Despite 90 birthdays, aching bones and an enlarged heart, Quentin Crisp's attention to detail, to image, is unstinting. But then he is still in the business of being Quentin Crisp which, despite his protestations, is a full-time job. "I have never worked in 18 years of living in New York," he boasts, dismissing suggestions that writing books, reviewing films and currently starring in a one-man show off-Broadway is work. "My only business here is people. Nothing else occupies my time."
Judging by the constant flow of people who drop by Crisp's table at the Cooper Square restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side (where you find him daily), and those who give him standing ovations in the theatre, Crisp's business appears to have become an empire of a kind. He may not be Bill Gates, but then he hardly wants to be.
He loves being Quentin Crisp; this much is clear from his peacock demeanour, but it wasn't always so. It is only since his emigration to the United States, in 1978, aged 72 that he believes, insists, he has found any joy in being the inimitable Mr Crisp. Until that trip across the pond he confesses to being mired in despair, in spite of his elevated status as "England's stateliest homo". "I describe myself as a happy person now, but in England I was miserable. But then it's fashionable to be miserable in England," he says, watching to see if you agree or take offence.
He then asks if he can elaborate on why he finally found peace of mind living in one room he swears he never cleans in one of the seediest neighbourhoods of Manhattan. "In New York everybody is your friend. In England nobody is your friend. I met an Englishman here recently and he said, 'You're the one who lives here permanently, aren't you? Why?' And I said because everywhere I go, everybody talks to me. To which he replied, 'I can't think of anything worse.'"
Crisp sits back and smiles broadly. It's a conspiratorial grin, and indeed he seems very pleased with himself. It has taken him 90 years, but he finally feels included in a world that always aggressively excluded him. And that, Crisp admits, is all he ever sought since he was born in 1908 and grew up in Sutton as Denis Pratt, the youngest of four children. He spent much of his childhood dressing up in his mother's clothes before getting shipped off to boarding school at 14.
Following school Crisp became an illustrator moving from profession to profession, including a stint as a tap-dancing teacher. His haunt as a young gay man was the Black Cat cafe in Soho, and he did for a time take money for sex before landing work as a nude model in a Government art school, turning him into the "naked civil servant".
Yet his real story is a chronicle of homophobia in pre- and post-war London, where his own penchant for make-up and flamboyant dressing assured he would be attacked. And he was. He says he got spat on in the street, received half a dozen face-to-face threats every day, and then there were the phone calls.
"People would call and say, 'You queer! I'm going to kill you.'" And after the publication of his biography, The Naked Civil Servant, and the television documentary drama starring John Hurt, Crisp became a celebrity of sorts, but that didn't stop the attacks. If anything they got worse. When you ask if the abuse might have been avoided by Crisp living below the radar, he dismisses the idea with a swift shake of his head. "I could never be other than who I was. I was a failure every time I pretended to be a real person."
To sit with Crisp over a cup of tea is to become an audience of one at a play starring England's stateliest homo 40 years on. He doesn't converse so much as entertain you, answering questions with colourful anecdotes he knows from experience will make you laugh. He speaks slowly and clearly, his accent still very British. Though his health is failing, his mind is lucid, his wit sharp as a pin. He seems content on the surface, but lurking beneath is a quiet resignation. His 90th birthday on 25 December was celebrated to great fanfare in New York (parties, newspaper stories, a card from President Clinton), yet he knows the end is near.
"I am at the stage now where I long for death," he says. "I have got an enlarged heart and everything is painful, even walking two blocks I have to pause and lean against the wall." But Crisp does not intend to go quietly. "I want to have a significant death. I don't want to die and have people say 'I thought he was dead'." His ideal scenario would be to become the victim of a grisly murder because, as he has often joked, murder is proof that someone really loves you. "They have risked everything to kill you. It means you really mattered."
Crisp pauses and grins again. He knows the murder by death scenario is provocative and will look good in print, but it's not only that. He really loves violence, be it on film, television or in the news and, as he has aged, he has developed a real taste for it.
"You see, the only emotion we know we feel is fear. We try to feel grief or joy but you don't really. But you do know you feel afraid." That is why his television diet consists solely of police dramas, while Quentin Tarantino is his preferred director on the big screen. Crisp, who used to review films for a gay New York newspaper and the Guardian, still goes to the movies regularly. "I like my films to be nocturnal, urban and threatening. I don't like films about whether I love you more than you love me. I don't like romantic comedies at all."
