David Benson

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Interview with Quentin Crisp April 1996

Posted by David Benson on February 2, 2009 at 6:50 PM


If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself on the island of Manhattan and, having climbed the World Trade Center, and descended the subway, you are still hungry for an unforgettable experience, take the New York phonebook, turn to 'C' for Crisp, Quentin, and give him a ring. If he is in (and not out engaging in his full-time occupation, the 'nodding and smiling racket', which means accepting all invitations to gallery openings, first nights, and parties in 'dim cellars'), he will answer, in his familiar dowager drawl: 'Oh ye-ee-es?' You ask, quite unnecessarily, 'Is that Mr. Crisp?' (who else could it be?), and then inquire as to whether he would like to go for lunch one day. It does not matter that he has no idea who you are, for he has said many times, 'I like my friends, but I adore strangers.' So he says, 'That would be very nice,' sounding genuinely glad to be asked.

You arrange to meet him at The Cooper Square Restaurant on Second Avenue, a few minutes walk from his boarding house, and where he keeps all his assignations, be it with a television film crew, or just you. It is one of those wonderful establishments with which New York is crammed, where for the price of a Marks And Spencer sandwich you can have a juicy B.S.E.-free burger, char-grilled, with a thick slice of beef tomato, salad, coleslaw, and a vast portion of crisp, hot fries. 'I shall be sitting in the window,' Mr. Crisp will tell you, 'like a Dutch prostitute.'

And he will be. You approach the restaurant and see him already sitting there, unmistakeable with his blue hair folded up under his black felt hat, a man celebrated the world over for his courage, his tenacious individuality, his humanity and, of course his penetrating wit; waiting for you. Don't be frightened: just introduce yourself, get yourself sat down and enjoy an hour, or two, or even three of the most sublime conversation you will ever have. If you can draw the subject around to movies, all the better: Mr Crisp loves the movies, especially old ones, and to hear him quote the lines of Garbo is the nearest you will get to the real thing.

I have met him for lunch in that diner on three occasions, the last as recently as April, and he did not remember me from one meeting to the next. You always hope he will, and you try to jog his memory, but in vain. It is only when you read his new book Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (Harper Collins £16.99), that you begin to understand. The book is filled with 'unknown' ladies and gentlemen, whose calls upon his time and attention he always endeavours to fulfill. He does not maintain a hierarchy of friends; when it comes to his acquaintances, he is a true egalitarian. I am proud to be one of Quentin Crisp's countless Unknown Gentlemen.

My first ever sight of Quentin Crisp was when I was thirteen, in 1975. An article I was reading about the forthcoming television film The Naked Civil Servant, based on his autobiography, was illustrated by a photograph of Crisp, standing back to back with John Hurt in full costume.

The spectacle appalled me. To a boy struggling with a sexuality that seemed to be going in the wrong direction, and who feared that to give in to my feelings would lead, inevitably, to the ignominy of effeminacy, this was not what I wanted to see. Now I realise that what I was feeling was something common to almost all men, that terror of exposing one's feminine side. To see Mr. Crisp standing there in all his glory, flaunting it! I remember I thought it utterly loathsome.

This was precisely why watching the film itself was such a profound and liberating experience. You immediately warmed to the character, as portrayed by John Hurt. You applauded him as he threw off the bounds of convention, and, having decided who he truly was, paraded through the streets of London 'blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick.' But when he was spat on, and slapped, and kicked to the ground by people to whom his appearance was an affront, you recognized their hostility as your own. You knew that you would never feel the same again.

And it wasn't just me; the effect of the film on the world, or at least on Britain, was that it felt slightly ashamed, and realised that it had made a mistake. Meekly, it tried to clasp Quentin to its bosom and make him feel loved, but by then it was too late; the damage had been done. He left for America as soon as he got the chance, never looked back and never regretted it.

He has made only two brief trips to Britain since he left for good in 1980, and had no intention of making another. But when I saw him in April, he was disgruntled. The publishers of his new book wanted him to come here to promote it; and an enterprising man named Mr. Bell had named a whiskey after him. So, reluctantly, he gave in.

Which is how I came to be waiting in the lobby of a comfortable Edinburgh hotel one Friday in June, for Mr. Crisp to come down from his room in order to be interviewed. I brought with me my good friend Kate Lumsden to ask some questions for me. It seemed appropriate, as Mr. Crisp has said that he believes that all theatre-goers are, 'middle-class, middle-aged women with broken hearts, and it is to them that I address my comments.'

The lobby was hectic and crowded with the arrival of a wedding party and a group of Japanese tourists. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, there before us stood Mr. Crisp. He looked frail and tired, not surprising after a transatlantic flight that brought him in at seven that morning. He had a schedule ahead of him in which his every waking hour was crammed with activity. He stood there like a lost child, waiting to be claimed. It is his very passivity, his desire to please and never say 'No' to anyone that propel Mr. Crisp forward, relentlessly, like a paper boat down an endless stream.

