Monday, November 16, 2009

Never try to keep up with the Joneses

Looking south on Broadway and Prince on a very dark Saturday afternoon. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
November 16, 2009. A rainy-ish weekend ending with a quite-warm-for November Sunday mostly sunny.

"Never try to keep up with the Joneses," he recommended. "Drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."

Quentin Crisp died ten years ago this week,
one month from his ninety-first birthday. I first heard about him when most Americans did, in 1975 when the film of his memoir “The Naked Civil Servant” starring John Hurt was released on American television.

The subject matter (a film bio of a gay man) was still new stuff in the mid-70s. The great Gay Movement borne out of the Sixties with all the liberation movements had already forged what would be a complete change in consciousness. Although it was still daring for mainstream television, here it was: a story about an Englishman who was Out and outrageous.

The real man and the movie version.
John Hurt in a scene from "The Naked Civil Servant."
Actor Hurt who already a good career by the time he played this role, fully developed the flaunting character and at the same time established the staunchness of the personality. Andy Warhol had already prepared the American audience for this with his films of this Factory cast of characters. Of course, the character’s being English made it easy to accept because the British to the Americans were often regarded as “eccentric” or at least eccentrically inclined.

As it turned out, that American airing of the film, launched the career of the man himself as a professional celebrity not entirely dissimilar to Truman Capote as a television talk show guest. The culture today is so different compared to thirty years ago, but at the time he was acceptably outrageous -- ironically mainstream in his natural sensibility.

He was rouged, scarved and mascara-ed, with a pose and style more Edwardian lesbian than aging gay gent. A proper older English lady of Sapphic style. However, his Self, that which you the viewer were relating to, was unquestionably male: the guy had balls, no doubt; gonads, lavendarized and marcelled maybe, but nevertheless.

I happened to meet the man in Los Angeles three years after the film had aired. He’d moved to the United States and New York where he was to live most of the rest of his long life (he died just before his 91st birthday). At the time of our meeting, I was at a pivotal moment in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles (from New York) intent on creating a career for myself as a writer. I was in my late thirties and the bravado that comes with youth had already begun to run into the weight of time passing. Nevertheless, I was still blinded by youth’s ambition of dreams.

It was at a cocktail party in the Hollywood Hills. I can’t remember who invited me; I knew very few people at the time. So the party itself was a roomful of strangers never met and now forgotten.

The only face I recognized was ... Quentin Crisp! dressed just like the movie. Looking not at all unlike his portrayer -- John Hurt -- a light dusty make-up, barely perceptible but there; the grey hair, set and lavendar-ized; a well-tailored jacket, the silk sash/cravat. Oh, to be in Hollywood! He stood out because ... why wouldn’t he?? Who else dressed like that, even at a Hollywood party?

He was more butch lesbian than an effeminate man, however. He was quiet, non-intrusive, but resolute with unquestioned certainty. I had already been very impressed by how this British civil servant of the most unlikely self-presentation ended up having a career -- i.e., making a living as a celebrity/actor in New York and Hollywood -- at an age which to me at the time seemed quite advanced (he was about 70). This was, to this ambitious boy, a commendable achievement, feeling as I did that I’d come to my professional path later than usual.

And so, on seeing him I went over and introduced myself, and with an enthusiasm still blinded by youth, I wanted to know (for my own edification) what he was thinking. I pointed out to him that his success/fame had come quite late in his life, and I wondered what it meant and what he had learned from the experience.

John Hurt as Crisp.
Without a beat, probably having heard the question many times before, he replied, “I have learned: never never change. Life ... is like a stopped clock. Eventually it will come around to you.”

Such advice is difficult to absorb when still in the young-man-in-a-hurry stage, as I was then. As it turned out, the following years of my adventure -- establishing a career, and in a new world as well -- Los Angeles/Hollywood – were difficult long before opportunity knocked. However, when it was roughest and self-doubt the loudest, Quentin Crisp’s words became mantra for me.

I never saw him again after that brief moment in the Southern California night overlooking that glittering desert city by the Pacific. However, when I came back to New York in the early 90s, I met people who knew him. He lived downtown in the East Village. He was in the phone book and you could call – anybody, stranger or otherwise, and invite him to dinner. The proviso was you picked up the check.

