11-21-1999

Quentin Crisp

QUENTIN CRISP, British writer, raconteur, personality extraordinaire and actor, died (b. 1908); born Denis Charles Pratt, Crisp was an English writer, artist’s model, actor and raconteur known for his memorable and insightful witticisms. He became a gay icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, brought to the attention of the general public his defiant exhibitionism and longstanding refusal to conceal his sexuality.

By his own account, Crisp was effeminate in behavior from an early age and found himself the object of teasing at Kingswood Preparatory School in Epsom, from where he won a scholarship to Denstone College, near Uttoxeter in 1922. After leaving school in 1926, Crisp studied journalism at King’s College London, but failed to graduate in 1928, going on to take art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic.

Around this time, Crisp began frequenting the cafés of Soho – his favorite being The Black Cat in Old Compton Street – meeting other young Gay men and rent-boys, and experimenting with make-up and women’s clothes. For six months he worked as a prostitute, looking for love, he said in a 1999 interview, but finding only degradation.

Crisp left home to move to the center of London at the end of 1930 and, after living in a succession of flats, found a bed-sitting room in Denbeigh Street, where he held court with London’s brightest and roughest characters. His outlandish appearance – he wore bright make-up, dyed his long hair crimson, painted his fingernails and wore sandals to display his painted toenails – brought admiration and curiosity from some quarters, but generally attracted hostility and violence from strangers passing him in the streets. Crisp attempted to join the army at the outbreak of WWII, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical board on the grounds that he was ‘suffering from sexual perversion’.

The successful screening of The Naked Civil Servant launched Crisp in another new direction: that of performer and lecturer. He devised a one-man show and began touring the country with it. The first half of the show was an entertaining monologue loosely based on his memoirs, the second half was a question and answer session with Crisp picking the audience’s written questions out at random and answering them in an amusing manner. In 1978 Crisp sold out the Duke of York’s Theater in London, then took the show to New York, where he eventually decided to move. His first stay there, in the Chelsea Hotel, coincided with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen. He set about making arrangements to move to New York permanently and in 1981 he arrived with few possessions and found a small apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

He continued to perform his one-man show, published groundbreaking books on the importance of contemporary manners as a means of social inclusivity as opposed to etiquette, which socially excludes, and supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing movie reviews and columns for U.S. and UK magazines and newspapers. He said that provided one could exist on peanuts and champagne, one could quite easily live by going to every cocktail party, premiere and first night to which one was invited. As he had done in London, Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed in the Manhattan telephone directory and saw it as his duty to converse with anyone who called him. For the first twenty or so years of owning his own telephone he habitually answered calls with the phrase “Yes, God?” (“Just in case,” he once said.) Later on he changed it to “Oh yes?” in a querulous tone of voice.

In addition to his listed phone number, he accepted dinner invitations from almost anyone. While it was expected that the inviter would pay for dinner, Quentin Crisp did his best to “sing for his supper” by regaling his hosts with wonderful stories and yarns much as he did in his theatre performances. Dinner with him was said to be one of the best shows in New York.

The year after The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and American television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars, the former nude model & prostitute, now theater-filling raconteur, himself made his debut as a film actor in the Royal College of Art’s low-budget production of Hamlet (1976). Crisp played Polonius in the 65-minute adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, in support of Helen Mirren, who doubled as Ophelia and Gertrude. It would be nine years before his next turn before the cameras, in the 1985 film The Bride, which brought him into contact with Sting, who played the lead role of Baron Frankenstein. Sting later wrote a song about Crisp, “Englishman in New York”, that includes the lines:

It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile, Be yourself no matter what they say.

He appeared on the television show The Equalizer in the 1987 episode “First Light” and as the narrator of director Richard Kwietniowski’s’s short film Ballad of Reading Gaol (1988), based on the immortal poem by Crisp’s seminal forefather, Oscar Wilde. Four years later he was cast in a lead role, and got top billing, in the low-budget independent film Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers, which was filmed in New York City, his new home town, now, for over a decade. He played the doorman of a fleabag hotel in a rundown neighborhood quite like the one he lived in.

In 1992, he was persuaded by Sally Potter to play Elizabeth I in the film Orlando. Although he found the role taxing, he won acclaim for a dignified and touching performance. Crisp next had an uncredited cameo in the controversial 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. Crisp’s last role was in an independent film called “American Mod” (1999), and his last full-feature movie was “HomoHeights” (also released as “Happy Heights“) (1996). He was chosen by Channel Four to deliver the first “Alternative Christmas Speech”, a counterpoint to the Queen’s Christmas speech, in 1993.

In 1996 he was among the many people interviewed for the historical documentary on how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality, entitled The Celluloid Closet. In his third volume of memoirs, Resident Alien, published in the same year, Crisp stated that he was close to the end of his life. However, a humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to one hundred, with ten years off for good behavior proved prophetic. In June of that year, he was one of the guest entertainers at the second Pride Scotland festival in Glasgow.

In December 1998, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday performing the opening night of his one-man show, “An Evening with Quentin Crisp,” at The Intar Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City (produced by John Glines of The Glines). In November 1999, Quentin Crisp died nearly one month before his ninety-first birthday in Choriton-cum-Hardy (wouldn’t he just?!) in Manchester, England, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. His body was cremated with a minimum of ceremony as per his request, and his ashes flown back to New York and scattered over Manhattan. And the world is just a little bit less interesting with his departure.