Later that day, we accompanied him to the launch of Mr Bell's whiskey, at which he said little. He sat quietly by the fireplace of the Georgian drawing room, speaking when spoken to, sipping his whiskey, and generally nodding and smiling. To the casual observer, it may have appeared that that was all there was to him; indeed, he may have appeared a slightly sorry spectacle. But my guess is he was observing it all and making mental notes. In public he is too polite to demur to any exploitation of his celebrity. But read his journals, or better still, get him by yourself in a quiet room with no music, and you soon find out he does not miss a trick. Here are some extracts from our conversation on 21st June:

DB: I love your book, and it gives the impression of a life filled to capacity with activity, adventure and excitement.

QC: Oh good. Well, it's a false impression, because it covers a lot of time, so there are lulls in between. In fact I try to spend at least one, if not two days without ever leaving my room. Because if I didn't, when would I recharge my batteries?

DB: What strikes you when you read it is the amount of energy that must be required in order to fulfill the demands that the world makes of you.

QC: I am asked how to remain young, and I say 'Never, never work.' And that, of course, is the secret of it. And if you live in America, you don't have to work. You can just drift along in the smiling and nodding racket.

DB: You say in the book, and I've heard you say before that the only thing that worries you about dying is that when you are lying on your deathbed you might say to yourself, [here Mr. Crisp crossed his hands over his chest and looked heavenward like a martyred saint] 'there's something I've forgotten to say, or there's something I never did.' Which brings up the inevitable question: Is there anything you have yet to do that would make your life complete?

QC: No. I am told that you regret not what you did but what you didn't do; and so that's why I do everything, so as not to have any regrets. I never say 'No' to anything; and when I finally did say 'No' my agent said 'Oh Quentin, I've tried to teach you to say "No" all these years. You've graduated.'

DB: When I spoke to you in April you were not happy about having to come over here.

QC: I am not happy, but so far, of course, I'm only in Scotland, and that is easy, because the Scots are very hospitable; almost as hospitable as the Americans. The Americans, of course, are quite dotty with hospitality.

KL: I first saw you on television when my young son was watching The Naked Civil Servant with me; we'd never seen anything like it before. And my son was very taken with it, and I didn't realise why, but many years later, he told me that he's gay. He was taken with your courage.

QC: Well, it is true that in America I've become a national hero, but really I was a hopeless case, that was all.

KL: A-ha, but you're a bit of a guru. You're a bit of a Gay Ghandhi; you've got this infinite belief in people, that they'll be nice to you, and they are. Do you see yourself as some sort of guru?

QC: I suppose yes. When asked to give advice, I do of course give it, because I give whatever I am asked to give. I have to realise that as I am only English and am allowed to live in America, I have to give something in return. And since I cannot build a hospital, or endow a university, I can only give my infinite availability.

KL: You went to New York when you were what, sixty-odd?

QC: Someone said, 'You've come to New York at a time when most people go into a nursing home.' And of course it was true; I came to live in New York forever in '80, when I was seventy-two. And now I'm eighty-seven.

KL: Your skin's still very good.

QC: That's the only sense in which I've been lucky: I have the kind of face to which cosmetics could be applied. Most men when they make up their faces, the makeup stands forward, and their faces are behind. I had a friend who had two degrees of being made up: when invited I would say 'Can I make up?' and he would say 'Oh yes - tinted?', or he would say, 'Oh yes - clotted?'

KL: Are you still using face powder?

QC: Yes. Nowadays people don't use face powder; they say it dries the skin. But I makeup in the old-fashioned way.

KL: I was wondering if you were ever driven by love?

QC: I never really found out what love was. As far as I know, you can fancy someone, you can enjoy their company or you can wish them well. But what being in love is, I don't know. When I was young, I wanted to find the Great Dark Man. When I said that I realise now that people thought that by 'dark' I meant black, and that by 'great' I meant big. Whereas I only meant a strong, mysterious person; someone who would 'take me away from all this.' Because I built my life, my dreams on what I saw. And when I was young, I don't know how, I spent all my time in the presence of married women telling me their troubles. And when I said 'Why did you marry?' they said, 'Oh I married to get away from home.' And when I said, 'And why don't you leave him?' they gave the saddest answer in the world: they said, 'Where would I go?' So they stayed with men they didn't like because they had nowhere to go. Well now you can leave home at any time you like.Your mother comes down and finds a picture of the Eiffel Tower on her plate. And she says, 'Oh! Rosemary's gone to Paris. No wonder the bathroom was so tidy.' And nobody minds. But in my day, to go abroad with all those wicked Frenchmen, what would become of them? So no-one ever went anywhere.

I'd love to have room to quote the whole of our conversation, but it will have to suffice to say that we covered many topics, including Mr. Hurt ('He was born to play victims. When he played me, he then played Caligula, which is only me in a sheet, and then he played the Elephant Man, which is only me with a paper bag over my head?'), God ('St Theresa said, "We must treat all people as though they were at least better than ourselves." Isn't that a wonderful thing to have said? But God is so angry. All that power, and so mean with it. If I were God - and I never understand why I'm not - I should say, "Shop around, I don't think you'll find a better bargain than here." Did you know that Allah promises you a seat in Paradise if you kill a Christian?').