He continued to work his one-man show right to the end of his life. He’d returned to Britain at age 90 for a tour. He was in Manchester where he’d collapsed in a private residence. Taken to the local hospital, he died.

"No flowers. No candles,” he told a newspaper interview in the Times of London only the day before. “No long faces standing around in the rain, staring down into a hole in the ground while someone drones on about how wonderful I was. I’d rather just be shuffled off. Just drop me into one of those black plastic bags and leave me by the trash can."

This obituary from the London Daily Telegraph (November 1999), a month before his 90th birthday, reveals his Self was his perfect art.

Crisp never attempted to disguise the tragedy of his life; he did, however, know how to face it with both courage and humour. Witty, intelligent and cynical, he described how, in a period when most men "searched themselves for vestiges of effeminacy as though for lice", he had dyed his hair red, put on lipstick and mascara and painted his finger and toenails.

"I wore make-up at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful," he related. "From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any cafe or restaurant from which I was not barred, or any street corner from which the police did not move me."

The televising of The Naked Civil Servant, in 1975, directed by Jack Gold and starring John Hurt, launched Crisp at the age of 66 as "one of the stately homos of England" and into a new career as an actor.

In the spring of 1978, he appeared in his own one-man show at the Duke of York's theatre, London, preaching the gospel of self-knowledge and presenting himself as "a sad person's idea of a gay person".

The production, which Crisp described as "a straight talk from a bent speaker", received rapturous reviews, transferred to the Ambassadors theatre, and was later taken to Australia and many cities in America, including New York, where he took up residence on Lower East Side in 1981.

In England, he said, "the system is benign and the people are hostile. In America, the people are friendly, and the system is brutal." He found it easy, on the other side of the Atlantic, to maintain the illusion that people adored him.
Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I in the film version of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando."
But Crisp enraged militant homosexuals in America by refusing to align himself with their cause, partly because he wanted to maintain his individuality, partly because he genuinely believed that to be homosexual was "like having an illness".

He himself had "never really desired much sex"; nevertheless, it was clear to him that the promiscuity of homosexuals was a sign that the act was unsatisfactory - "just as, if you eat food that doesn't really nourish you, you eat more food."

He did not mention homosexuality in his one-man show, and in the 1980s airily dismissed the obsession with Aids as "a fad". The more that homosexuals insisted on their "rights", he thought, the more they distanced themselves from the heterosexual world - "and this is such a pity". For himself, he had always been conscious of being alone, and of having to invent his own happiness.

A very senior Quentin Crisp. Photograph copyright © Martin Fishman. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Courtesy of Crisperanto: Quentin Crisp Archives.
Denis Charles Pratt - he did not adopt his more effervescent name until his early twenties - was born at Sutton, Surrey, on Christmas Day 1908, the third son of a somewhat ne'er-do-well London solicitor and a former governess with mild social and artistic pretensions.

Denis's effeminacy was evident from an early age; his only boyhood ambition, he recalled, was to be a chronic invalid. Frail, pale and hopeless, he was "an object of mild ridicule from birth".

He cast himself as "a monstrous show-off", given to distracting the servants from their chores with improvised dance performances and poetry recitals. His mother was mildly irritated; his father apoplectic.

Nevertheless Denis attended Kingswood Preparatory School at Epsom, from where he won "a very poor scholarship" to Denstone College, on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire.

It was an experience for which he was retrospectively grateful. "If I had left straight from home and gone out into the world," he considered, "it would have been like falling over a cliff. I had a doll's house view of the world when I was at public school. I had to learn that everyone was my enemy, and that I would have to find ways of dealing with this if I was to go on living." He reached the Sixth Form at the age of 15, and even commanded a squad in the OTC.

On his own admission he was never a temptation
to other boys: "I was very plain. My rich mouse hair was straight but my teeth were not. I wore tin-rimmed spectacles."

Yet, influenced by the vamps of the silver screen - Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, "all icons of power" - the young Crisp dreamt of using sex "to allure, subjugate, and if possible destroy the personalities of others".

Reality was more prosaic. Leaving school in 1926, he took a course in journalism at King's College, London, but failed to get a diploma. He also attended art classes in Battersea and at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

But his high heels and red hair failed to allure prospective employers, and by the age of 19 he had fallen upon the seedier side of Soho - and more particularly the Black Cat cafe in Old Compton Street. The proprietor was later involved in a murder case; and many of his customers were male prostitutes. Crisp himself was "on the game" for six months.

