"You see, I speak only of happiness because its the only thing I understand.
And I do want people to understand that happiness is not out there,
its in here. And it doesnt matter what other people think of you.
What matters is what you think of yourself.
And if I can get people to do that Ive . . . its a triumph.
Because that is the whole point."
Pacifica Radio Archives presents:
Brian DeShazor's interview with
Quentin Crisp (professional bon vivant, occasional actor, author, celebrated wit, and friend to the world) was born on Christmas Day, 1908, to middle-class parents in a suburb of London. During his 35 years working as an artists model he grew accustomed to poverty and living in a single room, which he continued to do until his death. As an actor he has portrayed Queen Elizabeth I in the film Orlando and Lady Bracknell in a stage version of Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest. He has authored 13 books including his seminal memoir, The Naked Civil Servant. The UTNE reader named him as one of the leading thinkers and visionaries of our time. Mr. Crisp passed away on November 21, 1999, in Manchester, England where he was set to launch a tour of his one-man show. Crisp was 91 years old.
When I first read that Quentin Crisp was performing his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, I contacted one of his West Coast publicists to see if I could get permission to record his performance for Pacifica Radio. I was informed that the performance was restricted by copyright so recording was impossible.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to meet Mr. Crisp, I packed up the recording equipment that I had no experience using and with that I went to the first nights performance not really sure what would happen. During intermission I was escorted backstage and introduced to Mr. Crisp. He held my hand for a long time while nursing a cocktail with the other. We chatted about nothing in particular until the second act began. At the end of the evening Mr. Crisps publicist told me I would be granted an interview if I came on a later date before the performance.
So the next two days I scrambled getting a crash course in the recording equipment and in interviewing. All I could remember was not to, "Uh huh," too much. My nervous questions will be edited out for your everyones sake but would like to share my favorite blunder which was when I called his new book, Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, which sounds more like a soft porn late night television program.
Brian DeShazor: I guess I would first like to ask how your weekend has gone here in Los Angeles this time around.
Quentin Crisp: Well I dont know why Im here except that I was sent here. I only go where I am told to go and I only say what I am told to say. Im a victim of fate. I wouldnt dream of saying, I will go to Los Angeles and I will go on this because I havent the nerve to do that. I just . . . Someone said to me, Do you mind being led everywhere and told to sit as though you were a dog? And I said, Yes, I like it. It means I am never to blame.
BD: Your performance. The first act of your performance, youve been performing for quite some time now, over 20 years. Has the significance of that portion of your program changed for you over the years? Has the show changed over the years?
QC: I expect it has. When I first did it in Canon Drive in Mr. Salaries theater, for instance Miss Bette Davis would still have been alive and I wouldnt have been . . . I wouldnt have dared to say the things I say about Bette Davis. So I expect in small ways its got different. Perhaps even a little longer as I add things to it.
BD: Oh, my. And your new book, The Red Diaries, or The New York Diaries.
QC: Thats right. That is called Resident Alien, which is a bad title but it was chosen by my English agent whom Ive tried to get rid of but havent succeeded. And he does what he thinks he will do and then tells me hes done them. I didnt know they were going to publish a book called Resident Alien and it was going to be called Among Friends, which is a good title. Because, as you know, in America everybody is your friend. And I like that. Then they said it was going to be called Resident Alien, which is a bad title because theres a film called Resident Alien and they have nothing to do with one another. And so everyone thinks its a book of the film.
BD: Well, I hope . . . is the sales going well with the book so far?
QC: Well, yes. They said they wouldnt publish the book here unless it was a success . . . a great success in England. Well, it wasnt a great success but it did sell its hardback edition so that was called a success and they decided they would publish it here. Where I was involved in a scandal. An English journalist telephoned me and said there was in the world a Dr. Watson. Not the little friend of Mr. Holmes, but a Scottish gentleman who had invented DNA and if hypothetically there were a gay gene. And still more hypothetically, it could be detected in the womb, would the woman be justified in aborting the fetus? And I said, Yes.
What did they think I would say? The first words of my diary are, of my original biography are, As soon as I stepped out of my mothers womb onto dry land I realized I had made a mistake. I dont think anyone wants to be gay. Youre just stuck with it and you make the best of it. And it seemed to me that they were, uh, the letter was cut out and sent to my publisher here who flew in an ungovernable rage and then said, If Mr. Crisp thinks this is the way of selling books, hes wrong!
Well, I dont say things to sell books. I say them because I mean them. He sent the letter to my agent who flew into another ungovernable rage and said, Why have you said this unkind thing? I said, Why is it unkind? You think Im punishing them. Im rewarding them. They dont have to be born. I mean the life of a homosexual is very unpleasant.
