Among the items up for auction during Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale on December 5 was an original oil portrait of classic children's book character Eloise. The painting, which hung in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel (where Eloise made all sorts of mischief in her "pink pink pink" room), was originally a birthday gift from illustrator Hilary Knight to the book's author, Kay Thompson. This particular portrait had a series of its own adventures before finding its way to Bonhams where it fetched $100,000.
After receiving the gift from Knight in 1956, Thompson appeared on CBS's Person to Person along with the portrait, after which she lent the piece to the Plaza Hotel. The 59-by-42-inch painting remained in the hotel lobby for four years, until the evening of the Junior League Ball on November 23,1960. When, it is presumed, out-of-control New York debutantes pulled an Eloise-like prank of their own and purloined the portrait. Such was the scandal that even Walter Cronkite announced, "Eloise kidnapped!" on the evening news. Though devastating for Knight, the publicity dedicated to the heist was impressive.
As the story goes, the painting turned up in a dumpster a few years later having only sustained minor damage but missing its frame. By then Knight had already replaced the portrait with another one which can still be seen in the Plaza lobby. In Sam Irvin's 2010 biography, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, Knight was asked why he never had the original rehung. "It's a little embarrassing," Knight said. "Because the thieves were after the frame, not my artwork. And frankly, I made the first portrait for Kay, never imagining it would be on permanent display at the Plaza. I never really liked it--I did it in a rush--so I was not unhappy when it disappeared." (There was even unsubstantiated speculation that perhaps Thompson had orchestrated the painting's disappearance to generate publicity for the book.) After recovering the painting, Knight rolled it up and stashed it away in his closet, where it remained, forgotten, for fifty years, until he and New York Historical Society curator Jane Curley found it for that museum's 2017 exhibition dedicated to Eloise.
The portrait was sold along with a photograph of Evelyn Rudie, a child actress who portrayed Eloise on a 1956 episode of Playhouse 90.
Images reproduced with permission from Bonhams