Quentin Crisp

Leaving behind a handful of charmingly written books and a treasure trove of bons mots, the dignified gentleman iconoclast assures himself a fittingly singular immortality.

Published December 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"England," Quentin Crisp was fond of saying, "is a mistake." The writer, performer and self-proclaimed "stately homo of England" was capable of speaking almost entirely in aphorisms, and his arsenal was well-stocked with impish dismissals of his native country, which he fled for Manhattan at age 72. Crisp relished the idea that he would die as he lived -- unconventionally, and in self-imposed exile. He said he hoped to be dropped in "one of those black plastic bags" and put out with the trash on the streets of his adopted East Village. Crisp would have appreciated the irony that when death finally got him, on Nov. 21 at age 90, he was back in England: not even in London, where he lived for most of his first seven decades, but in gruff Manchester, the heart of England's industrial north, and one of the least fabulous places on earth -- a cosmic "mistake" if there ever was one.

The death of Quentin Crisp represents the end not just of a life but of a lifestyle -- the subject he claimed as his area of expertise. He titled one of his books "How to Have a Lifestyle"; his one-man show, "An Evening with Quentin Crisp," which was to have opened in Manchester on Nov. 22, was essentially one long lecture on that heady topic. For Crisp, "having a lifestyle" meant living a stylized life. There was artifice in his every gesture and utterance; his entire existence was a performance. He was the late 20th century embodiment of a turn-of-the-century archetype: the bohemian flbneur, the arty, outrageously dressed stroller of the boulevards who negotiates a hostile world, surviving on his guile and witticisms.

At the root of Crisp's act was a kind of radicalism: Mocked and brutalized for his flamboyant effeminacy, he nonetheless chose to live, beginning in the London of the 1930s, "not merely as a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one." He tinted his hair lilac, wore eye shadow, pert scarves and silk blouses, and transformed himself into a walking, quipping objet d'art. It was this feat of defiant self-invention that eventually brought him celebrity. He wrote several wonderful books and at least one famous one, his 1968 memoir "The Naked Civil Servant." But Quentin Crisp's masterpiece was, emphatically, "Quentin Crisp."

He was born Dennis Pratt in Sutton, a South London suburb, on Christmas Day, 1908. He described his childhood as "uneventful" and his family as "middle-class, middle-brow, middling." He attended a prep school in Derbyshire, where his classmates tormented him for his dainty ways: He was frequently beaten up, an experience that steeled him for the even more brutal treatment he would receive as an adult at the hands of London street toughs.

Crisp was 21 when he quit the suburbs for London, embarking on an existence of "almost unprecedented obscurity" and "lack of accomplishment." In truth, there was nothing obscure about him -- his sensational appearance caused a stir wherever he went -- and the doggedness with which he stayed true to himself, in the face of scorn that frequently turned violent, was no small achievement. Crisp's "professional" life was a mess. He bounced between clerical jobs, worked as a book illustrator, tried his hand at freelance writing. His brief stint as a male prostitute was a failure: Crisp was simply too ostentatiously gay for a clientele that required discretion.

Crisp's real calling was personal amplification, and he carried this odd job off with gusto -- swanning around Soho, speaking his skewed beatitudes, refining his peculiar philosophy of lifestyle. One of its central tenets enshrined domestic slovenliness: Crisp maintained that after four years without being cleaned, a room could get no dirtier, and he prided himself on the absolute squalor of his single-room homes -- the Chelsea bedsit where he lived for 40 years, and the studio near the Bowery that was for 18 years his New York home.

In 1942, Crisp began sitting as a life model for art students. "I took up posing as a profession," he said -- not quite true, of course, since posing had been more or less a full-time job for Crisp all along. But now he was being remunerated for displaying himself, and the work suited him so well that he did it for the next 35 years. It was this nude modeling work that gave Crisp's breakthrough book its title. "The Naked Civil Servant" was an elegantly written memoir of Crisp's struggles, filled with fizzy wit and touching ruminations on his life as a perennial outsider. In a modest way, it was a literary milestone -- one of the first blunt depictions of gay life to reach a mainstream audience. The book sold decently, but it was the 1975 TV movie adaptation starring John Hurt that made Crisp a minor celebrity. Suddenly in demand, he made his stage debut in 1978, and his one-man show became a sleeper West End hit.

