Obituary: Quentin Crisp

Clive Fisher
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:30

QUENTIN CRISP'S painted face, his tilted hat, indeed the rhinestone adornments, were props in a performance which was life-long and largely unpaid and which took the perilous streets as its stage.

Yet although he was an entertainer Crisp was never an actor and his theatricality was misleading: far from being imitative and insincere, he was consistent, sweet, sensible and direct. His life was about his determination to appear honestly and he wavered in only one regard. He stressed his bewildered passivity - "life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave" - when in fact he was self- sufficient, tenacious and determined, a crusader of sorts, whose cause was the right to be openly homosexual, whose adversaries comprised the Great British Public, and whose colours were the roses and violets of High Street cosmetics.

This wayward campaign began when its protagonist was born - as Denis Pratt - on Christmas Day 1908 at Sutton in Surrey. As a natural loner and auto-invention he grasped early the irrelevance of family life but independence and solitude were not easily won. He was the youngest in a family of four and followed his parents, a solicitor and former nursery governess, as they moved around London and the Home Counties in their struggle to reconcile appearances with insolvency.

Thus prepared by parental restlessness for the later wanderings of a pariah, he turned to childhood fantasy and furnished the games of make-believe from his mother's wardrobe. She permitted his appearance, in green tulle and garlands, as a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and instigated his indifference to literature with her readings from Tennyson. Her attention was crucial, but her approval was not automatic. Thinking to impress with his precocious understanding of suburban hierarchy he announced, "The people next door have got no money to speak of." Her reply - "Money is never to be spoken of" - was perplexing but at least set the tone for a lifetime of financial insouciance.

From a local school in Surrey, he won a scholarship to Denstone College in Staffordshire, where his boarding career would have seemed as hateful as it was futile had it not prepared him for later survival on the streets of London. Still serenely directionless four years later, he took a course in journalism at King's College, London, before joining, as though by inevitable progression, the chattering colony of rent boys which paraded the venal streets around Piccadilly Circus. In those distant days, before the gay cult of muscles and crew cuts, the Dilly Boys saw no obligation to appear masculine: vermilion lips and a hand on the hip were their enticements, ten shillings their charge. Before long, Quentin Crisp, as he soon emerged, found his first employment.

There were gestures of further education - art courses at Battersea Polytechnic and High Wycombe - but Crisp's hair and nails were already provocative and he most enjoyed painting his face. He moved to London and shared accommodation in the gloomier regions, surviving as the assistant to an electrical engineer before discovering that he was unsuited to regular employment and to cohabitation. He scraped together enough money to take a room on his own and thereafter cherished his solitude, which he devoted to the composition of poems, plays and librettos.

He began designing book covers and became a bad but self-sufficient freelance commercial artist. In one emergency, he taught tap-dancing and before the Second World War, he began his literary career with a book on window dressing, Colour in Display (1938). To outsiders it seemed like meagre subsistence but Crisp thought otherwise: "From the age of 28, I never did for long anything that I didn't want to - except grow old."

Years later, after April Ashley and the advent of The Operation, Crisp occasionally wondered whether a sex-change would have benefited him: "I could have opened a knitting shop in Carlisle and my life would have been quiet and happy." But destiny planned differently and as jobs and commissions came and went he embraced his true vocation: in his monochrome world of threadbare respectability, at the bus-stops and shabby boarding houses of Pimlico and Clerkenwell, among the landladies and greengrocers, he appeared henceforth as a flagrant deviant.

He avoided drag because it made him look masculine: he wanted to appear as a man in make-up, to proclaim the innocuousness of effeminacy, and he dressed accordingly. Some may question the point of his campaign but nobody could doubt his courage. Each time this slight man left home in make-up, with dyed hair and heeled shoes, sometimes to be spat upon or attacked, at other times to be harried by the police, he asserted that discretion is not always the better part of valour.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, he stocked up on cosmetics, and was exempted from conscription because of his homosexuality. He frequented Fitzrovia and encountered its inhabitants - Mervyn Peake, Nina Hamnett, Angus McBean, George Melly - and stumbled into an occupation that was to sustain him for years into peacetime: he became a model for life classes in art schools, an anonymous man paid by the Minister of Education to undress, effectively a naked civil servant.