This seems like a good time to ask Crisp about love, a topic he tries to dodge immediately. "Love is a four-letter word never used in my presence," he says firmly. Prodded, he confirms he is no fan of passion, real or celluloid, believing it too full of risk and pain. He insists he has never been in love either in England or America. "I don't know what being in love means. I think better you should have 365 friends and see each of them once a year. And then if somebody fell out, you would hardly notice."
In the midst of our conversation our photographer appears and gingerly asks if he can take Mr Crisp's photograph before the light fades outside. Crisp springs to his feet, happy to oblige. "Mr Beaton once said about Marlene Dietrich that he never met a person more willing to be photographed. Well, he should have met me." This drew laughter from the people at the next table. The truth is Crisp loves being photographed and interviewed, submitting to all things essential to the upkeep of his celebrity.
The Naked Civil Servant made Crisp notorious in the UK, but in New York, to his delight, his eccentricity is celebrated. This is what prompted him to migrate after his visit here. "Nobody minds you being odd here, because they think it is your bid for fame. I enjoy being recognised and never understand why people dislike it. What is the use of fame except that it increases your social horizons?"
He is not kidding. For a 90-year-old, Crisp has a better social life than most club kids. He receives enough invitations to parties, movie openings and dinners to keep him out every night, and lives on a diet of champagne and hors d'oeuvres. During his down time Crisp stays in and does crosswords, or takes calls from complete strangers who find him easily enough - he is listed in the New York phone book. He says they either want to inquire about his health, borrow money or get make-up tips.
Once a young woman rang at 7am to ask if he knew how to make lipstick stay put all day. He advised her not to eat or kiss anything. Telling strangers how to get through life is essentially what his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp (which closes on 31 January), is about. On stage Crisp ruminates for two hours on a number of topics that could best be summarised as "How I survived it all".
"I have learned how to be happy and that is what they want from me," he says of why he plays to packed audiences, many of whom consider him a postmodern Oscar Wilde. (He does not appreciate the comparison, considering Wilde a wretched soul.)
"They want me to tell them everything about improving their lives. How to be happy, how to be thin, how to be saved." And he does not disappoint, imparting his secrets in a dialect New Yorkers call "Crisperanto". He counsels that happiness is born of style, grace and unemployment. "I tell them never to work. Just be." He adds that one must never look to others for approval or self-esteem. "It all comes from inside."
But why do Americans hunger for advice from a nonagenarian, British, gay bon vivant? Crisp says he wonders about that all the time. "I think it is because there is too much happiness in America. In England where everything is bad you just get on with it, but if things are good you have time to think about your life, and then you start to worry about yourselves."
Ironically, while Crisp has been touring his act across the US to good notices, the only hostility he received came from militant gays. They lambasted him for being effeminate, and excoriated him for saying that homosexuality was both unnatural and horrible. It's the only sore spot in the conversation, and Crisp looks really pained.
"Gay people think they want to be integrated, but they really want to be acknowledged, which is the opposite. They want my act to be a manifesto. They want me to be butch and outspoken, addressing homosexuality incessantly. Well I can't. I am just myself."
In fact, he suggests that if he died tomorrow he would want that to be his parting message. "Be yourself and it will make you happy," he says. "Every morning you should wake up and say: 'Other people are mistaken.'"
WHAT QUENTIN SAYS...
Most human beings wish to plant their whole life in the hands of some other person. I think this is immature.
About Monica Lewinsky
I never understand why Miss Lewinsky has not received any criticism. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, if anyone had caught sight of her sexual apparatus and afterwards bragged about it, he would have been beheaded.
About the differences between the English and Americans
The English talk generalities, usually the weather, because they don't know what they can say. You can't pry; you can't ask about money. Americans will lean forward and say, 'Do you mind if I ask how much you paid for this?'.
I am unable to believe in a God susceptible to petitionary prayer. I cannot imagine that whatever force keeps the planets turning in the heavens is going to stop what it's doing to give me a bicycle with 10 speeds.
About fame and stardom
You can never be a star if you are seen angling to be famous. Madonna can never be a star; she lacks remoteness. She should be distant. All the great stars were remote but that is because in Mr Mayer's day we only knew what he wished us to know. Today the media is so intrusive you can't be a star anymore.
Books are for writing, not reading. I never read, not even what I have written.Reuse content