Quentin Crisp was born in Surrey in 1908-1999. He worked as an artist’s model until the 1970’s when his book The Naked Civil Servant was dramatized for television to great acclaim. Since then he has written several books including a second volume of autobiography, How to Become a Virgin, and a book of film criticism, How to Go to the Movies. In 1993 he played the role of Elizabeth I in the film version of Orlando. In 1981 he left England for New York where he still lives in a single room on the Lower East Side. His experiences and reflections on life since moving to the US are captured in his book, Resident Alien – The New York Diaries, was published in 1996.
From an early age you were aware of what you call your predicament. Do you think your predicament was largely genetic or do you think there were other factors involved?
There must have been something genetic because so many people have such absolutely conventional upbringings and they still are peculiar in some way or another, including sexually peculiar. But there may have been other factors involved. For example, you could say that I lacked anyone to tell me how to be a grown person. My mother alternately protected me from the world and threatened me with it; my father took absolutely no notice of any of us, he hardly ever spoke to us.
You obviously had a very difficult relationship with your father. How much do you think this was a symptom, how much a cause of your own problems?
I never tried to talk to my father about anything, certainly never about anything serious, so I think that was a cause. The more appalling I was, the less he talked to me.
You said that in later years you found ways to fuel the furnaces of his hatred. That sounds like a deliberate attempt to do battle.
In some ways, yes. I became more frivolous and more deliberately helpless. I knew I was a hopeless case, and I paraded my hopelessness before my father.
Money always seems to have been a bit of a problem. Yet the impression is of a middle-class upbringing with domestic servants and so on…would you say that was the case?
We did have a middle-class suburban upbringing, and there were servants with black dresses and stretched aprons, but I now know we had no money. My father was permanently in debt, and there were bailiffs in the house regularly.
In your autobiography, your three siblings are given hardly a mention. Did you always feel apart from them, and they from you?
Yes, I think I was apart from them, and they felt glad that I was apart from them. My sister, who died only about ten years ago, once said long after all the trouble was over, that I had been a terrible child. My brother next to me in age was horrified by having to be associated with me. The brother after that was so much older that he didn’t really bother.
As a child, your unhappiness, or sense of being different, manifested itself in all kinds of attention-seeking behaviour. Were you aware of what you were doing at the time, was it a means to an end, or did you become aware of what it was only retrospectively?
I certainly did draw attention to myself, and I think I knew that I did, but I would have denied it, I imagine.
Do you look back on the period when you were wetting your trousers and soiling yourself with a kind of revulsion?
Well, I suppose I should. I really don’t look back on it at all, but certainly I was a disgusting child, there is no doubt about it. But I don’t remember being ashamed.
Boarding school seems to have been a terrible time. You were half-starved, half-frozen and humiliated in a number of ways. Did you never appeal to your parents to take you away?
I didn’t. I never tried to get them to take me away. It never occurred to me to challenge my destiny.
You hated boarding school, but you describe it as a dress rehearsal for the treatment you were soon to receive in the streets of London. Would you say in that sense it was a good preparation?
Yes. I think if I had left straight from home and gone out into the world, it would have been like falling over a cliff. I had a doll’s-house view of the world when I was at public school. I had to learn that everybody was my enemy, and that I would have to find ways of dealing with this if I was going to go on living.
You were so unpopular at boarding school that you say that you came to regard your unpopularity as a gift, and what was originally something you tried to avoid, you later came to cultivate. Deep down didn’t you still crave friendship and approval?
I think I must have wanted friendship – it seems so unlikely that I wanted none. I didn’t want approval enough to alter myself in order to get any. On some days I would think, I can’t bear this anymore, I will try and behave like a normal schoolboy, and then I would think, I’m doing this so badly, it’s too humiliating, and I would go back to being my horrible self.
Although there was a great deal of homosexual coupling at your school, you said in your autobiography that effeminate homosexuals did not indulge very much in sex with other boys. Why was that exactly?
Effeminate homosexuals tend to want love at the beginning, but they will not find it. It wouldn’t have meant anything to me just to go behind a hedge with a boy and do it, and come away again. I wanted the world to care about me, and that included anybody that I met.
So you weren’t driven at the time by a sexual urge?
I’ve never really been driven by a sexual urge, certainly not deeply. Of course I very quickly realized that love was out of the question, that any contact I made with people would have to be sexual, and I tried to give myself up to this, not at school, but later on. I thought at one time that sex would take me away from all this, without knowing where it would take me. I thought that if I could find someone who would cherish me, everything would be all right, but this never happened.
You also wrote of that period: ‘What I wanted most of all was to use sex as a weapon to allure, subjugate, and if possible to destroy the personality of others.’ That seems a remarkably well-formulated analysis for a boy of fourteen or fifteen. Did you actually think of it in that way at the time?
