QUENTIN CRISP: QUAINTLY QUEER
The late, great, queer trailblazer, Quentin Crisp offers The Last Word, the third and final installment of his autobiography. Marc Andrews reviews the book and recalls the night he was Quentin’s date.
The late, great, queer trailblazer Quentin Crisp offers The Last Word in the third and final installment of his autobiography.
Quentin Crisp was many things – a homosexual provocateur, a flamboyant dandy, a delicious raconteur, a nude model, a book designer, a film actor – he even dabbled in prostitution in his early years. He was queer before it cool. But it’s for being his own truly fabulous and one-of-a-kind creation that he is best remembered.
Last November saw the publication of the third and final installment of Quentin’s autobiography, which coincided with his passing, 18 years ago on November 21, 1999.
Written with the help of his friend, Phillip Ward who tape-recorded and later transcribed Quentin’s words in the last three years of his life, it follows the first two installments, The Naked Civil Servant and How To Become A Virgin. In the movie versions (both of which are terrific viewing), Quentin was played by Oscar-nominated actor John Hurt who, himself, passed away in January last year.
Quentin’s fame sprung from the fact that, as he often stated, he was simply born years ahead of his time. Coming of age in London just after World War I, and then becoming a man as the world went to war again in 1939, he was openly homosexual, a crusader before there was even a gay liberation movement.
After World War II, at a time when being homosexual was highly illegal, Quentin didn’t just rebel against authority, he threw himself in the face of his oppressors. He painted his nails, coloured his hair and wore outrageous clothes. In another era, Quentin would most likely have been given a recording contract and become a huge pop star (hello natural successor, Boy George!) or today have been a famous reality star or Instagram influencer. As it was, he sagely chronicled his bawdy, tawdry and aweinspiring adventures into the 1968 book The Naked Civil Servant, published a year after homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK. A TV movie adaptation became a sensation in 1975 and Quentin, who was never short of a glib quote or a bitchy put-down, become an in-demand media darling. The times had, indeed, changed.
Hurt reprised his role as Quentin in 2009’s An Englishman In New York, which focused on the new life he created for himself as an “illegal alien” in the US after moving there at the ripe old age of 72. The title of the movie came from a 1987 pop hit by Sting about Quentin. He even appeared in the singer’s music video, bringing him to the attention of the burgeoning MTV generation, though many people assumed Quentin was actually a woman, as he humorously details in The Last Word.
For the latter decades of his life Quentin toured the world as a raconteur with his oneman show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp that won him awards and fans. He found time to write books on style, culture and manners and appeared in over 20 movies, most famously >>
>> dragging up as Queen Elizabeth I in 1992’s Orlando opposite Tilda Swinton. A year later in 1993 he became the first-ever presenter of Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message in the UK in opposition to Queen Elizabeth II. Yet, for all of his eccentric charm and mediasavvy declarations, and although he was very much ahead of his time, the times eventually caught up with him. When gay liberation became a given, some of Quentin’s views began to seem a little old hat and, worse, verging on self-loathing.
He was roundly criticized by many in the gay community for his acid tongue, especially when he torched his own, or those who were on our side. He muttered sniffilly that Princess Diana “got what she deserved,” off-handedly and half-jokingly referred to AIDS as “a fad” and managed to get everyone off side by declaring homosexuality “a terrible disease”. While he probably enjoyed the attention his controversial, and very quotable, bon mots received, it’s unlikely Quentin was doing anything more than continuing his illustrious career as an agent provocateur.
And now we are left with The Last Word, where the now-deceased English eccentric muses over his so-called career, his various incarnations over the decades, the controversies he stirred, his wishes at the time for his death and how he would like to be remembered. Not surprisingly, in true Quentin Crisp fashion, the last chapter of the book is called My Significant Death.