s deputy director Stephanie Plunkett noted Knight’s prolific career.

“He’s a great designer,” she said. “One of the things that I really love about his work is the concept is beautifully done. He’s worked across many platforms and he was very proud of his line,” she said. “He has a very vibrant line. It’s always present.”

First edition Eloise books in good condition command hundreds of dollars and there have been reprints over the years. The six-year-old may achieve immortality.

Fran Lebowitz summed up Knight’s brilliance in illustrating the tot’s adventures. “He made something that lasted,” she said. “Almost nothing lasts. He made a wonderful thing that endures and that is really rare.”

Private drawings

Plunkett is the co-author, along with the museum’s Curator of Exhibitions, Jesse Kowalski, of the 256 page book “Norman Rockwell Drawings 1911 – 1976” (Abbeville Press; $40). The companion catalogue to an ongoing exhibit, it’s the first book to explore the illustrator’s private collection of preparatory images and studies for his final paintings.

Just as black and white movies can add more drama and tone to a story, these drawings often display more emotion and atmosphere than their final, full color product.

In 1948 Rockwell wrote, “Sometimes I feel that making a sketch is the most creative part of the whole process.”

His preliminary studies for “Saturday Evening Post” covers were numerous and obsessive. After arriving at a confident sense of composition, as many as another 15 steps were executed to achieve a final image.

In the well-known Post satirical cover “The Art Critic,” wherein a young artist with magnifier inspects the jewelry of a classically rendered portrait, Rockwell undertook some thirteen paintings and drawn studies before finding satisfaction.

To the illustrator, the casting of characters was key. For a 1958 Post cover “The Runaway,” a small boy sits atop a dinette stool next to an overweight cop who is taking him home. In its original form, the scene was to be a sterile, modern restaurant with a fresh-faced young staffer at the counter. In its final form a more worn setting is used and the middle-aged manager behind the counter dangles a cigarette in his mouth, displaying a worldly humanity.

There are examples of the illustrator’s studies for his mid-1930s work for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” As Plunkett notes, for background, Rockwell visited Hannibal, Missouri. He “was astounded” at Mark Twain’s accuracy in describing the truant’s escape from a second floor window of what was once the writer’s home. The illustrator visited the cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher became lost and his study of their plight is similar to a well-composed movie still.

Among the drawings is Rockwell’s mixture of images recollecting a devastating fire that ravaged his Vermont studio in 1943. He would be among the few who could find cartoonish humor in such losses.

“Eloise and More…” continues through March 12 and “Norman Rockwell Drawings 1914 – 1976” continues through March 26. The Rockwell Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday (closed Wednesdays), and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $20, $10 for college students, and free for ages 18 and under.

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