Interviewed by Mark J. Petracca
This interview was conducted shortly prior to Mr. Crisp's death in 1999, and was first printed in The Sentimentalist Magazine, Issue 6, Summer 2001, published by Neue Ästhetik Multimedia.
Quentin Crisp was quite possibly the 20th century's most outspoken and flamboyant homosexuals. His book, the autobiographical, The Naked Civil Servant, published in England in 1968, is considered by many to have quietly ushered in the beginning of gay rights.
Thames Television went on to produce it as a feature in 1975 starring John Hurt, who won best actor in England for his portrayal of Mr. Crisp. Pop star Sting even wrote a song about him in 1987 called "An Englishman in New York."
In film, Quentin Crisp is fondly remembered for his performance as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1992 feature Orlando. In 1997 his collected observations and diaries, Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, were published, they contain some of his most hilarious and pointed observations of life in New York.
The last few decades of his life, he lived in a rooming house on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Both out of necessity and desire, having lived that way for so many years in London. And though some may argue that he lived in squalor, he always seemed quite content and at peace with himself. For this witty octogenarian author/thespian who was born in England in 1908 looked as spry as a queen 20 years his junior.
Moreover, the ever-charming Mr. Crisp knew how to wear a hat better than any man or woman to grace the wild streets and bustling night life of New York City. In the 90s, one couldn't help but notice him lunching daily at his favorite neighborhood diner, the Cooper Square Restaurant on Second Avenue and Fifth Street in the East Village. The day I caught up with him we had both just dodged a rainstorm, yet there he was brightening up the place as he entertained all within earshot.
MJP: How long have you lived in New York?
QC: Since I was 72 years old.
MJP: And prior to living here had you always lived in London or did you spend some time in Paris?
QC: I've never been on the Continent; ever. I speak no languages. I can't go.
MJP: So why New York? How did you get here?
QC: I came here in 1977 at the invitation of Mr. Bennett [conceived and directed A Chorus Line], the late Mr. Bennett. He wasn't young, but he was too young to die. And he invited me and my agent and paid our fares here, put us up in the Drake Hotel, and paid our fares back. The story of my life is, I go where my fare is paid.
MJP: Why did you stay in New York? Why didn't you return?
QC: I returned to New York in 1978 when I was sold into slavery to Mr. Elkins. Mr. Elkins is an impresario [theater producer]. I don't know if that word is used in America.
QC: He puts people on the stage. And I came here and worked in a small theater on Macdougal Street for three months in the autumn of '78 and in Los Angeles in the autumn of '79. Then I came back in '80 to get my green card, which is bright blue, but is called a green card, and it took more than a year and more than a thousand pounds but ultimately I got in. And then I went back again, the lawyers said don't go back, but I had to appear at the Mayfair Theatre [in An Evening with Quentin Crisp] and while I was there a letter came, delivered by Mr. [Derek] Jacobyan English actor who acted in Breaking the Code and in the movie Dead Againhe brought me the letter and I thought if this letter says be at the immigration office with twelve just men, I've had it. But it was the card. And then I went home and packed up all my belongings in a little red handkerchief and put them over my shoulder and came to America.
MJP: You and Charlie Chaplin.
QC: That's right.
MJP: I'm still not clear as to why you wanted to move to America. Didn't you have tremendous success on the West End?
QC: Um...[silence]. The people are what is so wonderful about America. Everybody in America is your friend. And in England, nobody is your friend. When you sit on a bus and speak to the person next you, he says, "Do I know you?" Now, no American would ever say that. They tell you the story of their lives while waiting for the traffic light. Indeed I was in the presence of an Englishman who was over here and he said, "You're the one who lives here permanently now, aren't you?" And I said, "Well, why?" And he said, "Because everywhere I go everybody speaks to me." And he said, "I can't think of anything worse." And no one ever talks to you in England. I like my friends, but I'm mad about strangers. And they talk to you all the time. New Yorkers try to frighten you with New York and I never know why. But they're always saying, "Don't go down there. That's a bad block or even a bad side to the street." And I've only once been threatened in the streets of New York and that was on south side of Washington Square which has changed since Henry James' characters lived there. And the man asked me for money and took my scarf and dragged my head down to the pavement. People on the other side of the road crossed over and said, "What are you doing down there, Mr. Quentin?" And he let me go. And I walked on sharpish when he then asked the other two for money. But in England I never felt safe. People were always chasing me and throwing things at me and shouting at me. So I left. People said, "Well, if you were so mad about America, why didn't you come sooner?" But they fall about laughing when I say I could never pay my fare. I never earned more than 12 pounds a week. That's 25 dollars. I'd have to save up for three years to spend three hours in Manhattan. So I came when my fare was paid. And when I saw New York, I wanted it. And now I have it.
