LIFE IS FULL of surprises. On a suggestion from a colleague, I called Hilary knight, creator of the classic Eloise series, to ask if he’d be in our magazine. I was prepared for somebody a bit like his fiendish Eloise: impudent, impossible, and impatient with bores. I hadn’t done my homework.
A kind voice answered the phone. The illustrator of the iconic Eloise series said yes right away.
There was one hitch: When I followed up to ask about getting a photograph for the piece, he demurred. No photograph, he said: “I’m not interested in photographs of myself these days.” How might we illustrate this little profile? “What would you think of me doing a drawing of my life?” For as long as anyone can remember, Hilary knight has brought characters to life with pens and colors, from books to Broadway, magazines to movies. But it’s his Eloise for which he’s best known. His collaboration with kay Thompson, the series’ author, created a character that’s been an inspiration for intelligent, willful, creative, disobedient kids (and adults) for decades. The filmmaker Lena Dunham is among those who say Eloise was formative.
When I called, knight had recently moved from his longtime house on Squire’s Path in East Hampton into a little pad off Oakview Highway, where he lives in a few cozy rooms, with neighbors close by, an aquarium of little fish, and shelves of intriguing mementos. He’s buried in work, finishing a pictorial autobiography, to be released by St. Martin’s Press, about his life and the Eloise years, when he worked with the glamorous and imperious Thompson (whom knight adored and admired, and with whom he clashed, and ultimately, parted ways after she decided she was unwilling to do any more Eloise). He’s also working on a second memoir and preparing for two big shows of his work in the city in 2017.
As ever, he looks at the world with childlike wonderment.
“I’m in the most perfect place. I look into the woods and it’ s like a private zoo, with turkeys and deer, literally it’s like almost everything I’ve ever dreamed of.” “And,” he added, “I’m 90. Who would have ever thought?” “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I work.
You can do that when you’re my age. I’ll work till dawn. Then I’ll eat and nap and work some more.” I asked him to explain his illustration.
“I was born in Hempstead on Nov. 1, 1926. My first home was in Roslyn, at 83 Main Street. My parents were artists.” “My (art) life began as a student at the Art Students League.” He’s known Manhattan for eight decades, and still lives there part time. “The skyline has changed, unwelcome towers pierce it, and one of the tallest rises — even as we write this — over the league, cutting off valuable light to the school’s studios. No amount of protests could stop it.” “Nearby, is the magnificent Plaza Hotel, where, in 1954, my good friend and neighbor D. D. Dixon (a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar) introduced me to (then-nightclub-performer) Thompson. . . .” “Is that a snake, or invasive vine in the bamboo grove? I’m not sure. But that’s kay Thompson’s personal trowel that helped bury a very special part of my most famous work (an Eloise book).
“I’m holding the cover sketch of a new book about me and my art and my family. Its title, Drawn From Life, is a direct borrowing from Ernest H. Shepard’s own biography (he illustrated The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh).
“In my lap is a dummy of Olive & Oliver, a graphic memoir for adults and precocious children, a thinly veiled story of my own childhood. . . .” “My pad lists the day’s schedule. . . . The tree-trunk table is a creation of the East Hampton landscape designer Wilson Lopez (initials on trunk), the bills are from Agway, White’s, a clipping from a local paper: ‘Town plans to ban bamboo.’ ” (knight loves bamboo, which he considers glamorous.) “Beneath the table, Ruff, is my departed, essential companion.
He is fading into the blue background. A squirrel has mastered the art of typing into my cellphone (which is more than I can do). A raccoon has the good taste to sample Halsey Farm produce. The turtle was put into Squire’s Path Pond (former house) 30 years ago. Its children live on and multiply endlessly. Finally, a crocus springs forth in the lower right corner of this drawing, which I dedicate to my young friend Jaira Leon, a special new life in my own.”