Cover image for The stately homo : a celebration of the life of Quentin Crisp
Title:
The stately homo : a celebration of the life of Quentin Crisp
Author:
Bailey, Paul.
Publication Information:
London ; New York : Bantam, [2000]

©2000
Physical Description:
251 pages : illustrations, (some color) ; 23 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
ISBN:
9780593046777
Format :
Book

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Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library PR6005.R65 Z4657 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Paul Bailey has created a fascinating portrait of the unique Quentin Crisp, with contributions from friends, admirers, and critics. His various careers--as a performer, artist's model, writer of a memorable autobiography, and authority on style and etiquette--are examined with wit, affection, and disinterested criticism. Designed to explore his life from a variety of angles,The Stately Homois a tribute to one of the twentieth century's true English eccentrics.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Excerpt `This delights me more than it delights you' From The Naked Civil Servant , 1968 It is no accident that the most frequent contributor to this book of celebratory essays is the man who is -- I use the present tense advisedly -- Quentin Crisp's most persuasive advocate. T his school was on the top of a hill so that God could see everything that went on. It looked like a cross between a prison and a church, and it was.     For about a year I was preoccupied only with survival -- learning the rules, lying low under fire and laying the blame on others. When at length these things became second nature to me, I had a timorous look round and saw that the whole school was in an even greater ferment of emotion than my prep school had been, but here the charge ran from the older to the younger boys rather than between the staff and the pupils.     For details of the love life of the prefects, which was one of our abiding preoccupations, you could ask one of the boys whose vocation was to carry notes from the prefects to the ordinary boys. (They were forbidden to speak to one another.) I was once in a class when the master said to one of these procurers, `What's that?' A piece of paper was handed over my head from the boy to the master. When he saw it, he said, `What are these names? Why are they bracketed together?' `They're just names,' said the boy and this he repeated to all the questions that were fired at him. Finally the paper was handed back and the class continued. At length, the great scandal that we had all so longed for occurred. It was to the school what the Mrs Simpson affair was to England.     The ground plan of the college was an `H'. Four classrooms were on each of two opposing arms of this figure and there were two dormitories on each of the two floors above these rooms. Thus there were four `houses' on each side of the building -- an irresistible Romeo and Juliet set-up.     One night, though Montague arms reached out to him from three dormitories besides his own, a boy descended two flights of stairs, traversed the crossbar of the `H' and climbed two flights of stairs on the other wing to keep a tryst with a Capulet. Now, in the winter of my life, feeling that Shakespeare's Romeo might just as well have married the girl next door, I realize that these two schoolboys could have met behind some dreary haystack almost any afternoon. What the older boy did, he did not for love alone, but in order to defy the authorities with all the world on his side. He was caught. By lunchtime the next day the whole school knew every detail of this mad escapade.     His sin was the occasion of the only public beating that I have ever witnessed. The entire school was assembled in the big hall and seated on benches on either side of the room. In the open space in the middle, the modern Romeo bent over and the headmaster ran down the room to administer the blows. After the first two strokes the younger brother of the victim left the room. Even now I can't help wishing that we had all done the same. What made this exhibition so disgusting was not the pain inflicted. Today, a go-ahead schoolmaster would say, `This delights me more than it delights you.' In many parts of London, such goings-on are just another way of making a party go with a swing. What was almost insufferable was that a simple form of self-gratification should be put forward as a moral duty. Before that day I had disliked the head; afterwards I hated him.     I think that all the boys felt a little shaken, frightened, degraded. Clive Fisher is the author of a biography of Cyril Connolly. He lives in New York, where he met and befriended Quentin Crisp in the 1990s. The following is the obituary he contributed to the Independent . Of all the lengthy tributes paid to Quentin Crisp after his death, his was one of the most thoughtful and considered. Q uentin Crisp's painted face, his tilted hat, indeed the rhinestone adornments, were props in a performance which was life-long and largely unpaid and which took the perilous streets as its stage.     Yet although he was an entertainer, Crisp was never an actor and his theatricality was misleading: far from being imitative and insincere, he was consistent, sweet, sensible and direct. His life was about his determination to appear honestly and he wavered in only one regard. He stressed his bewildered passivity -- `life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave' -- when in fact he was self-sufficient, tenacious and determined, a crusader of sorts, whose cause was the right to be openly homosexual, whose adversaries comprised the Great British Public, and whose colours were the roses and violets of high street cosmetics.     This wayward campaign began when its protagonist was born -- as Denis Pratt -- on Christmas Day 1908 at Sutton in Surrey. As a natural loner and auto-invention he grasped early the irrelevance of family life, but independence and solitude were not easily won. He was the youngest in a family of four and followed his parents, a solicitor and former nursery governess, as they moved around London and the Home Counties in their struggle to reconcile appearances with insolvency.     Thus prepared by parental restlessness for the later wanderings of a pariah, he turned to childhood fantasy and furnished the games of make-believe from his mother's wardrobe. She permitted his appearance, in green tulle and garlands, as a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream and instigated his indifference to literature with her readings from Tennyson. Her attention was crucial, but her approval was not automatic. Thinking to impress with his precocious understanding of suburban hierarchy he announced, `The people next door have got no money to speak of.' Her reply -- `Money is never to be spoken of' -- was perplexing but at least set the tone for a lifetime of financial insouciance.     