The old queen speaks out on his nearly 90 years of camp.
A long time ago, according to 88-year-old raconteur Quentin Crisp—one of the English-speaking world’s most visible homosexuals and a man renowned for rarely turning down party invitations—people had a lot more time for fun.
“In Edwardian times, things were fun,” he declares.
“Then, there was more idleness, more time to flirt with everybody, to hold conversations, have great dinners and all that.” Now, he laments, “everybody’s in a great hurry.”
“Fun” is the topic of the moment as Crisp fields questions, and he comments on it with special authority, given that fame is Crisp’s pastime and having fun his life’s work. He hobnobs with stars, appears in films and television commercials, commands stages in speaking engagements throughout the United States, cheerfully gives countless magazine and television interviews, poses endlessly for photographs and makes himself readily available for almost any social occasion in which his ready wit and striking appearance will lend extra cachet.
As he listens politely to an interviewer’s questions and responds with alacrity—all part of his job as someone “in the smiling and nodding business”—he sits in his cramped quarters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, nursing a bad cough.
He’s lived happily in the same cheap rooming house, on the same block inhabited by a band of Hell’s Angels and their Harleys, since moving to New York City from London 15 years ago. That’s when he undertook, improbably but successfully, to remake his life in the United States at the age of 74.
“I was English before,” says Crisp in a raspy voice, articulating his words as precisely and majestically as a prime minister addressing Parliament, or perhaps a Shakespearean actor delivering a soliloquy, “and there’s no fun in England.
“I should explain,” he adds after a heartbeat, “that England is a vast, rain-swept Alcatraz. But America is fun because everybody is your friend.”
Well, almost everybody. Certainly he’s looking forward to his trip to San Francisco this month, during which he’ll promote his latest book, Resident Alien: the New York Diaries, yet Crisp is unsure how he’ll be received there, or how much fun the trip will be. San Francisco, he observes dryly, is the only city where critics ever gave his public talks bad reviews.
The gay population of San Francisco, writes Crisp in Resident Alien, “cannot understand my refusal to be an apologist, much less an evangelist, for homosexuality.”
“Gays have less hold on reality [than straights],” he says. “Homosexuals are people standing on the bank, watching other people swim.”
One can only imagine the reception he’ll receive this time, in light of a recent interview with The Times of London, in which he was quoted as saying he’d support an expectant mother’s decision to abort a fetus if she knew it was genetically predisposed to homosexuality.
“Homosexual life is horrible !” he says when asked about the statement, which he stands by. “All homosexual men spend all their days in public lavatories, and all their nights in dimly lit back rooms behind questionable bars. Do you think you want that to happen?”
Is this a form of Crispian humor? Or does Crisp truly feel this applies to all homosexuals?
“Well, not to lesbians,” he answers, “because they manage to conduct their lives in a more graceful way.”
Such statements may come as a shock to gays and lesbians who became acquainted with Crisp from his landmark 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant—or who saw the television film adapted from the book—and who prefer to see him as a model crusader, holding steadfast as an effeminate homosexual facing relentless persecution and fierce condemnation from society at large.
As British pop-music celebrity Boy George recently wrote in his review of Resident Alien for the London Daily Express, the Crisp of yore was “a queer Jesus for the 20th century, his cross was pink and massive, and he suffered persecution on a daily basis.”
It was in 1908, near the end of Edward VII’s peaceable, decade-long British reign, that Crisp was born and named Denis (a moniker that proved far too colorless for his liking). So, of course, while everyone in England was having such a jolly good time, he was a mere infant, not yet making the dinner rounds.
But never mind that: Soon enough, as he grew up to be the dandy he was and still is, he began applying makeup and lipstick, coloring his hair, painting his fingernails, outfitting himself in the dandiest garb he could scrounge up, and bopping about the streets of London for all the world to see.
Unfortunately, during the increasingly stuffy and tense Georgian times of his youth, England’s general populace found Crisp’s manner and deportment not only un-amusing, but reprehensible. He got a strong sense that life wasn’t very fun at all—though it had its moments. He resolved never to hide his identity even from harshly disapproving critics, who were legion in Britain at the time.
Crisp came of age in a time and place where to be homosexual was to experience extreme isolation. “Long before homosexuality was ever heard of,” he says, “I was swarming around the house saying, ‘Today I am a beautiful princess.'”
He felt himself to be “the one among the many,” and developed the notion that all heterosexuals were his “betters.” Taunts, jeers and threats of bodily harm followed him wherever he went, but he deflected these by erecting a sturdy defense of gentle wit, gracious manners and elaborate deference to almost everybody. He became, as he often said, “one of the great stately homos of England.”
