Quentin Crisp

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Nov 22 08:06:25 MST 1999

NY Times, November 22, 1999

Quentin Crisp, Writer and Actor on Gay Themes, Dies at 90


Quentin Crisp, the British-born writer, raconteur and actor who found fame
at 59 when he published "The Naked Civil Servant," an account of his openly
homosexual life in London, and who found happiness when he moved to New
York at 72, died yesterday in Manchester, England. He was 90.

Crisp was in Britain for a new run of his one-man show "An Evening With
Quentin Crisp," which was to have opened Monday.

The flamboyant Crisp gained attention in the United States in 1976 when a
dramatized version of "The Naked Civil Servant," starring John Hurt as
Crisp, was shown on American television to enthusiastic reviews. In The New
York Times John J. O'Connor wrote that it was "a startling, thoroughly
fascinating portrait of one of those exotic creatures who adamantly refuse
to behave 'properly' in this world, thereby making the rest of us examine
our own behavior to a closer and often more valuable extent."

A resident of the East Village since 1977, and of the same
single-room-occupancy building on Third Street since 1981, Crisp was a
neighborhood celebrity known for his wardrobe of splashy scarves, his
violet eyeshadow and his white hair upswept à la Katharine Hepburn and
tucked under a black fedora. His nose and chin were often elevated to a
rather imperious angle, and his eyebrows were painstakingly plucked. When
he played the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's 1993 film
"Orlando," Village residents bowed before him on the sidewalks as he passed.

He was so well known for the prickly wit that earned him comparisons to
Oscar Wilde that he regularly received mail addressed to "Quentin Crisp,
New York City, America." After a lifetime of being pointed at, snickered
at, even spat at, Crisp learned to welcome attention, even to court it.

Quentin Crisp was born Denis Pratt on Christmas Day, 1908, in Sutton, a
London suburb. He was the youngest of four children born to a lawyer and a
former nursery governess. In "The Naked Civil Servant," Crisp, who changed
his name as an adult, wrote of a tortured upbringing and young adulthood at
the hands of a vociferously homophobic society. But rather than live
unobtrusively, he decided in his early 20's to dedicate his life to "making
the existence of homosexuality abundantly clear to the world's aborigines."

He made a career of flaunting his effeminate manner and dressing in women's
clothing, and for such provocations, he would be rejected and even
physically assaulted. "I suppose it's logical," he said. "I abuse them,
they defile me."

Unable to find employment in 1930's London, he resorted to prostitution.
With his mother's help he eventually found work as a book illustrator
before beginning to model nude in subsidized art schools on a government
stipend, hence the title of his autobiography. "Maybe it's true that
artists adopt a flamboyant appearance," he once observed. "But it's also
true that people who look funny get stuck with the arts."

Crisp performed "An Evening With Quentin Crisp" Off Off Broadway at the
Players Theater in 1978, and it earned him a special Drama Desk Award for
Unique Theatrical Experience.

Richard Eder, reviewing the production for The Times, said Crisp had
offered "a witty, touching and instructive evening," adding: "Despite his
extravagances, perhaps because of them, there is nothing sectarian about
Crisp. Both in words and in his fussy, faintly self-mocking gestures, he
asserts his identity. But what he draws out of it is universal: gaiety --
in the original sense of the word, for once -- and themes common to all of
us: the need for courage and individuality, and the ground of tragedy on
which they are exercised."

Among his books are "How to Have a Lifestyle" (Methuen, 1979), "How to
Become a Virgin" (St. Martin's, 1984) and "Resident Alien" (Alyson
Publications, 1997), a compilation of his pieces for New York Native, the
gay newsmagazine.

Crisp was famous for never turning down a party invitation or a free meal.
But despite his gregarious social nature, he was fond of claiming that he
had never fallen in love. "You can fancy someone, wish them well or enjoy
their company," he said. "That's all I can do with anybody. But when Miss
Streisand sings, 'People who need people are the luckiest people in the
world,' she's being funny. When you need people, you're finished. I need
people, but not any one person."

"A woman in England once told me, 'All people are the same to you.' But
that's not true," he continued. "They're different but equal. I've spread
my love horizontally, to cover the human race, instead of vertically, all
in one place. It's threadbare, but it covers."

He leaves no immediate survivors.

Moving to the United States, Crisp maintained, was his proudest
achievement. He loved Americans, he said, for "their belief that
personality is the greatest power on earth." One anecdote he often told had
him standing on Third Avenue, dressed and made up as usual when a passer-by

"When he noticed me, he said: 'Well, my! You've got it all on today!' And
he was laughing. In London people stood with their faces six inches from
mine and hissed, 'Who do you think you are?' What a stupid question. It
must have been obvious that I didn't think I was anybody else."

As cherished a character as he was by many, Crisp had his detractors,
especially gay men of younger generations who decried his claim that gay
pride was an oxymoron. "It's not normal to be gay," Crisp said, "and I
think it's very weird to think that it is."

"I don't know why gay people want to be separate but equal, anyway," he
said in a 1997 interview. "That means they want to be cut off from
nine-tenths of the human race. 'I have nothing in common with them,' they
say. Why, you have everything in common but the funny way in which you
spend your evenings."

His provocative comments aside, Crisp's homosexuality was always front and
center in the way he lived, filtered through his particular mix of pride,
anger and wit. "When I was coming to America," he recalled, "I went to the
American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and the man asked me, 'Are you a
practicing homosexual?' And I said I didn't practice. I was already

Louis Proyect

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