Quentin Crisp (– ), born Denis Charles Pratt, 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 remain in the closet.
Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey, the fourth child of solicitor Charles Pratt (1871 – 1931) and former governess Frances Pratt (née Phillips) (1873 – 1960); he changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties after leaving home and cultivating his outlandishly effeminate appearance to a standard that both shocked contemporary Londoners and provoked homophobic attacks.
By his own account, Crisp was effeminate in behaviour 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 the Regent Street Polytechnic.
Around this time, Crisp began visiting the cafés of Soho – his favourite 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 centre of London at the end of 1930 and, after living in a succession of flats, found a bed-sitting room in Denbigh 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 the Second World War, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical board on the grounds that he was 'suffering from sexual perversion'. He remained in London during the 1941 Blitz, stocked up on cosmetics, purchased five pounds of henna and paraded through the blackout, picking up GIs, whose kindness and open-mindedness inspired his love of all things American.
In 1940 he moved into the bed-sitting room he would occupy for the next forty years, the first floor apartment at 129 Beaufort Street. Here he stayed until he emigrated to the United States in 1981. In the intervening years he never attempted any housework, saying famously in his memoir that the dirt didn't get any worse after the first four years.
He left his job as engineer's tracer in 1942 to become a model in life classes in London and the Home Counties, and continued posing for artists for the next three decades. 'It was like being a civil servant,' he explained in his autobiography, 'except that you were naked.'
Crisp had published three short books by the time he was commissioned by a director of Jonathan Cape to complete what would become The Naked Civil Servant. Having heard Crisp interviewed on radio in 1964, the publisher was keen to print something, and the book appeared in 1968 to respectable reviews. When the book was reprinted in 1975 on the strength of the success of the television version of The Naked Civil Servant, Gay News commented that the book should have been published posthumously. Quentin said this was a polite way of them telling him to drop dead.
Subsequently, Crisp was approached by documentary maker Denis Mitchell to be the subject of a short film in which he was expected to talk about his life, voice his opinions and sit around in his flat filing his nails. This broadcast brought enough attention to Crisp and his book that he soon entered talks about a dramatisation.
In 1975 The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and American television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a 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.
Crisp, now a theatre-filling raconteur, 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, supported by Helen Mirren, who doubled as Ophelia and Gertrude.
His one-man show sold out the Duke of York's Theatre in London in 1978. Crisp then took the show to New York. His first stay in the Hotel Chelsea coincided with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen. Crisp decided to move to New York permanently and set about making arrangements. In 1981 he arrived with few possessions and found a small apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
As he had done in London, Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed in the 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, Lord?" ("Just in case," he once said.) Later on he changed it to "Oh yes?" in a querulous tone of voice. His openness to strangers extended to accepting dinner invitations from almost anyone. While it was expected that the inviter would pay for dinner, 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.
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 U.K. 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.
Crisp also acted on television and in films. He appeared in the 1985 film The Bride, which brought him into contact with Sting, who played the lead role of Baron Frankenstein. He appeared on the television show The Equalizer in the 1987 episode "First Light" and as the narrator of director Richard Kwietniowski'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, playing the doorman of a fleabag hotel in a rundown neighborhood quite like the one he lived in. According to director Thomas Massengale, Crisp was delightful to work with.
The 1990s would prove to be his most prolific decade as an actor as more and more directors offered him roles. 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 4 to deliver the first "Alternative Christmas Speech", a counterpoint to the Queen's Christmas speech, in 1993.
Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old age. He caused controversy and confusion in the gay community by jokingly calling AIDS 'a fad', and homosexuality 'a terrible disease', and famously commented on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: 'She could have been Queen of England – and she was swanning about Paris with Arabs. What disgraceful behaviour. Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering'. (Atlanta Southern Voice, 1 July 1999). However, he was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite, and throughout the 1990s his commentary was sought on any number of topics.
In 1996 he was among the many people interviewed for The Celluloid Closet, a historical documentary on how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality. 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, but 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). A humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to one hundred, with ten years off for good behaviour, proved prophetic. In November 1999, Quentin Crisp died, nearly one month before his ninety-first birthday, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, England, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. His body was cremated with a minimum of ceremony per his request, and his ashes flown back to New York and scattered over Manhattan.
During the 1980s and 1990s Crisp gained worldwide recognition when Sting dedicated his song "Englishman In New York" to him. Crisp had remarked jokingly to the musician "... that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers so that he could commit a crime and not be deported." In late 1986 Sting visited Crisp in his apartment and was told over dinner – and the next three days – what life had been like for a homosexual man in the homophobic Great Britain of the 1920s to the 1960s. Sting was both shocked and fascinated and decided to write the song. It includes the lines:
Crisp was the subject of a photography portrait by Herb Ritts and was also chronicled in Andy Warhol's infamous diaries. At one point, author William S. Burroughs also launched a verbal assault directed at Crisp and his endeavors.
In his 1995 autobiography Take It Like A Man, Boy George discusses how he had felt very close to Crisp during his childhood, as they faced similar problems as young homosexuals living in homophobic surroundings.
A film entitled "An Englishman in New York" about Quentin Crisp's later years and starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp, Cynthia Nixon as Penny Arcade and Swoosie Kurtz as Connie Clausen is in production (August/September, 2008) filming in New York. The film is directed by British director Richard Laxton and written by Brian Fillis.
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