Domestic drudgery at least could not distract him. Forever a stranger to bourgeois standards, he watched the dust and cobwebs accumulate before codifying his conviction that housework is for those with nothing better to do. At first Bohemia, and later the lecture-going public, was enlightened as to Crispian good housekeeping - leave the bed unmade and wash dishes only after fish: "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse".

It was a life waiting to be written and when Jonathan Cape published Crisp's autobiography, A Naked Civil Servant, in 1968, its author stood revealed as a sophisticated self-chronicler - wise, aphoristic and contemptuous of self-pity. A second volume, How To Become a Virgin, followed in 1981 but by then Crisp's life was indisputably public. Talk shows and interviews became routine; a television adaptation of his autobiography, starring John Hurt, made him a household name. More significantly, with rock stars in make-up and gay men on the march, he began to look like a pioneer. At 69, he made his first journey outside Britain; two years later, a frail evangelist, he had given one- man shows across the English-speaking world.

Anyone famous must sooner or later reckon with America, but Crisp had begun a swooning admiration during the war and in 1981, almost 40 years after the GIs had gone home, he moved to New York. Immigration negotiations proceeded satisfactorily, although the official at the American Embassy in London who asked Crisp if he was a practising homosexual was disconcerted by the reply: "I said I didn't practise, I was already perfect." His earliest Manhattan address, the Chelsea Hotel, proved distracting - his first three days there saw a burglary, a fire and the murder by Sid Vicious of Nancy Spungen - but by the time he had secured official Resident Alien status, he had also found permanent accommodation in a tenement on the Lower East Side.

For most of his life Crisp had not done, he had merely been. New York, however, galvanised him and fame brought invitations and obligations hitherto unimaginable. He reviewed films for Christopher Street magazine and contributed to the New York Native. He appeared in advertisements and acted in films - not everyone saw To Wong Foo (1995) or Homo Heights (1998), but his cameo as Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's Orlando (1993) was acclaimed as inspired casting.

He lent his support to Aids fund-raising and in the winter of his life he joined the computer age, frequently receiving 200 e-mail letters a week, largely from older women. He appeared in one-man shows in New York and even in his nineties, when older than Grand Central Station, he travelled the continent with his wit and wisdom, on one occasion being permitted to board a plane without the mandatory photo-ID, "which makes me the only person not only to have seen, but to have been, an Unidentified Flying Object".

He had always been proudly accessible by telephone and when not otherwise engaged, Crisp happily met the curious or merely admiring for lunch, although an enlarged heart increasingly restricted his mobility. Gay activists feared his flamboyance gave their cause a bad name but he was too old now to capitulate to the crowd. His hat and jewellery remained conspicuous and make-up, worn always for revelation not concealment, streaked his soft and sexless skin and lent him the aspect of some senior dame of the theatre.

Sometimes he would profess an acceptance of approaching death, sometimes he insisted he must hasten his end. Sometimes he claimed he was looking for someone to kill him, sometimes he thought he might do it himself. But how? He had never been practical. "I can't throw myself under a car or leap from the top of a skyscraper. It's very difficult - you see, I'm a nancy."

When I knew Quentin in the golden days of Soho, he was a butterfly broken on the wheel of British sexual humbug, writes James Kirkup. But in the end, it was the wheel, not Quentin, that broke.

The best accounts of his early life, apart from his own unique revelations in The Naked Civil Servant, can be found in Barrie Stacey's A Ticket to the Carnival (1987). Barrie opened one of the first coffee bars, with the arch name of "As You Like It" in Monmouth Street, Soho. Quentin was one of the "regulars" - the only sense in which the word can be applied to one of the most irregular Britons who ever lived.