From a local school in Surrey, he won a scholarship to Denstone College in Staffordshire, where his boarding career would have seemed as hateful as it was futile had it not prepared him for later survival on the streets of London. Still serenely directionless four years later, he took a course in journalism at King's College, London, before joining, as though by inevitable progression, the chattering colony of rent boys which paraded the venal streets around Piccadilly Circus. In those distant days, before the gay cult of muscles and crew cuts, the Dilly Boys saw no obligation to appear masculine: vermilion lips and a hand on the hip were their enticements, ten shillings their charge. Before long, Quentin Crisp, as he soon emerged, found his first employment.     There were gestures of further education -- art courses at Battersea Polytechnic and High Wycombe -- but Crisp's hair and nails were already provocative and he most enjoyed painting his face. He moved to London and shared accommodation in the gloomier regions, surviving as the assistant to an electrical engineer before discovering that he was unsuited to regular employment and to cohabitation. He scraped together enough money to take a room on his own and thereafter cherished his solitude, which he devoted to the composition of poems, plays and librettos.     He began designing book covers and became a bad but self-sufficient freelance commercial artist. In one emergency he taught tap-dancing, and before the Second World War he began his literary career with a book on window dressing, Colour in Display (1938). To outsiders it seemed like meagre subsistence, but Crisp thought otherwise: `From the age of twenty-eight, I never did for long anything that I didn't want to -- except grow old.'     Years later, after April Ashley and the advent of The Operation, Crisp occasionally wondered whether a sex change would have benefited him: `I could have opened a knitting shop in Carlisle and my life would have been quiet and happy.' But destiny planned differently, and as jobs and commissions came and went he embraced his true vocation: in his monochrome world of threadbare respectability, at the bus stops and shabby boarding houses of Pimlico and Clerkenwell, among the landladies and greengrocers, he appeared henceforth as a flagrant deviant.     He avoided drag because it made him look masculine: he wanted to appear as a man in make-up, to proclaim the innocuousness of effeminacy, and he dressed accordingly. Some may question the point of his campaign, but nobody could doubt his courage. Each time this slight man left home in make-up, with dyed hair and heeled shoes, sometimes to be spat upon or attacked, at other times to be harried by the police, he asserted that discretion is not always the better part of valour.     With the outbreak of the Second World War, he stocked up on cosmetics, and was exempted from conscription because of his homosexuality. He frequented Fitzrovia and encountered its inhabitants -- Mervyn Peake, Nina Hamnett, Angus McBean, George Melly -- and stumbled into an occupation that was to sustain him for years into peacetime: he became a model for life classes in art schools, an anonymous man paid by the Minister of Education to undress; effectively a naked civil servant.     Domestic drudgery at least could not distract him. Forever a stranger to bourgeois standards, he watched the dust and cobwebs accumulate before codifying his conviction that housework is for those with nothing better to do. At first Bohemia, and later the lecture-going public, was enlightened as to Crispian good housekeeping -- leave the bed unmade and wash dishes only after fish: `After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.'     It was a life waiting to be written, and when Jonathan Cape published Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant , in 1968, its author stood revealed as a sophisticated self-chronicler -- wise, aphoristic and contemptuous of self-pity. A second volume, How to Become a Virgin , followed in 1981, but by then Crisp's life was indisputably public. Talk shows and interviews became routine; a television adaptation of his autobiography, starring John Hurt, made him a household name. More significantly, with rock stars in make-up and gay men on the march, he began to look like a pioneer. At sixty-nine he made his first journey outside Britain; two years later, a frail evangelist, he had given one-man shows across the English-speaking world.     Anyone famous must sooner or later reckon with America, but Crisp had begun a swooning admiration during the war, and in 1981, almost forty years after the GIs had gone home, he moved to New York. Immigration negotiations proceeded satisfactorily, although the official at the American Embassy in London who asked Crisp if he was a practising homosexual was disconcerted by the reply: `I said I didn't practise, I was already perfect.' His earliest Manhattan address, the Chelsea Hotel, proved distracting -- his first three days there saw a burglary, a fire and the murder by Sid Vicious of Nancy Spungen -- but by the time he had secured official resident alien status, he had also found permanent accommodation in a tenement on the Lower East Side.     For most of his life Crisp had not done, he had merely been. New York, however, galvanized him, and fame brought invitations and obligations hitherto unimaginable. He reviewed films for Christopher Street magazine and contributed to the New York Native . He appeared in advertisements and acted in films -- not everyone saw To Wong Foo (1995) or Homo Heights (1998), but his cameo as Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's Orlando (1992) was acclaimed as inspired casting.     He lent his support to Aids fundraising and in the winter of his life he joined the computer age, frequently receiving 200 e-mail letters a week, largely from older women. He appeared in one-man shows in New York, and even in his nineties, when older than Grand Central Station, he travelled the continent with his wit and wisdom, on one occasion being permitted to board a plane without the mandatory photo-ID, `which makes me the only person not only to have seen, but to have been, an Unidentified Flying Object.'     He had always been proudly accessible by telephone, and when not otherwise engaged, Crisp happily met the curious or merely admiring for lunch, although an enlarged heart increasingly restricted his mobility. Gay activists feared his flamboyance gave their cause a bad name but he was too old now to capitulate to the crowd. His hat and jewellery remained conspicuous, and make-up, worn always for revelation not concealment, streaked his soft and sexless skin and lent him the aspect of some senior dame of the theatre.     Sometimes he would profess an acceptance of approaching death, sometimes he insisted he must hasten his end. Sometimes he claimed he was looking for someone to kill him, sometimes he thought he might do it himself. But how? He had never been practical. `I can't throw myself under a car or leap from the top of a skyscraper. It's very difficult -- you see, I'm a nancy.' Copyright © 2000 Paul Bailey. All rights reserved.

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