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Quentin Crisp 1908-1999
 


Country : Sutton, Surrey, England
Profession : Actor, Author
Date of birth : 1908-12-25
Date of death : 1999-11-21
Cause of Death : Natural causes

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Quentin Crisp (25 December 1908(1908-12-25) – 21 November 1999), born Denis Charles Pratt, was an English writer and raconteur. 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 remain in the closet.

Early life

Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey, the fourth child of solicitor Charles Pratt (1871 – 1931) and former governess Frances 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.

By 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. 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 the Regent Street Polytechnic.

Around this time, Crisp began visiting 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 finding only degradation.

Crisp left home to move to the centre of London at the end of 1930 and, after living in a succession of flats, found a bed-sitting room in Denbigh 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.

Middle years

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.

In 1940 he moved into the bed-sitting room he would occupy for the next forty years, the first floor apartment at 129 Beaufort Street. Here he stayed until he emigrated to the United States 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 years.

He 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 were naked.'

Crisp had published three short books by the time he came to write the Naked Civil Servant at the urging of then-agent Donald Carroll. After the work was completed, Quentin wanted to call it 'My Reign in Hell' but Carroll insisted on The Naked Civil Servant (an insistence that later gave him pause when he offered the manuscript to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape on the same day that Desmond Morris delivered The Naked Ape). The book was published in 1968 to generally good reviews. Subsequently, 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 flat filing his nails. This broadcast brought enough attention to Crisp and his book that he soon entered talks about a dramatisation.

Fame

In 1975 The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and American television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a 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.

When his autobiography 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 them telling him to drop dead.

Crisp, now a theatre-filling raconteur, made his debut as a film actor in the Royal College of Art's low-budget production of Hamlet (1976). Crisp played Polonius in the 65-minute adaptation of one of Shakespeare's greatest works, supported by Helen Mirren, who doubled as Ophelia and Gertrude.

His one-man show sold out the Duke of York's Theatre in London in 1978. Crisp then took the show to New York. His first stay in the Hotel Chelsea coincided with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen. Crisp decided to move to New York permanently and set about making arrangements. In 1981 he arrived with few possessions and found a small apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

As he had done in London, Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed in the 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, Lord?" ("Just in case," he once said.) Later on he changed it to "Oh yes?" in a querulous tone of voice. His openness to strangers extended to accepting dinner invitations from almost anyone. While it was expected that the inviter would pay for dinner, Crisp did his best to "sing for his supper" by regaling his hosts with wonderful stories and yarns much as he did in his theatre performances. Dinner with him was said to be one of the best shows in New York.

He continued to perform his one-man show, published groundbreaking books on the importance of contemporary manners as a means of social inclusivity as opposed to etiquette, which he claimed is socially exclusive, and supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing movie reviews and columns for U.S. and U.K. magazines and newspapers. He said that 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.

Crisp also acted on television and in films. He appeared in the 1985 film The Bride, which brought him into contact with Sting, who played the lead role of Baron Frankenstein. He appeared on the television show The Equalizer in the 1987 episode "First Light" and as the narrator of director Richard Kwietniowski's short film Ballad of Reading Gaol (1988), based on the immortal poem by Crisp's seminal forefather, Oscar Wilde. Four years later he was cast in a lead role, and got top billing, in the low-budget independent film Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers, playing the doorman of a fleabag hotel in a rundown neighborhood quite like the one he lived in. According to director Thomas Massengale, Crisp was delightful to work with.

The 1990s would prove to be his most prolific decade as an actor as more and more directors offered him roles. In 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. Crisp next had an uncredited cameo in the controversial 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. Crisp's last role was in an independent film called American Mod (1999), and his last full-feature movie was HomoHeights (also released as Happy Heights) (1996). He was chosen by Channel 4 to deliver the first "Alternative Christmas Speech", a counterpoint to the Queen's Christmas speech, in 1993.

Last years

Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old age. He caused controversy and confusion in the gay community by jokingly calling AIDS 'a fad', and homosexuality 'a terrible disease', and famously commented on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: "She could have been Queen of England [sic] – and she was swanning about Paris with Arabs. What disgraceful behaviour. Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering." (Atlanta Southern Voice, 1 July 1999). However, he was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite, and throughout the 1990s his commentary was sought on any number of topics.

In 1996 he was among the many people interviewed for "The Celluloid Closet," a historical documentary on how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality. In his third volume of memoirs, Resident Alien, published in the same year, Crisp stated that he was close to the end of his life, but in June of that year, he was one of the guest entertainers at the second Pride Scotland festival in Glasgow.

