Recently I read that the writer, raconteur, writer, gay icon and wit Quentin Crisp died at a friend’s home in Manchester. After some digging I found out the exact address and one Sunday afternoon I went to have a look.
Quentin is best known for his memoir “The Naked Civil Servant” which was made in a film featuring John Hurt. It described his hemmed-in life as a homosexual man in homophobic British Society. I can remember seeing Quentin on the front cover of the book in the local library and thinking, “What’s that?”.
This flamboyant homosexual was born in Surrey in 1908 and was teased mercilessly at school. He went to London to study journalism but quickly moved on to take art classes at
Regent Street Polytechnic. He began visiting the cafés of Soho and found men easy to pick up, working as a rent boy for six months. He invited comments, violence and flying spit by dying his long hair lavender, polishing his fingernails and toenails and dressing in an androgynous manner.
Up until his early 20s he was Dennis Pratt but started using the name Quentin Crisp.
Society was less used to homosexual men in those days and Quentin must have guessed that when he tried to join the army at the outbreak of World War II the medical board would refuse entry as he was perverted. He stayed in London during the Blitz “entertaining” American soldiers.
Aged 32 he moved into a bed-sitting room at 129 Beaufort Street, London which he occupied for 41 years. Famous for never attempting housework he said, "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse." He then spent thirty years as a professional model for life-classes in art colleges. Not only did his looks attract attention but his highly individual views on social manners. This Oscar Wilde-type dandy started ground-breaking writing books which mainly showed manners brought people into society whereas etiquette kept others out.
He was famous for having his telephone number to be listed in the telephone directory and felt it his duty to chat to anyone who called him. This openness yielded many dinner invitations where he regaled the host with wonderful yarns in a theatrical manner.
He was 60 when his memoir The Naked Civil Servant was published and made him famous nationally and internationally. Aged 68 he appeared in Hamlet, the film The Bride which brought him into contact with Sting who was inspired to pen his hit song, "An Englishman in New York."
On the back of his memoirs devised a hugely successful one-man touring show An Evening With Quentin Crisp. The first half was a colourful monologue based on his life and the second half a question-and-answer session which showed how random questions brought out the raconteur in him.
He took his show to America. On first stay in the Hotel Chelsea there was a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen (stabbed by her boyfriend Sid Vicious - her body was found under the sink in the bathroom of their hotel room.). What a mad country Quentin thought the 73-year-old he decided to stay. He found a one-room apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side for his few possessions.
He flourished in America and became the favourite of the arty set and had friends like Andy Warhol and films stars. As he had done in London he allowed his telephone number to be listed in the directory and felt obliged to converse with anyone good enough to call him. An evening meal with Quentin was said to be one of the best shows in New York. He said he survived on peanuts, champagne, cocktail parties and writing columns British and American newspapers. He was always in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bites - some controversial: calling AIDS "a fad", homosexuality "a terrible disease" and saying Princess Diana “got what he deserved.”
Oddly though this trailblazing gay icon who dressed like an outrageous drama-Queen in fedora hat, peacock’s feather and make-up he was asexual. There was no partner, he claimed to never have known love and preferred the company of strangers.
In his third volume of memoirs Resident Alien the 87-year-old said he was close to the end of his life but was still performing. On his 90th birthday he was performing the opening night of his one-man show and said hoped to live to be a century old “less a decade off for good behaviour.” This was prophetic. Later that year he was in Manchester to kick off his show. He was due to appear at the Green Room Theatre in Manchester and invited to stay nearby at his friend’s home in Chorlton-cum-Hardy.
He’d been drinking since he got off the plane and through the night he suffered a heart attack surrounded by his angina tablets and an empty brandy bottle. Oddly the policeman who arrived at the guesthouse to identify the corpse was called PC Sissy and the gay undertakers who came to remove the body nearly dropped the body of their hero in excitement. He was taken to Manchester Royal Infirmary Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Quentin’s personal assistant believes Quentin knew he would not return to America. Six days before he left for Britain he amended his will saying, ”Good, I can die now.” He must have known he was dying - he had rheumatism, an enlarged heart and prostate cancer. The British tour was probably a “goodbye” to England where he’d spent most of his life.
He was cremated at South Manchester Crematorium with eight people in attendance. The ashes were flown back to his assistant in New York. The press assumed he was fairly poor having lived six decades in two one-room flats but he left almost £500,000 in America and more than £50,000 in a British bank account.
So here I am outside his friend’s house where he died in one of the back bedrooms. I was aware that on a Sunday morning people might be watching so I immediately started taking photos and wanted to get back in my car within ten minutes. The moment I started taking photos a tall rangy building appeared from behind, groaning and moaning and saying, “Okay I’m moving it, you can put your camera away - I’m moving it now okay?” I can only assume he’d been shouted at for parking his van across people’s driveways. I said I was only taking photos of the house as Quentin Crisp has died there (he’d heard of him.)
I strolled around the back of the houses and took photos of the back bedroom windows. I suppose a guest would be put in the back backrooms but Quentin may not been fit/sober enough to ascend the stairs and may have expired on the couch downstairs.
Pointing at the back bedrooms where Quentin passed away…
At the crematorium where Quentin was cremated…