Eloise, the irrepressible and obnoxious resident of New York’s famed Plaza Hotel, is currently the focus of an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society titled “Eloise at the Museum.” Many admirers of this privileged child dedicated to creative disruption are unaware that her creator, Kay Thompson, was born Catherine Louise (Kitty) Fink in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant pawnbroker. Thompson assumed many roles in her life, yet her most famous creation was Eloise. Here are some facts and suggestions to ponder about Eloise’s Jewish roots.
1. Thompson’s Dad Had A Yiddish Accent
According to Thompson biographer Sam Irvin, Thompson’s father could never repress his Yiddish accent, yet the family celebrated Christmas in order to fit in. No wonder Eloise’s Christmas tree in the Plaza features a broken ornament covered by a band-aid and a glass thermometer oddly hanging from a candy cane.
2. Nose Job
Thompson had numerous plastic surgeries to correct her socially unacceptable nose, yet she identified with the unabashedly Jewish singer Fanny Brice.
3. Famous Friends
One of Thompson’s childhood friends was playwright Tennessee Williams. He worked at the old-style Friedman-Shelby shoe warehouse, an experience immortalized as torture in “The Glass Menagerie.”
4. Italian, But Not Jewish, But Still Jewish
Mr. Salomone, the Plaza’s “sweetest old manager” in two of the Eloise books, is not Jewish. He is based on the actual hotelier Alponse Salomone, who was of Italian-American heritage. However, Jewish actor Jeffrey Tambor does play him in the television movie adaptation of ”Eloise at the Plaza.“
5. Lena Dunham?
Jewish actress and activist Lena Dunham has a tattoo of Eloise on her back, a fact included in the new exhibit. Dunham has confessed her admiration for the assertive Eloise’s rule breaking and proto-feminism.
6. Jewish Humor?
Eloise’s room at the Plaza includes an eviscerated rag doll on whom she performs surgery, a spray can of liquid hair net and a gin bottle from an evening watching television with Nanny. Hilary Knight’s illustrations bring to life Thompson’s not-so-subtle attack on the sanitized version so popular in the ‘50’s. Thompson wrecked the family ideal in the same way that Eloise wrecked the tray of martinis in the Crystal Room and the thermostats in the Plaza hallways.
7. A Bit Zaftig?
Traveling to Hollywood, Eloise takes Nanny’s advice that “the one thing/you absolutely must do on a train/is eat eat eat.” We’re not sure if she got her hands on some deli.
8. Let’s Get Loud
Eloise says in one of the books that “getting bored is not allowed” even if it means making “a really loud and terrible racket,” as Thompson proved in her long and successful career, which included stints as a vocal coach to Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne and Judy Garland.
Emily Schneider is a writer and Jewish educator in New York City. She has written about children’s literature, Jewish culture and history at Tablet, Jewcy and “Family Reading” at The Hornbook.
The Secret Jewish History Of Eloise