QC: I'm serious. People say, "Are you stared at as much in New York as you were in London." And the answer is, there is nothing you can wear in this neighborhood that would make you remarkable. On St. Mark's Place, I'm dowdy. They are people with rocking horse hairdos. It looks marvelous, but when you ask someone what does it mean. They say, "Mean?" Because it doesn't have to mean anything. That's worrying to me. I would have thought that you dressed to tell the world who you thought you were.
MJP: You seem to be an extraordinarily stylish individual. What is the difference between being stylish and being trendy?
QC: You see, fashion is instead of style. If you don't know who you are, you consult the glossy papers. All we know when we see you coming down the street is that you had enough money to buy fancy pants. We don't know anything about you. And if you dress in a certain style, it cuts away all the dead wood of human relationships. Nobody ever talks to me about the weather.
MJP: Are you acting in anything currently?
QC: No, I was most last seen in a film being made by Mr. Spielberg. And I thought I would be amongst a bunch of monsters, but I didn't know all of them would be in drag. This is a movie called Too Wong Foo. Not a China man in sight. And I think I was in the beginning of it. And it takes you across America to Los Angeles, and there are adventures along the way of what happens in the movie. I was a judge of the most beautiful drag queen in New York. And the one who won that could go to Los Angeles and be the most beautiful drag queen in America. Because, as you know, since we've gone television, nothing is enough. You see, if you were the handsomest man on the Lower East Side that would have been your whole life. People would point at you and even when you grew old they would say, "He used to be the handsomest man." But now you see television and two people in Patagonia are not talking about you. And it drives you mad! So you happen to be the most handsomest man in the world and the prize is won by Mr. (Patrick) Swayze. He was in drag and he looked very nice. And Mr. (Wesley) Snipes was in it.
MJP: Yes, your scene was filmed at Webster Hall. I had some friends who worked on the movie.
QC: That's right. I'm a judge. There were a row of judges. It began with Ms. Suzanne March, who looked wonderful, dressed in a black leotard decorated with feathers. I don't know if you know that real actors try to dodge the gentle dabs of the makeup artists when they come 'round. But these people were like birds in a nest, chirping, "Me! Me! Me!" And, of course, makeup artists and wiggists are always under suspicion. But they're not the real workmen. I mean, there are carpenters and electricians. I looked at them to see if they showed any sign of what it was like to find themselves in this mass of screaming queens! And they showed no sign of misgivings. [laughs] Of course the movie industry is not minimalistic. The whole block was taken up with huge trailers, cables as thick as your arm across the street, police barriers preventing anyone from coming in or going out...
MJP: Excessive. I don't mean to change subjects, but tell me about the last English movie you did, the critically acclaimed Orlando.
QC: I had gone back to England to do it. I stayed the first few days in the Chelsea Art Club [in London], which is a dump for used art masters, most of whom I have worked for. So I could ask the famous question, made famous by Tallulah Bankhead, "Don't you recognize me with my clothes on?" [chuckling] And the first morning of breakfast, the man who served breakfast said, "Thought you said you was never coming back?" And I said...
MJP: It was your triumphant return!
QC: That's right. And then I stayed in Hatfield, which, as you know, is about 25 miles south of London. And everyone was wonderful to me on the set. But it was hell!
MJP: Too many long shooting days?
QC: I wore two rolls of fabric tied around my middle with tape. Then a hoop skirt tied around my middle with tapes, then a quilted petticoat, then an ordinary petticoat, and then a dress. And I couldn't leave the trailer without someone lifting up the whole lot and saying, "Put your foot down, now the one. Now you're on level ground." Of course, I never saw my feet. And I dragged the whole lot across the grounds of Hatfield House. But none of things you are promised will happen on a set happen. Nobody slapped somebody's face, nobody burst into tears, nobody ran off the set. Everyone behaved with the utmost decorum. [Pause.] But one scene was at night. Fancy making an outdoor night scene in March in England. It was freezing! And I was rowed across a lake with four real people disguised as actors, because you couldn't get an English actor to row a boat. Sometimes the other camera was in the other boat, sometimes it was in the same boat. And we went across and back, and across and back, and finally someone said to the director, Ms. [Sally] Potter, "We can't go on. It's getting light."
