Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rudie the Day

1948: Kay Thompson, the soignée singing sensation of café society, has created a character to amuse her friends and colleagues. "I am Eloise," Kay announces in piercing, screechy tones, "and I am six."

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
Eloise was a pot-bellied hellion who lived at The Plaza with her pug dog Weenie, pet turtle Skipperdee, and her English Nanny; a rawther naughty little girl prone to such observations as "An egg cup makes a very good hat," and "Sometimes I go into the Men's Room which is very good for playing Railroad Station or something like that." She was also an instantaneous success, resulting in enormous press coverage (including a spread in Life); a boon in popularity for Kay, who would soon land a plum co-starring role in Funny Face (1957) with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; and a surge in business for The Plaza -- which Kay cannily parlayed into a free, permanent suite. "Eloise" even made it onto the hit parade, courtesy of the voice stylings of Ms. Thompson (portraying both Eloise and Nanny) and her ragtag chorus of crooner (and Thompson paramour) Andy Williams, songwriter Ralph Blane, and Simon and Schuster publicist Larry Vinick.

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)
Like Portland Mason, seven year old Evelyn was already a Hollywood veteran with several credits to her name (but no scandalous column items), including playing the daughters of Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956) and John Wayne in The Wings of Eagles (1957). Moreover, she looked almost exactly like Eloise, as described by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. "I knew it the first time I saw her picture," Kay enthused when the casting was announced, although her enthusiasm would eventually wane and then descend into outright hostility.

Kay Thompson in rehearsal for nightclub act at Ciro's, November 1947
Kay Thompson was many things: prodigiously talented, fiercely intelligent, brilliantly witty, scathingly funny, wildly imaginative. She has also been described by those who knew and worked with her as uncompromisingly megalomaniacal, unyieldingly stubborn, maddeningly mercurial, and bewilderingly self-destructive. Not unlike Diana Vreeland, the extravagantly eccentric fashion editor she satirized in Funny Face, Kay's idiosyncrasies infuriated her enemies as much as they charmed her admirers. One of our favorite Thompson tales: seething at the dowdy Edith Head wardrobe she had to wear in Funny Face (while Audrey Hepburn swanned about in Givenchy couture), Thompson took revenge by wearing her own Balenciaga hats and Capezio shoes throughout the film, effectively drawing more attention to her accessories than the drab gray suits Head had designed for her. And when rain threatened the Paris location shooting of the big "Bonjour, Paris!" production number, Kay bravely suggested that they carry on in spite of the weather, but, oh dear, shouldn't she have some sort of rain coat? Yes, director Stanley Donen agreed, but how could Edith Head, all the way over in Hollywood, possibly come up with something on such short notice? No problem, Kay must have called over her shoulder, as she dashed to Givenchy's salon, picked out an elegant raincoat from the designer's collection, and filmed "Bonjour, Paris!" with barely a trace of her hated Head duds peeking out from underneath. (Read our take on Edith Head here.)

Kay Thompson in Funny Face (Paramount, 1957)

It was this steely determination of Kay's to control all aspects of her image which led to the biggest turmoil on the Eloise set -- an environment which was already chaotic, thanks to the shortened preparation time due to the earlier-than-anticipated air date; a script that everyone agreed was problematic; budget restrictions; and that ridiculously large, unwieldily cast. As one would suspect by the official, proprietary title of her book (Kay Thompson's Eloise, if you please, please, please, and Lord help the booksellers who didn't promote it as such), as far as she was concerned, Kay was Eloise, and vice versa. When it suddenly dawned on her that this little Rudie sprite was actually going to be giving form and life to Eloise, and likely be looked upon as Eloise, Kay didn't like it one bit. What began as a warm relationship turned downright arctic once Kay -- who held creative control over the entire project -- made her decree: she, and she alone, was Eloise, and it would be she, Kay Thompson, providing the voice of Eloise. 

Frankenstein's monster?

The idea was sheer madness, patently absurd, especially for a live broadcast: Kay would be required to hide behind furniture and crouch in corners, speaking Eloise's lines in the direction of the microphone, while Evelyn held a book over her mouth, or turned away from the camera. Kay's folly was indulged through the arduous rehearsal period, but naturally, it simply didn't work; and Evelyn had to scramble to make sure she had all of Eloise's lines down pat, as it was decided at the eleventh hour that Kay would not be voicing Eloise, after all. She did not cede graciously, however; once it became clear that Evelyn would have to play and speak the part of Eloise, Kay had her lawyers draw up new contracts for CBS, forcing them to surrender all future rights to the Eloise franchise. Evelyn's handlers were presented with similar terms: she could never claim to be Eloise, only that she had played her. "Make sure," Kay ominously warned the director, the esteemed John Frankenheimer, "when this is over, that you never have anything to do with [Rudie] again."
She did work in this town again: Evelyn Rudie with Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack in The Gift of Love (Fox, 1958)

Against all odds, Eloise made her debut on Playhouse 90 as scheduled, on Thanksgiving night, 1956. The comparisons to turkey were painfully obvious, as critics ripped apart everything about the plodding, clumsily-presented show, even Kay's musical numbers -- everything, that is, except for the unanimously-praised performance of Evelyn Rudie, who in short order, was nominated for an Emmy (the youngest performer so honored) and presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

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.


  1. I learn something new every day... This story certainly takes a bit of the gilt off Miss Thompson's gingerbread. Jx

    1. But fabulous gingerbread it is, nonetheless! I take nothing away from Ms. Thompson in this tale -- if anything, in this day of hyper-political-correctness, I find it refreshing to steamroll all over a precocious seven year old! LOL!

  2. After this, were it still there, I would suggest a martini or two Under The Clock At The Biltmore.

    1. Am I dreaming, or was there a restaurant in Chelsea for a hot second in the late 1990's/early 2000's which was named after The Biltmore, and featured that clock as a piece of decor? Or did I have too many martinis?

  3. Quoi ? I didn't hear the bells ! I didn't see the fireworks ! You're back and I am 2 weeks late ?
    Bonjour :)
    Wonderful post.
    Oh, it's so good to see you.

  4. Fab. U. Lous. Thank you so much for spreading the gospel according to Kay -- and for plugging my Kay Thompson book so enthusiastically! The check is in the mail!

    May the bazazz be with you!

    Sam Irvin

  5. If you need your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (even if they're dating somebody else now) you must watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Have your ex CRAWLING back to you...?