When I was only three or four, my parents took me to New York to spend a few days at the Plaza Hotel. The visit held a special thrill, not only because my mother and father had met in New York and knew the hotel's Oak Room and Oyster Bar and Palm Court of old, but also because of Eloise. Tangled, hoydenish, extroverted and newly outfitted with pleated pinafore, I was the double of the storybook character whose life-sized portrait already hung in the hotel hallway. The Plaza staff called me Eloise. So did the buggy driver who, in those pre-litigious days, lifted me to sit on the back of his horse. I was in heaven. Why not? I was Eloise at the Plaza.
If you did not know Eloise in her 1950s, high-fashion heyday Eloise, who lived at the Plaza with her presumably divorced and well-compensated mother; her Nanny; Weenie the dog and Skipperdee the turtle; Eloise, who, having conquered her New York audience, went on to captivate and infuriate the Parisians and even the Muscovites if you have never experienced Eloise, you simply have not lived. And now, with the long-delayed publication of Eloise Takes a Bawth you can begin, preferably while waving about a glass of champagne and perhaps making your daughter tipsy as well as yourself.
The creation of the late Kay Thompson (who also caricatured high society as the fashion editor in the Hepburn-Astaire movie Funny Face), Eloise is a joyously unconstrained explosion of hedonism, a natural anarchist with an affection for the entire world and a true scapegrace's knack of squeezing out of the inevitable consequences of her impulsiveness. A sort of Caliban of cultural pretentiousness, she speaks in an almost jazz-riff tumble of rhymes and advertising-speak. Part infuriating brat, part Pippi Longstocking and altogether insouciant observer of society's foibles, she is the classic poor little rich girl, but with enough spunk and imagination (an extraordinarily vivid one) to fill her life with a surrogate family and that includes pretty much everyone at the Plaza. Thompson's arch collaborator Hilary Knight, whose drawings of Eloise are easily half the story, recognized the Plaza as the funhouse it could be to a child's eye, even without the Carnival masque of the plot. The pigeons that populate the windowsills become Baroque-like doves lifting the corners of concealing draperies. The bas-relief Cupids over the doorways steal glances at the action below. Beds are canopied and crowned with ostrich plumes; visiting celebrities' noses point straight up in absolute contrast to their equally sharp high heels.
Eloise Takes a Bawth, the fifth installment of her misadventures, was originally scheduled for publication in 1964 but never released. Finally, almost 30 years later, Hilary Knight and the estate of Kay Thompson agreed to let Simon &and Schuster publish the book, which was completed "with a little help from" writer Mart Crowley. Eloise displays all her amazing inventiveness and oblivious destructiveness by flooding the hotel on the day of a huge Carnival ball. The water in Knight's illustrations is a pale blue wash of fantasy that gradually pervades the black-and-white reality of the structure, while the bathtub that is the crucible for this crisis grows magically larger, from swimming pool to dinghy to bay to ocean to pirate's lagoon. These days, of course, children are more accustomed to special effects, and Bawth offers a couple in the form of two gatefold illustrations, one opening vertically and the other horizontally. The first shows the hotel's facade peeled back to expose a Rube Goldberg-ish vision of the piping and a score of frantic plumbers hunting the elusive leak. The other, which serves both as a visual and dramatic climax, is a brilliantly illuminated carnival scene, complete with swags and masks and guests up to their waists in water, somehow thinking the situation too too clever. The humor may have more layers for older readers, but children will have no trouble spotting the Esther Williams-style water chorus line, or the apparently omnipresent Eloise as acrobat, gondolier, maitresse and guest of honor (or the fact that most of the food appears to be the stuff of six-year-old fantasies, such as ice cream sundaes). Eloise Takes a Bawth is like a Roman candle going off to explode all those drearily realistic and heavy-handed children's books. It is its own celebration and should be a must on Christmas lists for all ages. Eve Zibart writes for The Washington Post.