He would carefully prepare his entrances at the "A" dressed in vivid pastels, with brightly hennaed hair, his frilly shirt tied in a bow over his navel, and totter in, in full make-up, as if his knees were tied together, on platform shoes. I adored him from the first day I saw him dodging the mean eyes of he police and skilfully ignoring the catcalls of football cretins on the streets of supposedly "swinging" London.

"I am more concerned with how manners can be employed to cope with, or outwit, the affronts of racism, sexism, hooliganism - and the terrible things people do to one another in the name of love." This quote from one of his best works, Manners from Heaven (1985) gives a good idea of his prose style, pure classic conversational, marred only by an overuse of "that" and "which". It is a primer of wit and wisdom about how to survive in a hostile environment, and how to live your own life in defiance of authority and convention. "Manners are a way of getting what you want without appearing to be an absolute swine."

And: "To arrive at the end of your life thinking, I never did anything I really wanted to do must be one of the most profound miseries the human soul is capable of feeling." Quentin Crisp spent a lifetime getting his own way in the face of insults, derision, violence and humiliations beyond belief. He made his life on earth a work of art, an art that did not begin to be truly appreciated until he reached his earthly paradise, a crammed, dusty bed-sitter in a New York rooming house in Lower Manhattan.

There is something of a zen mysticism as well as saintliness in the effortless way he triumphed over authoritarian idiocy. His saintly forbearing was extended even to the toughs who regularly beat him up. After a horrifying encounter with a gang of young thugs outside Finsbury Town Hall, "Covering my own equally ornate facade with my hands to prevent rivers of mascara from running down my cheeks, I said: `I seem to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way.'" The hooligans were so taken aback, they let him go.

A sense of style was what put Quentin across the most unlikely footlights, and one of his best books is the DIY manual How to Have a Life-Style (1975). He has been garnered into several compendiums like The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp (1984) and Quentin Crisp's Book of Quotations - "1000 Observations on Life and Love by, for and about Gay Men and Women". A large part of this entertaining ragbag is devoted to the inspired sayings of our author - his "Crisperians".

Quentin was against any kind of violence in the "gay cause" and this made him unpopular with many of his gay brethren (and sisters). He abhorred the undue attention paid to the private sexual affairs of practically anybody: "The fair name of vice is now being dragged through the mud by the English newspapers. At first I imagined that this increase of knowledge would herald the dawn of a new day when the butch lion would lie down with the camp lamb. To my disappointment I now realise that to know all is not to forgive all. It's to despise everybody."

I heard that Quentin had not cleaned his Manhattan apartment for 20 years. As I have a very sensitive sinus, I tried to keep my visits to it as short as possible. But the strange thing was, it had a sort of holy atmosphere, which had such a hypnotic effect upon me, I never sneezed once.

Quentin was always angelic to me. When I wanted to quote some pages about myself from his 1997 book Resident Alien in a collection for my 80th birthday, he generously gave his consent: "By all means, quote anything you like out of any of the rubbish that I write. My publishers disapprove of me altogether and only printed the book reluctantly. They may never reply to your letter. Be brave."

In one of his last letters, Quentin told me: "I can't write a longer piece because I have lost the use of my left hand and therefore cannot type. Good luck with the new book." It seemed to me a sign that some sort of conclusion was in the making. I took comfort in re-reading his works, and found with a fresh sense of their peculiar appropriateness these sour- sweet notes in that unmistakable style: "On hearing of the death of anyone I have known well, I have usually experienced a slight thrill of pleasure."

And: "In my view, death is the least awful thing that can happen to anyone." The only time he used italics.

Denis Pratt (Quentin Crisp), writer and actor: born Sutton, Surrey 25 December 1908; died Manchester 21 November 1999.

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