The death of author and raconteur Quentin Crisp at the end of the 20th Century represented the passing of one of the last grand queens of a bygone era.
Crisp, originally named Denis Charles Pratt, was born on Christmas Day in 1908 in the London suburb of Sutton, the youngest child of a “middle-class, middle-brow” family. Always considered a sissy, he later said he never could remember not being tormented by his father, siblings, and schoolmates.
After studying journalism and art in London, Crisp in his early 20s began hanging out with hip young gay men in Soho, supporting himself with various jobs, including graphic artist, window dresser, tap-dance instructor, and hustler. He adopted a new moniker, as well as a flamboyant, effeminate style that included flowing scarves, platform shoes, dyed hair, and makeup.
Crisp was “not merely a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one,” he later would say, describing himself as “a blithe spirit reveling in androgynous anarchy.”
Openly gay and gender-variant at a time when homosexuality was highly stigmatized, and sex between men was illegal, Crisp frequently was attacked by strangers in the streets, and harassed by police. During World War II, he was exempted from military service because of his homosexuality, and instead embarked upon a career as a nude model at a government-funded art school.
Crisp did not gain widespread notoriety until his 60s, with the publication of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968), one of the first unapologetic contemporary accounts of gay life. Although the book was well-received, it was the 1975 television movie version starring John Hurt that brought Crisp instant fame.
Soon, Crisp began appearing on talk shows. Having created a successful one-man theatrical performance, he took his show to New York City in 1978, fell in love with America, and decided to immigrate a few years later. He settled into a notoriously sloppy one-room apartment in a seedy neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Crisp became a fixture of the city’s celebrity scene, growing increasingly famous just for being himself: “If I have a talent for anything,” he stated, “it is not for doing, but for being.”
Writing a column for the New York Native newspaper and film criticism for Christopher Street magazine, he published several more books, including How to Become a Virgin (1981) and Manners from Heaven: A Divine Guide to Good Behavior (1984). He also appeared in a number of movies and documentaries, most notably as Queen Elizabeth I in Orlando (1993).
Though he socialized in queer social circles, Crisp was unsympathetic to the gay rights movement, and thought loud demands only led to backlash. He held attitudes many younger activists regarded as homophobic. He eschewed identity politics and queer separatism.
“I don’t think you can really be proud of being gay, because it isn’t something you’ve done,” Crisp once asserted. “You can only be proud of not being ashamed.”
Crisp persisted in referring to homosexuality as an illness. He caused a furor when he told the London Times in 1997 that he thought it would be acceptable for a woman to abort a fetus carrying a hypothetical gay gene.
“You could have children who are naturally suited to society,” Crisp later explained. “They would be happy.”
Crisp also once opined that the gay community’s obsession with AIDS was a fad, advising, “If you want to be sure you won’t have AIDS, don’t have sex with anyone.”
Indeed, Crisp was celibate for the latter half of his life. When sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer asked him what he thought about sex, he replied that he thought it was a mistake. He was cynical about love as well, insisting he didn’t really understand it, and he never had an enduring romantic relationship.
Had he lived in a different era, Crisp might have identified as transgender rather than gay.
“I believe I was born unfit for the world not because of anything to do with sex, but because of gender,” Crisp told one interviewer. “I have always felt like a woman born into a man’s body. Had I the money or the opportunity early in life, I would certainly have had a sex change.”
Though his work brought in a fair amount of money, Crisp lived a spartan existence, subsisting on hors d’oeuvres and champagne at parties. With a “lust for small talk,” he held court at a local diner. He devoted time to answering phone calls, letters, and e-mails from friends and strangers alike. He loved being the center of attention, rarely turning down an opportunity to be interviewed or photographed.
In his final years, though beset by health problems, Crisp nevertheless continued to travel and perform. He died of a heart attack in Manchester, England, in November 1999, just a month shy of his 91st birthday.
While some may find his flamboyant style and effeminate mannerisms embarrassingly stereotypical today, Crisp is remembered for being himself—and paying the price—at a time when few others dared to do so. Though he avoided organized GLBT activism, his entire life was a demonstration of gay and transgender empowerment.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.