Whoever coined the proverb “curiosity killed the cat” obviously never met a man like Hilary Knight. At ninety-one years young, he still works prolifically, dreams of riding an elephant in India, and plans to drive cross country when he moves to Pasadena to be closer to his identical twin nieces, Lily and Kitty Knight. He reckons that will be in about ten years when he feels old enough.
Around the age of five, his father, Clayton Knight, told him that when he was born (November 1, 1926), he was “bright red, covered with short black fur, and had a tail.”
“I was actually thrilled with that,” says a mature, but tailless Mr. Knight. “It made me feel extremely SPECIAL.”
What was particularly special was his childhood, being raised by two talented, accomplished and very successful illustrators. His mother, Katharine Sturges, was born in Chicago in 1890. She traveled to Japan in 1917 to study, bringing home sketch books of watercolor images from an era that no longer exists. (These, and her letters to her family, are in the archives of Chicago’s Public Library.)
His father, Clayton Knight, born in Rochester, New York, in 1891, studied at the Chicago Art Institute under illustrator and fine artist George Bellows. He attributed his best work to his teacher, just as his son Hilary would, regarding his teacher, Reginald Marsh. In 1917, Clayton was a pilot in World War One, and throughout his career was involved with aviation, serving as an artist/correspondent in World War Two. He was awarded an O.B.E. by the British for his work.
Both of Hilary’s parents’ artwork, designs and personal possessions are in collections of the Society of Illustrators, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume and Textile collections, the Neue Galerie, the Museum of Natural History and the Air Force University Library.
The library in the Knight household was a source of inspiration for Clayton and Katharine’s two sons. Their father’s books on aviation were favorites of Joey, Hilary’s older brother. Hilary’s particular fascinations were the volumes on art of the Orient, the picture books of Edmund Dulac, and the French children’s books of Maurice Boutet deMonvel. The two brilliant illustrators helped young Hilary with his own future works: the seductive, ornate exoticism of Dulac, and deMonvel’s wicked mischievous children are very much a part of his own books, Eloise in particular.
Both boys discovered illustrator Rockwell Kent’s version of Candide on a top shelf. Mr. Knight claims that “Eloise’s doll’s accident page is a direct inspiration from that very adult volume.”
”In our household, Charles B. Falls, Maude Tousey Fangel, Maginel Barney and Rea Irvin were family friends. Along with my parents, they were my teachers. Charles had style, a wonderful sense of how to put a room together, his woodblock illustrations were magnificent. Maude’s famous drawings of babies and cats are a lesson in pastel dexterity. Maginel (sister of Frank Lloyd Wright) was a children’s book illustrator, but later in life she stitched a ‘painting’ in wool on colored felt. It had all the rhythm and creativity of a Van Gogh. Rea, the most elegant of gents, knew how to lay out a magazine cover or a simple cartoon, with such economy of line, color sense, and to me the most important element: STYLE.”
In 1932, the Knight family moved to Manhattan, where his mother used their apartment as her studio. Hilary attended City and Country School, a progressive institution that encouraged interest in self expression. For Mr. Knight, this included indulging in fantasies and making “rubies” in science class. On a school field trip, students were asked to paint something that inspired them. Hilary turned in “a girl on a swing,” inspired by a George Petty illustration for an Old Gold cigarette ad he had seen on the subway. The school’s founder, Caroline Pratt, was not amused.
In the 1940s he attended Friends Seminary, which involved crossing 14th Street. Every day, walking to and from class was “full of visual treats and temptations, endless pleasure, the two 5-and-10-cent stores, the Academy of Music, (which later became a burlesque and the home of Gypsy Rose Lee), Luchow’s cavernous German restaurant, and a store selling Movie Star News, where he could shop for photos of Carmen Miranda. Above all this, overlooking Union Square, was the studio of Reginald Marsh, who two years later would become Mr. Knight’s teacher. “He was IT for me,” says Mr. Knight. “The reason Eloise moves, is all his doing.”
