Keehnen: Happy birthday.
Crisp: Why thank you, that's very kind
Keehnen: Were you at all charmed by
being born on Christmas?
Crisp: I don't think so. I was very ill
immediately after I was born. I had pneumonia and was wrapped in cotton
wool, an ambience from which I keenly felt my exile.
Keehnen: So other than that how was it
being born a Christmas baby?
Crisp: I don't know, I don't remember. I
was very much embarrassed by Christmas when I was young.
My mother gave me half a crown to buy something for my father and my father
gave me half a crown to buy something for my mother and they both thanked
me. Who did they think they were kidding?
Keehnen: Your number is listed in the
Manhattan phone directory and people call you at all hours, mostly with
questions. What kind of things do they usually want to know?
Crisp: Sometimes they want to know about
England. Would it be easy to live there, what would it be like? They know
the weather is bad, but they don't know much else. Sometimes they have
problems and want to come to New York and they'll ring me up from far away
and ask me if I know anywhere they might live. Perhaps they don't realize I
live in one small room and could never put them up. Sometimes they ask very
different things. A woman phoned me a little bit ago and wanted to know how
to prevent her lipstick from failing.
Keehnen: What did you tell her?
Crisp: I said never eat anything, never
drink anything, never kiss anything.
Keehnen: How are you doing?
Crisp: I'm all right. I've lost the use
of my left hand so I can't type anything anymore. Also, The New York
Native, the kinkiest paper in the world that used to publish my diary
has folded. So my career as a writer has ended.
Keehnen: Did you make any New Year's
Crisp: I read somewhere that St. Teresa
said we should treat all people as though they were at least better than
ourselves and I thought that was so wonderful that I resolved to do it.
Keehnen: Describe a typical day in the
life of Quentin Crisp.
Crisp: I like to spend either one or two
days a week without ever leaving my room because that's the only way you
recharge your batteries because once you are out of doors in New York,
you're in the smiling and nodding racket. Everyone who's been on television
once or twice or more in New York wears an expression in public of fatuous
affability because you may be photographed at any moment.
Keehnen: What are your living
Crisp: I live in New York as I did in
England, in a rooming house.
Keehnen: What are the advantages to
Crisp: I have never found out what
people do with the rooms they're not in so I have always lived in one room.
Here my room is smaller, colder, and three times as expensive. If anything
is wrong with New York it's that the summers are too short, the winters are
too cold, and the rents too high.
Keehnen: If you were to create a Quentin
Crisp room what would it look like?
Crisp: I would furnish it with only what
is absolutely necessary - a bed, a chair, a stove, and a refrigerator. That
is all that is in my room. There is nothing that is unnecessary, nothing
that is a decoration. There are no pictures on the walls, no knickknacks
balanced on things. I find that all a waste of time.
Keehnen: You also have a reputation for
taking notoriously long baths. Is that where you do most of your thinking?
Crisp: Well, I no longer take those
baths for two reasons. One, I have eczema, and it has been suggested that
having a bath is a bad idea. Secondly, the bathroom in this house is on the
floor above me and the lavatory is in the bathroom so you could never stay
in the bath for long fearing you would keep people away from the lavatory.
The shower is on the floor I live on. I only take showers now.
Keehnen: You've become quite a film star
recently. You were wonderful in Orlando.
Crisp: Everyone likes Orlando. Of
course, it was a film I never would have seen in a thousand years if I
hadn't been in it.
Keehnen: What was it like to portray
Crisp: Hell, absolute hell. The costume
was very heavy and had to be dragged across the lawns of Hatfield House. I
wore two rolls of fabric about my waist to make a sort of bustle, and then a
hoop skirt tied around my waist and then a quilted petticoat and then an
ordinary petticoat and then a dress.
Keehnen: You previously remarked that
you never do drag because it makes you appear more masculine. Did that film
experience change your mind?
Crisp: No. I wore very elaborate drag in
the film and was made-up and had a wig and all that. I couldn't go to that
much trouble in real life.
Keehnen: And you were in one with Holly
Woodlawn last year too�
Crisp: Resident Alien. It has no
plot. It shows me wandering about, talking to a lot of people, having a
great meal. People are asked their opinion of me which they give�
Keehnen: How was filming Homo Heights
with Lea DeLaria?
