December 25, 1908– Quentin Crisp
Yesterday, while traveling on public transportation, I was called “an old queen” when I accidentally jostled a whipper-snapper while taking my seat. At first, I was offended, and as I started to spit out a response, I thought of a certain Old Queen of England and instead my retort was:
“Oh, sweetie dear, you simply have no idea…”
When I arrived in NYC in late summer 1976, I didn’t even have a clue to get from the airport into Manhattan. I was 22-years-old and one of another hundred people who just got off of the plane, ready to become a Broadway star and famous recording artist. I ended up taking a taxi to the Tudor City Hotel where I had chosen to make a reservation because it was across the street from Truman Capote’s apartment. My room at the hotel was the size of the bathroom at my Los Angeles apartment, and it had one tiny window that looked at an air shaft.
I checked-in and then headed down 42nd Street to Times Square just to picture my name in lights. This was the Times Square of the mid-1970s, so very different than the Disney-ized Manhattan today. I was so overwhelmed to find myself alone with two pieces of luggage, my dreams, and no plan, that I called the only person I had any connection with in the city. I confessed to my friend that I was a bit freaked out at finding myself all alone in NYC, and he invited me to stay in his apartment’s maid’s quarters until I could find a place of my own.
I took him up on the offer, but I stayed at my already paid for room at the Tudor City Hotel for one night. Late that evening, I turned on the tiny black and white television in the room and just happened to catch a most unusual, moving, mesmerizing film, The Naked Civil Servant (1975) starring John Hurt, about the early life of Quentin Crisp, of whom I knew absolutely nothing. The film was unlike anything that I had experienced. Just like me, Crisp had arrived in NYC not knowing a soul, but, unlike me, he arrived with a plan. Crisp was ready to become famous.
Crisp was a flamboyant, fey man who wore make-up and painted nails. He worked as a rent-boy as a youth. He then spent three decades making money as a figure model for art classes. The interviews he gave about his unusual life attracted increasing public curiosity and he was soon in demand for interviews where he told tales of his highly individual views on social manners and the cultivation of style. He was also frequently harassed and beaten.
Crisp was born Denis Charles Pratt. He is the author of the classic and flamboyantly eccentric coming-of-age memoir, The Naked Civil Servant (1968), the basis for the film that I watched on my first night in NYC. The book made him an international celebrity. He wrote several books and articles about his life and his opinions on style, fashion, and films. Crisp was famous for his concise, compact, and dare I say it, crisp witticisms.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he performed his one-man show An Evening With Quentin Crisp, to acclaim in theaters around the world, all the while spreading his unique philosophy:
“Never keep up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.”
During the second part of his show, Crisp would answer questions from the audience and gave advice to the crowd about how to find their individual style and live a happy life. I saw him twice in this vehicle, in the early 1980s and again in the late 1990s. Both times. the experience was life-changing.
Crisp was Oscar Wilde’s obvious perfect descendant, with his calculated caustic confabulations, open gayness and witty, and winning obstinate opinions toward any kind of conventionality. Crisp caused a bit of a stir in the traditional Britain of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In 1981, Crisp moved to NYC, and brought along his witty remarks and eccentricity. Crisp charmed the city and he became the essence of the modern bohemian.
During his two decades in Manhattan, Crisp wrote 11 books, plus reviews and magazine articles, appeared in several films, including playing a touching and dignified Elizabeth I in Sally Ann Potter’s gender-bending Orlando (1992), opposite Tilda Swinton.
While filming The Bride (1985), he became friends with Sting who was playing Dr. Frankenstein. Crisp was the inspiration and subject matter of Sting’s beautifully brilliant song An Englishman In New York (1988). Crisp:
“I had looked forward to receiving my naturalization papers so that I could commit a crime and not be deported.”
In 1986, Sting visited Crisp in his Manhattan apartment and was told over dinner, and in the three days that followed, what life had been like for an out-of-the-closet gay man in the very homophobic Britain of the 1920s-1960s. Sting was both shocked and fascinated. His song includes the lyrics:
“It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”
“It’s partly about me and partly about Quentin. Again, I was looking for a metaphor. Quentin was a hero of mine, someone I knew very well. He was gay, and he was gay at a time in history when it was dangerous to be so. He had people beating up on him on a daily basis, largely with the consent of the public.”
Noted for never turning down a party invitation or a free meal, the gregarious Crisp claimed that he had never fallen in love:
“You can fancy someone, wish them well or enjoy their company, that’s all I can do with anybody. But when Miss Streisand sings, ‘People who need people are the luckiest people in the world’, she’s being funny. When you need people, you’re finished. I need people, but not any one person.”
Crisp always said that moving to the USA was his proudest achievement. He loved Americans.
“When I was coming to America, I went to the American Embassy in London, and the man asked me, ‘Are you a practicing homosexual?’ and I said I didn’t practice. I was already perfect.”
34 years after the first one, there was a second film about his life, this time the NYC years, An Englishman In New York (2009), with John Hurt playing him again, and featuring Denis O’Hare, Cynthia Nixon and Swoosie Kurtz.
Crisp resided in a single room in the East Village from 1977-1997. He remained fiercely independent and unpredictable to the end. He caused controversy and confusion in the LGBTQ community by jokingly calling AIDS “a fad”, and homosexuality “a terrible disease”. Always the contrarian, he famously commented after the death of Princess Diana:
“She could have been Queen of England and she was swanning about Paris with Arabs. What disgraceful behavior! Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering.”
He was always in demand from journalists needing a juicy sound-bite, and throughout the 1990s his commentary was often requested. You could count on Crisp to say something quotable.
He entertained publicly and privately with his inimitable decorum, dignity, dexterity, drollery and drive. Crisp spent his 90th birthday performing his show. He took his final curtain call while on tour with it, in Manchester, England, just a few weeks away from his 91st birthday in 1999. He didn’t quite make it to the 21st century, and maybe that was a good thing. This is what Crisp had to say about that:
“I hope for nothing, nothing, in the new millennium except death. It will get noisier, it will get darker, it will get faster and the music will thump more. But I shall be dead.”
Not everyone’s cup of tea, I like to think that we would have been great friends if we had the chance to meet. I still like to consider Crisp’s life whenever I get called an old queen.
Essential Crisp: The Naked Civil Servant (1968), How To Have A Lifestyle (1975), How To Become A Virgin (1981), How to Go To The Movies (1988), Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (1996) and The Wit & Wisdom Of Quintin Crisp (1989).