Crisp was an English writer, artist's model, actor and raconteur
known for his memorable and insightful witticisms. He became a gay
icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir The Naked Civil
Servant brought to the attention of the general public his defiant
exhibitionism and longstanding refusal to conceal his homosexuality.
Born Denis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey, the fourth child of
accountant, Charles Pratt (1871 – 1931) and former governess
Frances Phillips Pratt (1873 – 1960), he changed his name
to Quentin Crisp in his twenties after leaving home and cultivating
his outlandishly effeminate appearance to a standard that both
shocked contemporary Londoners and provoked homophobic attacks.
his own account, Crisp was effeminate in behaviour from an early
age and found himself the object of teasing at Kingswood Preparatory
School in Epsom, from where he won a scholarship to Denstone College,
near Uttoxeter in 1922. Whilst in the sixth form Crisp served
in and eventually commanded a squad in the Officer's Cadet Force.
After leaving school in 1926 Crisp studied journalism at King's
College London but failed to graduate in 1928, going on to take
art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic.
this time, Crisp began frequenting the cafés of Soho –
his favourite being The Black Cat in Old Compton Street –
meeting other young gay men and rent-boys, and experimenting with
make-up and women's clothes. For six months he worked as a prostitute,
looking for love he said in a 1999 interview, but only found degradation.
left home to move to the centre of London at the end of 1930 and
after a succession of flats found a bed-sitting room in Denbeigh
Street, where he held court with London's brightest and roughest
characters. His outlandish appearance – he wore bright make-up,
dyed his long hair crimson, painted his fingernails and wore sandals
to display his painted toenails – brought admiration and
curiosity from some quarters but generally attracted hostility
and violence from strangers passing him in the streets.
Crisp attempted to join the army at the outbreak of the Second
World War, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical
board on the grounds that he was 'suffering from sexual perversion'.
He remained in London during the 1941 Blitz, stocked up on cosmetics,
purchased five pounds of Henna and paraded through the blackout,
picking up GIs, whose kindness and open-mindedness inspired his
love of all things American.
1940 he moved into the bed-sitting room he would occupy for the
next forty years, the first floor apartment at 129 Beaufort Street,
London. Here he stayed until he emigrated in 1981. In the intervening
years he never attempted any housework, saying famously in his
memoir that the dirt didn't get any worse after the first four
left his job as engineer's tracer in 1942 to become a model in
life classes in London and the Home Counties, and continued posing
for artists for the next three decades. 'It was like being a civil
servant,' he explained in his autobiography, 'except that you
had published three short books by the time he was commissioned
by the director of Jonathan Cape to complete what would become
The Naked Civil Servant. Having heard Crisp interviewed on radio
in 1964 he was keen to produce something of his in print. The
book appeared in 1968 to respectable reviews. When the book was
reprinted in 1975 on the strength of the success of the television
version of The Naked Civil Servant, Gay News commented that the
book should have been published posthumously. Quentin said this
was a polite way of their telling him to drop dead.
Crisp was approached by documentary maker Denis Mitchell to be
the subject of a short film in which he was expected to talk about
his life, voice his opinions and sit around in his Beaufort Street
apartment filing his nails. The broadcast brought enough attention
to Crisp and his book that he soon entered talks about a dramatisation
of his book starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp.
The successful screening of The Naked Civil Servant launched Crisp
in another new direction: that of performer and lecturer. He devised
a one-man show and began touring the country with it. The first
half of the show was an entertaining monologue loosely based on
his memoirs, the second half was a question and answer session
with Crisp picking the audience's written questions out at random
and answering them in an amusing manner.
1978 Crisp sold out the Duke of York's Theatre in London, then
took the show to New York, where he eventually decided to move.
His first stay there, in the Hotel Chelsea, coincided with a fire,
a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen. He set about making
arrangements to move to New York permanently and in 1981 he arrived
with few possessions and found a small bed-sit apartment in Manhattan's
Lower East Side.
continued to perform his one-man show, published books on etiquette
and supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing
movie reviews and columns for U.S. and U.K. magazines and newspapers.
He said provided one could exist on peanuts and champagne one
could quite easily live by going to every cocktail party, premiere
and first night to which one was invited.
he had done in London, Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed
in the Manhattan telephone directory and saw it as his duty to
converse with anyone who called him. For the first twenty or so
years of owning his own telephone he habitually answered calls
with the phrase "Yes God?" ("Just in case,"
he once said.) Later on he changed it to "Oh yes?" in
a querulous tone of voice.
Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old
age. He caused controversy in the gay community by calling AIDS
'a fad', and homosexuality 'a terrible disease', and famously
commented disrespectfully on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
However he was continually in demand from journalists requiring
a sound-bite and throughout the nineties his commentary was sought
on any number of topics.
1992 he was persuaded by Sally Potter to play Elizabeth I in the
film Orlando. Although he found the role taxing, he won acclaim
for a dignified and touching performance. An earlier cinematic
appearance, in the 1985 film The Bride, brought him into contact
with Sting, who later wrote the song "Englishman in New York"
about Crisp, containing the lines: It takes a gentleman to suffer
ignorance and smile, Be yourself no matter what they say.
his final volume of memoirs, Resident Alien published in 1996
Crisp stated that he was close to the end of his life. However,
a humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to one hundred
with ten years off for good behaviour proved to be a prophecy.
That same year he was among the many people interviewed for the
historical documentary on how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality
entitled the The Celluloid Closet.
died shortly before his ninety-first birthday in Chorlton-cum-Hardy,
Greater Manchester, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his
one-man show. His body was cremated with the minimum of ceremony,
his ashes flown back to New York and scattered over Manhattan.