Last will and highly original testament of Quentin Crisp Esq.

A few days ago, the great gay icon of the western world told `The Independent' about life in New York, and what he felt was his imminent death

I MET Quentin Crisp last Thursday at the Cooper Diner, on New York's Lower East Side - his choice. I bought him lunch. He had a bowl of chicken soup and a cup of tea for the grand sum of $2.79.

He lived simply until the end. He was not looking forward to visiting England very much; clearly it was going to be physically gruelling for him. Why was he bothering, I asked? Because, he replied, "they" had told him to. "They" were the organisers of his show, An Audience with Quentin Crisp.

We talked for an hour, about his abandonment of England, his undiminished love for New York, his travelling with the show and also about dying. He was looking forward to it. I asked if he would like to die in England. No, he said with assurance, he would not. Then we walked to his rooming house on East 3rd Street. He was in great pain, he said.

I wasn't permitted to see his room, but we had talked about it. He was famous, I told him, for not cleaning it. Was the legend true? "I'm beginning to tidy it up, getting ready for my death, which could be very soon. So I'm getting rid of all the papers which don't mean anything."

He also said he had written a will. And he meant he had just written a will, the day before. Crisp, who would have been 91 this Christmas Day, apparently knew he was going to die. Probably, though it came sooner than he even he imagined.

Here is how he talked about it on Thursday. "That's the advantage of being 90. When you're less than 90, it flashes across your mind that you will one day die and you are worried or even frightened by it. But when you're 90, you long for it.

"I would like to die here in New York. The question is how to get rid of your body because I hate burial services.

"I don't want anyone to stand in the pouring rain around a hole in the earth while someone says how wonderful I was. I'd like to be put in one of those glossy trash bags and put in a trash can." Crisp knew his body was failing him.

He complained of an "obstructed heart", of eczema - "I claw myself to pieces" - to prostate cancer and to a hernia. He was to be "cut open" for hernia surgery the moment he returned to New York from London. That was to be on 6 December. He had arrived at the diner, of course, looking the Crisp part - rouged cheeks, a flouncy hat sat upon his dyed blue-grey hair, and a flamboyant scarf.

The make-up, he confessed, went on every day though the process usually took him about an hour and a half. The point, he says, was to look more or less the same, always.

"It's important to me that I do, but I think it's important to them too. I mean the world. They expect me to look like this. You learn from English musicals that you can't be too predictable.

"When English comedians had certain phrases, which they always said, and if they didn't say them, the audience said them for him. If they feel they can predict you, they feel they own you - and that's when they start to like you."

It was a bright, sunny day and we were sitting by the window. Occasionally, a passer-by would spot this strange vision of a man, so very old and yet adorned with make-up and eye-shadow, and stop to look more carefully at him.

Crisp didn't mind or perhaps didn't notice. Nobody, he insisted, ever gave him grief in Manhattan for the way he looked. "In London, they would always curse me and swear."

Contrasting New York and London was a Crisp theme. And New York always was the winner. He first visited from London in 1977 and the love affair was launched. Four years later, in 1981, he came to New York for good and never looked back.

"When I was young and swanning around the West End I used to think what a pity it is we never look at one another, we never smile at one another. We're all people, it could be one long party. And in Manhattan it is - one long party." Crisp threw back his head a little here, pausing mid- sentence for maximum dramatic effect.

Crisp had many anecdotes he would use to magnify what he saw as the main differences between the English and the Americans.

"Here is one. "An Englishman I met said, `You're the one who lives here permanently now aren't you?' and I said, `Yes'. `Well, why?' And I said, "Because everywhere I go everybody talks to me'. And he said, `I can't think of anything worse'.

"The rest of the world has the view that Americans are childishly optimistic. And I think they are optimistic, but I think it's a better thing to be. Someone once put their finger on it for me.

"In America, whatever you do, everyone is for it. You say to your friends here I'm getting up a cabaret act. They say, `What will you sing, what will you wear, where are you going to do it, can I accompany you?' In England, if you tell your friends you're getting up a cabaret act, one of them would say, `For God's sake, don't make a fool of yourself'.

"Everybody in New York is your friend. The English have this theory about vulgarity, you must never be showing. Fame in England is a misfortune that falls upon you. In America, it's something you do. What does Madonna do? She does fame.

"I've always been an American in my heart, ever since my mother took me to the movies. When I saw the pictures of skyscrapers, I began to gibber and twitch because the skyscrapers were all the rage then. Then only America had skyscrapers and they were so beautiful. When you see New York from a distance it looks like a citadel of steel and glass, but when you live here, it's a wreck.

