TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson was already a character before she created one, spur of the moment, in the late '40s. The story varies, but goes something like this: Thompson -- a nightclub performer and composer -- showed up late to a rehearsal for a show she was appearing in. Her coach said, "Who do you think you are, coming here five minutes late?" Thompson put on a voice and responded, "I am Eloise, I am six." It was the beginning of a private joke among Thompson's circle, and the beginning of a children's classic.

Urged to write a book starring Eloise, Thompson began the project in earnest while "holed up at the Plaza" with illustrator Hilary Knight. The 1955 book was, as Life called it in 1957, "rampantly popular," with accompanying merchandise including dolls, children's clothing, and a record of a song coauthored and performed by Thompson ("Who is the little girl who knows everybody's business in New York?/I spend an enormous amount of time in the lobby. I have to see what's going on there./Who's on the telephone most of the day?/I have to call room service a lot and tell them to charge it, please and thank you very much.") The premise was irresistible: A precocious six-year-old living in the Plaza Hotel, making mischief, eventually traveling to Paris and Moscow? What's not to like?

Brimming with confidence, self-importance and a general disregard for rules, Eloise had to have been a refreshing anomaly among female characters in the '50s. Thompson, as headstrong and independent as her heroine, has been called a protofeminist. The cadence of Thompson's text was also unusual. Stringing together fragments and rhymes, Thompson's "Eloisiana" gives the six-year-old a grown-up twist, combining catchphrases such as "Charge it, please" and "For Lord's sake" with made-up words ("skibble," "slomp") and Eloise's appropriation of her nanny's accent and thrice-repeated words ("We've got to get out of this tub tub tub").

After an unfortunate 1956 television adaptation of Eloise, Thompson (who appeared as herself in the Playhouse 90 show) banned any further dramatic interpretations. She also felt that the sequels had done the original book a disservice, and allowed them to go out of print, earning a reputation for being capricious and difficult. When Thompson died in 1998, the character had a revival. Thompson's sister authorized rereleases of the Eloise sequels and a special edition of the original book, which was shepherded by illustrator Knight. In 2002, Simon & Schuster released the final Thompson-Knight collaboration, Eloise Takes a Bawth.

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