Quentin Crisp is sitting in one of the downstairs bars in Philadelphia's 2-4 club, drink in hand. He's had an exhausting day. He's just finished his one man act..."An Evening With Quentin Crisp...at the Wilma Theater, a moderately attended event that seems crowded compared to the poor turnout at the 2-4 gathering.
Crisp is on a sofa facing the leopard-stripped bar. Beside him is a member of the Wilma staff and beside her is a box of Crisp's books, ready for autographing. But nobody is buying, despite the fact that this ninety-year-old gentleman put on quite a show, commenting on everything from Princess Diana to Seattle's bounty of lesbians and Christmas trees. Crisp, in fact, is really a latter day Oscar Wilde (he can quote Marlene Dietrich and Saint Theresa in the same breath). At the show's end the audience gave him a standing ovation but before that they asked him questions about life and love, youth and maturity, his sex life (are you a top or bottom?). Better ask him now, in future years the legend may not be around.
Crisp became a prominent figure with the publication in the seventies of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, an account of his life in London when he wore mascara and lipstick in the streets. Beaten up nearly every day because of his looks, Crisp learned to look unkindly on his native England. Today, for instance, he refers to England as "a savage country."
"In England I never felt safe," he told me earlier that day in the Doubletree hotel. "People were shouting at me from out of nowhere, throwing things at me. I suppose it was the way I looked. You see, the English do not like effeminacy. They do not like effeminate women. Englishmen are always saying of their girlfriends, 'Oh you know, she is always fiddling with her appearance and asking how she looks.' An Englishman calls his wife 'Old Girl.' Who wants to be called 'Old Girl?'
Crisp wrote books on lettering and window displays before the publication of The Naked Civil Servant brought him international notoriety. Though movie options for the book failed, it's transformation into a PBS teledrama brought it into countless living rooms, something Crisp says would not have happened if it had been made into a movie. "Movies about homosexuals," he says, "are only seen by homosexuals and liberals who wish to be seen going into the theater but everybody else ignores them."
Crisp's left hand is paralyzed and he can only type with his right hand. The paralysis occurred several years ago in the same month that his literary agent dropped dead. Both were signs, Crisp believes, that his writing career had come to an end.
These days Crisp spends his days napping and doing nothing. He reads little except for the books he's coaxed into writing blurbs for ("For which I am not paid!" he emphasizes). He never reads to expand his mind, and he can no longer write letters or send cards to people. What he does do is accept invitations to lunch...he's in the Manhattan telephone directory. He likes a place called the Bowery Bar because it's plush and because Sylvia Miles used to perform there. Still, Crisp likes his food bland; he wants food to taste like "nothing."
I've seen Crisp in films and videos for years but when I first saw him in person at the Doubletree I was struck by his tiny, demur frame. Old age, of course, had transformed his much larger film image into the frail visage of a sparrow. I immediately wanted to protect him; to hold his hand...despite the serpentine harshness of some of his opinions.
At the 2-4 gathering he says he is received favorably wherever he goes, though that is not the case in San Francisco. "I think they thought I was someone touring the length and breadth of the land delivering a manifesto," he says, "but when I never mentioned homosexuality. Their love for me died."
Crisp says he also lost the love of the homosexual community when he said that Princess Diana was trash and got what she deserved. "I don't know how she became a saint," he says. "She was a Lady before she became Princess Diana so she knew the racket. Royal marriages have nothing to do with love. You stand beside your spouse and you wave and for that you never have a financial worry until the day you die and you are photographed whenever you go out...what more could she want?"
He talked about the lonely and miserable life of 'the homosexual' and mentioned how every gay person knows this to be inherently true although everyone pretends it is not. And yes, if someday in the future a pregnant woman aborted her baby because he had the 'gay gene,' he'd understand. Who wants to be gay anyway?
These aren't the kinds of opinions that are going to get you invited to an HRC dinner or win election as Grand Marshall pf the next LGBT march on Washington.
So don't even talk about equal rights. The gay movement, Crisp says, is too shrill. "Anger begets anger. If you shake your fist in the face of society it will react. Why do gays want marriage?" he asks. "I used to think that the hatred of homosexual men was chiefly envy because of their freedom...because gay men were always making love to people they found exciting whereas 'real men' were always making love to people they find thoroughly distasteful."
He says he's been celibate for almost fifty years. "Even when I was 70 I no longer had a love life. As soon as you can no longer be thought of as a boy, you've had it...after that you pay. As I've never loved anybody the way I love money, I'm never going to do that."
During the Q&A at the Wilma, Crisp was perfectly charming, and when he was escorted about the stage, looking like a watered down Victorian Ghandi, one felt a certain holy presence, not quite His Homo Holiness but something else that many old people seem to have. I found that no matter what he says you can't quite get mad at him because you know that his soul really belongs to another era.
"Happiness is never 'out there,' he says. "It is within you. Never let your happiness reside in other people."
He believes this, even as he waits for death...when you're old, you hunger for it, he told the Wilma audience. Never one to linger too long in any one mood or sentiment, he quickly rebounded by quoting Marlene Dietrich on love: "You have to let them put it in or they don't come back."
Don't you just love that line, he says.
Ah, the old days.
Thom Nickels, a Philadelphia-based author/journalist/poet, is the author of The Cliffs of Aries (1988), Two Novellas: Walking Water & After All This (1989, nominated for a 1989 Lambda Literary Award and a 1990 Hugo Award), The Boy on the Bicycle (1993-94), Manayunk (2001), Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (2002-03), and Tropic of Libra (2003). Nickles has written political/social commentary pieces, celebrity interviews, features, book and theater reviews for local and national publications, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News, The Gay and Lesbian Worldwide Review and the Lambda Book Report. He is a Contributing Editor for Philadelphias Weekly Press, a weekly columnist for STAR Publications, and writes frequently on architecture for Philadelphia Metro and The Evening Bulletin. His poetry has been featured in Van Goghs Ear (French Connection Press, Paris). Nickels will write Revelations: The History of Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia, a documentary film on his book, Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (Longshore Films, Inc.). His collection of historical and biographical essays, Out in History, will be published in 2005 as will his photo-history book, Philadelphia Architecture. Biography listed in Whos Who in America, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005.