England's first queen of hearts was always Quentin Crisp - now, at 86, resident in Manhattan, where he is one of the few famous people listed in the telephone directory

John Walsh
Friday 14 June 1996 23:02

The merest hint of a commercially manufactured blush glows on the cheek of Quentin Crisp as he sits "like a Dutch prostitute" (his description) in the window of a cheap diner at the seedier end of New York's Lower East Side. Through the window, on the corner of Second Avenue, a bulky wino is sprawling picturesquely on the sidewalk, as though waiting to be photographed for a record-sleeve, and inspirational, though inaccurate, graffiti ("LIFE is a VERB not a NOUN") shout from the hoardings.

This area has been the dunghill upon which the Quentinal orchid has flourished since he moved here from London in 1982. Today, he is a black orchid, dressed top-to-toe in flamboyant mourning. Most of his elegant wardrobe, he claims, has been the gift of friends and is many years old. But today's velvet jacket ("given to me by a man who came from Durban") is flawless, the swirly black cravat ("from my agent; so is the pin") the last word in chic, the shirt and slacks immaculate. Only the hat ("...a thrift shop on 14th Street") shows signs of wear and tear. You imagine a small nest of bright-eyed blackbirds suddenly appearing through the hole in the crown.

Beside Crisp sits a stubble-chinned, sixtyish, soi-disant "friend", with an air of slightly threatening stupidity. He plans, he says, shortly to whisk him off to a movie house. Crisp seems to have many such friends, not all of whom, you suspect, want him for innocent motives. And it's easy to get him - there is nothing elusive about this British Pimpernel. He likes being sought. He welcomes intrusion. He puts himself about. His is one of the few famous names to have a listing in the Manhattan telephone directory; unknown women phone him at 6am to ask his advice about shades of lipstick. He is a neighbourhood mascot. "Well, of course they know me. I've lived here for 15 years and am not inconspicuous. They call me by my Christian name. They tell me their life story while waiting for the traffic lights to change. There's a beggar who" (he searches for the word) "occupies this part of the street, who puts his arm round me whenever he sees a photographer."

He lives on East 5th street, where Jack Kerouac used to visit Allen Ginsberg, in a one-room $75- a-week bedsit with a chair, a bed, a stove, a fridge, two television sets (more gifts), negligible supplies of food (he has never had any money), piles of dust and an all-pervading smell of disintegration. His days do not fall into the usual routines of the elderly. He rises, checks his mail, "reconstructs" his face, spends a lot of thought on the day's outfit, and parades down the street to sit in his coffee house window and wait to be lionised. In the evenings, people known and unknown to him will whisk him away to dubious soirees involving Ms Penny Arcade, the angry lesbian comedian, or visiting exotics such as James Kirkup. He claims never to turn down any invitation, lest the supply should dry up.

Why do people come up and talk to him? "Because anyone who has been on television more than twice wears in public an expression of fatuous affability; I always look glad to be there." But whom do they think they are talking to? The point about Mr Crisp, of course, is that he is an existentialist puzzle, a man famous purely for being himself - not for any achievement, or creation, or position held or trophy won, or even any scandal survived. Mr Crisp has been himself for 86 years and the ordinary trajectories of fame and fortune have passed him by. His lifetime CV yields little in the way of career path beyond his having been a life-class nude model, an occasional film extra, and something in a travel operation called RSVP Cruises. But since his life of mild outrage in slap and chiffon was dramatised by John Hurt in The Naked Civil Servant, filmed for television in 1975, he has been transformed. Stage appearances and TV chat-shows changed Mr Crisp from a mere icon of exotic queeniness into a sage, a wit, a verbal epateur. His opinions, on everything from geopolitics to charisma, are sought by audiences across the States. But he calls his own media success "the survival of the glibbest" and deprecates the idea that he has anything important to contribute.

Would he call himself a vain man? "Yes, I think so," he says in his drawling, nasal monotone, "but vanity has changed its meaning. It once meant emptiness. To do a thing in vain meant it was useless. It has come to mean conceited. So I am, in a strange sense, vain because I'm hollow."

Since 1990 he has kept a diary of his experiences. It's published next week, and chronicles a dizzying round of parties, seedy happenings in avant-garde lofts, off-Broadway first nights, PR launches (he once told Jay Leno, the chat show host, that it was perfectly possible to live only on white wine and peanuts) and endless travelling to address conventions, gay clubs and film audiences. Interspersed with this bewildering schedule is a blizzard of reflections on life, some clever ("The only way to improve gay relations with the straight world would be to refrain from talking about sex for a long time to come"), some very silly ("A man cannot be considered handsome unless his neck is thicker than his head").

