This interview with Quentin Crisp is part of a series of articles republished from Planet, the independent magazine I edited in the early 90s from a base at 309 Karangahape Road, along with Grant Fell, Rachael Churchward, Fiona Rae, David Teehan, Paul Shannon, Mere Ngaigulevu and others.
Inevitably, you forget things, and over the years I've looked at the cover of Issue 12 (Summer 93) and thought "what did we do about Quentin Crisp?". Turns out it was this gem by Rupert E. Taylor.
Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for offering to re-type this and future articles to get them out of the memory hole. RB
“Shit!” I yell. “When do the banks close here?” “Oh, about four I think.” I'm staying in New York briefly, with friends Shelly and Joost who have just moved into a new apartment, on my way to London. Anyway, it's 3.15, so I rush out down the hall, stairs, stoops and away, my first venture out alone in New York
'I won't get lost,' I'm thinking, 'cause the banks are on 2nd Street, so I'll just stay on 2nd.' I'm walking hurriedly up 2nd street searching for the bank. Have I missed it? Have I walked past it and not noticed? God, so much to look at, I love it here. Oh look there's Quentin crisp having lunch … Quentin Crisp!!?? He caught my eye, I wave, he nods a similar nod to that of the Queen of (shit!) England. 'My, my,' I'm thinking, 'I should talk to him. No Rupert, he's eating, you can't interrupt him. (Shit! I've missed the bank – closed 3.30). Go on, go and talk to Quentin, Rupert, you're not in New York every day'.
So I do.
I walk through the door of the cafe and straight up to him. “Mr Crisp?” I ask rather nervously, but confidently loud. “Yes,” he replies, looking me from head to toe. “Uuummmmm ...” I stand not quite knowing what to say next. “For goodness sake move my shopping and sit down,” he says. “Okay. Thanks.” I sit down and look at this man. From my chair it's almost as if he is somehow dragging me closer. I move the chair further into the table so I can get closer and look harder. He has applied his blusher, a sort of rose pink, not too bright, below the outer corner of his eyes in small filled-in circles, rather clownish and not subtle. He is lightly powdered and his eyeliner has been applied with a very shaky hand; there's a hint of eye shadow, powder blue. His hair is plainer than I would have imagined. Mauve in the grey from his hairline, fading into silver-grey, both sides swept up to join in the middle, like two waves meeting in a windy sea, captured in a photograph or still life painting.
“Will you join me?” he asks, his dancing hands rolling together towards his sandwich.
“Okay,” I reply, still bemused by the whole scene. He calls a waiter, who toddles off with the sandwich and returns with it cut in two with an extra plate for the unexpected guest.
“I'll have a black coffee too, thanks.
“Thank you,” I say to Mr Crisp. “My name is Rupert.”
“And mine is Quentin.” He looks at my eyes, and I his. He has old eyes, soft and grey-blue. I liked them and lapped it up every time he looked at me which, as he only did occasionally, was an extra treat.
“I thought you were amazing in Orlando,” I say. “You were great, I especially loved the opening scene with Jimmy Sommerville singing on the bow of the boat.”
Quentin laughs: “Thank you, thank you. Yes, Mr Sommerville, (he starts singing in falsetto) singing very high in falsetto.” He is leaning back in his chair, his head tilted back, singing and performing. Heads are turning in the cafe and I'm loving it. “Yes, that damned scene went on all night,” he says. “Up and down, up and down we went, 'cut' they'd yell, and I'd think 'no, not again', and we'd have to start the scene from the beginning. Up and down, up and down. The poor men rowing. Of course they weren't proper actors y'know, actors wouldn't be seen dead rowing like that. They were extras with big chests. Poor fellows. Then before I knew it, someone yelled 'dawn has approached us', and sure enough dawn had approached us – we'd been going all night and it didn't stop there.”
Did you prepare for your role as Queen Elizabeth? Did you study for the part?”
“Oh no. Not at all. They picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to the set and that was that. Y'know some people do that. Some actors, they go and become a nun or something, but I'm not really like that, in fact I wouldn't call myself an actor.”
“Oh, I would Mr Crisp. I think if you can put on a costume and slip into the part of the character as immediately as you did, I would definitely call you an actor. I thought you played the part beautifully.”
“Thank you, Rupert.” Talking to him and watching his hand and expressive face, his dramatic voice – oh yes, he's an actor alright.
“What about The Naked Civil Servant?” I ask. “Was that a very close portrayal of your younger life? Did you like the way John Hurt played you?”
