13 remarkable things you probably don’t know about Quentin Crisp

How much do you know about Quentin Crisp? Here are some things that may surprise you. Learn much more in Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, which receives its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, written and performed by Mark Farrelly.

 

Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp

1) His life spanned almost the entire 20th century. He was born in Sutton, Surrey on Christmas Day 1908 and died on 21 November 1999, just weeks before his 91st birthday and the turn of the millennium. While he lived the last years of his life in New York City, he passed away in Manchester, where he was preparing to launch a UK national tour of his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp.

 

2) His real name was Denis Charles Pratt. He was the fourth child of a solicitor and a former governess. He changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties, after leaving home, moving to London’s Soho and cultivating his look.

 

3) He was – flamboyantly – out as gay as far back as the 1920s. “I’m not a dropout,” he said. “I was never in.” Long before hippies, mods or punks, and long long before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, Crisp dyed his long hair henna, painted his nails and wore bright lipstick and make-up and spoke in an effeminate voice. The look was such a shock to contemporary Londoners that he was regularly beaten up in the streets.

 

4) He never had a real job. He worked briefly as a rent-boy in his youth, and over the years, made small amounts of money as a nude, life model. The latter provided him with the title of his 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant: models for art schools were financed by the Department for Education. During his London years, he survived mainly on handouts.

 

5) His diet consisted of the low-cost food substitute Complan. He didn’t eat food because he couldn’t be bothered with shopping or cooking. “I don’t get involved with shops,” he said, and washing up was just “nonsense” – “you’ll only have to do it tomorrow, why bother?” After he became famous and moved to New York in his later life, he switched to a diet of peanuts and champagne, which were both readily available at the functions he attended. “If you can cope with peanuts and champagne, you never need to shop again,” he believed.

 

6) He lived in abject squalor. Cleaning, like washing up, was not worth bothering with. In his flat in Chelsea, where he lived for four decades before emigrating to the US in 1981, Crisp was surrounded by dust and filth. His most famous quip is, “After the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse.

 

7) His clothes were donations. Crisp’s aversion to shopping extended beyond food. His signature fashion sense was created with clothes that were all given to him. He described himself as a one-man Oxfam.

 

8) He was practically asexual and never had a serious relationship in his life. Crisp loved the glamour of dressing up, but he was not attracted to gay men and he disliked sex. According to him, “Sex is the last refuge of the miserable. It suffers from the same malaise as television: halfway through what you assumed was a new episode, you realise it’s a rerun. After that, it’s difficult to remain interested.” He liked heterosexual men and saw himself as caught in an impossible sexual paradox: he was only attracted to a thing that by definition could never be attracted to him. Bar three years when he shared his flat with an almost accidental companion, he lived alone all of his adult life. Despite his many wise observations on relationships, he admitted, “I’ve never been in love and clearly do not know what the expression means.”

 

9) He was rejected by the British Army during the Second World War. After war broke out in 1939, Crisp attempted to join the army to fight, but on examination, the Army medical board exempted him due to his “sexual perversion”. “I am a homosexual,” Crisp said, “but I thought that fighting might be a nice change of agony.”

 

10) He became a minor movie star. He had a small role in Philadelphia (1993) starring Tom Hanks, and played Queen Elizabeth I in Orlando (1992) with Tilda Swinton. Other credits included lesser-known titles like Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers, Men Under Water and Homo Heights. “I make the kind of moves that people watch in dim basements,” he said.

 

11) He inspired Sting’s 1987 song, “An Englishman in New York”. Sting and Crisp met on the set of the 1985 film The Bride and became friends. During a three-day visit in New York, Sting was shocked to hear Crisp’s stories about homophobic attacks in his youth. Sting described Crisp as “a hero of mine” and dedicated the song on his Nothing Like the Sun album to him. It includes the lyrics:

“It takes a man to suffer ignorance a smile,
Be yourself no matter what they say.”

 

12) John Hurt played him in two films. It was the 1975 television adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant on ITV that made household names of both Crisp and Hurt, who won a Best Actor BAFTA for playing Crisp. Hurt reprised the role for the posthumous 2009 American television film An Englishman in New York, which borrowed its title from Sting and covered Crisp’s New York years. Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon played Crisp’s performance artist friend, Penny Arcade.

 

13) He was not a fan of gay liberation. While many consider Crisp a gay icon, he distanced himself from the gay rights movement. “I don’t think anybody has any rights,” he said and didn’t see the need for people to congregate, mobilise and demand them. His reasoning was that, if you just are yourself regardless, others will catch up as and when. He refused to be pinned down or to become anyone’s poster child: “I call no pigeon hole home”, he declared.

 

Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope is at Gilded Balloon, 30 July to 25 August 2014 at 15:00 (runs 1 hour 10 minutes).

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