The Crisp who emerges in these pages is a hopeless naif who politely refers to everyone as "Mr Sting" or "Miss Streep", has no interest in music, nature, fashion, books, the news or the natural world, and exists only to be talked to and shown things, rather in the spirit of Andy Warhol.

He was born in Carshalton, Surrey, in 1910 and remembers a sand-and-wasps picnic on the south coast, when he was eight, which he spent listening to gunfire across the Channel. It was a miserable time for the young Dennis (Quentin was a later affectation). His father was a lawyer "and was deeply in debt. I know now that when my sister and my older brother were born, there were bailiffs in the house, to make sure you didn't creep out of the house with the grand piano and sell it. I was the youngest of four..." His eyes suddenly ignite. "That was why my father hated me so much - I was an added expense."

Did his father realise his son was gay? "He couldn't not have known. Mind you, the word `homosexual' was never used. I was a sissy, or a pansy or a fairy. And I was, always. People say, `When did you come out?' - well I was never in. I was waltzing around the house in clothes I'd found in the attic belonging to my mother or grandmother, saying `Today I'm a beautiful princess...' What my parents thought, I cannot imagine."

One small canard about Quentin is the idea that he is a transvestite. In fact, he has only worn women's clothing once, and was dismayed by how masculine it made him look (the ankles, apparently). Instead, he has always dressed as an uber-dandy, courting revulsion through frock-coats and foulard scarves and that look of sharp- nosed hauteur that made Kenneth Williams the nation's favourite "sissy". It's possible that people were confused by the maquillage - the blue hair, the eyeliner, the lip gloss and nail varnish. He doesn't wear nail varnish any more. "When you're young and your hands look like the hands of a mannequin in Swan & Edgar's window, it's all right. But when you're old and your hands look like that" - he extends long, bony fingers in a turkey claw - "you don't draw attention to them."

He's always been a stickler for good manners. Did Americans have any? "Oh, yes. The English have etiquette, which is a process of exclusion - if you don't know how to eat an artichoke, you're obviously not one of us. Americans have manners, which is a process of inclusion. When you're with an American you can do no wrong. I like the way they want you to want something so they can give it to you." He is a fan of Mr Clinton's "beautiful face, though I think he lacks diplomacy. When he got to the White House he thought there was a divine right of presidents, and there is none. In England, you appoint the Cabinet and can be surrounded by your friends. In America, you can be surrounded by your enemies." He shudders.

Crisp's relations with the American gay community are far from cordial. He is too old-style camp, he says, too bouffant and retrograde to be approved of in the clone zones of San Francisco and Greenwich Village. He's an embarrassing throwback, and an argumentative one. "They thought [in San Francisco] I was someone who went through the length and breadth of the land delivering manifestos. But, I said, I am hired and my function is to sell theatre tickets and as far as I know the average theatregoer throughout the world is a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a broken heart, and it's to them I speak."

Do you ever wonder, Quentin (I said), if you made a ghastly blunder all those years ago and left for the wrong continent? For there is no more obvious example of Eurocamp than Mr Crisp. Is he not the classic flaneur of the Paris boulevards, the knock-'em-dead show-off of the early evening Milanese passeggiata? Should he not be walking on the Riviera with straw hat and Pomeranian, alongside the shades of Beerbohm, Maugham and Stephen Tennant?

Typically, he has never entertained the idea for a minute. "I've never actually been to the Continong," he says with reedy distaste. "Because I speak no languages. I don't like Continentals. In fact [plaintively] I don't like foreigners at all. The French are the most annoying. They think music belongs to them. They're the kind of people who take your hands and say, `Oh what beautiful hands, you're obviously an artist,' and they go on like that until you could kill them."

As we draw to a close, it's clear that something has gone wrong with Quentin's friend. Some kind of photographer, he has been showing examples of his specialised work to another photographer in the cafe. It features shots of engorged penises transfixed by sharp objects - rings, jewels, miniature assegais. The photographer has fled, followed by the SM fan. Not for the first time, it crosses your mind: will Quentin be all right? Is it safe to leave this infinitely patient, infinitely gentle, absurdly trusting, childish octogenarian, in his Reservoir Bitch get-up, to the mercy of his opportunistic street acquaintances? A pang crosses your heart and, like the Ancient Mariner with the water snakes, you bless him unawares.

Why do you do it? you ask. Why do you hang out with these awful people?

"Because I'm invited."

But couldn't you just once say, `No, bugger off, I don't know you, I'm staying in tonight?'

Mr Crisp looks positively coy.

"Oh," he says faintly, "I couldn't possibly say a thing like that"

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in