By 1954, people were insisting that she turn her Eloise characterizations and anecdotes to book form; and so, with the immeasurable help of a young artist named Hilary Knight, Kay Thompson's Eloise, with drawings by Hilary Knight, (note the billing: important, important, important) was published by Simon and Schuster in the winter of 1955.
|Happier times: Hilary Knight and Kay Thompson at The Plaza, 1955|
Kay's flights of fancy, and the brilliant way Hilary Knight captured them in ink, naturally lent themselves to the idea of Eloise on the screen; from her unique appearance to her outrageous pranks, Eloise was a thoroughly visual creature, almost leaping lifelike from the pages of her book. And Kay had the ideal child in mind to bring her creation to living, breathing fruition: Portland Mason, daughter of the debonair and distinguished actor James Mason.
|Happier times: James Mason and daughter Portland, early 1950's|
Portland Mason had just celebrated her seventh birthday when Kay Thompson's Eloise was published, and already was notorious in the gossip columns. A brawl had broken out at her christening when a photographer pushed his way to the front of the church and began taking flash pictures, enraging her father. When she was three, James decided that the sensible way to ensure that his daughter would never touch cigarettes would be to let her smoke one, recoil in a coughing fit, and swear them off forever. The result of this reverse psychology? "She's up to two packs a day," he lamented. Portland Mason had her own mink coat, the papers tattled, and tagged along to adult nightspots like Ciro's and the Mocambo (where she reportedly jumped onstage and did an impromptu bump-and-grind routine). When daddy made 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) at Disney, his contract included "The Portland Clause," requiring that the studio supply, free of charge, any film his daughter requested to be screened privately in their Hollywood mansion. And in 1956, Portland made her screen debut for 20th Century Fox with no less a leading man than Gregory Peck, in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
|Portland Mason and Gregory Peck on the set of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (20th Century Fox, 1956)|
There were setbacks, however. The concept of a big screen Eloise was rejected by Fox, to whom James Mason, with Kay's urging and approval, had first pitched the idea. Every other major studio in town also passed, the consensus being that live action "kiddie films" didn't bring in profits. There was also the general feeling that the Eloise book simply didn't have a plot -- rawther, it was a string of loosely-connected, very funny anecdotes and epigrams. Not the stuff movies are made of, but perhaps...television?
Never one to sell her talents or her merchandise cheap, Kay was able to pitch Eloise to CBS's new, ninety minute anthology series, Playhouse 90, for a cool $15,000 -- for a single live broadcast! Originally set to air in January 1957, the broadcast was pushed to November 22, Thanksgiving night, 1956, in order to scoop ABC's December airing of a live adaptation of Madeline -- Eloise's French counterpart, written by Ludwig Bemelman. To up the ante, Eloise would include five musical numbers written by Kay herself, and boasted a huge, stellar cast that included matinee idol Louis Jourdan and American stage royalty Ethel Barrymore, as well as Mildred Natwick, personally selected by Kay as the ideal Nanny, and everyone from Monty Woolley to Conrad Hilton. But missing from the final cast line up was Portland Mason.
Another one for the kids: Louis Jourdan and Judy Garland sing a medley of children's songs,
The Judy Garland Show (Episode 19, originally aired February 2, 1964)
Along the way, it had been decided that Portland wasn't physically similar enough to Hilary Knight's depiction of Eloise. Besides the contrast between Eloise's blonde, straggly hair and Portland's sleek brunette bob, the biggest problem was that, although described as having a pot belly, Eloise was essentially gangly, all arms and legs, while Portland had grown frankly plump. Briefly considered as a replacement was Patty McCormack, then the hottest child property in town after her chilling portrayal of the evil Rhoda in The Bad Seed (1956). But McCormack was eleven, and deemed too mature to play a precocious six year old. Enter Evelyn Rudie.
|Happier times: Kay Thompson and Evelyn Rudie in rehearsal for Playhouse 90 production of Eloise (1956)|
|Kay Thompson in rehearsal for nightclub act at Ciro's, November 1947|
The opening of Eloise: Kay Thompson performing "3 A.M. in the Persian Room"
"Not to be discussed," Diana Vreeland told her associates tersely after watching Kay Thompson's fire breathing caricature unreel before her eyes. After the resounding failure of Eloise, television star, Kay felt the same way: "Let's forget it," she firmly told an inquisitive reporter a year later. "I'm trying to." Luckily, the public's affection for the Plaza's resident pot belly as a literary heroine had not waned, and three further collaborations with Hilary Knight followed: Eloise in Paris (1957), Eloise at Christmastime (1958), and Eloise in Moscow (1959). But with each book, tensions between Kay and Hilary Knight grew -- she increasingly jealous over the praise and attention paid to his drawings, he indignant at being left out of a fair share of the credit, and profits. As Kay grew more and more erratic, relations between the two eventually broke down beyond repair. A completed fifth installment, Eloise Takes a Bawth, was ready to go to print in 1964, when Kay abruptly pulled the plug -- and withdrew the other three Eloise sequels from circulation, to boot. Eloise Takes a Bawth was finally published, with the approval of Kay Thompson's estate, in 2002.
|Always an angle: Eloise in Moscow inspired the LP Kay Thompson Party: Let's Talk About Russia (Signature, 1959)|
Kay's fabulous, frenzied, frantic 88 years ended on July 2, 1998. (A life detailed in Sam Irvin's fabulous biography, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, and an invaluable source of information for our little blog entry.) In recent years, Kay has once again been in the spotlight, thanks to Irvin's biography and a show mounted by her goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, which featured a tribute to Kay and her musical arrangements as its centerpiece. (Read our review here.)
With a long career encompassing over 50 books, magazine illustrations, album covers and Broadway posters, Hilary Knight still lives in New York, and continues to waive the banner for Eloise. Whatever their differences in life might have been, upon the publication of the long-thought-lost Eloise Takes a Bawth, Hilary remarked, "Kay and I were like parents to Eloise... [and] I guess my job now is to continue what Kay might have thought she was doing when she pulled the books in the first place -- to protect Eloise."
Portland Mason abandoned acting for writing in 1968, and spent much of her adult life trying to live down the spoiled-little-rich-girl reputation which preceded her. When James Mason died in 1984, his second wife, Clarissa Kaye, inherited his entire $15 million estate, with the understanding that it would pass to Portland and her brother upon Kaye's passing. Instead, the monies wound up in a trust with unnamed beneficiaries, and a bitter legal battle ensued; Portland couldn't even locate her father's ashes until 2000. She died at age 55 in 2004.
Evelyn Rudie made her last, unbilled film appearance in Bye, Bye Birdie (1963). Since then, she's turned to the theater and playwriting. She has appeared at various Eloise events and given interviews about her experiences; and today, we are happy, happy, happy to celebrate her birthday, as well, well, well!
March 28, 1949
Visit the official Eloise site here.
Visit Sam Irvin's Kay Thompson site here.