Monday, December 25, 2017

Born Today in 1908: English Writer, Actor Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp was born Denis Charles Pratt today, December 25, in 1908.  He was an English writer, model, prostitute, and actor.

Crisp enjoyed wearing make-up and painting his nails, and worked as a rent-boy in his teens. He then spent 30 years as a professional model for life-classes in art colleges. The interviews he gave about his unusual life attracted increasing public curiosity and he was soon sought after for his highly individual views on social manners and the cultivating of style. His one-man stage show was a long-running hit both in Britain and America and he also appeared in films and on TV.

He changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties after leaving home and cultivating his effeminate appearance to a standard that both shocked contemporary Londoners and provoked homophobic attacks.

Early on Crisp began visiting the cafés of Soho meeting other young homosexual men and rent-boys, and experimenting with make-up and women's clothes. For 6 months he worked as a male sex worker, looking for love, he said in a 1999 interview, but finding only degradation.

Crisp attempted to join the British army at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical board on the grounds that he was "suffering from sexual perversion." He remained in London during the 1941 Blitz, stocked up on cosmetics, purchased 5 pounds of henna and paraded through the black-out, picking up G.I.s, whose kindness and open-mindedness inspired his love of all things American.

Crisp left his job as an engineer's tracer in 1942 to become a model in life classes in London and the Home Counties. He continued posing for artists for the next 30 years.

Crisp had published three short books by the time he came to write The Naked Civil Servant at the urging of his agent, Donald Carroll. The book was published in 1968 to generally good reviews. Subsequently Crisp was approached by the documentary-maker Denis Mitchell to be the subject of a short film in which he was expected to talk about his life, voice his opinions, and sit around in his flat filing his nails.

In 1975 the television version of The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and US television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a new direction: that of performer and tutor. He devised a one-man show and began touring the country with it.

The 1990s would prove to be his most prolific decade as an actor as more and more directors offered him roles. In 1992 he was persuaded by Sally Potter to play Elizabeth I in the film Orlando. Although he found the role taxing he won acclaim for a dignified and touching performance. Crisp next had an uncredited cameo in the 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. Crisp accepted some other small bit parts and cameos such as a pageant judge in 1995's To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.

Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old age. He caused controversy and confusion in the gay community by jokingly calling AIDS "a fad," and homosexuality "a terrible disease". He was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite and throughout the 1990s his commentary was sought on any number of topics.

Crisp was a stern critic of Diana, Princess of Wales and her attempts to gain public sympathy following her divorce from Prince Charles. He stated: "I always thought Diana was such trash and got what she deserved. She was Lady Diana before she was Princess Diana so she knew the racket. She knew that royal marriages have nothing to do with love. You marry a man and you stand beside him on public occasions and you wave and for that you never have a financial worry until the day you die."

In 1995 he was among the many people interviewed for The Celluloid Closet, an historical documentary addressing how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality. In his third volume of memoirs Resident Alien published in the same year, Crisp stated that he was close to the end of his life, though he continued to make public appearances and in June of that year he was one of the guest entertainers at the second Pride Scotland festival in Glasgow.

Crisp died of a heart attack in November 1999 nearly one month before his 91st birthday.  

Sting dedicated his song "Englishman in New York" (1987) to Crisp.

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