Has there ever been a bad girl with a better pedigree than Eloise? Created by a Hollywood musical star and featuring a six your old free spirit who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York with her beer swilling British nanny, a trainer wearing turtle and nary a parent in sight.
Eloise's life at the Plaza is a fantasy that will appeal to any child who has slipped the leash and run rampant in the lifts and service corridors of a large hotel. It will hook adults too, who could quite happily dine in on never ending room service with the satisfying catchphrase 'charge it please'.
Described by Maurice Sendak as, ‘that brazen loose-limbed delicious little girl monster’, Eloise is a wild thing to match her contemporary Max. Like him she lives amongst giants who indulge her bad behaviour. There is no hint that the lack of parental discipline will spoil her in any way. Just the opposite, it greases the wheels of her imagination and helps defines her.
The tagline 'A book for precocious grown ups' suggests that this wasn't written necessarily with a young audience in mind. Indeed, the author Kay Thompson always fiercely insisted that Eloise was a version of herself. ‘Eloise is me,’ she said, ‘All me!’ Though many have pointed out that she also owes a fair bit to Thompson's Goddaughter Liza Minnelli, with whom she lived during the many absences of her mother Judy Garland.
The pair lived together on and off until Thompson's death in 1998. Quite a few of those years were spent at the Plaza – the hotel housing her for free for nearly two decades, as a thank you for the wild fictional creation that brought them so much business.
The character, who went on to feature in three more books, was wildly successful, eclipsing Thompson's (not inconsiderable) achievements in Hollywood. Soon she was everywhere, merchandised to death by the author. But Thompson soon tired of the attention she was getting. According to this article from salon, her illustrator Hilary Kinght believed she became jealous of her. As a result she withdrew the entire series from sale until her death. It was a literary hissy fit that Eloise herself would have been proud of… or would she?
For all her casual vandalism, overindulgences and spectacular tantrums, underneath it all Eloise is a good kid. Her behaviour is driven by a massive imagination that can conjure up pet dragons and a self-confidence that allows her to inhabit the adult world as an equal.
Her observations of the adults she encounters still chime 60 years later. I particularly like her view on her mother’s cool Madison Avenue lawyer, a character straight out of Mad Men.
But her best relationship is with her 'mostly companion' Nanny. Although English she is not the type of stereotyped Brit you might expect from such an American book. She may be a stuffed shirt, 'She wears tissue paper in her dress and you can hear it', but she is also a jolly good egg, with a penchant for John Player cigs, Pilsner lager and a good bout of boxing – which Eloise watches under a parasol and through theatre glasses.
I suspect were it not for the many period references you might not realise the books were written in the fifties. The entirely unpunctuated text gives it a freewheeling and experimental feel. The use of a highly stylised first person that no child has ever actually used, still manages to feel strangely realistic. Fans of Lauren Child's Lola and Clarice Bean will tune right in to Eloise's quirky, breathless voice.
Hilary Knight's illustrations, rendered in black and white with liberal splashes of two-tone pink, are just as splendidly modern. There's something authentically New York about them – no doubt one of the reasons the book has maintained its appeal is its visual connection to the Big Apple. But we rarely glimpse the outside world; the hotel and its most important inhabitant are always the focus. Eloise is never dwarfed by the massive dimensions of her home, just the opposite, she dominates.
Eloise herself would be 64 this year. I wonder what she'd be doing now? Still skibbling about the Plaza showing her pants I hope. She still an inspiration to all of us precocious grown-ups.