"I mean, when you drive down Fifth Avenue, the most sophisticated thoroughfare in the world, your head hits the roof of the taxi like you're riding a horse."

Crisp complained that his diminishing energy meant he could answer only half the invitations that came his way. Mostly he would stay at home. He had a television in his room, which he would watch only after 9pm. He preferred, he said, programmes where someone died in the first 15 minutes.

Ironically, the last three years of his life were the busiest, when he was touring the US with the same show he had planned in Britain. He would have started in Manchester today and gone on to London, Liverpool and Brighton.

Crisp confessed he was left cold by gay politics. "I think that gay people have really gone too far. When I was young, you never mentioned it. Now you never talk about anything else.

"If I were to say that I came here and had a meal and was photographed and was interviewed, a real person would say, `Were they nice, did they pay for your meal, what they did ask you?' But a gay person would say, `Were they gay?' And if I say I don't know, I didn't ask them, then the whole thing would have been a waste of time as far as they were concerned. Quite extraordinary.

"I don't think gay people now want to be integrated. Because you're integrated if you say `I'm gay' and people say `And then?'

"That's not what gay people want. They want to say I'm gay and have the whole room say, `Oh, do tell us about it. It sounds so interesting'.

"But then someone wrote me a hate letter, saying I was a lonely and embittered old queen who was interested in nothing that meant anything to anyone else. And I though about and I thought, `It's true'.

"I'm not really interested in anything that matters to other people," he added. "But I'm interested in people."

So we said goodbye on Thursday. I telephoned him on Friday - I had one more question I had forgotten to ask.

I wished him a good journey and said I would call him on his return. He would like that very much, he said.

`You are a male person, I presume...'

In this extract from `The Naked Civil Servant' Crisp described an appearance at Bow Street magistrates' court in central London after being arrested for soliciting:

"AS SOON as I stepped into the courtroom, I was assailed by two contrary feelings. The first was that here was the long awaited fully involving situation to which I could summon all my capacity for survival. The second was that I might fall on the floor in a dead faint and that it might be just as well if I did...

"I marvelled at the benignity of the magistrate, who himself instructed me in the procedure of the court, and I was appalled by his clerk's bitchiness. He played the whole scene for laughs, turning slowly towards the public, with his hands in the air like George Sanders uttering his best lines. These included, `You are a male person, I presume.' This total abandonment of dignity reminded me of the collapse of Harley Street at my medical examination four years earlier...

"When the police had completed their evidence, the magistrate asked me if I would prefer to reply from the dock or go into the witness box where I would have to take the oath. I chose the latter, not because I hoped to gain anything from invoking the aid of You-Know-Who but because it would raise me to a higher vantage point and, like posing on a rostrum in an art school, lend me a spurious nobility. It also meant that I did not have my back to the audience for the whole of my big scene, which I had decided to play dead straight like Imogen in Cymbeline...

"I forbore to state that the two policemen who had arrested me were inveterate liars. I suggested that they might have misinterpreted my appearance.

"I said that I dressed in such a way that the whole world could see that I was homosexual but that this set me apart from the rest of humanity rather than making it easy for me to form contacts with it. Who, I asked the magistrate, could possibly hope to solicit anybody in broad daylight in a crowded London street looking as I did?"

CRISP WIT

"Keeping up with the Joneses was a full time job with my mother and father. It was not until many years later ... that I realised how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level," The Naked Civil Servant 1968.

"There was no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse," The Naked Civil Servant.

"Tears were to me what glass beads are to African traders," The Naked Civil Servant.

"I became one of the stately homos of England," The Naked Civil Servant.

"I don't hold with abroad and think that foreigners speak English when our backs are turned," The Naked Civil Servant.

"An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last instalment missing," The Naked Civil Servant.

"She was trash that deserved what she got," after Diana, Princess of Wales, died.

"Fancy telling everyone about your homo past and expecting people to vote for you. Well, haven't times changed in England?" on Michael Portillo, October 1999.

"Had surgery existed in my youth I would have had the op and opened a knitting shop in Carlisle," on missed opportunities.

"If at first you don't succeed - failure may be your style," on his philosophy of life.

"Bad luck," on longevity.

"I've outlived my wardrobe I'm ready for death. I just won't die," on mortality.

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

£36000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced SEN Teacher n...

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced TA's urgently...

Business StudiesTeacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Supply Business Studies Teacher...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?