British Stage Star Quentin Crisp Bridged the Gap Between Wilde and Milk

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

quentin crisp portrait

Quentin Crisp became the toast of gay New York after his memoir “The Naked Civil Servant” appeared in America in the lat 1970s.

Crisp’s tale, which depicted his life in homophobic England, was later turned into a television project and launched his career as a lecturer, raconteur and bon vivant. He was a man of delicate constitution and well-selected British vocabulary who enjoyed scenting himself in lavender, favored flowing scarves and enjoyed disappearing beneath floppy fedoras.

He was born on Christmas Day in 1908 — less than a decade after Oscar Wilde died. During his younger years, Crisp was involved in the sex trade as a rent boy and also spent time as an art model. He attempted to join the British military during World War II, but was rejected due to his “suffering from sexual perversion.” He remained on English soil, where he discovered that his abilities as a performer delighted Americans, and that affinity ignited a lifelong love affair between Crisp and the Yanks.

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Over time, Crisp became known for his manners, his androgyny and his penchant for make-up and his always flawless nails. In 1981, Crisp moved to Manhattan at the age of 72 and took a tiny apartment in the Bowery. As his reputation grew, so did his audience — to the point where he had a running one-man show in New York and was welcomed as one of the more eccentric guests on Late Night With David Letterman. In 1985, he appeared in The Bride, a film that revisited the plot of Bride of Frankenstein, with Sting playing the tortured scientist. The pair forged a friendship, and Sting’s first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles features a song about Crisp called “An Englishman in New York.”

For all his friends, Crisp was no particular fan of gay culture. Nor did he much care for Princess Diana, whom he publicly called “trash” in both before and after her death. In 1992, Crisp played the role of Queen Elizabeth I in the film Orlando.

In November of 1999 — and at nearly 91 years old — Quisp died on a tour of his one-man show.

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Last modified: July 23, 2019