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Crisp, Quentin [real name Dennis Charles Pratt] (1908–1999), writer and actor, was born on 25 December 1908 at Wolverton, Egmont Road, Sutton, Surrey, the youngest of the four children of Spencer Charles Pratt, a feckless and frequently insolvent solicitor, and Frances Marion, née Phillips, a former nursery governess. In his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, he recounts that his childhood ambition was to be a chronic invalid. He enjoyed the drama of illness because it made him the centre of everyone's attention, especially that of the servants who came and went. He was indeed frail and sickly, to such an extent that he incurred his father's undisguised loathing. His more tolerant mother realized that Dennis was an unusual child, never more so than when she dressed him in green tulle to play a fairy in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Pratt was educated at a local school in Sutton, and then won a scholarship to Denstone College, a boarding-school in Staffordshire. This grim establishment, where canings were regular and bullying an everyday business, provided him with the fortitude to cope with the privations he endured with such stoicism for much of his adult life. His attempts to charm the staff failed, though an Indian boy invited him to bed. This was the first of many unsatisfactory sexual encounters, establishing a pattern that continued until the 1940s, when he found romance and something like love in the arms of handsome American servicemen.

After taking a course in journalism at King's College, London, Pratt drifted onto the streets near Piccadilly Circus, where he earned a living as a prostitute for a year or so. As a ‘dilly boy’, he discovered that the men who availed themselves of his body (in doorways and dingy alleys) were coarse, brutal, and invariably drunk. There followed art courses at Battersea Polytechnic and in High Wycombe, but he soon decided he was happiest painting his face, his fingernails and—in summer when he wore sandals without socks—his toenails.

Pratt lived in a variety of furnished rooms before settling into 129 Beaufort Street, where Chelsea meets Fulham. The room he occupied on the first floor became famous for its squalor, since he had at an early age abandoned the housewifely duties of cleaning and dusting. It inspired Harold Pinter to write his first play, The Room. The only thing that needed to be washed and kept in good condition was himself. He was always beautifully turned out, in elegant cast-offs passed on by friends of both sexes. In 1931 he changed his name to Quentin Crisp.

Working variously as a map tracer, selling commercial art—he published a book on window dressing, Colour in Display, in 1938—and in the art department of a publishers, Crisp wrote a musical, a novel, and a play about Helen of Troy; all were unpublished and unperformed. Although he volunteered for military service in 1940 he was too obviously effeminate to be called up. In 1943 he wrote the anti-war All this and Bevin too, which was illustrated by Mervyn Peake. He found employment as an artist's model thanks to the shortage of young men during the Second World War. He made the best of his physical defects—he was skinny, but with a pronounced pot belly—and had the ability to remain still for long periods. He enjoyed posing for crucifixion scenes, and liked to tell new acquaintances that he made crucifixions his speciality. Because his employer was London county council he was effectively a civil servant, hence the title of the book that brought him fame.

Crisp was in his sixtieth year when The Naked Civil Servant (1968) came out. The publisher Tom Maschler, of Jonathan Cape, had commissioned it after hearing Crisp being interviewed on radio by Philip O'Connor. The book was praised for its elegance and wit, and for its absence of bitterness and self-pity. It told of a man determined to proclaim his effeminacy in the streets of London, not on the stage, where he would have been applauded and accepted. For three decades he was abused verbally and physically, and was frequently spat on for asserting his individuality. He had no desire to look like a woman, or even become one—pace the transsexual April Ashley—although he sometimes wondered whether a sex-change operation might have helped: ‘I could have opened a knitting shop in Carlisle and my life would have been quiet and happy’ (The Independent).

The rest of his life was not quiet, as a result of the television film of The Naked Civil Servant, written by Philip Mackie, directed by Jack Gold, and starring John Hurt. It took Mackie and Gold six years to find the money to make it, and when it appeared in 1975 it was an instant and justified success. Its subject was now fêted and celebrated, instead of being regarded as a freak and an outcast. People now wanted to shake his hand, to boast that they had met him in King's Road, Chelsea, the scene of some of his worst humiliations. His book How to have a Life Style was published in the same year as the release of the film.

In 1978 Crisp became the star of his own one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp. The formula was simple: he reminisced about his life and times for the first half, and answered questions from the audience in the second. Its success meant that at the age of sixty-nine he achieved his ambition of visiting America, which for him meant New York. He was radiantly happy in Manhattan, where he was treated with the respect and tolerance so long denied him. Three years later he returned to New York, staying in the Chelsea Hotel, and after achieving resident alien status he moved into a tenement room on the lower East Side, which quickly became as surreally filthy as the one in Beaufort Street.

Crisp continued to perform on stage and off, and to write. When not being taken to dinner by his host of admirers, he lived on a diet of Guinness and Complan. He played Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's film of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1992), and in the following year he was a party guest in Philadelphia, and invited by Channel 4 to deliver an alternative queen's speech. He also starred in the less well known To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) and Homo Heights (1998). He provided film criticism for the magazine Christopher Street, and contributed to New York Native. He wrote a Gothic novel, Chog (1979), about sexual repression and bestiality; How to Become a Virgin (1981), a second volume of autobiography; and, best of all, Resident Alien (1996), a selection from his New York diaries. The literary finesse that informs these books was not inspired by the work of other writers, since Crisp on his own admission did not enjoy reading. He spent his formative years in the cinema, delighting in the often preposterous dialogue of Hollywood films. His rather manicured style is rooted in the lines Miss Garbo, Miss Dietrich, and Miss Crawford (as he always politely referred to them) had to say to their various screen lovers and victims.

Days before embarking on a British tour of his one-man show Quentin Crisp died, on 21 November 1999. The venue was a suburb of Manchester, not his beloved lower East Side. The hated English had claimed him again. His ashes, however, were scattered over Broadway, Manhattan. Crisp was unfailingly courteous and sweet-tempered, though pretentiousness of any kind inspired him to exquisitely phrased sarcasm. He was his own creation, and by being such did much more for tolerance than many militants. The unique human being who disposed of Dennis Pratt (‘as my name was before I dyed it’) and wore mascara, lipstick, and powder in order to be Quentin Crisp, will be remembered for that grand assumption.

Paul Bailey

Sources  

Q. Crisp, The naked civil servant (1968) · The Independent (22 Nov 1999) · personal knowledge (2004) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

M. Evans, oils, c.1943, NPG · A. M. Parkin, etching and drypoint, 1978, NPG · D. Gamble, colour print, 1988, NPG · E. Barber, photograph, repro. in Crisp, Naked civil servant (Flamingo, 1985), cover · C. Beaton, photograph · A. Macpherson, photograph, repro. in Guardian Weekend (12 Dec 1998) · photographs, Hult. Arch.