The Eloise Illustrator Hilary Knight on Crispy Okra with Lena Dunham

Photographed by Danielle Kosann

I should have known upon interviewing illustrator, designer, and artist Hilary Knight (i.e. the man who illustrated Eloise, my favorite childhood story about that precocious girl at the Plaza)that Danielle and I were in for a conversation that would no doubt inspire and spark every fiber of potential creativity in us. This might just be because Knight’s vision itself has been inspired by everything from childhood tears of his Mom’s fashion illustrations in Harper’s Bazaar, to under-the-radar Old Hollywood classic films like The Thief Of Bagdad, all the way to the crispy okra he ordered up to his apartment with Lena Dunham when working on their Eloise documentary for HBO.

Director Federico Fellini once said “You have to live spherically, in many directions,” and it seems as a creative legend, Hilary Knight does just that. Knight only has exciting things ahead, his most recent exhibit at The New York Public Library of The Performing Arts ends this Saturday (so walk, don’t run!) and is simply an #EyesUp must-see. Here we talk about his plans to produce a burlesque show, the New York restaurants from the 30’s he loves that still exist and why Lena Dunham’s outfits got more and more daring the more meetings they had…

Laura Kosann: Tell us about your two new shows at both The New York Historical Society and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts – what we can expect? What inspired them?

Hilary Knight: The show that the New York Historical Society is doing is extraordinary. It’s a great show; it’s got tons of stuff in it that you would never see anywhere else. That’s another extraordinary thing to have: two shows that are mostly devoted to your own work. It is pretty special, and I’m tremendously grateful. The show at Lincoln Center is much more expansive. It shows everything; it shows the influences of my parents’ work and particularly my mother who was fascinated by Asian art. She studied art in Japan in 1917, which must have been the most extraordinary time. It was completely uncommercial and natural.

My father was interested in aviation, my mother was interested in extraordinary birds and flowers. The birds she wore as necklaces, which when I was a little child, I thought was a perfectly natural thing. Why not? I’ve had a very warped idea of life in general. I accepted all of this as fact.

I went into the Navy because I didn’t like the Army uniform. I thought the Navy uniform was much better looking – and you could wash it. Anyway, I was sent to Okinawa. I knew there was a war going on, but it couldn’t have concerned me less. I was thinking about how I had just discovered Carmen Miranda. She was a fantastic Brazilian performer. And the clothes! She wore these platform shoes before anyone thought about platform shoes, we’re talking ’39.

LK: So she was a huge inspiration to you?

HK: It was the beginning of my interest in South America. You’ll see all of that stuff in my show. You see my whole background, the things that interested me. So that was all that really formed my interest in everything: in theatre, in fashion.

LK: And how did your mom’s art inspire what you did, how did that inspire Eloise?

HK: She was an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1920’s. They [the illustrations] were not considered fine art. They were considered “a decorative painting.” But to me, that’s fine art. It bothers me now because an illustration, in the 20’s and 30’s, was a very important part of the culture. It is almost not at all important today. It’s all photography now, you know. You don’t see very much fashion illustration. An exception is David Downton who does those beautiful fashion things you see in Vanity Fair. He’s brilliant. He did a whole series on Carmen Dell’Orefice, and she is a good friend of mine, I adore her. She’s 84…she’s unbelievable.

LK: How did Eloise come about?

HK: D.D. Ryan, D.D. Dixon when I knew her, was my neighbor on 52nd street, when I lived between Fifth and Sixth. It was a walkup on a street that had been very famous for jazz clubs. Then, by the time I went to live there, which was almost my first real apartment away from home, it had become this really sleazy, low-class, burlesque, not too great. But D.D. lived there; she worked at Bazaar, under Diana Vreeland. She worshipped Diana Vreeland. She alone was fantastic, D.D. Dixon.

I had made a big white feather fan with feathers and diamonds on it. I made it for somebody I think at a costume ball. She said, “Let me borrow this.” She went out and took it to California where there was a shoot with (Richard) Avedon and Kay Thompson. I did not know Kay at all. There were a bunch of photographs that Avedon took of Kay, one holding this fan, the big feather across her nose; they’re fantastic. Kay then was talking in this funny little voice, as this little creature. She called it Eloise. D.D. said, “You must do a book about this and my neighbor next door to me, Hilary Knight, he’d be perfect.” It took almost two years before this happened, but D.D. persisted. She kept saying, “You’ve got to get together with Hilary.”

So D.D. and I went to The Plaza where Kay was performing, we sat down and talked. Kay said, “Here are six sheets of paper with little notations, these are little Eloise things, see what you can do with these.” So I came back to her with all of these drawings and she said, “We’re going to do a book.” Within a year, Eloise was made. 

LK: How are you influenced by theatre and cinema?

HK: It all has to do with really beautiful design. There were great, great designers. I’m not talking about tacky crap that’s done all the time in the movies. The Thief of Bagdad was a tremendous influence. Vincent Korda was in charge of all the art direction. It’s considered a classic fantasy movie. It’s just beautiful beyond belief. They’re all sets, nothing real. My mother took me to very few movies, but anything she took me to, she knew what I’d like. Sabu Dastagir (from The Thief of Bagdad) appeared in America in 1937. He turned out to be this great actor who then had a whole career. Those types of movies were what triggered my imagination about what you could look like.

LK: When you look back on all of your work, what are the things that you’re the most proud of?

HK: Well, I’ve done a lot of books. My mother and father did as well. They both did books on their own and together. From the time I was a little child in Roslyn, I would see them both working on that kind of thing, little children’s books. They were books that me and my brother would look at, illustrated by them.

LK: So let’s talk about food! In our preliminary emails you mentioned that your parents would bring you out to dinner every Thursday night.

