Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Dec. 25 Birthday Worth Celebrating - Quentin Crisp

I'd like to state that by the time Nick and I met him, Quentin Crisp--born December 25th, 1908--was famous. Of course, if he and his mauve hair were still inhabiting this planet, and Lord knows I wish they were, Quentin would quickly correct me by insisting he was merely "notorious."

Either way, at the time I became aware of his glorious existence (the early 1980s), Quentin Crisp was listed in the Manhattan phone book. Despite his notoriety, he believed--insisted--on being completely "available." He adored strangers in general, Americans in particular. 

After reading his witty, wise, and brave autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which I still consider among my favorites, I passed the book onto Nick. He became equally enamored. Not long after, on a business trip to New York, Nick rang up Quentin.

Edward (left), Quentin Crisp, me, Nick, circa 1985
"Oh yesssss?," Quentin would answer. (This is how he always answered his phone.) He and Nick arranged to meet for lunch. When Nick told me about their date later, I was jealous. And so, on a New York vacation about six months later, Nick, our friend Edward, and I had lunch with Quentin. It was the first of multiple, delightful encounters with one of the world's true wits, gifted raconteurs, and one of my personal heroes.

Can one be sincere and highly theatrical at the same time? If so, Quentin was. I believe he sincerely loved being completely open and available to strangers, but at the same time, he rarely missed an opportunity to play the role of Quentin Crisp. For example, during a dinner I had with him on another New York visit, he brought along his mail. At one point, he handed over his E.F. Hutton investment account statement. "What do you suppose Mr. Hutton wants with me now?," he asked, seemingly perplexed. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Why was Quentin notorious? Born in England, his name was Denis Pratt "before I dyed it." Once he realized he was homosexual (his preferred term), he "became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one." To put a finer point on it, "I wore makeup at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful." He "waltzed" around the streets of London in the 1920s dressed exactly as he pleased, in outrageously feminine attire. Needless to say, he was beaten multiple times and arrested. He was undeterred.

In the late 1960s, he published his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which eventually led to more books (most of them delightful reads), a fabulous one-man show, a move to New York, parts in movies and on stage (he played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest). Sting wrote a song about him, Englishman in New York. Several films have been made about him, most notably the 1975 TV version of The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York (2009), both starring John Hurt.

Quentin's thoughts about developing a style that is uniquely and immediately recognizable as yours may seem trivial to some. He wasn't advocating that you wear a particular style of clothes per se. Rather, he encouraged everyone to figure out exactly who they are, and then to amplify that individuality on as large a scale as possible. He believed in being transparent, even predictable, in your style.

One example is worth repeating. When Elizabeth Taylor was married to Richard Burton, the press followed their every move, to the point that Elizabeth even found paparazzi lurking outside her bathroom window. She was outraged, as most of us would be. But in Quentin's view, the solution was not to pull the curtains or build a high wall to keep out the peeping toms. The solution was to "learn to urinate with style."

Quentin lived to the age of 90, passing away during a trip to England--a shame, given how much he loved America and Americans. I miss him. Fortunately, I own a half-dozen of his books, dog-eared, underlined, and best of all, autographed by the man himself.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and thank you, Quentin. You made my life richer in many ways, though I've not quite figured out how to urinate with style.

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  1. Oh, I think he'd be so pleased by this post, even if a bit disappointed in your lack of urination style. My husband likes to pee 'ON' things, so maybe that's a suggestion? (things, being statues, pieces of wood, etc!)

    Merry Christmas from South Carolina!

  2. I agree with JuJu, he would have been pleased by this post and by your memories of him. I love someone that is an individual, who is his own muse and doesn't just follow the crowd. I must admit I had never heard of Quentin until your post, but I love his point of view, "Urinate with style" and "dyeing" his name! I myself would rather be thought of after my death as notorious rather than famous. Notorious sounds like a life well lived!

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