Quentin Crisp


“I do love living here. I live here consciously,” reflects Mr Quentin Crisp, staring out of a cheap diner on to Manhattan’s Second Avenue.

Two New York policemen are blocking his view. Quentin Crisp softly shakes his head.
“When I first saw the American police, I couldn’t believe it. Stomachs bulging out, hair hanging out from under their caps… A patrol car once pulled alongside me as I was walking home one night. I looked at them and said, ‘am I illegal?’ And one of them said, ‘No. Just wondered how the show was going,’ haha… I tell Americans going to London 1) do not expect the English police to ask you how ‘the show’ is going and 2) never make a joke to a policeman. The English police have but one duty: that is never to seem like a human being. They never smile and they never eat.”

Quentin Crisp, that perfect gentleman, a genuine English star and a minor legend, will be 82 on Christmas Day.

He seems in fine fettle, exiting purposefully from his single room on 3rd Street with his customary poise in a crumpled fedora and a musty green velvet jacket adorned by an apple-shaped badge bearing the legendary sentiment ‘I Love NY’.

Like a benign elderly auntie, his blue rinse is fading and his mottled skin is powdered rather more inexpertly and uneven than in younger years, and his mascara seems less confident, less defiant, than his younger years.

But then, as he himself points out, only the very extraordinary command attention on these streets. His speech is still somewhat frail but graced with an irresistible elegance, never muttering or fumbling for a phrase. “I haven’t learnt to speak American”, he explains. “The more English you are, the more likely you are to be believed.”

As befits his status as one of the world’s great wits and raconteurs, Crisp never tires of talking about America or New York. He never tires of talking.

Although it’s almost reassuring to discover even Quentin Crisp can be a bore when talking about politics (the Gulf war, Vietnam), his aptitude for wicked witticisms and slyly accurate observation as an art form remains unrivalled.

Watching two desperately fashionable career women walk by, he remarks with arch exasperation: “NO woman over the age of 25 can look like the breastless beings with faces like a peeled egg who model those clothes. Besides, I have never in my life heard a man praise a woman for being skinny.”

In this, he apparently takes after his mother.
“She would sit there and when a couple left say: ‘he had a tie pin with a false diamond, probably a commercial traveller. They weren’t married…”

Next year will be his 10th in New York, where he lives alone in a £35/week rooming house on the Lower East Side with this typewriter, a primus stove, a few dilapidated utensils, his famous layers of dust and a refrigerator – a recent addition.
“It was a gift from my landlord,” he exclaims with glee.

Quentin Crisp is listed in the New York phone book and the telephone is by the bed to receive calls any time, day or night, from admirers, answering each call with a kindly ‘Oh yesssss ?’

“I feel totally at home here,” he confirms. Indeed, the Lower East Side, where young bohemia mixes with the ragged flotsam of the desperately poor, he drugged and the artistic, has become Crisp’s territory as much as Chelsea ever was.

He moved to New York at the grand old age of 73 – “because my fare was paid” – and clearly feels the same thrill at being here as the hordes of young English runaways working in cafes or strip joints, living in low-price hotels such as East 17th Street’s legendary Hotel 17.

Many of them come to visit Crisp. He’s probably the eldest English runaway in New York.
“Everybody comes here for the same reason, the reason I did – to rule the world, should the opportunity arise. The difference is the people. In America, everybody is on your side. In America, if you say you’re getting up a cabaret act, they say: ‘Oh, what are you going to wear? Would you like the name of my friend ?’ In England, it would be: ‘For God’s sake, don’t make a fool of yourself!’”

Of course, the differences between England and America are the meat and drink of conversation Quentin Crisp (still) thrives on, and he still never tires of languidly repeating some of his greatest lines in conversation. After all, they were clever, funny and true.
“The English have etiquette; the Americans have manners. Etiquette is a way of separating yourself from the rest of the world. Americans do everything they can to make you feel at home.”

Only his theory that “in England, if you threw yourself down on the street in Piccadilly, someone would try to help you or call a policeman,” makes him seem slightly old-fashioned. The homeless problem in London is news to him. “Oh,” he says for once confounded.
Mrs Thatcher was, in any case, “a star… ruling a country that fundamentally does not like women.”

His routine here is firmly established. He eats his meals in diners or cooks “an egg, a potato, some soup,” on the grimy primus. He drinks a bottle of Guinness a day, goes to bed around midnight.

Each month he writes a journal for the New York Native and contributes a film review to the gay magazine Christopher Street, but no more books.
“I write all the books they tell me to write, never one they don’t.”
He reads only the books he’s asked to read and attends the occasional ‘Audience with Quentin Crisp’, “to say the words they want to hear.”

