By Kira Barnum
I was lucky enough last winter to meet Merlin Holland, Oscar Wildes grandson, when he stopped in Cambridge, MA to read from his edition of Wildes letters. Like Mr. Crisp, hes so smooth and polite its almost scary at first. I knew of Mr. Crisps disdain for Wilde, of course, but I asked from the back of the small room: "What do you think of Mr. Crisps writings?" There were distinct mutters of disapproval from the audience, but he promptly said yes, he did enjoy his writings as high camp and that hed met at least one man in the past whod said: "Your grandfathers Quentin Crisp, right?" He was surprised to hear that Mr. Crisp had played Lord Alfred Douglas in "Lord Alfreds Lover" and said that sounded very appropriate. I didnt really want to ask what he meant by that!
|Why did I get involved with Quentin Crisp? Well, any number of reasons. The fact that the tape of his one-man show left me limp in the same way that "Cyrano de Bergerac" did? The fact that he was the only person I ever heard of besides Miss Manners who really knew how to be both old-fashioned and stunningly modern? The fact that for that reason, no matter how old he got, I always thought of him as my age? Or simply that, like so many American teens, I adored anyone witty, glittery or British? Yes, to all of the above. His Old World mannerisms never failed to charm. The only time he used my first name--as a one-word sentence--was when he was confirming it for his appointment book. There was also his remarkable versatility. As Jane Walmsley once wrote, to be a successful comic in England, you have to act as the outsider, the loser, and be brave about death. In the U.S., she said, you have to be urban, poor, a minority member, and cynical. This he covered very well.
I first read his book The Naked Civil Servant in 1986, when my father said he thought Id like the humor. Despite Mr. Crisps calling the title "terrible," I thought it appropriate. Aside from its sounding "famous" even if youve never heard of it, I had the vague idea that it stood for "brazen public fighter for tolerant civility." I finally invited him to Colby College (Maine). Years later, he said hed thought he was flying into the wrong state because from the airplane window he could see "absolutely nothing!" At dinner, all I could do at first was stammer, "So ... um ... do you like P.G. Wodehouse?" Answer: "No." He was well received by the school and got a standing ovation. Shortly before the show, three men--all English professors--walked in and sat down. Mr. Crisp started staring at one of them, turned to me and said in his deepest voice: "That man has got to be a lecturer or worse!" I walked into a class the next morning; it was a small class on theatrical comedy and we were studying The Importance of Being Earnest, and as I walked in, the very same professor looked up from his chair and asked incredulously: "Wheres Quentin Crisp?"
ME: You didnt tell me to bring him to class.
HIM: Well, go GET him!
He was a bit appalled, but he came anyway.
I couldnt see him after that as much as I would have liked, but I tried. Id heard how his notoriously unswept apartment could get too cold, so I called and offered him a small heater I had. He said someone had already given him an electric radiator but the landlord wouldnt let him keep it.
ME: He was afraid the dust would catch fire?
MR. CRISP: He was afraid the dust would catch fire.
I once gave him At the Back of the North Wind by the misanthropic fantasy writer George MacDonald (1824-1905), who, while not immune to Victorian sentimentality, was no more blind to the horrors of his time than Dickens. Like Mr. Crisp, he ultimately saw even young death as something to be happily, fearlessly embraced--if only because it was so much harder to avoid back then. (Years before, Mr. Crisp had written: "Your letter makes me realize I give people the impression I have read a great many books; this is not true. The only Mr. MacDonald I ever heard of was the patron saint of America who invented the hamburger.") I gave him the book because--forgive me, Andrew Barrow--I saw at least five major parallels between it and Mr. Crisps life, plus, as I discovered later on, Nannys resemblance to Penny Arcade! Theres also one paragraph from Chapter 35 after the dragonfly scene that describes him almost perfectly. (Though when I realized what a dumpster load of gift books filled his apartment, Im glad I never asked him if hed read it.)
It was around this time that I began to notice Mr. Crisps contradictions. For all his steely cynicism, he had flashes of deep tenderness. Im thinking, in particular, of his simple but incredible portrait of Jack Eric Williams near the end of the Resident Alien diaries. For all his claims that music is a mistake, he admitted to liking some singers voices. Fear of emotional vulnerability aside, I suspect he was trying to avoid saying that any particular generations music is a mistake. (I should have guessed he wasnt tone-deaf, as he liked to imply, when he described Stings voice in Resident Alien!) And as his accent became less distinctive, he would cling increasingly to some English traits, if only for appearances sake. I once was in a taxi with him (speaking of which, I always thought a good taxi recording for him would have been: "Please buckle up, I cant afford to lose any of your kind invitations to lunch.") and I gave him cake plus some grape jelly, which, I told him, was spiced. He shrank away from the word as if Id propositioned him. After Id stopped laughing, I assured him it wasnt spiced that much.
