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Remembering Quentin Crisp

From Naked Civil Servant To Controversial Gay Icon

Quentin Crisp

Words by Laurence
Photography by Ross B. Lewis

This month marks twenty years since the passing of Quentin Crisp, one of the most colorful, complex, and controversial gay writers of the twentieth century. Born in 1908 in Surrey, England, he was named Dennis Pratt at birth. It was a name that was tailor-made for a person who would blend into the grayest of backgrounds. But Dennis turned out to be a show-off. And the show-off eventually turned into one of the modern era’s most colorful characters.

Perhaps in the hope of tamping down his slowly-maturing individuality, he would be subjected to a boarding school education (not exactly known for its tolerance). After, he would take a journalism course at King’s College. He didn’t receive a diploma and so attended a couple of other colleges briefly -- with equal lack of success.

Decades ahead of his time, in his early thirties, Crisp was parading around London with dyed red hair. And at the time, a little too much make-up on a woman would have been enough to fuel gossip of alleged sexual looseness, but, unafraid, Crisp was troweling on the cosmetics, and wearing high heels as well. A flamboyant “stately homo,” as he would later style himself, Crisp was the consummate individual.

Nevertheless, even as a young dandy, mocking convention in his very appearance, Crisp was able to secure work as a tracer in an electrical engineering firm. And he also got a few extra jobs in publishing and advertising as a freelance designer and produced a couple of books on art and design.

Soon, Crisp changed his hair color, like an artist experimenting with new paint. But Crisp was his own art now and, like Picasso before him, he would enter his blue period. (Years later he would dye his hair purple.)

In wartime London, Crisp’s appearance brought plenty of unwanted attention. American GIs mistook Crisp for a woman. And he was frequently harassed and beaten up. One look at Crisp was also enough for him to be exempted from military service in World War II, since, as far as the authorities were concerned, it was proof that he was suffering from a “sexual perversion.” And, when Crisp was assaulted, the police, far from acting as a protector, accused him of solicitation, forcing him to defend himself in court.

Crisp was found not guilty, but the acquittal only stirred resentment among the police, who barred him from Soho (an area of Central London known for its cafes, strip clubs, sex clubs, and, later, gay bars), where Crisp had spent much of his time.

Yet, things were not all bad. Crisp ignored the bombing raids, preferring not to take refuge in an underground bunker, and went about his business as if nothing were happening. And, with most men his age away in the war, he was able to find regular work as an art college model. It was a job that suited him. Being the center of attention came naturally to him. He had made his life into a work of art.

In 1968, Crisp’s autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, was published. (It was made into a movie, starring John hurt, in 1975.) Crisp also wrote a number of other books, including How to Have a Life Style (1975), How to Become a Virgin (1981), and Manners from Heaven: a divine guide to good behaviour (1984).

In 1980, the author and playwright moved to New York City and took up residence in a very modest boarding house a little too low on the Lower East Side to be desirable. He never dusted, proclaiming that the dust never got worse after four years. And he accepted lunch and dinner dates from total strangers, often pointing out at public events that he was in the phonebook and that anyone was free to look him up and take him out.

If not treated to lunch or dinner, Crisp’s food was a thick white nutritional powder that could be mixed with water and consumed in liquid form. It wasn’t the life of decadence that he had perhaps longed for as a youth, but his glamor was, in a sense, an attitude -- a kind of flamboyant Zen. He was, in many respects, a contradiction, but he never hid that, allowing documentary crews to film his dusty apartments and bad diet as well as the more glamorous aspects of his life.

Besides writing books and plays, Crisp appeared on stage in one-man shows, played Elizabeth I in the 1992 move Orlando, and was periodically interviewed on chat shows.

One of the most colorful characters of the modern era, Quentin Crisp died on November 21, 1999. Perhaps he had seen it all. During his lifetime he had gone from being harassed, beaten up, and discriminated against to being embraced and adored by his fans and admirers. He had even been accepted by the British, who seemed to think of him as an unofficial representative of the country’s peculiar ability to produce eccentrics. But as Crisp himself noted in The Naked Civil Servant, “In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast.”