When I was swarming about the West End as a young man . . . and thinking I was the cats whiskers because men smiled at me and followed me, I never thought what do I have to do at the end of it. When I found out I was so horrified I would have gone into a monastery. Its not a pleasant life. And, uh, there seems to be perfectly obvious . . . but anyway . . . the scandal has now blown over and the book came out and everyones pleased.
BD: Theres been a lot of changes in DNA testing and genetic engineering. How do you feel about the further advances in that today?
QC: Well, I think its good . . . I think all knowledge is good, all knowledge is power. And, uh, like all power, it can be abused. But I think its a good idea that it is known of what you consist, of what you can expect from yourself by an examination of your physical composition. But of course, you see, its nonsense about this idea of aborting the fetus because when youre sufficiently unformed to be safely aborted, youre a woman. Everybody is. And so as you age we all wait at the front door, when something nasty happens.
BD: I wanted to ask you what your idea of gay rights are, since there is the gay rights movement from the sixties, you certainly have seen the beginning of it and how do you feel about it today?
QC: Well, I feel dubious about rights altogether. I dont think we have any rights. I think if we all got what we deserved, we would starve. Um . . . The thing is not to wake up and say, IM GONNA GET MY RIGHTS! Then the whole day is ruined. You wake up and say, I am nothing, and I deserve nothing. And then everything is a bonus. Youre happy. Youre grateful.
BD: Yes, I understand. What would you say to the youth of today? What do you want them to know about your experience?
QC: Well, of course, my experience was more: I was more shrill than I would be now. If I would be young now I wouldnt have to make such an effort to explain who I was and to be seen to be a homosexual. You see, when I was young, we thought all male homosexuals were effeminate because those were the ones you could see and so I thought, well this is the thing to do. Its no good writing books about homosexuals or plays because theyre only seen by homosexuals.
Oh, and by liberals wishing to be seen going into the cinema and coming out. So I thought, I will just be it. And then people can say, Well theres one and he doesnt seem to be doing any harm. Hes just doing his shopping . . . because . . . when I was young they were so frightened. Where were they? How many were there? Homosexuality was worse than communism. Fewer of them but more dangerous. And this of course this was nonsense, and so I thought well I will live my ordinary life but I will be seen to be homosexual and now effeminacy has a bad name. Especially in England. Englishmen dont like effeminate women! They always say, Oh, you know what shes like. Shes always fiddling with her appearance and ask me what I think of her. And then she bursts into tears. They dont like all that. So, of course a man who has any of these characteristics is a terrible nuisance. But in America, its less offensive to be feminine but all the same there is now a masculine movement among homosexuals. I know a man who wears a hard hat. Hes never seen a construction site. But it thinks it makes him more attractive.
BD: How do you feel when you hear about the violence that has being committed against gays. A young man by the name of Matthew Shepard most recently.
QC: Yes, that seems to me appalling. Um. I cant think. I think people must me slightly mad. Surely you can say no. You can not bother with such people. Um. I dont think he forced himself upon them. I think he was just there. And I dont know why people, um, have such extreme views. Real men dont really mind homosexuals. You are somewhat . . . They might say in a routine way, Oh, its disgusting. But really they take no notice of them. I live on the same block as the [Hell's] Angels who have a bad reputation but they have never murdered me. And when I go toward First Avenue, I pass between their house and a row of harlots. I pass with bowed head to show I accept their supremacy. And theyve never taken any notice of me. I dont matter to them. I am not an influence in their lives. When people are sure of themselves, they dont mind what other people do.
BD: And how do you feel about homosexuals . . . how we treat our own. One subject in particular is outing. Which is . . . if . . . telling on somebody that they are gay and force them out into the truth. So, what about how homosexuals treat each other? What about outing?
QC: That, I think, is very dangerous. I think if there is freedom of speech there must also be also freedom of silence. Mr. Signorile, who invented outing, has explained somewhere that I read the limits and the purpose of outing. People who are . . . who have . . . public influence and who do not use it to benefit gays when they themselves are gay . . . they are under suspicion and they can with some justification will say be outed. I dont think you can out. You see, no one ever lives it down. If you deny it, you wont live it down. If you accept it, you wont live it down. And there are all . . . there are people . . . they have . . . brothers, mothers and fathers who dont want mixed up in all that. And its a bit unkind I would have said.
BD: Yes. Thank you for your wisdom on that. I do appreciate it. I wanted to ask you, do you consider yourself a pacifist and what do you know of Bertrand Russell, who was a British?
