Quentin Crisp, Gay Icon, Performer and Social Observer, Dead at 90

Obituaries   Quentin Crisp, Gay Icon, Performer and Social Observer, Dead at 90 Quentin Crisp, the gay icon, writer and performer, died Nov. 21 in Manchester, England, prior to scheduled appearances in his one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp.
Quentin Crisp
Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp, the gay icon, writer and performer, died Nov. 21 in Manchester, England, prior to scheduled appearances in his one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp.

The British-born American resident, known for his tart observations about homosexual life, appearances and social rules, was 90. He was born on Christmas Day 1908, and by living his life as honestly as possible -- "coming out" at an early age before "coming out" was a popular gay term -- he was considered an astute social observer in the tradition of Oscar Wilde (who died in 1900).

Mr. Crisp, at once fey, diminutive and flamboyant, became the toast of New York in 1978 with his confessional gay solo show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp. The solo built on the success of Crisp's landmark autobiography, "The Naked Civil Servant," published in 1968 and later adapted into a film that made a star of John Hurt (who played Crisp).

Prior to the announcement of his death, the London theatre news service, What's On Stage, reported that Mr. Crisp was due to perform a whistle stop tour to Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Birmingham and his hometown of London (Drill Hall, Nov. 25-28).

His visit to the U.K. coincided with a new play at the Bush Theatre, Resident Alien, an autobiographical work based on Mr. Crisp's New York experiences. In the show, Mr. Crisp is played by his friend and fellow gay eccentric, Bette Bourne. The play evolved from a lunch between Bourne, founder of the award winning touring company Bloolips, Mike Bradwell, director of the Bush, and the playwright Tim Fountain. "I started telling stories about Quentin, using his voice, and they both said I should play him," recalled Bourne.

"I admire him enormously," Bourne said. "He's the bravest man I know. Whenever I go to New York I go and see him. He does most of the talking which is fine because I don't have anything like his intellectual muscle or wisdom. I love his warmth, his wit, his anarchy and I really do believe he is a great philosopher."

In summer 1998, Mr. Crisp brought his solo Evening back to New York for a couple of weeks, under the auspices of the Glines Theatre (which is dedicated to gay-themed works). Mr. Crisp's return was so popular, he came back again on his 90th birthday, Dec. 25, 1998, for a six week run.

As in Mr. Crisp's 1978 solo (which won a special Drama Desk Award), the Evening offered his dry observations and audience Q & A. An example of his philosophy: "Never keep up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."

Asked how his recent material compares with his previous solo, Mr. Crisp told Playbill On-Line (April 29, 1999): "Well, I don't think it will be different. I talk first, for about three quarters of an hour. Then there's an interval, in which people can write down questions. The lights are put up in the second half, so they can also talk to me from where they sit."

And what was there to talk about? "I really only understand happiness," said Mr. Crisp. "So I can tell people how to be happy." Some pointers: "First of all, never work. I've lived here 18 years in New York and never worked. I rely on the kindness of strangers, like Blanche DuBois. Also, never do any housework. I'm sure I'm right about that. All the women in the world are in a blind rage by half past 10 in the morning. They're worn out by all that sweeping and dusting. Lastly, you must never expect happiness to be 'out there.' It's all in here."

Asked how he got his theatrical start, Mr. Crisp replied, "I'm not an actor. I was forced on stage by my English agent. He was putting on a show directed by a woman in whom he was interested. He said to me, in a dreamy Hungarian voice, 'We don't want to waste the lunchtime hours, so maybe you could go on and talk to people. It doesn't matter about what.' It became a routine. No direction, no script, no rehearsals. I went straight onto the stage. We were frequently down to three people. And when we were, I got off the stage and sat and talked to them."

In response to the media's increasing acceptance and exploration of gay issues, Mr. Crisp told PBOL it was not necessarily easier to live and work in his unique idiom: "There's no difference to me. I'm the same forever. Only the way people see me has changed. And, well, back then I couldn't do other than I did. I looked so odd. I behaved so oddly. Even the boys who liked me at school would say, 'Do you have to stand like that? Do you have to say things are "lovely"?' I tried to be a schoolboy and was a hopeless failure. I was a failure every time I pretended to be a real person. At the same time, I know people in England who liked the old days, liked the fact that their guilty secret was never known. They don't like that homosexuality is currently taken into account in any circumstances. If two men share an apartment today, people say 'I wonder what's going on there.' In the old days, it was, 'I wonder how they split the rent.' The new way leaves people naked, and they don't really like it."

PBOL asked Mr. Crisp why America has gone on a passionate binge for all things Oscar Wilde, from Gross Indecency to The Judas Kiss to the recent Stephen Fry film. "Every few years Wilde wakes up and we all talk about him," said Mr. Crisp. "When I was young and swanning about the West End, we thought he was a nobleman who had thrown his life away on love. But really, his life was as sordid as anyone's could be. He consorted with boys Lord Alfred procured for him, and he met them in darkened rooms. I think he got what he deserved."

Continued Crisp, "I knew someone who went to prison twice as long and never wrote any of that terrible poetry. And he went on with his life -- shaken -- but he got on with it. Wilde was broken by it, which showed he knew just what he'd done."

Mr. Crisp lived in the East Village section of Manhattan since 1977. He wrote the books, "How to Have a Lifestyle," ""How to Become Virgin" and "Resident Alien."

He starred in the occasional film, including "Orlando."

He won a Drama Desk Award in 1978 for "Unique Theatrical Experience" for his Evening With Quentin Crisp.

His web page is at www.quentincrisp.com.

There were no immediate survivors, The New York Times reported.