I called him on Halloween of 1999. He responded in his familiar cracked lilt: "Im-all-right-thank-you." I asked to meet him on November 6th. There he was, lighting up the diner window as only he could. We ate and talked about "Stormy Weather" (I had met the Nicholas Brothers three years before). I then asked him if he remembered the "window-shopping" scene from Chapter 9 of The Naked Civil Servant. He said yes. I said it was apparently repeating itself, because according to a rumor about a well-known military academy, the super-macho cadets there couldnt find women who were cartoonishly feminine enough to suit them, so they were "forced" to date the local drag queens instead. He buried his face in his hands and shook his head.
Ill always remember the two blocks back to his apartment. We left the diner and he stared at some young women walking past in big running shoes--"Why do they wear ghastly shoes like that?"--and we started moving slowly. I had him on my right arm and a medium-sized bag on my left. He had to stop his pained shuffle every thirty seconds and at one such time turned, looked at me and asked in his gentle manner: "Isnt that bag too heavy for you?"
I knew, of course, that it probably would be the last time I saw him, but I never wanted to believe it. He talked of how he dreaded England because of how theyd heckled him on past tours. I tried to reassure him with: "Maybe theyll be nicer to you this time."
In a way, as it turned out, England was.
So how do we remember him?
Were his contradictions infuriating at times? Definitely. The closest I came to taking him to task was when I once casually brought up the subject of "ladies" versus "people." He then exasperatedly repeated what he had written early in Resident Alien. Though I know what a laugh that got in his show, I thought that episode was a sad misunderstanding. That is, it turned out he was only talking about the holding of doors. However, when young women hear an old man say that male manners are dead all because "ladies" no longer exist, they often assume--as I suspect those women did--that the actual subject is sexual harassment and that theyre being blamed for it. I tried to tell him how Miss Manners, whom hed once interviewed, had said that women could in fact be both ladies and people--namely, she had said that a proper lady no longer throws games to boost a mans ego because a man who was a poor sport was never a gentleman. Im not sure he was really listening. On the other hand, this is the same man who criticized the antifeminist elements in "Fatal Attraction."
I once called him to egg him on--I had just heard his infamous remarks on Princess Diana and while I have never paid a nickel for any literature on her, I couldnt help teasing him with: "Maybe youd like to start quoting from that Christopher Hitchens book on Mother Teresa?" He wasnt familiar with it, so I simply said it wasnt complimentary, to which he said: "Well, I dont want to be bitchy."
In the end, as one eloquent teenage fan of his said, we should consider that maybe his first sixty years really did hurt him more deeply than we want to believe. Was he jealous of young gays freedom? Possibly. But if his negative remarks were a blatant violation of his manners code, they were also probably his refusals to be possessed, seduced and abandoned once again--or simply refusals to be taken too seriously. Besides, what really counted was that he was always there to listen to you, friend or foe. As he said, books are for writing, not reading, and what people write does not always represent what they will do for you. Fran Lebowitz, to give another example, can talk like a conservative all she wants, but I can never think of her as such. Maybe his moral is that being more relaxed and progressive than your grandparents doesnt make you a liberal, and wanting to talk and act like a dignified adult (most of the time) doesnt automatically make you a conservative, either. Or, as the late civil rights lawyer Flo Kennedy said: "If you are part of a movement and some people perceive you as a leader or representative, they sometimes get so goddamn possessive, as if they're entitled to tell you whatever is wrong, and that's when I really go crazy. It's amazing, but a lot of people in the movement feel that they have to answer to other people about what they do. It's part of what I call the tyranny of the weak. They call it ego-tripping, and they don't want stars. And of course, what I say is, 'If I am not a star, what the hell are you doing on my phone wanting help at 3 o'clock in the morning?'"
As much as we might wish for another Quentin Crisp with whom we can "just start talking," as if wed always known him, maybe we shouldnt. As journalist Libby Purves wrote, we loved him heavily for his martyrdom. While well certainly never have another 24-hour free phone therapist, we could try listening for a change--he once said all he did to earn peoples undying love was say "Really?" "And what happened then?"
So what did he finally give me? Well, he inspired me to clean my apartment (ironically, after embracing his anti-materialist philosophy!) and maybe some of my life. He taught me to suffer fools gladly (especially if you hope to be tolerated yourself) and to put people first. And regarding "people are neither homosexual nor heterosexual, just sexual," I now think of him as not necessarily feminine, just beautiful. (Anybody can tell hes a man in "Orlando," but from photos--not just Angus McBeans--you know its no wonder the WWII soldiers were so mad about him!)
And when I heard the horrible news in September and the coverage of the chaos in Lower Manhattan began, one part of me kept asking, "Oh my God, is he all right?"
Thats how much hes still here.