“So in love with Hilary the man,” tweeted Lena Dunham recently, and she wasn’t talking about any of the actors on her HBO series. No, the object of her affection is 88 years old and doesn’t have a Twitter account — he doesn’t even have a cell phone. He is Hilary Knight, the illustrator of the beloved Eloise children’s books, and now the subject of “It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise,” a documentary coproduced by Dunham that airs on HBO next week.
At a screening at The Plaza on Monday, the two of them, the international TV star and the revered cult figure, were shooting the breeze and posing for cameras like two lifelong friends, never mind their age difference. Their unlikely friendship dates back to Dunham’s teens. When she was 17, she got Knight’s creation, the stringy-haired, pot-bellied Eloise, tattooed on her back.
“I remember looking at a Riot Grrrl ’zine in the late Nineties, and seeing a picture of Eloise in there,” she said. “She does have this really punky, feminist quality and I think that’s something so many women and men are attracted to in the book.” Then years later, when Knight heard about the gesture, he reached out to the young “Girls” creator by regular mail to properly thank her for the tribute. They met, bonded over a shared love of tattoos — she has seven, he has a butterfly on his hip from his Navy days — and instantly the seeds were planted for the documentary.
“I think the moment I met Hilary and stepped into his apartment, I was like somebody has to know about this,” Dunham said. Though in the film, Knight’s whimsical apartment comes across like an artist’s dreamland, his creative life has been less than ideal. Kay Thompson, the late actress and author of the Eloise series, eventually took control over the creative process, legally banning Knight from drawing anything that resembled the precocious character. It wasn’t until years later that Knight regained the rights. “An artistic career is an up and down experience, but to witness someone who has experienced those challenges yet continues to make their work everyday is really inspiring,” Dunham continued. Director Matt Wolf edited existing footage with scenes he shot over the course of a year — Knight has spent decades documenting his own life in a sort of meta art project. “For us, we’re young and we feel that intense obsession and drive with our work, but it’s interesting to see an 88-year-old who shares that intensity, to realize that that creative drive doesn’t go away,” he said.
For Knight, becoming involved with the project was less about validation and more about putting Eloise on center stage once again. “My hope is, and I think it’s going to come true, that [Eloise] will go on. She was kind of slowly shrinking away so we propped her up again,” he said. “Because of Lena’s real deserved fame, she reintroduced [the character] to a lot of people — there is something obviously essential that people respond to.”