In December 1998, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday performing the opening night of his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, at The Intar Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City (produced by John Glines of The Glines). A humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to one hundred, with ten years off for good behaviour, proved prophetic. In November 1999, Quentin Crisp died, nearly one month before his ninety-first birthday, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, England, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. His body was cremated with a minimum of ceremony per his request, and his ashes flown back to New York. In a final gesture of generosity he bequeathed all future UK income (but not the copyrights) from his entire literary estate to the two men he considered to have had the greatest influence on his career: Richard Gollner, his longtime agent, and Donald Carroll.

Works

  • Lettering for Brush and Pen, (1936), Quentin Crisp and A.F. Stuart, Frederick Warne Ltd. Manual on advertising fonts.
  • Colour in Display, (1938) Quentin Crisp, 131 pages, The Blandford Press. Manual on the use of colour in window displays.
  • All This And Bevin Too (1943) Quentin Crisp, illustrated by Mervyn Peake, Mervyn Peake Society. Parable, in verse, about an unemployed kangaroo.
  • The Naked Civil Servant, (1968) Quentin Crisp, 222 pages, HarperCollins. Quentin Crisp's witty and wise account of the first half of his life.
  • Love Made Easy, (1977) Quentin Crisp, 154 pages, Duckworth. Fantastical, semi-autobiographical novel.
  • How to Have a Life Style, (1975), Quentin Crisp, 159 pages, Cecil Woolf Publishing. Elegant and insightful essays on charisma and personality.
  • Chog: A Gothic Fantasy, (1979), Quentin Crisp, illustrated by Jo Lynch, 165 pages, Methuen. Dark novel about the household of a ruinous stately home.
  • How to Become a Virgin, (1981) Quentin Crisp, 192 pages, HarperCollins. Second installment of autobiography, describing the fame his first book and its dramatisation brought.
  • Doing It With Style, (1981) Quentin Crisp, with Donald Carroll, illustrated by Jonathan Hills, 157 pages, Methuen. A guide to thoughtful and stylish living.
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp, (1984) Quentin Crisp, edited by Guy Kettelhack, Harper & Row, 140 pages. Compilation of Crisp's essays and quotations.
  • Manners from Heaven: a divine guide to good behaviour, (1984) Quentin Crisp, with John Hofsess, Hutchinson. Insightful instructions for compassionate living.
  • How to Go to the Movies (1988) Quentin Crisp, 224 pages, St. Martin's Press. Movie reviews and essays on film.
  • The Gay and Lesbian Quotation Book: a literary companion, (1989) edited by Quentin Crisp, Hale, 185 pages. Anthology of gay-related quotes.
  • Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (1996) Quentin Crisp, 225 pages, HarperCollins. Diaries and recollections from 1990-94.
  • Dusty Answers, (unpublished) edited by Phillip Ward. Quentin Crisp's final collection of writings, which will include his collected poetry and script of his one-man show.

Biographies

  • The Stately Homo: a celebration of the life of Quentin Crisp, (2000) edited by Paul Bailey, Bantam, 251 pages. Collection of interviews and tributes from those who knew Crisp.
  • Quentin Crisp, (2002), Tim Fountain, Absolute Press, 192 pages. Biography by dramatist who knew Crisp in the last few years of his life.
  • Quentin and Philip, (2002), Andrew Barrow, Macmillan, 559 pages. Dual biography of Crisp and his friend Philip O'Connor.

Filmography

  • Hamlet (1976) .... Polonius
  • The Bride.... Dr. Zalhus
  • The Equalizer .... Ernie Frick (episode, First Light (1987)
  • Ballad of Reading Gaol (short) (1988) .... Narrator
  • Resident Alien (movie) (1990) (autobiography) .... Himself
  • Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers (1992) .... Pat the Doorman
  • Orlando (1992) .... Queen Elizabeth I
  • Philadelphia (1993) (uncredited) .... Guest at Party
  • Red Ribbons (1994) (Video) .... Horace Nightingale III
  • Aunt Fannie (1994) (Video) .... Aunt Fannie
  • Natural Born Crazies (1994) .... Narrator
  • To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) .... New York pageant judge
  • "Taylor Mead Unleashed",(documentary-1996) Himself. Sebastian Piras director
  • Little Red Riding Hood (1997) (voice) .... Narrator
  • Famous Again (1998)
  • Men Under Water (1998) .... Joseph
  • Barriers (1998) .... Nathan
  • Homo Heights (1998) .... Malcolm
  • American Mod (2002) .... Grandma
  • Domestic Strangers (2005) .... Mr. Davis

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