A touring production of "An Evening with Quentin Crisp" brought the writer to New York a year later. Crisp was instantly enchanted by the city's pageantry and blasi, live-and-let-live attitude. He decided to emigrate, and the green card he received in 1981 made him an official New Yorker and U.S. resident alien -- a term he took for the title of his New York diaries and, poignantly, embraced as a kind of metaphor for his existential plight. "Wherever I am on this earth, I am and shall always be a resident alien," he wrote in "How to Become a Virgin" (1981). "People are never with me, they are always in my presence. I am never involved in conversation, I am always being interviewed."

The estrangement described here was Crisp's great theme: Beneath the wry adages and bon vivant postures, Crisp brooded on the melancholy and difficulty of living as a homosexual in a heterosexual world. He insisted that being gay was "abnormal," "an illness," a contention that made him an object of ire for many younger, politicized gays. But if Crisp was old-fashioned, he was no self-hater. There was as much Sun Ra as Sartre in his resident alien formulation; he clearly enjoyed being a mischievous interloper from another planet, and his vision of homosexuality was ultimately affirmative and romantic:

Homosexuals have time for everybody. This is not only an instance of the known law that all outsiders are polite to insiders because at best they secretly revere them or at worst fear that they may one day need them. Homosexuals are sincerely interested. They will sit for hours on stairs while chars complain about their rheumatism; they will stand at street corners while postmen rage against the handwriting of correspondents; they will pay extra fares to hear conductors rail against their wives. Every detail of the lives of real people, however mundane it may be, seems romantic to them. Romance is that enchantment that lends distance to things, and homosexuals are in a different world from the "dead normals" with many light years dark between. If by some chance an hour of pointless gossip makes fleeting reference to some foible, some odd superstition, some illogical preference that they find they share with the speaker, homosexuals are as amazed and delighted as an Earthman would be on learning that Martians cook by gas.

The largesse that made Crisp a confidant of chars and train conductors was his defining quality. "I have lust for small talk," he wrote. "Nobody escapes my love." He was often compared to Oscar Wilde, with whom he shared foppish brio and a way with words. But Crisp's democratic spirit was a world away from the aristocratic hauteur of Wilde. In New York, Crisp was a fixture of celebrity social life, befriended by models, writers, performance artists and Sting, who paid tribute to him in a hit song, "Englishman in New York." But Crisp was just as happy spending time with anonymous New Yorkers; his telephone number was listed in the Manhattan directory, and he vowed never to turn down an invitation. On virtually any day of the week, Crisp could be found at the Cooper Square Diner on Second Avenue, in the company of whatever new friend had come to receive a pinch of his stardust.

The message boards on Crisp's recently unveiled Web site are a testament to his generosity to these pilgrims -- they are filling up with memories of lunches, conversations on street corners and other Crispian close encounters. Meanwhile, two or three floral bouquets have materialized outside the door of Crisp's building at 46 E. Third St., an amusing, appropriately feeble parody of that rite of media-age grief for the celebrity dead. "My fondest hope is to die at the hands of a murderer," went one of Crisp's favorite lines. "In America, the truly famous are always murdered." Alas, this ambition eluded him: Crisp died of a heart attack after eating what he doubtless would winkingly have called The Last Supper. No matter: Leaving behind a small pile of charmingly written books, a treasure trove of bons mots, a filthy apartment and memories of the dignity he brought to the role of gentleman iconoclast, Crisp assured himself a fittingly singular immortality.

By Jody Rosen

Jody Rosen is a Manhattan writer. He is currently working on a cultural history of the song "White Christmas."

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