Quentin Crisp was only 58 years old when I first met him in a West End cafe, but he came across even then as a figure of faded, cobwebby grandeur, already making jokes about being old, saying, "At the end of the run, you can overact outrageously". I remember he wore silver sandals with high heels, women's slacks and a great deal of make-up. His pale-blue dyed hair was piled up into those startlingly bouffant waves that innumerable feature writers were soon to struggle to describe. His face looked both male and female, noble and ignoble, depraved and imperious. In recent times, I have spotted in the ageing Baroness Thatcher some of Quentin Crisp's outrageous haughtiness.
By the time I met him, Quentin Crisp had already had an extraordinary existence. The precise details of his self-inflicted martyrdom slowly became apparent. Born the wettest of weaklings, he had been an impossible child and a monstrous show-off. Perpetually suicidal and ill-equipped for living, he was unemployable, unfit even to make tea - "I would have made it badly," he says.
In his early twenties, he worked briefly as a male prostitute, but was no good at this either. Then, suddenly, he took several steps over the brink and became a self-evident homosexual, "a terrible painted figure prancing the streets", who was kicked, spat at and beaten up. "Nothing can describe the hatred and the terror and the trouble that I caused," he later told one of his many interviewers.
The bedsitter in Beaufort Street, Chelsea, where Quentin had lived since the summer of 1940, was a revelation. His joke about the dust not getting any worse after a few years has long since found its way into various dictionaries of quotations. The poet Philip O'Connor spoke of "that infernal kitchen" and Crisp himself boasted that his home was "a kind of curtain- raiser for The Rocky Horror Show". It was here that he lived off a food substitute called Complan, recharged his batteries and, in his own words, was his "horrible self".
Bare-footed and clad in a dressing gown shiny with grease, which barely covered his buttocks, he also welcomed all callers with great zest. "Rush in, sit down," he might say, then: "Flop about on the bed." Visitors might be offered "a cup of pale grey coffee" or "some old toast".
I found Quentin was happy to talk for hours there, elevating or demoting his circle of acquaintances to a sort of villagey gentility or obscurity by never using their first names. He talked about a certain Mr Flipcroft, a Miss Lumley "who can do no wrong", a Miss Miller "who has the nerve to teach art appreciation". Whenever I left, Quentin would run down the stairs like a 10-year-old, turn on the hall light and bid me: "Call again. Incessantly." These were catch-phrases he used for everybody. Over the next 14 years I called on Quentin Crisp frequently, if not incessantly, and watched as he became famous.
His first step into the limelight came with the publication in 1968 of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. This was widely praised and reviewed, going briefly into the bestseller list, but it did not have any effect on his life, other than producing a regular stream of anonymous telephone calls - his number has always been listed - which he described with some relish as "appointments with fear".
When the film of his book was broadcast in December 1975, with John Hurt requiring five different wigs to play the title role, these calls became more urgent. Almost overnight, Quentin Crisp became a cult figure, "the mother superior of homosexuality" and much else besides. Taxi drivers who had once refused to carry him now asked for his autograph. Quentin took this all very calmly - "I expect to be forgotten soon," he told me. No such luck. In January 1978, Quentin Crisp opened in his one-man show at the Duke of York's Theatre in London, lecturing his packed audience about style with only a bentwood chair and a hatstand for company on stage. After great success, the show transferred to the Ambassador's Theatre. One person asked for their money back. Quentin paid up immediately.
Anyway, he now had other plans. "I can't go on appearing at the Ambassador's forever," he muttered, perhaps fearing a run of Mousetrap proportions. The previous autumn, he had not only been abroad for the first time in his life, he had been to New York, where The Naked Civil Servant had been shown on television. He now wanted to live there for ever - "In America, everyone is your friend". At the age of 72, he left England for good, acquiring the room on Manhattan's Lower East Side where he has now lived for 17 long, dark years.
I have seen little of him during this period, but have occasionally spoken to him on the telephone, which he still answers with the long drawn-out words, "Oh - yes?" instead of "Hello?"
