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QUENTIN CRISP was the 20th century’s Oscar Wilde. He was a man of extravagant lifestyle and immense wit. Paraphrasing the Noël Coward song title, Crisp referred to himself as “one of the stately homos of England.” Like Oscar Wilde, Crisp was gay before the meaning of the word evolved—and both at a time when it was illegal in Great Britain. (Male homosexuality remained a crime until 1967 in England and Wales; 1980 in Scotland; 1982 in Northern Ireland. Lesbians were never affected by the statute.)
Born Denis Charles Pratt, he changed his name to Quentin Crisp when he was in his twenties. Early on, Crisp chose to cultivate, rather than conceal, his unconventional nature. Flaming red hair, foppish hat and feminine tailoring made him instantly recognizable.
Crisp recognized the importance of being honest with one’s style: “It’s no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, ‘Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.’ By then, pigs will be your style.”
At the onset of World War II, Crisp was turned down by the British army, its reason being his “suffering from sexual perversion.” A lady friend said, “not suffering, but glorifying.” During the war, Crisp worked briefly in an engineering drafting office. Then he began a three-decade career as an art-school model. About this career, Crisp said, “It was like being a civil servant, except that you were naked.”
The Naked Civil Servant was Crisp’s first full-length book, published in 1968 and adapted into a TV movie starring John Hurt in 1975. Though serious moments exist in The Naked Civil Servant, much of it sparkles with Crisp’s wit: “Keeping up with the Joneses was a full-time job with my mother and father. It was not until many years later when I lived alone that I realized how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level.”
On the matter of truth, Doing It with Style advises, “The only time a stylist ever lies is when the lie is so obvious and outrageous that the intent is clearly to entertain rather than to deceive.” In Manners from Heaven, Crisp gives an example of this in the altruistic lie for mutual good: “The lie is the basic building block of good manners. That may seem mildly shocking to a moralist—but then what isn’t?”
Crisp’s opinions were far-ranging, cogent and occasionally barbed. He enjoyed solitude, observing “Living en famille provides the strongest motives for rudeness combined with the maximum opportunity for displaying it.”
Crisp devised a hit one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, and toured Britain with it. He took the show to America and moved to New York City in 1981.
Fame brought Crisp his first movie role, as Polonius in the Royal College of Art’s 1976 production of Hamlet; Helen Mirren was in it too, playing dual roles of Ophelia and Gertrude. Another Crisp flick, The Bride, 1985, starred Sting, who acknowledged Crisp as something of a mentor. Sting’s Englishman in New York, dedicated to Crisp, has the line “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,/Be yourself no matter what they say.”
In the film Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s time-travel/gender-switch novel, Crisp portrayed Elizabeth I. The film, released in 1992 and rereleased in selected theaters in 2010, won several awards and Academy Award nominations.
Still residing in America in 1999, Crisp died at age 90 while on tour in Manchester, England.
One of Crisp’s aphorisms sums up his life of style well: “Believe in fate, but lean forward where fate can see you.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015