A Memory

by Ellen

My first glimpse of Quentin Crisp was, of course, unforgettable. It was during World War ll. I was a young art student at Willesden College in London. He was our life-model one morning and seeing him posed, seated nonchalantly on the raised platform surrounded by easels, was an amazing experience. The flaming red hair, the blue eye shadow, and the long, painted fingernails were totally overwhelming. I had never met anyone like that before. And his quiet calmness and stillness were remarkable.

Since this was during the war and air raids were frequent, when the sirens sounded the drill was for all of us students to file down to the air-raid shelters outside the college building. The shelter was a long, narrow damp and dark underground Quonset hut. And we'd sit there facing each other, nervous and scared, on two rows of wooden benches, listening to the whistles and howls of the falling bombs. AND THEN! Along came Quentin Crisp in a flowery silk kimono, casually strutting between the two rows of terrified students. He held a foot-long cigarette holder and walked so calmly back and forth in the shelter. His presence calmed our fears and literally tranquilized us.

When I met him again years later in New York, during his first tour of his one-man show in the U.S., we reminisced about the war years—and he vividly remembered the air raids and the bombings. We met several times in Manhattan. Once I took him to a family luncheon, where he made an indelible impression and took off his shoes after asking permission to do so. He explained that in his younger, less sensible years, he would force his feet into shoes that were several sizes too small—thus crippling himself for the rest of his life.

My last memory of him was a performance in Greenwich Village, when the building we were in caught fire and filled with smoke. Before anyone had a chance to panic, he turned to the audience and asked, "Shall we stagger on?" Again, he possessed that quiet calm which he had shown years ago in England during German bombardment.

We stayed in touch by mail—one of his favorite ways of signing off at the end of the letter was to write, "Let's meet soon, and leap up and down together!" While I certainly can't claim his friendship, being his "acquaintance" was a colorful highpoint of my life. He was a dear, sweet, intelligent and very strong man—with a passionate conviction to be exactly what he was.

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Photograph © by Jean Harvey. All rights reserved. Used by permission

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