The Original Bad Girl
In 1955, the hedonist heroine of Kay Thompson's soon-to-be classic Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown Ups made mincemeat of the Plaza Hotel staff and skibbled across the bestseller lists. She became an icon, for Lord's sake (as she herself would say).
Eloise endorsed dolls and clothing, Renault autos and Kalistron luggage, and of course, the famous hotel in which she lived. A portrait of her, smirking and sticking out her belly, stands in the Plaza lobby, and in the '50s the hotel featured "Eggs Eloise" on the menu and an "Eloise Room."
She was an antidote to saccharine sweeties like Shirley Temple and the Bobbsey Twins. Her ruffly blouse and schoolgirl skirt reminded readers that children are to be seen and not heard, but Eloise was nevertheless voracious perhaps beause she was parentless. She stole mints, invaded the men's room, and demanded attention from everyone she encountered, populating the Plaza with figments of her vigorous imagination. Three sequels appeared in quick succession: Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime, and Eloise in Moscow.
But the famously uppity Thompson nightclub singer, Hollywood music arranger, friend of Judy Garland, and occasional movie actress (that's her impersonating Diana Vreeland in Funny Face) put a stop to the proliferation of Eloisiana starting in the early 1960s. Possibly because a TV special mangled the character, or because Eloise was a shade too close to Thompson herself, the author reigned in the book's promotional gambits. She pulled one sequel (Eloise Takes a Bawth) just before press time, and prevented the three extant ones, all of which were illustrated by Hilary Knight, from remaining in print.
The irrepressible Eloise had been effectively repressed.
Thompson died in July 1998, leaving the rights to be administered by her estate. After 34 years, her long-awaited sequels start hitting bookstores this month.
On a first reading, Eloise in Paris seems even more than the original like an adult fantasy, written by an urban sophisticate for "precocious grown-ups." Ask an adult if she'd like Eloise's life: live in the Plaza, charge room service as often as you want, lounge about with no responsibilities, and feel an utter sense of entitlement. Once in Paris, have a gown custom-made by Dior, go to the Louvre and dine at Maxim's. Sounds divine.
Knight's fantastically witty pictures emphasize the cosmopolitan excesses of French travel: Nanny gets tipsy with a Texas socialite on the airplane while Eloise inflates her lifejacket, Weenie the pug enjoys a footbath with eau de cologne, everyone feels overweight from so many croissant breakfasts. Thompson's breathlessly baroque language highlights the bitchy brilliance a little French vocabulary gives her heroine. "My favorite word is pas de quoi," announces Eloise, "which is/oh it's quite all right I'm sure that you didn't mean/to crush my hand in the door even though it is bleeding and/practically throbbing with pain it's quite all right it doesn't/matter."
However much the initial appeal of Thompson's books is the adult fantasy of entitlement, the best thing about Eloise in Paris is its pathos. The fantasy is grafted onto a setup that is fundamentally sad: a child abandoned by her mother, isolated and forced into adult society where her only friends are a nanny, a chauffeur, and various hotel personnel who are paid to tolerate her. What would be thrilling to an adult is frustrating to a six-year-old. "Here's what I am," Eloise says, frowning as her near-naked body is poked and measured by five Dior couturiers, "a clothes horse which is cheval." And later: "C'est difficile when you are a child/which is difficult."
Eloise fights back with her imagination: covers herself with bandages when the doctor gives her a vaccine, hides her bottlecaps behind her knees to fool the customs officer, and wears baguettes as skis. Like Harriet the Spy, who deals with her parents' self- absorption by creating a fantastical occupation, and like Pippi Longstocking, who compensates for lack of parenting with chutzpah and gold coins, the little girl with the big charge account makes fun out of isolation.
The second sequel, Eloise at Christmastime, is rawther disappointing (it rhymes, for Lord's sake, and not very well) mais pas de quoi. After reading Eloise in Paris, we love her too much not to forgive an insipid holiday moment or two. We love her for molding her lush, stark reality into something wonderful, for her manic verbal tics, for her loneliness and refusal to be lonely, for her selfishness and her deep well of affection.
As the mirror on the back cover of the first book attests, Eloise c'est nous.
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