Crisp: That was very frightening.
Keehnen: How so?
Crisp: I never understood what I was
doing. The producer said the line I was to say for me and then I said it
myself and then we proceeded to the next line.
Keehnen: How was Ms. DeLaria?
Crisp: She was quite nice, very good.
Keehnen: So did you ever imagine or
fantasize yourself as a film star?
Crisp: No, I used to learn to imitate
all the female film stars, but I never imagined I would be one.
Keehnen: Who did you used to imitate?
Crisp: Well, you know, all homosexuals
have a capacity for imitating other people and we learned all their voices
in certain cafes and spoke like Garbo or Dietrich or whomever. The easiest
people to imitate were Mae West and Bette Davis. Everyone imitated Bette
Keehnen: And now with Orlando you
have played Queen Elizabeth I too?
Crisp: I didn't act at all. I was just
myself in all those terrible clothes. I could never even leave the trailer
without someone lifting a whole lot and saying, "Now put your foot down, now
the other foot down�"
Keehnen: You've also played Lady
Bracknell on stage in The Importance of Being Earnest. What do you
think is the most difficult thing about acting?
Crisp: I don't really act. For instance,
when I played Lady Bracknell, I never thought "What would it be like to be a
middle aged woman in Victorian England faced with getting her daughter
safely married?" I just went on and said the lines.
Keehnen: John Hurt portrayed you in the
biographical film The Naked Civil Servant. How was your life changed
for the screen?
Crisp: I really don't think it was
changed. I think it was more or less like the book. I was surprised how like
the book it was. Very accurate. I thought it was wonderful. However, when
you cram 60 some years of someone's life into an hour and a half, with
commercials for dog food, which makes it an hour and twenty minutes
actually, it seems as though not a day went by without something terrible
happening when in fact days, perhaps weeks, perhaps even months went by with
nothing happening at all. The book is sadder and more rambling than the
Keehnen: Is it stranger to see your life
portrayed as a subject of a film or to actually see yourself in a role in a
Crisp: Both are outrageous.
Keehnen: How do you think the American
character differs from the British?
Crisp: It's almost the opposite. Whatever you propose to do in
America, everyone is for it. If you say to a group of Americans that you're
getting together a cabaret act they would all say, "what are you going to
wear? What are you going to do?" If you told English people that you were
getting up a cabaret act someone would say, "For God's sake, don't make a
fool of yourself." Americans tend to be forward looking and optimistic.
Keehnen: You have lived in England and
then moved to New York. What are your feelings about Princess Diana being so
frequently covered in the American press?
Crisp: I think the reason is simple.
Princess Diana is the first person ever to enter Buckingham Palace who was
good looking. Americans are obsessed with physical beauty. In England
beautiful women are under suspicion.
Keehnen: Do you have a definition or
measure for beauty?
Crisp: I don't think there is one. In
the movies, beauty is not a woman but a man's idea of a woman. What made
Marlene Dietrich great was what Mr. Von Sternberg thought of her. What made
Garbo great was what Mr. Stiller thought of her. All they had to do was to
be able to portray that.
Keehnen: How do you rank beauty, fame,
wealth, and love?
Crisp: I would say beauty is the best of
those because it can be made to produce the other three. I don't think I
understand what love is really.
Keehnen: Have you ever been in love?
Crisp: Never. I don't know what it
Keehnen: Going back to the royals. What
do you think about all the Princess Di and Fergie brouhaha (scandals,
Crisp: I think it's an awful pity that
the day has come when valets write books about their employers and things
like that. I think it's bad. But of course, it may be partly that the people
concerned aren't sufficiently guarded.
Keehnen: Do you think it's a symbol of
the decline of romanticism?
Crisp: I think romanticism in the sense
of someone to adore unconditionally has been going out of style for a long
time. In America it was the movie stars�but now there are no movie stars. In
England, it's the royal family. People have become envious and embittered.
Keehnen: What changed?
Crisp: The distance between the star and
the stargazer got less. When the distance was infinite nobody ever expected
to be anything like the great stars or royal personages. But now everybody
is much nearer, everybody has a greater chance of being famous or notorious
in some way. At one time they were too far away and people never thought,
"What has she got that I haven't got?" But now they do.