He never listens to music at home (“I can’t BEAR music”) but admits watching “programmes which are not about real people” on a small television.
“No interviews, no game shows, none of the chat shows ruled by Mr Donahue or Mr Carson. I like the cops and robbers shows. ‘Columbo’ is the best. I have a wonderful ‘Columbo’ story,” he announces, perhaps unsurprisingly. It was after all Crisp who defined the art of appearing on chat shows as “saying what you’ve come to say.”
“I found myself next to Mr Falk at a party,” he begins. “He was complaining that fame consisted of being continually asked the same question over and over. So I said, ‘then the more perfect your reply becomes.’ He put his face 6 inches from mine and said, ‘Where’s your raincoat, Columbo?’ What do you say to that ?’”
Crisp’s gentle chuckle becomes a sneer. “I saw it all.”

His great love remains the cinema, and next year sees the publication of ‘How To Go To The Movies’ in paperback.
“I have always been American,” he declares. “Since I started going to the movies.”
He has, however, tired of “films about relationships: I have never heard of anyone of any sex whatsoever, talking about their ‘relationship’. ‘Do you love me as much as you loved me in Vienna ?’ That sort of thing… Modern film-makers do not understand that more sex is not sexier. A film like ‘Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills’… you don’t feel defiled in any way…”
He sounds rather disappointed.

He talks with enthusiasm about Nicholson’s ‘The Two Jakes’, “Miss Bridget Fonda” – “too beautiful to be English” – and “Mr Michael Gambon” – “he’s got an oblique glamour. Not a wonderfully handsome man but he can keep very still and imply that it would be unwise to cross him.”

But of course he is best being brilliantly bitchy – referring to “Miss Jackson” in ‘Turtle Diary’, ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ and Blair Brown in the “particularly dismal” ‘Strapless’.
“I greatly admire Miss Streep. Sixty years ago, she would have been a star. Now she has to act. And this she does. There are no British stars, no. But then there never were. You see Britain doesn’t like stars.”

His view of Peter Sellers serves to prove his own point. “’Being There’ was clever but nothing can conceal from the camera something thoroughly unpleasant about Sellers, something diabolical. It’s always there.”

Fame still fascinates him.
“As the distance between the idol and the worshipper lessens, envy becomes greater. Nowadays, there’s a kind of hatred mixed in. When people say of someone famous, ‘what’s he really like?’ and someone says: ‘he’s just as he seems’, they’re always disappointed. They want them to be worse.”

Nowadays, he says, he himself has “a notoriety so vast it verges on popularity”, something entirely due to television.

A kind of follow-up, ‘Resident Alien’ (“yet another documentary”) will only add to his fame. ‘Resident Alien’ cuts film of Crisp’s life in New York, talking to its inhabitants with a few surreal exchanges between Crisp and John Hurt as his young(er) self.

“There are no burning police cars, no nurses being raped in car parks, no ride to the rescue, so I don’t know what its chances are. I talk with Mr Al Goldstein, the publisher of ‘Screw’, the filthiest magazine in the world and a transvestite prostitute – I tried to find out how it’s all done. It’s all in code. I find it all very strange…”

He was impressed by the director, Jonathon Nossiter, namely because “he got Mr Sting and Mr Hurt to be in it for nothing, which to me was remarkable.”

As the man who said the advantage of growing old was that “you get to over-act appallingly”, he says he has no regrets, unless he is to be re-incarnated. “I couldn’t bear the idea of falling out of my mother’s womb with the words ‘here again’… When you get old you remember ludicrously unimportant moments – the time you stayed too long. ‘They were waiting for me to go’.”

Asked what the important lessons of his life were, he thinks for a minute and says: “the time comes when everybody has to do deliberately what he used to do by mistake. Get the joke, on your own terms. I was 21, 22 when I realised this. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t being laughed at, by my brothers and sister, or school.”
His voice conceals no bitterness or remorse at this. “What everybody has to do at some time, 18 or 22, 25, is to make up his mind how much of what he’s doing is to express himself and how much is to annoy his mother. The fundamental question is: if there was no praise or blame, who would you be then?”

He returns to his theme, his muse, his America.
“I enjoy my life. My function in America, fundamentally, is I am a professional loser. I live in one room. I live one block from the Bowery. I wear clothes people give me… Friends ? America is my friend. My agent feeds me when times are bad.”

We all need affection, I suggest.
“No,” he states firmly, “I seem to be alright without affection but I do need praise. I enjoy praise… Every day, every American mother says to her child: ‘you’re wonderful. You’re going to win.’ Then you have to think of all the people who aren’t going to win, and they write to me. I am a total failure and I’m still here and I’m neither angry or afraid. That’s the message really. You don’t have to win. And if I can get my fare to New York paid, at the age of 73, anyone can.”