Quentin Crisp 1908-1999 25 December 1908 – 21 November 1999
A flagrantly homosexual and exhibitionist wit , writer, commentator, raconteur and actor, Quentin Crisp defied the homophobic public attitudes and legal censure in his early life , through until the UK decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 and the subsequent openness and rise of Gay rights and up to his death in 1999 at the age of almost 91.
Born Denis Charles Pratt in Sutton, South London, on Christmas Day 1908, he was the fourth child of a solicitor Spencer and Frances Pratt. He had a sister, Katherine and two brothers , Gerald and Lewis. He changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties after leaving home and cultivating his effeminate appearance to extremes which, at the time, both shocked public opinion and provoked homophobic attacks.
Crisp was effeminate in behaviour from an early age and he was teased throughout his school life , firstly at Kingswood House School in Epsom and at then Denstone College, Uttoxeter to which he won a scholarship in 1922. After leaving school in 1926 he studied journalism at King’s College London and then went on to take art classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic.
Around this time, in his early 20’s, Crisp began visiting the louche cafés of Soho – his favourite being ‘The Black Cat ‘in Old Compton Street where he met other young homosexual men and rent-boys and experimented with make-up and women’s clothes. For six months he worked as a male sex worker, a rent boy himself. ‘’I was looking for love, but found only degradation’’, he said in a 1999 interview.
Crisp moved permanently into London in 1930 and eventually found a bed-sitting room in Denbigh Street, Pimlico, where he reportedly held court with London’s brightest and roughest characters. He was known for his flagrant exhibitionism – he wore bright make-up, dyed his long hair crimson, painted his fingernails and wore sandals to display his painted toe-nails which attracted curiosity, admiration and fame in some quarters, but with the homophobic attitudes of the time, often attracted hostility and violence from strangers when they saw him parading in public for the first time.
At the start of WW2, he enlisted but was rejected by the medical board as ‘suffering from sexual perversion’. He took a job as an engineer’s tracer, but left in 1942 to become a model for life classes in London and the Home Counties and he continued posing for artists for the next 30 years.
Crisp had published three short books by the time he came to write ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ which was published in 1968 to generally good reviews. Subsequently Crisp was the subject of a short film in which he talked about his life and voiced his opinions, his first public performance.
In 1975 the television version of ‘The Naked Civil Servant ‘was broadcast on British and US television making both Crisp and the actor John Hurt who played him, into celebrities. This success inspired Crisp to take a new direction and he developed his role as a performer and raconteur. He devised a one-man show and began touring the country. In the first half of the show he gave an entertaining monologue loosely based on his memoirs. The second half was a question-and-answer session with Crisp picking the audience’s written questions at random and answering them in an amusing manner.
By 1975, when his autobiography was reprinted Crisp was a theatre filling raconteur. His one-man show sold out the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in 1978 and then he took the show to New York.
In 1981, Crisp decided to move to New York permanently where he lived in a small apartment on East 3rd Street in Manhattan’s East Village.
He continued to perform his one-man show and also published a number of ground-breaking books on the importance of contemporary manners as a means of social inclusiveness, whilst supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing movie reviews and columns for UK and US magazines and newspapers.
Crisp also acted on television and in films and the 1990s proved to be his most prolific decade as an actor.
Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old age. He caused controversy by jokingly calling AIDS “a fad”, and homosexuality “a terrible disease’’ and was a stern and vocal critic of Diana, Princess of Wales and her attempts to gain public sympathy following her divorce from Prince Charles.
Throughout the decade he was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite or commentaries on any number of public topics on which he was always ready to provide a quote.
In December 1998 he celebrated his ninetieth birthday, performing the opening night of his one-man show, ‘An Evening with Quentin Crisp’ in New York City.
Crisp died of a heart attack in November 1999, nearly one month before his 91st birthday in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. He was cremated with a minimum of ceremony as he had requested and his ashes were flown back to New York.