QC: Thats right. Well, Mr. Bertrand Russell, of course, apparently was the greatest mathematician the world has ever known. So we shouldnt really argue with him. But I do think that marching to the order master and all that stuff was nonsense. Its not going to alter anything. So you might as well keep quiet. But, um, Im a pacifist in my life. I do not resort to physical violence to settle anything. And, um, of course, it is a way of protecting yourself.
It has two meanings. One: I would have been killed if I had defended myself on the streets of London because I was never attacked by one person. If Id fought back I would have been finished off. But because I did absolutely nothing when I was lying on the pavement, they thought, "Well, thats that." And they left me. And I think it was a way of going on to preserve my life. You see, when I moved to London from my home I had to live in the worst parts of London because I had no money. Indeed I had a room for six shillings a week in, um, Percy Square. Thats somewhere in the Kings Cross district. But the people who live in those districts resort to violence. They would turn their mothers down the stairs because she wouldnt give them one and nine to go to the movies with. Its so much more . . . they were holigans, all of us. "We saw him, we didnt like him, we laughed at him, people walked on and took no notice. So we hit him." It would be all quite natural. It was very shocking to me because I was from the suburbs where nothing like that never happened.
BD: Is there anything that you think we could do to battle the Christian Right's negative rhetoric against gays? Any advice?
QC: Well, you see, the Christian Right are very problematic. The leader of a movement always says less than the followers. I think Christ said almost nothing about sex except that if you look at a woman with desire, you had already committed adultery. But the followers: St. Paul was the public relations officer for the whole sin movement. And he was really against sex. I mean, he said it is better to marry than to burn; not a hearty recommendation for the state of matrimony. And I dont know why he was so against sex, but he was. And that is what has formed the basis.
Someone said from the audience, Why do you consider sex a sin? And I said, What good is it if it isnt a sin, because I dont know why I consider sex a sin. I've taken it over from . . . I mean . . . my parents would have said they were Anglo-Catholic which is Catholicism mixed with water. And I knew even as a child, my parents went to church as a social obligation. We were all dressed up in our sailor suits and taken to church. And I didnt believe in it even then.
BD: Do you still have a fond memory of those days. Going to church with your family.
QC: Not really. I didnt like it. I am suspicious of family values. But of course my experience may be unique. My mother and father hated one another. But they never raised their voices. So there was never a row or anything like it. But when my father had died some years before, presumably in self-defense, my mother said, I dont know why I married your father, I never loved him, in fact I hated him. And I said, We all hated him, you hated him enough to marry him. She perked up at that and said, Well there was that. So marriage in England is a form of revenge.
BD: Thank you. Oh . . . on the subject of art. As an artists model for so many years, over 35 years, when do propose erotic art turns into pornography? Or where do you see a line drawn.
QC: I think pornography is art calculated to arouse. You are suppose to see it and not how beautifully painted it is, but to get excited because of the subject matter. And I think that frankly is a waste of time. And I dont think it should be shown in public galleries where you take your mother to see them. Because if you cant be sure whats there you are never going to an art gallery unless youve gone first, taken a look around and seen its not too bad to show your sister. But, I think its as well if art does not deal with subjects calculated to shock or arouse or disgust.
BD: Have you seen any movies while you were here? Is there anything you would like recommended?
QC: I have seen True Crime, which I thought was a wonderful film. The person who took me left, I think, and went and sat in a café. I thought it was very good. Its a cliffhanger; the man will or will not be hanged who is or is not innocent. And Clint Eastwood arrives to the rescue. But its very good because it has a plot. There is a key by which we know he is innocent and we are given it at the end. And I thought it very good. I say that with reservation because my companion didnt like it. Before that, we had seen an English movie called Lock, Stock and Two Loaded Barrels. Which is an absurd film. I mean, its English.
Its not until you have lived in America that you realize how ill-favored the English are. How very plain everybody on the screen is, big noses, big Adams apple. I dont know. You do like to see beautiful people because they are eighty-one times their normal size. It was absurd. You couldnt tell who was shooting who or why. It was a great muddle. But my companion liked that. I couldnt see A Civil Action, which features Mr. Travolta. When I first saw Mr. Travolta, he was an unpleasant twitching stick-like creature in Saturday Night Fever and then he went away and hid, not unnaturally. Now, hes back. And now we know what he was doing while he is away. Eating. Because now he is filled out and hes wonderful. He radiates a pleasure in the film at all. And that is very engaging.
BD: Is there anyone else, an actress, you think is the star of the quality of Miss Garbo, Miss Crawford, and Miss Davis.
