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
Monday 22 November 1999
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?"
"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.
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