Our Modern-day Oscar Wilde
The Gender-bender Quentin Crisp

By Ian Ayres

How many men would have the balls to walk around in public wearing eye-shadow, mascara, rouge and lipstick? Even in these more liberated days, gender-benders are a limited few. Most men cringe at the idea of being labeled effeminate. Labels are sticky things. Sissy, pantywaist, cream puff, weak sister...the list goes on. What many people don’t realize is that, by applying these labels, they're reinforcing the notion that men are superior to women. If men and women were truly equal, there'd be nothing disagreeable about unmanly men. Effeminacy would mean as little as being left or right-handed. Being like a woman, however, connotes being foolish, weak, cowardly. But this never stopped one of the greatest gender-benders of the last millennium.

Quentin Crisp, born in 1908, began parading London streets "blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick" in the 1920s; when it was still considered scandalous for women to even wear rouge. Although people reacted with outrage—slapping his face as he stood in line for the bus, stomping on his toes if he wore sandals, crowding round him like a lynch mob and beating him—he continued to apply make-up, paint his long nails, and tease his hennaed hair. He wanted to show that he was not ashamed: "The message I wished to propagate was that effeminacy existed in people who were in all other respects just like home."

A courageous rebel who added rouge to Ghandi's ideals of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, Quentin Crisp has been immortalized by John Hurt in the television film of Crisp's controversial autobiography The Naked Civil Servant (1968); by Sting in the song (and appearing in the video of) "An Englishman in New York"; as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1993 film Orlando (based on the novel by Virginia Woolf). Author of a number of popular books—including Love Made Easy (1977), How to Become a Virgin (1982), and the top bestseller Resident Alien (1996)—he spent the last twenty years of his life touring in his one-man show An Evening with Quentin Crisp.

Considered by many, because of his memorable quotes and penetrating wit, to be our modern-day Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp was also a great pen pal. If you wrote to him, he always wrote right back. That's how the correspondence between us began, in 1995, which led up to our meeting in person not long before he died (a month shy of his 91st birthday, at the start of his one-man show's tour, in Manchester, England) of heart failure on November 21, 1999. I remember him telling me that he had "an enlarged heart" as I helped him into the back of the New York City cab we'd be taking from the Lower East Side—where he'd been living, in a small room he never cleaned, since 1981—to Chelsea, where we were invited by writer Edmund White for lunch.

While stuck in cross-town traffic, my elderly, blue-lidded, rouged pen pal, wearing his trademark hat over his purple-pastel hair, unpursed his painted lips as I pulled out my tape recorder (had this planned in advance) and broke the silence with my request to interview him. In his gravelly, lilting voice, he answered, "I never say 'no' to anything because I recognize that, as I lie dying on an iron bedstead in a rented room, I shall regret what I didn't do, not what I did."

AYRES: What brought about the development of your wit?

CRISP: I suppose I sought to entertain people and did not think of any other way, except making them laugh. I think it’s a natural thing to do. If you’re a conversationalist. It annoyed the English very much. They said, “You talk for talking’s sake.” And I said, “Yes.” “I mean it, you talk for—” I said, “I heard you the first time. I didn’t understand the anger with which you said it. If I danced, would I be accused of dancing for dancing’s sake?” And they didn’t answer. What is the point of talking, except for talking’s sake? I never understood it. But the English are very cross.

AYRES: Many people do fine with conversation, but they don’t have the wit that you have. Do you feel you were born with it? It’s just a gift? Or did you work at it?

CRISP: I suppose I must have worked at it. I had two brothers who went—not to the same school, but—to a similar school and had the same family upbringing, but they didn’t use words the way I use them. And I knew an art master who said to me one day, “I’m ashamed to say that I don’t use all the words I know.” And I think that’s the difference. I do use all the words I know. So it makes my vocabulary much richer than other people’s. And makes it possible to be funnier, wittier, I think. I don’t really know.

AYRES: And you have a different outlook than most people.

CRISP: I think I have the same outlook but I’m more candid about it. You see, when asked what it was like to be ninety, I said, “You are longing for death.” And people seemed worried. But everyone must long for death by the time they’re ninety. Because life is so difficult to live. But I don’t think they would say so. It would be...unfashionable.

AYRES: What does the man in you think of the woman in you?

CRISP: I don't think there is a man inside me. I think I'm a woman born. You see, when children are born, quite often a doctor has to make up his mind which they're going to be, because they are incipient hermaphrodites. Quite a lot of children.

AYRES: Were you an incipient hermaphrodite?

CRISP: I don't know. I shall never know, now.

AYRES: I see you as a symbol more of individuality than homosexuality. Is that how you’d like to be remembered?

CRISP: That’s right. You see, I only happen to be effeminate which, when I was young, we thought that all homosexual men were effeminate. Because those were the only ones we could see. And we now know this isn’t so. And the tide has turned. And homosexual men have to be as manly as they can. I know a man who wears a hard hat. He’s never seen a construction site. But he thinks it makes him more attractive. But, if it does, it makes him more attractive to effeminate men.

AYRES: What about the Pope? What sort of fashion statement does he make?

CRISP: Oh, dear. None, I think. I think he’s beyond fashion. Because he always looks the same. Fashion is an instrument of merchandising. Fashion, it persuades people to buy things. So it says that what they’ve got is unfashionable and they must have a new one. It’s all money, fashion. You see, originally, when dyers couldn’t dye heavy fabrics with bright colors without them running, it said that it would be unladylike to wear a bright red coat in the street. So there were odd shades which were sort of sickening dim shades. But that’s because it had been dictated by the merchants. All fashion is connected with money.

AYRES: Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?

CRISP: Only here. I think they’re here. I think England is Hell and America is Heaven.