QC: Theyre not given the opportunity. The stars are kept from us. We only knew about the stars that Louis B. Mayer wished us to know. And they were presented to us so carefully. Never was there an unpleasant shot of Garbo or Dietrich. When I saw Miss Dietrichs first American film, called Morrocco, a girl sitting in the cinema behind me said, She aint all stuck on herself. Of course, she was totally self obsessed . . . with her image. But that was the way that stars were. They were not expected to act. If you ask yourself when you see Camille, do I see before me a sentimental French woman who lived with men for money, the answer is noor NOOOO. You see Garbo being Garbo. And . . . that was encouraged.
I think that the stars were encouraged by Mr. Mayer to cultivate their mannerisms. Thats why they were so easy to imitate. No professional imitator has come forward and said how difficult it has got. Because everyone knows how to imitate Mae West, Carmen Miranda, Garbo, Dietrich, but no one knows how to imitate Meryl Streep. Do you imitate her as she was in Sophie's Choice when she learned enough Polish to speak it, or Heartburn when she learned enough Jewish, or Out of Africa when she learned enough Danish. I mean, you cant do it.
So, I dont think there are any stars because they arent encouraged to be. I think Miss Sarandon could be a star if they let her rip, and they held her back and beautified her and dressed her in questionable clothes and made her say those lines that modern actresses refuse to say.
When Garbo is dying, Mr. Taylor tries to cheer her up where upon she says, It is better that I live only in your heart where nothing can stain our love. Would you be able to get Glenda Jackson to say that? Theyd say, Must I say this?
BD: Do you think unconditional love is possible?
QC: Well, I think it is but it would be a terrible burden. You see, even your best friend is a terrible nuisance. You meet him in the street and he says in feign surprise, You are still here. Naturally I thought you were dead as you didnt telephone me all last week. And you think I could have telephoned him but what would I have said? And they lay the burden on you if they love you unconditionally and you must love them back. And I think its as well to do without love. You must love everyone equally. I dont think we have the right to give more of our attention or time or money to one person. I think we must give it to everybody as they need it. You must give love as it is needed, like your money.
BD: I noticed in your performance that you are quite the motivational speaker, if I must say. You speak so highly of finding your individuality and identity. I wonder if you would speak more about that with me.
QC: Yes, that is really the point. You see, I speak only of happiness because its the only thing I understand. And I do want people to understand that happiness is not out there, its in here. And it doesnt matter what other people think of you. What matters is what you think of yourself. And if I can get people to do that, Ive . . . its a triumph. Because that is the whole point. People are always sitting in their rooms biting their nails wondering what some wretched man in another street thinks about them. What does it matter? They must be absolutely convinced that they are right. Dont ask other people what is right. You know what is right. St. Theresa said, We must treat all people as thought they were at least better than ourselves." Isnt that a wonderful thing to have said?
BD: Its quite beautiful. Mr. Crisp, finally, what do you foresee for us in the new millennium as the millennium approaches.
QC: Well, Im not what one would call a millennium freak because I cant see it makes any difference. Americans are terribly keen on dates or decades. You say something to someone and he says, Yes, its a terribly sixties idea. I mean, things didnt suddenly change on January 1st in 1960. The decades slide into one another getting louder, faster, worse. And I think when the new millennium comes everyone will wake up and think, Its January 1st! and then theyll think, Its just the same as the day before. And they wont be any different, as far as I can see. Its a nice cause for celebration. But thats all it is. It wont make the least difference.
BD: Do you have any plans for New Years on 2000?
QC: No, I tend to ignore public holidays. And I think I do it because my life is one long holiday. So I have to remember that when people get excited, because its Christmas or Easter. Theyve had a rotten life in which they werent free at all and now they are free. And they can do what they like. One must celebrate with them and wear a paper hat and roll on the floor and carry on alarming because it is their opportunity to do so. But my heart isnt in it, because I do what I like anyhow any time. My life is one long holiday.
BD: Is there any final message youd like to tell our listeners?
QC: No, I dont think I have anything to say except that they should, as I say, treat all people as though they were better than themselves. Its a question of never separating yourself, never thinking "Im so wonderful and they are all so awful." And you mustnt condescend to your audience. And then youre in the clear.
BD: Thank you very much Mr. Crisp, its been a pleasure meeting you. I appreciate spending time with me.
QC: Its been a pleasure.
This interview was conducted in April 1999 by Brian DeShazor in Los Angeles, CA, for Pacifica Radio Archives. An recording of this interview is available on Pacifica's award winning memorial recording of An Evening for Quentin Crisp,