Over time, Crisp became accepted, even coddled, by the mainstream. His style became fashionable. He now feels most at home among heterosexuals and conservative or apolitical homosexuals (he rarely uses the term gay, and then only with some discomfort). His acceptance by society at large has led Crisp to distance himself from his youthful, angry, rebellious persona. He now seeks only to amuse himself and others, not change the world. As he writes in Resident Alien: “I am concerned with the high gloss on society, not with its inner machinery. I am a freeloader, a dilettante, a butterfly on the wheel.”
Politics, Crisp says, is boring, the antithesis of fun. He’s never been political, merely demonstrative. He deplores the way everything nowadays has become politicized, especially the gay movement with its insistence on gaining rights. As he wrote in How to Become a Virgin, the sequel to Civil Servant, “Anyone who demands acceptance places himself in the same position as a girl who asks, ‘Do you really love me?’ Every mature woman knows where that gets her.”
Even now, despite all his protestations to the contrary, Crisp is a de-facto political figure, representing gays and lesbians who seek assimilation into the heterosexual mainstream. He’s an anti-role-model for activists and separatists, a pacifist and the darling of apolitical dilettantes. He merely wants to enjoy life and be friends with everybody.
In this regard, usually even die-hard politicos are willing to cut the funny old gent some slack. After all, this ostentatiously nellie fellow has stood up for himself—and, by default if not by intention, for all queer people—through a global depression, numerous queer bashings, two world wars and the continuing AIDS crisis. Who can blame him, then, if his wit has lost its former bite and relevance: He’s a long-term survivor, entitled to indulge in life’s frivolities.
Crisp very deliberately presents himself as shallow, as a product packaged to please others. He obediently goes where his handlers tell him to go, does what they want him to do. He has shaped his image to be passive and flaunts that passivity daily. When he leaves the house, he says, he empties his mind of any serious thoughts, making himself into a great wide-open vessel into which people feel they can pour anything.
“You know,” he says, “when someone asked Garbo what she was doing before her close-up, she said, ‘I’m emptying my mind.’ That’s what you have to do.”
As far as personal relationships go, he’s thoroughly democratic, opening himself to everyone and giving to everyone in exactly equal measure.
Has he had a significant romance?
“Oh, no,” he replies. “No, I couldn’t cope with that!”
But doesn’t he see relationships as a source of happiness?
“Oh, no,” he exclaims again. “I don’t think a relationship has anything to do with happiness. They nag you all the time! They say, ‘You’re not going to sit around looking like that all day, are you?’ And so you find yourself combing your hair for somebody you already know! It’s absurd!”
Then who are the people closest to him?
“I don’t think anyone is close to me. I spread my love over the whole human race. It’s threadbare, because I spread it horizontally, not in depth. I don’t love some one person more than all others.”
Does he feel that emotion called love?
“I don’t know what it means.”
Eschewing politics, avoiding emotional attachments, emptying the mind, being eager to please, dabbling in pop culture, letting one’s self be steered by others: All these traits characterize art in the postmodern age. Did Crisp deliberately set out to create such an artful effect? He doesn’t say directly, but probably he did, after a fashion. Like Warhol—in fact, long before the artist came along and created his Factory—Crisp set about methodically creating his own persona. He constructed himself from head to toe, and presented to the world an original, initially disorienting, but undeniably interesting and fun figure.
As Crisp wrote on the final page of Civil Servant, as a result of the “wall-to-wall puritanism” of his early years, he felt victimized and “constantly at the mercy of others.” This left him “crushed and seething with a lust for tyranny.”
His real power, he discovered, the weapon with which he fought back against his persecutors, was precisely his flamboyant sense of style, his willingness (to use a contemporary expression) to get in people’s faces.
With his appearance and mannerisms hypervisible and hyper-real, and his social patter spectacularly witty yet artificial, Crisp has turned himself into a walking challenge to notions of masculinity. He has come to embody the height of camp, with its stylized mannerisms and anti-butch, pro-feminine stance.
By caricaturing himself, Crisp makes both an artistic and social statement. As Richard Dyer observed in Only Entertainment:
“You’ve only got to think of the impact of Quentin Crisp’s high camp on the straight world he came up against, to see that camp has a radical/progressive potential: scaring muggers who know that all this butch male bit is not really them, but who feel they have to act as if it is.”
And what does he think of models of masculinity in today’s gay community?
“There was a gay restaurant in New York,” Crisp replies archly, by way of anecdote, “and if you went into it, the only reason you knew you hadn’t strayed by accident into a construction canteen was because all the men looked so clean. But they’d all got pre-ruined jeans on, tractor boots, kitchen-tablecloth shirts, and some of them even had tin hats—though they’ve never done any construction the whole of their lives!”
Quentin Crisp died in Manchester, England on November 21, 1999, at age 90
This article originally appeared in San Francisco Frontiers newsmagazine in 1997.