AYRES: If there were a Heaven and Hell after we die, what would be Heaven for you?

CRISP: Well, just to be dead. It would be such a relief. Just to do nothing. Lie in your coffin forever.

AYRES: And what would be Hell?

CRISP: To go on living. I mean, eternal life is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Why do people want it? To go on living?

AYRES: I heard that someone asked you about anal pleasure at the end of your show last night and you had an interesting response.

CRISP: I was horrified. I’ve never been asked any kinky questions before. Well, I don’t know what I think about it. I think it’s all a great mistake. Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin. The Seven Deadly Sins are all warnings against self-indulgence. Greed, sloth...so on.

AYRES: But if you don’t sin, how do you enjoy life? Or life isn’t to be enjoyed?

CRISP: Life isn’t to be enjoyed. Except in America. You see, when I lived in England—if I’d lived there all my life, I would’ve never known there was any happiness in the world. Because living in England is so awful that you think: Well, this is what it’s like. But when I got to America, and found everybody was my friend, I could’ve wept for joy in the streets. Because in England nobody shocked me. I think I value friendship above sex. I think that’s what I do.

AYRES: Have you indulged in sin? Do you indulge in sin?

CRISP: Well, not now, of course, because I’m ninety. I haven’t indulged in sin for at least fifty years. But I did indulge in sin. But I hated it. When I dolled myself up and swanned about the West End of London I never thought: What do I have to do at the end of it? And, when I found out, I was so horrified I could’ve gone into a monastery. A lot of women feel that, too.

AYRES: What’s the most striking sexual experience you’ve ever had?

CRISP: I don’t know. My sexual experience was so sordid and so brief and so brutal. I’d only ever known men who walked beside you until they came to a dark doorway, then they said, “This'll do.” That’s all the words of love I’ve ever known.

AYRES: You’ve never had anyone say, “I love you”?

CRISP: Oh, good heavens, no. I would’ve been most embarrassed. Love is a four-letter word...never used in my presence.

AYRES: Oh, we’re following a police car. What do you think of the police force?

CRISP: Well, the police force, of course, in England was very difficult. Here, they’re very cozy. They drive their cars at walking pace beside me, as I walk down Second Avenue, and if I look toward them they go {he gestures} and I go over to their car and they ask me my name, which I tell them, and I say, “Am I illegal?” And they say, “Oh, nothing like that. We wondered how the show was going.” Well, no English policeman is ever going to ask you how the show is going.

AYRES: What’s your most telling memory of England?

CRISP: Of England? Oh, dear. Well, the only thing I remember of England is the people. And how they hate you. And how they say so. You see, the difference is that if Americans don’t like you, they keep quiet about it; if they do, they say so. In England, if people like you, they keep quiet about it; if they don’t, they say so. So it’s really very unpleasant. If I’d lived there all my life, I would never have known there was any happiness in the world.

AYRES: Any cheerful people in England? Not a single warm-hearted person?

CRISP: Not really. You see, my parents hated one another. And my father died when I was about twenty-two. Presumably in self-defense. And when my mother was about eighty—I was about fifty—she said, “I don’t know why I married your father. I never loved him. In fact, I hated him.” And I said, “We all hated him. You hated him enough to marry him.” And she perked up at that and said, “There was that.” So in England marriage is a form of revenge. But of course they never raised their voices.

AYRES: In your opinion, would Diana have made a better queen than Elizabeth?

CRISP: Oh, no! Diana was a wretched person. An absolute horror. She thought she mattered. I can’t understand that.

AYRES: What does it take to be a good queen?

CRISP: Emotional restraint. Physical dignity. An invincible constitution: no illnesses. You see, she doesn’t have to do anything. She only has to be. But she has to be invincibly.

AYRES: How do you feel about President Clinton not keeping his pecker in his pants?

CRISP: I don’t feel anything about that. I think it was a pity that, when questioned, he didn’t say, “I will neither confirm nor deny this scandal.” But he did deny it and that was a mistake.


CRISP: But I don’t think it matters what he does with it. Who cares?

AYRES: Who would you most enjoy having dinner with? Michael Jackson, Elton John, or George Michael?

CRISP: Well, I don’t know who George Michael is.

AYRES: George Michael’s a popular singer. He was arrested for an incident in a public lavatory, in Beverly Hills. Have you heard about that? He was entrapped by the police. He’s from England.

CRISP: Oh, dear. No, I wouldn’t like to meet him.

AYRES: So, Michael Jackson or Elton John?

CRISP: Michael Jackson or Elton...? Elton John. Sir Elton John, I would like to meet.

AYRES: What about travel? Is there one place that you’ve never been to that you would like to go to?

CRISP: Not really. You see, I’m not a traveler. I don’t go to places to see, I go to be seen. So it really makes no difference where I am.

AYRES: Have you ever been seen in France? Have you ever been seen in Paris?

Oh, no. I never went to Europe. Americans think that England is part of Europe. The English think that they are the English and those other people are Continentals.

: Do you watch TV?

CRISP: I watch TV late at night...when the screen darkens...and the police appear...and everybody dies.

AYRES: One last question. What would you like your epitaph to be?

CRISP: People who ask that question think they will lean down from a cloud and count the people at their funeral. I’ve got news for them. They’ll be dead. I shall be dead. What does it matter what people think of me? I shall not be here. I shall be lying in my coffin {he leans back, folding his hands over his chest, closing his eyes} ...in an eternal sleep. Won’t that be wonderful?

Click Quentin Crisp's Conversation with You-Know-Who
to read a very special jewel written by Quentin Crisp in a letter to Ian Ayres.

Text copyright © 1999-2007 Ian Ayres. All rights reserved Used by permission.
Photograph copyright © by Eric Elléna. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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