“Oh yes, indeed. Mr Hurt was wonderful and you know, by the time he had his makeup on and was dressed, I was very surprised, because yes, he really looked as I did when I was younger. I remember one day he said to me, 'I'm dreading this Mr Crisp, how the hell am I coing to play you?!' But then after he had been made up he approached me and said, 'I know I can play you now Mr Crisp, do you know why? Because I feel veerry pretty!' (he laughs). Y'know they were just so thorough about everything – everything had to be just right. They made me draw pictures of my close friends at the time and they would colour them and ask me if it was right or not. Yes they were very thorough.”
“Were you paid lots of cash for the movie rights Mr Crisp?”
“Well, no, I was paid £350 and they paid me to be a technical adviser – no, not lots of money.”
“I found The Naked Civil Servant very sad and quite disturbing. Did people really do those things to you? Were they really that harsh?”
“Oh yes! They were, very nasty people. Of course, getting beaten up during the Second World War was a horrid thing, but yes, people used to grab my hats and throw them on the road and jump on them. I didn't know what was wrong with them, as far as I was concerned I was doing nothing wrong, but the English most definitely did not like it, they are so bloody conservative, people would come right up to my face (he starts talking to his hand which he's holding up to his face) and say, 'who the bloody hell do you think you are anyway Quentin Crisp?' And I would say, 'I'm nobody, nobody at all, what is wrong with you?' Oh no, the English are very conservative, unlike here of course.”
“How long have you lived here in New York?”
“I've lived here as a legal alien now for 12 years non-stop. I paid thousands of pounds and begged for years to be able to stay here. People here talk to you, people on the street say, 'Hello Mr Crisp', people here are very friendly and want to talk to you and find out about you.”
“Do you live alone?”
“Yes, I do, as I have all my life, in a one-bedroom flat. That's how I've always lived. I share a toilet and bathroom with five others. I'm living in probably the only, or one of the only, boarding houses left in New York, on 4th/East Avenue. Y'know, these days people call anything an apartment – a tiny box, they'll put a gas cooker in one corner and a shower box in the other and call it an apartment.
“Will you look at that rain, look at the puddles, that's about six inches of water there. Y'know, the drain system here is dreadful, I mean I know New York is built on a large rock, but wouldn't you think they'd have better drainage?”
“What do you do in your spare time? When you're not performing or giving interviews?” He laughs. “People are always asking, 'Mr Crisp, What do you do when you're not on telly or in the movies?' I say, 'My dear, I'm only on telly or in the movies for four minutes here, five minutes there, what do you think I do? I do what you do – I fry an egg, clean the lavatory or write a letter.' People are so funny.”
“Do you go for walks?”
“Oh no, I hate walking.” He looks blankly out the window, silent for a few seconds. “Y'know, I don't think I've ever been for a walk. Oh, I go to the shops or I'll walk to get somewhere, but no, I've never been one to 'go for a walk'. I have a friend who lives in the country and he's always asking why I don't go and stay and I say because I hate all that grassy stuff and leaves. It's just not me, I love the city. Y'know, just the other day I was walking to catch a bus and I walked past this big black man who was looking at me in a rather surprised way. He said to me (laughing), 'We've sure got it all on today, honey.' Well, I laughed and said, 'Yes, we have haven't we?' It was very funny, I like people here.”
“I went to Wigstock on monday,” I say. “It was amazing, 20,000 people dressed up. Drag queens, transvestites, wigs galore, great acts and entertainment for eight hours. Ru Paul performed. Did you go? Do you go out to clubs here?”
“Oh no, no. What I can't understand is this; how can a man have a frock on, stockings and a full face of makeup and a wig, all the business and still have a beard on his face? (laughs). I just can't understand it. Of course, drag is very fashionable now and there are some good ones, but no, I don't go out.
“We'll, I'd better be off and go home now. It's been lovely chatting with you, Rupert.”
“You too, Mr Crisp, I'm so pleased I've met you and thank you for talking with me.”
“It was a pleasure. Goodbye.”
I walk up to the counter with Mr Crisp and observe him as he pays his bill. He says goodbye again, this time turning around to have a final look from toes to head. I smile, he leaves.
I ask to pay for my coffees, of which I have lost count. “No, no,” says the waiter. “Mr Crisp paid.”
I later found out that Mr Quentin Crisp was very poor and did not own a lot of money – on the bones of his arse was how it went. Thank you Mr Crisp. I owe you one.
Originally published as Fairytales of New York: Taking tea with Quentin, in Planet 12 (Summer 93), by Rupert E. Taylor.