MJP: What's your most poignant moment as an actor?
QC: I don't know. I don't really care for anything much in acting. I said to Ms. Potter, "You realize I can't act. I can only stand where you tell me and say words." And she said, "That's what they all say." People say, "How did you prepare to be Queen Elizabeth?" And actors are always saying things like, "I went into a monastery for six months to learn how to be a monk." Well, I don't know how they use it because there's a bit of tape on the floor and you put your foot on it and he says, "When I say action I want you to say "Hello." And he says, "Action!" And you say, "Hello." And they say, "Cut! You moved your head." Because, of course, it's all a series of pictures and it must be right. Retakes have everything to do with the acting. You come off the set and you say to the director, "Was I beautiful enough? Was I sad enough?" And the director says, "You were fine, but you held your glass in your left hand."
MJP: What's the next project?
QC: I don't have a next project. I never say no to anything. And in that way I get offered parts in movies, mostly shoestring movies made in dim cellars around here for nothing. And was in one of those which was made in Brooklyn. It's called Red Ribbons. No tree grows in Brooklyn. It's the most terrible place you've ever been. We drove with the director out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn, and on and on and on. I thought we must be going to some wonderful, huge warehouse where we can stage The Charge of the Light Brigade, but when we got there we got to a small flat belonging to a friend of the director which we could have found anywhere around here. The director is Mr. Needleman. And why he gets mixed up with these very strange projects I can't think. He's a real person, with a real wife, and a real daughter. And he lives in Westchester. You can't be any more real than that. But he makes movies like Red Ribbons which is about a man who is dead when the film begins and his mother looks through his belongings and finds a heap of love letters from a man! This is in fact the subject of a novel published in 1920 or so called The Revelation. I don't think Mr. Needleman knows that, so to him it is new. So the mother comes to the wake held for him by his friends. And that's what the movie is about.
MJP: What do you miss most about merry ol' England?
QC: In England, as you know, no matter how poor you are, you have a little asmatic gas fire and when it's not warm enough you rush home, light it, and you sit by it. And when you get warm you move away or turn it down. Here the source of heat is never in your hands, it's always in the hands of the super. So when it's really cold, of course, then the place is heated but when in the twilight zone, when it's warm enough to walk around the city during the day without a coat on and you back in the evening, no one wants to sit around in a suit and socks and shoes. You want to take off all your clothes and sit in a filthy dressing gown. You can't do it because it isn't warm enough.
MJP: Do you live in this neighborhood?
QC: Yes, in a rooming house.
MJP: I never would have guessed. Most people, myself included, assume because you are so celebrated, that you live in a palatial environment.
QC: That's right, they do assume. But fame is not money. The only difference between America and all other countries is that in America you can do fame. People often say, "Why are you so often photographed?" And I say, "Because I consent to it." One person in five in Manhattan is a photographer. The fame business here is the smiling-and-nodding racket. If you've been on television twice you wear perpetually an expression of fatuous affability.
MJP: Any new books to be written?
QC: I collected my diary which I wrote for New York Native, which is the kinkiest paper in all the world. And I wrote it at the rate of 1000 words a week for three years. When I became ill and I said I must stop. The editor said, "Would I write it once a month?" So I wrote it once a month. And they were all collected and they cut out the boring bits and the repetitions.
MJP: Do you mind if I ask you your age?
QC: I was born in 1908.
MJP: I would have guessed somewhere in your 70s. You're very well preserved. To what do you attribute your longevity?
QC: The key is never, never work. Nothing is more aging than work. It's not only the strain of getting up in the morning for work, but it's the resentment that settles on your face.
MJP: I assume you've never ever exercised?
QC: I do nothing! I'm a damn ham at doing nothing. When I was a child, when my mother and my sister sat one each side of a fireplace knitting or writing letters, I'd lay on the floor between them and every now and again one of them would say, "Why don't you get something to do?" And I'd say, "Why should I?" People indulge in activities to kill time. I don't want time dead. I like my time living. Like St. Theresa I long to hear the clock strike, because every hour is one hour nearer the grave.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark J. Petracca for The Sentimentalist Magazine. All rights reserved.