Keehnen: Have you ever reviewed one of
your own films?
Crisp: I reviewed The Bride, but
I don't believe I said whether I'd been good or bad.
Keehnen: Was it strange to see yourself
on the screen?
Crisp: I suppose it would have been
stranger if I'd never seen myself on television. You're always horrified. In
your dreams you imagine you have a great deep rich voice and then you find
you have this rather high flat squeezed out voice. You think you have
beautiful big dramatic gestures and you find of course that it is often
Keehnen: You met Sting during the
filming of The Bride and he wrote the song "An Englishman in New
York" about you. What exactly clicked between you two?
Crisp: I don't really know. He came to
America and telephoned me and took me out to lunch and told me he was going
to write songs about exiles. We had a long conversation about it. He never
said he was going to write about me specifically. Much later I was told the
song had been written. I don't know why really, perhaps I captured his
imagination for a while.
Keehnen: You're even in the video?
Crisp: Yes, I walked up and down West
Broadway and everyone who's seen the video says, "You were so cold." It was
done in February and I was walking up and down the street holding my hat,
holding onto my scarf in this howling gale, lurching up and down the street
because I have terrible rheumatism -- but we got it done in the end. Mr.
Sting is very gentlemanly, very courteous.
Keehnen: When you came to the United
States it was by invitation of Michael Bennett.
Crisp: Yes, that was very nice. He paid
my fare, my agent's fare, and put us up in The Drake Hotel. My first night
here he took me to Sardi's. I'd seen it in the movies, but never in a
restaurant had I seen such waving, screeching, kissing, and rushing from
table to table. If it happened in England the proprietor would put a stop to
it, and if he didn't the staff would leave.
Keehnen: And how do you think living in
America all these years has changed you?
Crisp: It's changed me in that I am no
longer afraid of the world. I'm no longer hostile to the world; my image is
no longer self-protecting because in America everybody is your friend. In
England nobody is your friend. Nobody ever speaks to you in public.
Keehnen: Why is that?
Crisp: I think the English treasure
Keehnen: You were wearing make-up in the
streets of London in 1931. What led to that sort of self-assertion?
Crisp: It happened gradually. Nowadays
people say when did you come out, but I never came out because I was never
in. I was a hopeless case from the day I was born. I don't ever remember not
being laughed at by my brothers or my sisters or my parents as a child, or
by the other boys at school as you can well imagine, or by the people I
worked with when I went out in the world. I suppose it was a gradual process
of deciding how I wanted to present myself. In effect my disease became my
Keehnen: Do you consider being gay a
Crisp: Well, it certainly is something
peculiar. People always say it's perfectly normal--well, it isn't perfectly
normal. Very few people are gay and most people are ordinary so you have to
regard yourself as unique. You have to live through it and not go on
apologizing for yourself.
Keehnen: Going back to your childhood,
did having everyone laugh at you hurt you a lot?
Crisp: I hated it in the beginning, but
eventually you get used to it. As Phillip O'Connor says in his wonderful
book, The Memoirs of a Public Baby, "The day comes for everybody when
you have to do deliberately what you used to do by mistake." Once you learn
to do this, then the jokes become your jokes.
Keehnen: Did you have any role models
Crisp: I think role models are a new
idea. I don't ever remember thinking, "That is what I'd like to be like."
Keehnen: Who is someone you admire
Crisp: Elizabeth Taylor. She's so rich,
so beautiful, so plucky, and so funny.
Keehnen: What celebrity have you been
the most nervous to meet?
Crisp: I don't know if I've ever met
any. Someone offered me the chance of writing up Ms. Minnelli, but I was
frightened and didn't take it on and go meet her. Ms. Minnelli is very bold
and I'm very timid. I just didn't think it would have worked. I would be
frightened by most celebrities, I suppose.
Keehnen: Do you think homosexuals still
view masculinity as sacred and still believe that the "obviously gay" are
spoiling it for everyone else?
Crisp: Oh yes. I think they resent the
effeminate. I don't know quite why. Originally I think everyone thought all
homosexual men were effeminate because those were the only ones they could
see. I think straight-acting gay men resent the fact that there are still
those around who keep up the image of homosexual men as effeminate.
Keehnen: So you see it as sexist?