In 1991, he wrote to me saying, "I am now so old that I spend half my time asleep", but this has actually been a time of great industry and expansion. Quentin Crisp has appeared frequently on television. He has done his one-man show across America. He has lectured on four cruise ships and appeared in cinema adverts for Calvin Klein perfume and Levi's jeans. He played Elizabeth the First in Sally Potter's film of Virginia Woolf's Orlando with remarkable tenderness and restraint.
Last month, I telephoned him at his room on East 3rd Street and we arranged to meet. Somewhat disconcerted by a recent photograph in which the be- hatted Mr Crisp looked like a little old witch, I did not know what to expect. What do 89-year-old men look like? Would I find a stick insect?
In the event, it was his feet and legs that I saw first as he descended the stairs of his building to let me in. For a worrying moment I thought that Quentin Crisp, the great stylist, had graduated to the leisure-wear and trainers beloved by octogenarians across the western world. But, no - Quentin was properly dressed in grey flannels and a tailored grey worsted jacket that I later discovered had been given to him by the supermodel Lauren Hutton. He was smaller, portlier, but his great beehive of back- combed white hair was as impressive as ever.
His room knocks his old place in Beaufort Street into a cocked hat. It's smaller to start with and, instead of having windows looking on to a leafy London street, there is only the darkened well of the building to contemplate. It is more like a disused workshop than a bedroom, clogged with possessions, coated with grime. Bottles of make-up, fixative, medicine and, thank God, a bottle of champagne, hog the floor along with a discarded shirt.
Quentin Crisp once said of the dirt in his London room: "It's just a question of keeping your nerve." To survive in his current abode must require nerves of steel, iron and flint. And he also has to cope with the horrified reactions of friends who do not understand his lifestyle. Three times the police have been called, and once he was dragged off to hospital though there was nothing wrong with him.
Indeed, as Quentin settled on the bed and I took the only chair, so close to him that our knees kept touching, I reflected that he looks extraordinarily well. He wears less make-up than in the past. He has the actor's ability to turn it on. His gestures are deft and unhesitant. His head twists attentively and his voice is as full-throated as ever.
And so are his views. He continues to hate Oscar Wilde and Visconti's films, especially Death in Venice. His recent statement that Princess Diana was "trash" and "got what she deserved" generated letters telling him he was "a bitter, lonely old queen".
Quentin's chilly relationship with the gay community is another thorny and long-standing issue. He looks upon homosexuality as an illness and homosexuals as an inferior breed. Some time ago, he upset a Chicago audience by saying that the "obsession" with Aids was a "fad". In America, he says, he has angered gay people but been accepted by "real" people. "And anyway," he adds with some bemusement, "it's now been explained to me that I'm not a homosexual. I'm a trans-something."
Quentin Crisp has been described as "icily unsentimental". On stage and in private, he rarely says the word "love" without giving it a mocking twang. Most people, he claims, are in perpetual torment about their relationships. He isn't. For him the idea of having a best friend or any kind of hierarchy of friendship has always been abhorrent. I have known Quentin Crisp for 32 years but I do not feel any closer to him, or less intimate, than when we first met. "Love of everybody" is one of his abiding aims. "If love means anything at all, it means extending your hand to the unlovable," he says, giving an eerie significance to the fact that his birthday falls on the same day as the founder of the Christian religion. I did not ask him about the link, but I had not been long in his Lower East Side room before he was quoting from Saint Teresa of Avila: "We must treat all people as at least better than ourselves." Crisp's own blueprint for happiness is never to envy the lot of other people.
On 25 December, Quentin Crisp steps on to the stage of the Intar theatre on 42nd Street and, for the following six weeks, will "cast about for something to make the audience squeak". He will tell them how to be happy. He will also, no doubt, talk about death. His own death. He has been talking about his death since I first met him. "When it all ends," he'd say, "I'll get into my coffin and I'll sleep." Suicide has always attracted him - "The last graceful flourish of someone whose style has been completely mastered" - but it might not provide the "significant death" he yearns for. Last month, he declared, "It would be nice to be murdered". Whatever one makes of this claim, it would provide another spooky connection with his fellow birthday boy.
Deborah Ross is on holidayReuse content