HK: That was a tradition. In New York, there were quantities of foreign restaurants of every kind. We’re talking about the 30’s, and I talked about Gene’s. It’s Italian. I think it was probably decorated in the ‘40’s. And it’s never changed! It’s corny looking. It’s generally kind of older. But it’s always packed. Can you imagine, all these years?

LK:  What are other places that are still around from then that you like? 

HK: The Oyster Bar in Grand Central. That’s totally unchanged from the time it began.

LK: What about food in restaurants? What are some of your favorites?

HK: Going back to the fact that we went out all the time,  every Thursday night, we would hit many different restaurants. There were very few Japanese at that time, but the one we went to was called Miyako. It was off Fifth Avenue, in between Fifth and Sixth. We went to Lebanese and German. There was an incredible German restaurant on 14th Street called Luchow’s. It was there through the 40’s, and it was famous for Christmas. They had a great Christmas tree, and it was just a lot of fun.

I’m going to plug my favorite, not that it needs it: Bukhara Grill. When Lena Dunham and I were doing the documentary, we would order food from there. I introduced her to crispy okra. It’s fantastic. It’s a little like eating grasshoppers that have been fried, but they’re delicious.

LK: Who is the most memorable person you’ve worked with in fashion?

HK: I didn’t work with a lot, but I knew a lot of people. I was very friendly with Norman Norell. He was really the first major New York designer. His collections were the top of the line. They were Seventh Avenue and yet they were very elegant. He was on the best dressed list. People wore Norell.  He was a good friend, and I knew Charles James. He was extraordinary, a lunatic, but in a nice way. Someone I didn’t get to know as well as I would’ve liked to was Isabella Blow. I had first learned about her from reading magazines. My mother always had Bazaar, we’re talking about the mid 30’s, so I always looked at that. I was intrigued by all this stuff. I was intrigued more in the making of fashion than the reality of it. I’m fascinated by how things are made. I never really did it myself.

LK: Can you tell us a little bit about the documentary and working with Lena? 

HK: I loved her. Have you met her? She’s a fireball. She goes after things. I know her because of the tattoo. I heard of her because of the Eloise tattoo. Now, I will go into deep detail about my feelings about tattoos. I think they are the worst. I couldn’t tell you one thing that is good about them.

LK: Did you tell her that?

HK: No! But it’s a fashion that really shouldn’t have happened. I think there’s nothing greater than beautiful skin. I don’t think there’s anything great about pain. So why do you really want to go through that? I have a really tiny tattoo from when I was in the Navy. It’s painful! It hurts to do!

LK: So is that how you started working with Lena? Because you heard about the tattoo?

HK: No, it is not. I wrote her. I said, “I have done the Eloise books and I’d love to give you some.” Then she was away, and she came back, and we had three meetings. It was so interesting. She’d come up here and at first she was sort of modestly dressed. But each new visit, she’d be wilder and wilder. She was testing how I would react to her. She was entirely great. I just loved her. It was about my frustration about Eloise which was then sort of conquered. We got some things done, and now it’s ended. Now it’s totally over. I say Eloise is taking a very long nap. I am finished with it, because I’ve got other things to do.

LK: And you have a Burlesque show that you might be doing, right?

HK: That goes back to Kay Thompson. When we went for the second book, she was making Funny Face and she finished it here, and she was in Paris. She said, “Come to Paris, and we will work on Eloise.” So I went over there, and we went to everywhere that Eloise might go, with the exception of Crazy Horse, the burlesque spot. I just loved it, and I always thought it would be interesting to do a show like that. Much bigger, much more elaborate, but with both men and women, all really interesting ethnic types, all different.  Ages, weights, and ethnicities. They would not have to be singers, but they would have to be fantastic dancers. It’s called Tails. I did everything. I plotted out all of the acts, and they’re all interesting. Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter – I knew that one of them had to agree to participate. I think Stephen particularly would be interested, and then you just deal with estate of Cole Porter. So it could happen. I hope in my lifetime. It has humor, but essentially, I don’t want it to be tacky in any way. It should be very elegant. There’s no reason for it to be tacky. 

LK: What’s the most memorable dinner you’ve ever had and who was it with? 

HK: I think when you’ve had a family that were all terribly close, I think Thanksgivings were important. I love to enjoy the food, but I’m not a cook.

LK: Was there a dinner you ever just sat at, when you couldn’t believe the people that were surrounding you? 

HK: When I was planning on giving Eloise stuff to a library, it was decided that it should go to the New York Public Library. Louise Grunwald is a high end; she was married to Henry Grunwald. He was the head of Time, very important. She had a dinner party and said, “I want to introduce you to all of these people.” So the Herreras were there: Carolina, legendary gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker (Aileen Mehle) was still alive, I adored her. Ben Brantley was there. All the big people. Decorator Chessy Rayner. The one I gravitated to completely was Suzy. She was like 93, I think, when I met her. She was just fantastic looking, and she took no crap from anyone. We’re sitting and talking, and I was talking about classic movies, I love looking at old movies. Really, I’m obsessed. I brought it up, and Ben Brantley is saying how great Charlie Chaplin was. He went on for quite a while and I said, “The person that impresses me, is Sabu.” And Suzy grabbed my arm, and she said, “Now we’re talking!”

2 thoughts on “The Eloise Illustrator Hilary Knight on Crispy Okra with Lena Dunham

  1. I am SO happy with how you have rebranded the site. Reading this, reading Cynthia Nixon, these in depth, actual articles about these fascinating people- thats where it’s at! THANK YOU TNP. XO, Eloise

  2. I only found your site about a week ago. But it is entertaining, informative, sophisticated, unusual in the best of ways. Keep it coming TNP. I am smitten.

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