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Quentin Crisp (born Denis Charles Pratt, 25 December 1908 – 21 November 1999), was an English writer and raconteur.
From a conventional suburban background, Crisp grew up with effeminate tendencies, which he flaunted by parading the streets in make-up and painted nails, and working as a rent-boy. He then spent thirty years as a professional model for life-classes in art colleges. The interviews he gave about his unusual life attracted increasing public curiosity, and he was soon sought-after for his highly individual views on social manners and the cultivating of style. His one-man stage show was a long-running hit, both in England and America, and he also appeared in films and on TV. Crisp defied convention by criticising both gay liberation and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey, the fourth child of solicitor Spencer Charles Pratt (1871–1931) and former governess Frances Marion 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 House School in Epsom, from where he won a scholarship to Denstone College, 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 homosexual men and rent-boys, and experimenting with make-up and women's clothes. For six months he worked as a male 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 dwelling 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 toe-nails – 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 British army at the outbreak of World War II, 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 black-out, picking up G.I.s, 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 four decades, 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 house-work, saying famously in his memoir that "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse".
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." Pamela Green, who went on to be a famous glamour model of the 1950s and '60s, remembers him at St. Martin's School of Art, as “very thin with a skin so white it almost had a greenish tinge”.
Crisp had published three short books by the time he came to write The Naked Civil Servant at the urging of agent Donald Carroll. Crisp wanted to call it I Reign in Hell referencing Paradise Lost. Carroll insisted on The Naked Civil Servant, an insistence that later gave him pause when he offered the manuscript to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape on the same day that Desmond Morris delivered The Naked Ape. The book was published in 1968 to generally good reviews. 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 television drama serial based on the memoir.
In 1975, the television version of The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and US television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a new direction: that of performer and lector. 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 at random and answering them in an amusing manner.
When his autobiography was reprinted in 1975 after the success of the television version of The Naked Civil Servant, Gay News commented that the book should have been published posthumously (Crisp commented that this was a polite way of them telling him to drop dead). Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell claimed to have met Crisp in 1974 and alleged that he was not sympathetic to the Gay Liberation movement of the time. Tatchell claimed that Crisp asked him "What do you want liberation from? What is there to be proud of? I don't believe in rights for homosexuals."
By now, Crisp was a theatre-filling raconteur. 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 on East 3rd Street in Manhattan's East Village.
As he had done in London, Crisp allowed his telephone 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 invitation 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 theatrical 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 ground-breaking books on the importance of contemporary manners as a means of social inclusivity as opposed to etiquette, which he claimed is socially exclusive, and supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing movie reviews and columns for US 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.
Crisp also acted on television and in films. He 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 Shakespeare's play, supported by Helen Mirren, who doubled as Ophelia and Gertrude. 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 poem by 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 door-man of a flea-bag hotel in a run-down neighbourhood quite like the one he dwelled in. According to director Thomas Massengale, Crisp was a delight 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 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. Some other small bit parts and cameos were also accepted by Crisp, such as a pageant judge in 1995's To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. 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 homosexual community by jokingly calling AIDS "a fad", and homosexuality "a terrible disease". He was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite, and throughout the 1990s his commentary was sought on any number of topics.
Crisp was a stern critic of Diana, Princess of Wales and her attempts to gain public sympathy following her divorce from Prince Charles. He stated: "I always thought Diana was such trash and got what she deserved. She was Lady Diana before she was Princess Diana so she knew the racket. She knew that royal marriages have nothing to do with love. You marry a man and you stand beside him on public occasions and you wave and for that you never have a financial worry until the day you die." Following her death a couple of years later, he commented that it was perhaps her "fast and shallow" lifestyle that led to her death: "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."
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 Forty-Second Street in New York City (produced by John Glines of The Glines organisation). A humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to be a century old, with a decade off for good behaviour, proved prophetic: in November 1999, Quentin Crisp died, nearly one month before his 91st birthday, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. He was cremated with a minimum of ceremony as he had requested, and his ashes flown back to Phillip Ward in New York. He bequeathed all future UK-only income (but not the copyrights which belong to Stedman Mays, Mary Tahan and Phillip Ward and managed by Mr. Ward) from his entire literary estate to the two men he considered to have had the greatest influence on his career: Richard Gollner, his long-time agent, and Donald Carroll. His estate at death was valued in excess of $600,000.
Influence and legacy
Sting dedicated his song "Englishman in New York" (1987) to Crisp. He had remarked jokingly "... 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 largely 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:
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,
Be yourself no matter what they say.
Sting says, "Well, it's partly about me and partly about Quentin. Again, I was looking for a metaphor. Quentin is a hero of mine, someone I know very well. He is 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."
Crisp was the subject of a photographic portrait by Herb Ritts and was also chronicled in Andy Warhol's diaries.
In his 1995 autobiography Take It Like a Man, Boy George discusses how he had felt an affinity towards Crisp during his childhood, as they faced similar problems as young homosexual people living in homophobic surroundings.
Crisp was the subject of a play, Resident Alien, by Tim Fountain and starring his friend Bette Bourne in 1999. The play opened at the Bush Theatre in London and transferred to New York Theatre Workshop in 2001, where it won two Obies (for performance and design). It went on to win a Herald Angel (Best actor) at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002. Subsequent productions have been seen across the US and Australia. A film of the same name was released by Greycat Films in 1990.
The song "The Ballad of Jack Eric Williams (and Other Three-Named Composers)" from William Finn's song-cycle Elegies refers to him.
In 2009, a television sequel to The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast. Entitled An Englishman in New York, the production documented Crisp's later years in Manhattan. 34 years after his first award-winning performance as Crisp, John Hurt returned to play him again. Other co-stars included Denis O'Hare as Phillip Steele (an amalgam character based on Crisp's friends Phillip Ward and Tom Steele), Jonathan Tucker as artist Patrick Angus, Cynthia Nixon as Penny Arcade, and Swoosie Kurtz as Connie Clausen. The production was filmed in New York in August 2008 and completed in London in October 2008. The film was directed by British director Richard Laxton, written by Brian Fillis, produced by Amanda Jenks, and made its premiere at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, in early February 2009 before being shown on television later that year.