There are many reasons to wish that HBO’s “It’s Me, Hilary,” Matt Wolf, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s documentary about Hilary Knight, who illustrated the books by Kay Thompson about a little girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York, had been longer. The stories of Knight and Thompson’s roles in the culture of the 1950s, their brief, brilliant collaboration on Eloise, who arrived in print in 1955, and their subsequent split, are material enough for a full-length film on their own. Knight’s work on books like Betty MacDonald’s fabulously strange “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” series is also worth more serious assessment than it receives in this loving 35-minute short. And most of all, I wish Wolf, Dunham and Konner had made time to chart Eloise’s cultural family tree, given how many marvelous descendants this weird, wonderful, abandoned little girl has produced.
It can be tiresome to listen to artists discuss their early loves and private influences. But Eloise’s unruly, confident descendants, including selfish gynecologist Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), struggling 20-somethings Abbi and Ilana from “Broad City” and Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on “Girls” are presently occupying television with all the same confidence Eloise used to declare her address at the Plaza. I wish “It’s Me, Hilary” had more time to let its interview subjects make connections between Eloise’s rebellions and their own creations.
“She has a sense of place and a sense that she deserves to be where she is,” Dunham, who has a tattoo of a winged and haloed Eloise, noted, recalling in particular the way Eloise’s stomach hung over her skirts and showed through her frequently untucked shirts. Generations later, Hannah Horvath’s clothes fit just as poorly, though she wears them with less of the brio of her younger predecessor; in the third season of “Girls,” when Hannah, flush with money from a new job, buys a frock that’s perfect on her, it’s both a victory and a little bit of a compromise. Hannah’s succumbed to the self-consciousness that was still so far in Eloise’s future.
For Tavi Gevinson, the fashion-blogger-turned-magazine-founder-turned-actress, Eloise was preparation for the inevitable female realization that “the world is not always on your side. But then when you read Eloise, you’re more equipped to turn up your nose in the face of all that.” That ethos of defiance and self-reliance certainly animates many of the pieces in Rookie, the online magazine Gevinson founded and runs, and it would have been fascinating to hear Gevinson discuss Eloise’s influence in greater detail.
And Mindy Kaling, the creator of “The Mindy Project,” had perhaps my favorite insight into the character when she suggested that in a live-action adaptation, the best person to play Eloise would be Paul Giamatti, an actor who often takes on characters who are slovenly and expansive. “The spirit of Eloise is not in a little blonde girl,” Kaling says in the documentary. “She could be so unlikable. But she’s not because the illustrations are so appealing.”
Mindy Lahiri’s slightly grotesque fashion sense; the stoner, scatological humor of “Broad City;” and the sloppy, earnest sexuality of “Girls” are all participants in a tradition of women living for no one’s pleasure but their own. Eloise is simultaneously their forerunner and their scrappy, disheveled little sister.
This is a risky position to take: as Louisa May Alcott’s Marmee put it to her daughters in “Little Women”: “Nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself.” Eloise both is the collateral damage of such enjoyments and owes her immortal fame to them.
Her mother is a powerful presence in Eloise’s life, but she’s always off the page, leaving Eloise to terrorize her Nanny, cavort with her dog Weenie and her turtle Skiperdee and to charge everything with the imperiousness of a Park Avenue matron. Even when her mother is summoning Eloise and Nanny to Paris, she seems to have just departed by the time they arrive, or at least to be otherwise occupied; she’s off seeking pleasure, and leaving her daughter to do the same.
In an adult, these indulgences might seem rawther exhausting, to put it in Eloisiana. If Thompson and Knight left Eloise’s mother out of the story to avoid reckoning with the full extent of her selfishness and neglect of her daughter, shows like “Girls,” “Broad City” and “The Mindy Project” have directly addressed the kind of revulsion self-centered female characters inevitably elicit.
But in a 6-year-old such excesses are charming, in part because they’re temporary, a golden period before, as Gevinson put it, you realize that “the world is not always on your side” and you begin to adjust to accommodate yourself to the world’s demands and expectations. Eloise never has to grow up, which means we never have to grow out of loving her and she never has to compromise to try to preserve our affections.