The queen is dead. Long live the queen. Quentin Crisp—who was out before Rupert Everett, outlandish before Elton John, and alive before George Michael—was the British wit-raconteur-pansy par excellence. A dear man with pinched features and the look of Erté playing Lady Bracknell, the charismatic author and actor was a veritable Pez dispenser of aphorisms, which you could count on him to emit with a seemingly superhuman élan.
“Love,” he once told me, “is that extra effort we make with those we don’t really like.” “All morality,” he similarly volunteered, “is just expediency in a long white dress.” One chuckled, even while realizing that these sayings also appeared verbatim in his articles, books, and stage shows.
Crisp even had some well-rehearsed witticisms about his witticisms, but way before people paid to hear him unleash these epigrams, his life had no punch line at all. Crisp moved to post-Stonewall New York in the afterglow of the ’76 TV version of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, but he’d been far less popular as a flowery creature in an England that was practically pre-Stonehenge. With frilly scarves and flapping wrists that today might get you a starring role opposite De Niro, Crisp bravely invited gawking and abuse, and felt he richly deserved it. “I expected to be hit on the head,” he once told me, “because if I’m making one kind of protest, people must be allowed to make another.” Never mind that Crisp’s protest wasn’t violent and didn’t call for that kind of reciprocation; this particular witticism was in his repertoire and it was staying there.
In fact, a lot of Crisp’s sputterings were of the type that made activists anxious to dispel him from the sisterhood. He felt that gays shouldn’t bother fighting for a place at the table, and that things were still so dire for queers that if a fetus could somehow be found to be gay, it should be aborted. “It is absolute nonsense for minorities to be militant,” he told me. “You must lose. How much do you get by banging on the table, shouting ‘Give me my food’? Or is it possible to just sit there so long they feed you?” New tides of enforced change seemed to be disproving his theory, but Crisp clung to passivity, even while it inspired outrage. At least he was aware that he was out of step with the new kids. When one gay journal said The Naked Civil Servant should have been published posthumously, Crisp knowingly told me, “That’s a literary way of saying, ‘Drop dead.’ ”
Toward the end, most ignored the views and enjoyed the man—specifically his delicate, likable manner and the way he said things more than the actual content (which was often devastatingly on-target anyway). A regular on the party scene—and at the old Cooper Square Diner—he reveled in his late-life discovery, seizing the chance to be celebrated and heard, and admitting, “I have gone into the fame business.” Surrounded by walkers and well-wishers, he basked in the admiration, while quietly coping with the reality that he was frail, far from wealthy, and felt he would die alone.
Last week, Crisp, 90, died of a heart attack in his sleep while on the verge of launching his one-man show in Manchester, England. (At a party I had last year, he smirkily complained that theatrical touring would kill him.) He had an aphorism for dying, too: “I have always liked death, especially other people’s death, but have recently been contemplating my own with a certain amount of relish.”