The influence, not to mention rarity, of both parents being fine artists, cannot be understated, insists Mr. Knight. On trips to the Bronx Zoo with his mother, Hilary was immediately drawn to the aviary, where the flora, fauna and feathered creatures greatly inspired him. He once drew a self portrait of himself (portrayed at the age of five), a naked boy balanced on one foot on the tub, arms akimbo, imitating the imaginary birds assisting him with his ablutions. Palm leaves sprout from the shower curtain, a flamingo helpfully holds out a dripping washcloth, while a roseate spoonbill offers a back scrubber. From the curtain rod above, a raptor appears to be squawking in disapproval. Later in life, Hilary met the cartoonist Roz Chast. They discussed their love of birds and he told her that when he was a young boy, he sincerely thought he was a bird. She exclaimed, “Me, too!”
The iconic Eloise books are probably what Hilary Knight is best known for illustrating. Four were written by Kay Thompson: Eloise, Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime and Eloise in Moscow. Then there are Eloise Takes a Bawth, written by Mr. Knight with Mart Crowley, and The 365 Days of Eloise, illustrated and written by Mr. Knight.
Where’s Wallace, written and illustrated by Mr. Knight, is the story of an orangutan who constantly escapes the zoo and has adventures in department stores, a baseball stadium and the museum. In the illustrations, Wallace and his various friends are hidden for young readers to find. To say Where’s Waldo’s author got inspiration from this children’s classic would be an understatement.
Mr. Knight has also worked as and illustrator and has done numerous covers for Gourmet, House and Garden and Mademoiselle. He has been a contributing artist for Vanity Fair since 2000, has done many Broadway show posters, and recently completed murals for designers Tommy Hilfiger and Anna Sui.
A few years ago a friend told Mr. Knight he should meet a young lady who had Eloise tattooed on her backside. Her name is Lena Dunham. Seeing as how his preferred television viewing amounts to no more than BBC World News and vintage movies on the Turner Movie Classics channel, he had no idea that this triple-threat millennial had created, written and starred in HBO’s award-winning series, Girls. Nonetheless, he was charmed and intrigued and sent her some autographed Eloise books. They met and he inspired her to make a short documentary about him for HBO, It’s Me, Hilary, the Man Who Drew Eloise. It shows Ms. Dunham touring his New York apartment in a glittery Eloise wig, Mr. Knight making a “frog opera” with his friend Phoebe Legere as a mermaid in a pond by his East Hampton home, and his nieces Lily and Kitty. In the documentary Kitty says, “it’s not like he goes to work and finishes work—he LIVES it.” Fran Lebowitz, one of New York City’s most sardonic social commentators, is also in the documentary, saying “he made something that lasted—and almost nothing lasts.”
Some recent overdue recognition include two solo shows last year, one at the New-York Historical Society’s Eloise At the Museum, and the New York Public Library/Lincoln Center’s show Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World. Also, in 2009 the New York Public Library bestowed its Literary Lion Award upon him. Mr. Knight is currently working on an adult graphic novel called Olive and Oliver: the Odde-Ballz, with his nieces, Kitty and Lily Knight, and an autobiography entitled Drawn From Life, a visual autobiography of his life as an illustrator.
I met Hilary a few years ago and lucky for me, we became fast friends. One evening he invited me into the city to attend a Vanity Fair-sponsored conversation between Harold Koda and Amy Fine Collins. His colleagues from the magazine were more interested in greeting him than listening to the conversation. After the event, he wanted to go to Kalustyan’s to browse the Middle Eastern delicacies. After that, we went out to an Indian restaurant. “What time is it?” he asked. “8:30,” I yawned, although I am three decades younger than he is. “GREAT! THIS is living!” he exclaimed with delight.
Poet E.E. Cummings long ago said “once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” This is what Hilary Knight does, and has done, for over seventy-five years.
In the words of Mr. Robert Crumb, fellow Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame honoree: “keep on truckin’!”
Food Editor, East Hampton Star