by Yvonne van Dongen

On Manhattan's East Third Street there is for rent today a one-room $US75-a-week bedsit containing a chair, a bed, a stove, a fridge, two television sets, piles of dust, and an all-pervading sense of decay. Perhaps it will be preserved. Perhaps it will become a place where acolytes come to pay homage to the man whose history was largely the century's history of homosexuality.

This was the home of the late Denis Pratt ("my name before I dyed it"). Quentin Crisp to you, me, and the world out there who first came to know him through his book The Naked Civil Servant and then the highly successful television film of the book ("John Hurt is my representative here on Earth").

It's worth remembering that The Naked Civil Servant was published in 1967, the same year homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain. Not that Quentin Crisp would want to be remembered for his heroic and defiant stance as a homosexual. He always maintained that he never intended to be "a perfumed fist being shaken in the face of British narrow-mindedness."

"That is an interpretation I always try to correct by explaining that, in fact, I was a helpless victim of my nature pleading with the world to forgive my difference from it."

As well as leaving an empty room in one of the last boarding houses in Manhattan, his death will also leave free the window seat at Cooper's Diner on East Fifth Street. It was here Quentin Crisp took all his guests to consume food he freely and happily admitted "tasted of nothing."

He was, I discovered, the most obliging of celebrities. All I had to do was ring directory, ask for Q. Crisp, dial, offer free nosh, and there he was propped up in the window of his favorite diner "like a Dutch prostitute." By the time I saw him in his 91st year his visage and hauteur was more reminiscent of the aging Queen Elizabeth I he played so magnificently in Orlando than a robust frau on the game.

There's the maquillage for a start. Still there after all these years: the black lipstick painted just above the lipline in a cupid's bow, the artificially enhanced red cheeks, the sly streak of eyeliner — and the blue hair, combed in a sugary whirl and swept up and under the brim of his black hat.

My Lord, what he must have looked like when his hair was hennaed red.

"My red period," he called it, which ceased when he turned 40 to acknowledge his advancing years. He had been in his blue period much longer than even he could have imagined. "Yessss." He rolled his eyes. "Too long." He had been longing for death for some time now. Not that he was depressed — just tired, he said. "I want to die without pain and instantly. I want to die so as to rest. Then I could lie down forever."

Over the years Quentin Crisp made much of his love of languor. He told me how as a young child he would lie at the feet of his mother and sister who would be darning or knitting. Periodically they would turn their attention to the young boy and say, "Why don't you do something?" to which he would reply, "Why should I?" This could go on for hours, he said affably. And so it was today.

"I've always loved doing nothing."

"Are you thinking?" I asked.

He leaned forward in a conspiratorial way. By now he was eating old-man Cooper's special: poached eggs on watery mash.

"Think?" he intoned solemnly. "Think is a very strong word. My mind drifts. People have hobbies, but their hobbies drive them mad. They build galleons in bottles. You ask them why and they say it helps to kill time. I like my time dead. People think they should be useful. I've never worked in the 18 years I've been here."

"Well," I said cheerily. "You must be doing something right."

He eyed me oddly and leaned forward again. "Do you know," he almost whispered in a voice part Frankie Howerd, part Alistair Cooke. "The last person who said that to me was an Australian."

In any event, Quentin's protestations were not entirely in earnest. It's true that he had not held a job since he arrived, but he was 72 when he first came ashore.

Since then, however, he had become a full-time, paid-up, life-long member of "the smiling and nodding racket." Not only did this entail attending a giddy whirl of social functions (detailed exhaustively in Resident Alien: The New York Diaries), but he also went on tour regularly. Crisp's shows consisted of the public asking questions and Quentin in reply being "unoriginal" but "sincere." To be so occupied at the age of 90 does make you long for a lie-down.

In fact when you review Crisp's life he seemed to have made it uncommonly hard for himself. Why did he do it? Why wear all that get-up, that make-up, why tog yourself up to the nines, especially then, in the 1920s and 1930s, when even women wearing eye-shadow were regarded as strumpets.

This same man, damned for being so ahead of his time, was, in the latter part of his life, deemed too old-style camp, too bouffant, too apologetic, and too retrograde for his compatriots in Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

Again he did not help himself by saying things, such as when he found out what homosexuality involved he nearly ran out of the room screaming, "It was so horrible," or quoting Marcel Proust: "The laughter of a homosexual is a terrible thing, a spasm involving the knee and the wrist."

More recently he scandalized the gay community when he was quoted as saying that if a woman knew she was going to have a homosexual child, she should abort. Crisp was still clearly upset by the incident.

"The article was cut out and sent to my agent who flew into an ungovernable rage: 'Mr Crisp thinks this is a way to sell books,' she thundered, but I don't say things to sell books. I say them because I mean them. I told my agent that homosexuals have a horrible life. They have to spend time in darkened rooms, in questionable bars, or in a lavatory."

He remained a homosexual, he told me glumly, "but not a happy one." Nevertheless he would have been the last person to look back on his life in sorrow.

"People ask me at my age whether I have any regrets," he said, wiping his plate of the last of the poached egg. "But you can only have regrets if you have alternatives. I've never lived life which was full of why didn't I leave that terrible job, go here, do that. I didn't have jobs from which I would never get the sack, digs from which I would never have been evicted. My life has been governed.

"But," he said, putting his fork and knife down neatly on his plate and adding quietly, "I would have liked to have been the most beautiful person in the world."

As he trudged off down the gum-spattered street, plastic bag in tow, this gentle nonagenarian looked so gentle, so trusting, so sweetly naive that he appeared as neither Queen Elizabeth I nor the Dutch prostitute he joked about. He reminded me of a geisha not because of the theatrical make-up or overweening submissive desire to please. It's the way he walked. Or rather limped. Years ago, in his quest for beauty, he wrecked his feet by wearing shoes several sizes too small.

Quentin Crisp was born Denis Pratt on December 25, 1908, in Sutton, Surrey, England. He died on November 21, 1999, in the Manchester Royal Infirmary (he was in England to tour his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp).

Photograph copyright © by Edgar St. Marc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Text copyright © 2006 by Yvonne van Dongen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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