Crisp: Yes. There's no sin like being a
woman. When a man dresses as a woman everyone laughs, when a woman dresses
as a man nobody laughs. When Marlene Dietrich appeared as a petty officer in
Seven Sinners nobody laughed, they thought she looked wonderful, and
she did. Being a man is seen as uplifting yourself and being a woman is seen
as degrading yourself.
Keehnen: Do you think that is changing
Crisp: Not really. When I saw the
Japanese film The Black Lizard and the people realized the cabaret
singer was really a man, they laughed, even in a screening where nobody ever
displays any emotion, nobody ever laughs or screams or cries.
Keehnen: Going back to wearing makeup in
the streets of London in 1931, was the harassment considerable?
Crisp: Oh yes. The only thing the movie
(The Naked Civil Servant) doesn't show is the crowds that followed me
in the street, so much so that traffic was stopped.
Keehnen: And yet you never attempted to
alter your behavior?
Crisp: I wasn't tempted because I was
stuck with it. Even if I hadn't worn make-up and dyed my hair I could never
have disguised my effeminacy. That was obvious to everyone. Of course I
lived in a room by myself and didn't have to accommodate anyone or else it
would have been awkward. They would have said, "Must you go out looking like
that?" and then there would have been a row. But since I was only
accountable to myself it was easier.
Keehnen: What do you think of the
current �queer' movement?
Crisp: Well, I don't think you can
really be proud of being gay because it isn't something you've done. You can
only be proud of not being ashamed. I'm glad that they're no longer ashamed
and that they don't find their lives difficult to live. But of course, if
they take this protest very far it inevitably does produce an adverse
reaction in the rest of the world.
Keehnen: Such as�
Crisp: If you rush in and out of
cathedrals while religious services are going on, you do not make the public
more ready to accept you.
Keehnen: Do you think the gay community
is becoming more or less assimilationist?
Crisp: I think it's becoming less. If we
crept forward we would arrive at the heart of civilization, but if we charge
forward then there will be resistance. As far as I can tell we want to be
separate but equal.
Keehnen: In your opinion what is the
most shocking thing going on in the world today?
Crisp: I suppose I'm shocked by all this
business about abortion. You see people lying like porpoises in the
entrances of family planning clinics and on the same program you hear that a
garbage man has found a baby four hours old in a paper bag in the alleyway.
Seriously, doesn't that tell you that there must be abortion?
Keehnen: Any message to gay and lesbian
Crisp: Tell them they don't have to win.
Everyone has a parent who says, "Did you come in first?" and if you haven't
you've lost face somehow. It's a terrible pity that people do that. "Did you
score goals? Did you score more goals than other people?" It's terrible. You
don't have to win -- you just have to play.
Keehnen: How similar are you to your
Crisp: I think I'm no different. I try
to make my image and myself one because if you adopt an image you snatch out
of the air it never really works. You have to build your public image on
what you are and then you can't go wrong. I try not to allow there to be
one. Of course, I am more dolled up and ready for the world when I'm in the
world. I can't imagine if someone could look through the window of this room
that they would see me doing something that would make them say, "Oh, I never
dreamed he'd do anything like that!"
Keehnen: You've been quoted as saying
your life has been a matter of chance�does that remain true even today?
Crisp: I try to do everything people ask
of me. I try not to be slipshod in my relations to people and the world. I
try to answer letters and keep appointments, so in that sense my life isn't
a matter of chance. And also, my coming to America was not a matter of
chance. In fact when I told me agent in England that I wanted to become an
American he said in a tired voice, "As it is the only preference you've ever
expressed, we should try and do something about it."
Keehnen: Do you consider yourself an
artist or a work of art?
Crisp: Well, I'm not an artist at all. I
don't know if I'm a work of art or if so a rather broken down one. I have
been called an "auto-fact," meaning a self-created being. I suppose I am in
that I've taken troubles with my, what nowadays would be called, "image."
Keehnen: Did you ever imagine that you
would become famous?
Crisp: No, I never imagined it. I don't
know how it's happened, I just cling on. My agent says, "You can't just do
fame," but you can.
Keehnen: How is that?
Crisp: Never refuse to answer questions,
never refuse to be photographed, and never flinch at the flashes. I
shouldn't be surprised if in the next 25 years universities will offer a
degree in fame.