But my favourite answer that he gave was totally unexpected, and should knock on the head any fears that Mr Crisp has lost his mental agility. I merely asked after Miss Penny Arcade, New York performance artiste, who once inveigled me into dancing, almost naked, in her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! at the Edinburgh fringe:

'I haven't seen Miss Arcade since she sent me to Vienna. Don't go to Vienna. Vienna is cold, and dark, and sad. It is laid out as though for a royal parade; the streets are wide and they're flanked by monumental buildings, decorated with the faces of angry gods. And on the roof are statues of national heroes, wielding weapons of destruction. And the trouble with European cities is that they are drenched in their history, almost all of which is terrible. Miss Arcade knew most of the history of Austria, which she told us repeatedly, with relish. You know: Ruthless coup d'etat! Assassination! Betrayal! But American cities are new and free of all that. Free of anything. I've come from a very masculine country to a feminine country. England was very masculine; people went from England to abroad, and they landed from above and they said "These are the gods you will worship, these are the crops you will grow, now go away and do it." Which is a manly attitude. Americans go abroad and they say, "Try not to quarrel so much", which is a feminine attitude. And I think it is a great pity that Mr Clinton sends the brave and the beautiful to settle the Europeans' problems. Because Europeans are quarrelsome. We now know what a wonderful man Mr. Tito was, because he ruled a country with all those different people and he said, "All right, go away and be a Moslem, I don't care; don't make a noise." And they did. But you see, Europeans have quarrelled since the beginning of time. The Turks killed all the Armenians, except William Saroyan (why stop there?), and then when they'd finished with the Armenians they started on the Greeks. Central Europe is full of little countries standing shoulder to shoulder with no window to the sea. They are like the passengers in a rush-hour train which has stopped between stations for three centuries. And they all hate one another. And they're all crushed together waving their national flags, clanking their national chains, jabbering their national language. Albania! I mean it's absolute nonsense. Who's ever heard of Albania?
But you see the United States are a miracle: the division between two states is sometimes a river or a mountain, and sometimes it's a straight line. But nobody says, "That tree really belongs in South Carolina. I shan't do anything about it now, I'll get it back later." I shall go after I am here to London and after that to Potsdam, where Comrade Stalin, Mr Churchill and Harry Truman divided up Europe; and what we see now is the result of that. The Americans would have accepted it. But Europeans don't accept anything.'

So much for Penny Arcade.

When you know someone as old as Quentin Crisp, you cannot help but wonder if you will ever see them again, each time you say goodbye. Though he says he longs for death now, the world will mourn his passing more than he would ever permit himself to believe.
New York won't be the same without him.

Categories: Pre 2009 articles and blogs

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Reply DyenPoedy
11:34 PM on February 1, 2010 
Порно видео! / Free porn video!
Reply Roger
6:06 AM on July 3, 2009 
The film The Naked Civil servant had a great impact on my life. It gave me a greater understanding of homosexuality which is something I have always been greatful for. It helped me a lot when my brother came out, as I was not full of misconceptions as unfortunately so many people are.
Reply Philip Hilton
11:14 AM on March 22, 2009 
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful interview and experience. Quentin is a hero of both myself and Raine's, a recent treasure is a signed copy of The Naked Civil Servant. You are right the world is better for him having been a part of it, There will never be another Quentin Crisp, but there is no need to have another, for he was and is unique.
Reply James Dougherty
6:02 PM on February 14, 2009 
I don't recall the year. But I was startled to see Mr. Crisp walk down a theatre aisle in New York accompanied by two men who must have been at least 50 years younger but dressed very much like the late legend. It was a production of one of Charles Ludlum's plays at a theatre in Greenwich Village. At the interval, Quentin chatted amiably with some members of the audience. He glided by me as we exited the theatre and nodded as if we knew each other. I smiled and said good evening. Several years later, I spoke with him at a book signing in Philadelphia. He was at a gay bookstore, Giovanni's Room, where he spoke and answered questions from the gathering of enchanted fans. Thank you for capturing in this interview this late marvel and rekindling some fond memories.
Reply David Benson
3:26 AM on February 3, 2009 
Excellent description of the man, Richard, and some of the contradictions of his appeal. he was indeed a wonderful man and the world was a better place for his having been there.
Hope all well Kuala Lumpur
Reply Richard Gardner
10:23 PM on February 2, 2009 
Wonderful! Thanks for posting this. I met Crisp twice, saw his one-man show in LA a couple of times, and of course read his book earlier (when I was about the same age as you) and which stunned and depressed me at the same time. As a teenager, the book felt like a devastating attack on the emptiness of style without content. A life contemplated but not fully lived or enjoyed. But I was a teenager when I read it, full of impatience. I think my reaction would have been different had I been older! But he was a lovely man, gentle and incisive at the same time - a wonderful combination!