Lordy lordy lordy 'Eloise' turns 40

September 18, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN CORRESPONDENT

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: Within days of her birth, she was declared "Miss of the Year" by Cleveland Amory and given the breathy, star-making treatment by Life magazine. At 5, her portrait was kidnapped in a fraternity prank and re-painted and returned to its rightful place after the personal intercession of Princess Grace. And at 9, she received a telegram from the Beatles saying, "We Wish We Could Hold Your Hand Yeah Yeah Yeah."

And so what would be a rawther eventful, rawther traumatic birthday for the average girl is instead just another day to spend at home. Which would be boring boring boring except that home is, ooooooooo, the Plaza.

She is ELOISE.

She is 40.

Oh my Lord.

Eloise, of course, will always be 6, the age at which she was imagined and illustrated and immortalized in a book that is actually the one turning 40. Yesterday, the Plaza threw a birthday party for its most beloved resident, the adorably pesky and bow-topped Eloise, who amused herself skibbling through the hotel's hallways, dialing up room service for a single raisin and basically getting underfoot of guests and staff alike.

Forty-six girls took over the Edwardian Room for the party's look-alike competition. Most were from New York, although one came from Atlanta and one, 7-year-old Jane Manfred, came from Rockville. The winner, though, was a punk Eloise, with a pink stripe in her hair. Eden Cale, 10, is a Greenwich Village denizen and daughter of John Cale of Velvet Underground fame. Eden's school will get $1,000, and her family a weekend at -- where else? -- the Plaza.

The creator of "Eloise," entertainer Kay Thompson, herself decamped at the Plaza for stretches of time and was inspired by the children she saw there. Illustrated in fine-lined and humorous style by Hilary Knight, the merry book is decidedly of the less neurotic mid-'50s era, when you could tell such a story in entirely nonjudgmental fashion: Eloise is a girl whose glamorous mother -- she knows Coco Chanel -- gallivants about the world and leaves her daughter in the care of a nanny and a friendly, indulgent hotel staff. And there's no mention of a father, only her mother's lawyer who has an office on Madison Avenue and likes martinis.

The book's insouciant charm, though, makes any tsk-tsking, any search for darker meanings simply absurd. And despite the fact that it's written in the voice of a child, "Eloise" has always been billed, as its cover says, as "A book for precocious grownups."

And the Plaza is more than just the setting for the book; it is a living, breathing character. Now nearing its own 88th birthday, the Plaza remains its idiosyncratic self, a fanciful confection of a building that rises 19 stories to overlook both Fifth Avenue and Central Park.

At a time when minimalism rules the upscale world -- the big retail event here is the recent opening on Madison Avenue of Calvin Klein's Bauhaus temple -- the Plaza is unapologetically excessive. Its public rooms are lighted by ornate chandeliers and splashed with enough gilt to give you a complex. Upstairs, it's a bit more restrained, an oasis of cool sage green, but many of the hall phones are still creamy, white Frenchie things with curlicue earpieces on a rotary dial base. It's a refreshing break from the gray-and-mauve, chrome-fixtured blandness of chain-hotel design. And, indeed, the Plaza has personality, a certain light spirit, which begs a chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the hotel's charming atmosphere or Eloise?

It's probably a bit of both, and, with an estimated half-million copies of the book sold to date, the real place and the fictional person are inextricably bound.

"It's always been a lively place," says Curt Gathje, the Plaza's unofficial historian. The Gilded Age brought the Vanderbilts -- the first guests to sign the register were "Mr. and Mrs. Alfred G. Vanderbilt and servant." The Jazz Age drew F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. With the '60s came the Beatles (and two fans who tried to sneak into their rooms by wrapping themselves up in a package), and Truman Capote's infamous Black and White Ball. In 1970, feminism checked in -- Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan stormed the Oak Room like modern-day Carry Nations to end its men-only policy. And the '80s, of course, brought Donald Trump, who bought the place and appointed Ivana as president at the salary of "one dollar a year, plus all the dresses she can buy." Their divorce ended that deal, leading to the wonderful tabloid headline, "Ivana: Gimme the Plaza," and Mr. Trump last month sold the hotel to a Saudi Arabian prince and a Singapore entrepreneur.

Through all its changes in ownership, the Plaza retained its role in the mythic sensibility of the city. It is particularly evocative for non-New Yorkers, representing all that is grandiloquent and over-the-top about the city.

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