In his early twenties, Crisp left home
for good - though he always remained on good terms with his family - and developed the alarmingly effeminate persona and mannerisms which, he wrote later, immediately solidified around him "like a plaster cast" - and which resulted in his being frequently beaten up in the streets, sacked from jobs and thrown out of cafes.

Yet Crisp obtained work as a tracer with a firm of electrical engineers and also as a freelance designer in advertising and publishing, even producing two text books himself, Lettering for Brush and Pen (1936) and a manual on window dressing, Colour in Display (1938).

Already 30 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War, Quentin Crisp lied about his age and attempted to enter the Army, only to be declared "totally exempt, suffering from sexual perversion", after a searching physical examination by a medical board at a drill hall in Kingston-upon-Thames.

During the Blitz, Crisp walked the streets of London with characteristic bravado, never sheltering from the bombs, barefooted in all weathers. He caught the attention of the photographer Angus McBean - who took some remarkable portraits of him - and later of the GIs, who often mistook him for a woman.

In the summer of 1940, Crisp moved into the first-floor front bed-sitting room at 129 Beaufort Street, Chelsea, which was to remain his home until the end of the 1970s and which he never attempted to clean. "The dust doesn't get any worse after three years," he observed.

In 1942 he became an art school model. Over the next 30 years he worked in almost every art school in London and the Home Counties, usually posing nude and in a variety of arresting postures. One of his specialities was his crucifixion pose; others involved standing on his head or with one foot on the floor and the other on a plinth behind him.

During these years, Crisp became an increasingly familiar figure in the bohemian cafes of Soho and Fitzrovia, where he held court to anyone who cared to listen and - his hair now dyed brilliant blue - was himself proclaimed as one of London's Works of Art.

His attempts at writing were unsuccessful, though his poem about the Ministry of Labour, All This and Bevin Too (1943), appeared in pamphlet form. It was illustrated by Mervyn Peake, whom he had met in a cafe.

The Naked Civil Servant grew out of a radio interview in 1964
conducted by the off-beat Third Programme personality Philip O'Connor, which happened to be heard by the then managing director of Jonathan Cape. It was followed by How To Have A Life Style (1974) and an autobiographical sequel, How To Become A Virgin (1981), which told of his love affair with New York.

Crisp when he first came to the attention of the American public. Photograph copyright © Elaine Goycoolea. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Courtesy of Crisperanto: Quentin Crisp Archives.
Later on in the great game of life.
In later years, Crisp adopted the guise of Woman with a Past, re-arranging his receding hair - now sprayed pale purple - in a complicated set of Pompadour waves and curls. In his own words he adopted for all occasions an expression of "fatuous affability".

Drawn into "the smiling and nodding racket", he was to be seen at some of the flashiest parties in New York and London, and was also much in demand as a chat show guest and as an actor. He played Lady Bracknell in a Greenwich Village production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and a laboratory assistant in Sting's film The Bride (1985).

In 1993, at the age of 85, he appeared as
an over-rouged and voluptuously becurled Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's film of Virginia Woolf's Orlando - though his acting showed considerable dignity and finesse. He also delivered an Alternative Queen's Christmas Message to the British nation from a suite in the Plaza Hotel, New York. "Towards the end of the run you can overact appallingly," he remarked in justification of such extravagances.

Crisp's views remained both unpredictable and independent. He described sex, psychiatry and other people as "a mistake". He hated Oscar Wilde, worshipped the Kray twins, and described Death in Venice as a crashingly boring film. In an interview with The Oldie in 1994 he described homosexual intercourse as "often actually painful, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes nasty".

Although his West End show attracted distinguished admirers - John Betjeman, the Pinters, Lady Diana Cooper - he never clung to their coat tails. "Never try to keep up with the Joneses," he recommended. "Drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."

Every day he would breakfast at the same cafe in Cooper Square, lower Manhattan, and he was prepared to have dinner with anyone who turned up at his rooms. He took great care to avoid close friendships, never addressing anyone by their first name. His ideal, he said, was to have 365 friends, and to see each of them on one day of the year.

Quentin Crisp claimed to have no spiritual side."I am not a metaphysical person," he said. "I find it hard enough coping with real life". As for eternal life, he would not wish it on his worst enemy.
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