I think I did. I thought I could meet someone who would be sufficiently interested in me to do as I told him, but of course no such person existed. At the age of about eighteen, that would have been in 1927, I was much influenced by what I saw in the movies. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were all icons of power, and the great German films were all about vamps – the word has all but disappeared from the language. The women were vamps, and they destroyed men. In one film Miss Helm, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, sits in a tent while the men struggle across the desert, their lips blistered with thirst. She orders some champagne, drinks it, then breaks the glass on the edge of her throne and cuts the throat of one of the men for no reason whatsoever.
When your father died, you say you felt only irritation at having to return for his funeral. Did you ever come to revise those feelings?
No, I didn’t really. I had no feelings about his death. I ought to have been pleased he was dead, but actually I had already left home, so I felt nothing. It was just an event. Even now that I can, if I wish, think of my father as a character in fiction, it’s still impossible to like him. Why did he saddle my mother with four children when he had no money? When he died, she had to go and live with my sister, there was nothing else she could do.
What was it like when your mother died? Were you more attached to her?
We were all relieved, because she had had such a terrible life. She didn’t die until she was eighty-six and by that time she had to be lifted out of the bed into a wheelchair and at night had to be lifted back into bed. I don’t seem to be able to be deeply attached to anybody. It’s hard to tell how much people mean when they talk about such things. I don’t know how different I am from other people, but I certainly do feel I have fewer of what could be called proper sentiments in regard to other people.
At some point in your youth, you managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause. Presumably in some ways, far from making your life easier, it must have been made more difficult…?
Of course I know now that it was nonsense to think of it as a cause, but at the time I spent my life in cafés where I sat with other gay boys, most of whom were on the game, and we pooled our tears. They were miserable and for no justifiable reason, and I therefore decided that somebody had to live the homosexual life – it was no good writing books about it, because they would be read only by homosexuals. The important thing was to live it so that people would get used to the idea. The great weapon in the hands of integration is boredom. When you say to somebody, I’m gay, and they say, and then? – you’re in the clear. It’s while you have to explain yourself and justify yourself, and they try to be tolerant of you, that the problem still exists.
Did you ever dabble in prostitution?
Yes, but I was so bad at it. The reason why men go with boys is usually in the spirit of hilarious research. They want someone who’s no bother, someone who doesn’t try to weave an emotion into it. I didn’t so much want to have sex as to be admired, and of course that was no good. So I gave it up the moment I got any real work to do.
Was the wearing of make-up a kind of acceptance of your own sexuality, a statement to society that this was you, and they had better get used to the idea?
Yes. First of all, I wore very little make-up, but exhibitionism is like a drug – after a while you can take a dose of it that would kill anyone who is just starting out. When you don’t get noticed, you think, I must do more. You start to expect to cause a stare, and you’re frightened when you can’t do without it.
You describe the homosexuals you befriended in those days as ‘pseudo-women in search of pseudo-men’. Did that mean it was a disappointment when they had encounters with similarly effeminate men?
Yes, that’s right, it worried them. They would express to me their disappointment, their indignation at finding out that someone who they thought was going to turn out to be a man was just as effeminate secretly as they were. Nowadays the homosexual world is a world apart, and they don’t really want to bother with real people, but in those days we all thought we would reinforce our idea of ourselves by gaining the attention of real men. Of course it led to disaster over and over again.
At what point did you realize that it was pointless to expect people to be tolerant or understanding towards you?
Very early on. By the time I was thirty I didn’t really expect anything.
Your early working life was precarious to say the least, spells of unsuitable jobs interspersed with dole money. You must have lived in a state of permanent anxiety…
Yes, and I was always hungry. The dole was fourteen shillings a week. I had one meal a day and lived in a room which cost six shillings a week. The room was long enough to lie down in one way, not quite long enough to lie down the other way, and not quite high enough to stand up in. it was a very difficult period.
You turned your hand to writing – poems, libretti, stories – but you describe the problem as being one of having a genius but no talent. What did you mean by that exactly?
My genius is for the smiling and nodding racket which I can now practically live on. If you can get by on peanuts and champagne in America you need never buy food again, but in England you can’t do that; you need to be able to do something and do it well, and possibly even study it. I’ve never studied anything in my life.
At one point in The Naked Civil Servant you liken homosexuality to an illness. That implies that it cannot be helped but in some cases it might be cured. Was that your view?
I suppose it still is my view. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but I have known homosexuals who have got married because they thought it might help. I didn’t ever say, ‘Help whom? ‘and indeed, since they remain married and they have children, it obviously did help. The idea that people are either heterosexual or homosexual is nonsense; they will sometimes drift backwards and forwards for an hour or for a week or for years, it depends. The more the gay people now insist on their rights, the greater the distance becomes between the gay world and the straight world, and this is such a pity. I suppose I have to be careful about calling it an illness, but homosexuals seem to me to be people standing on the bank watching other people swim. In some way it takes you away from real life, away from the main stream, so if it isn’t an illness, it’s certainly like having an illness.
Did you ever sleep with a woman?
Never. I don’t think it could have worked. Sexually I have no interest in women at all. I don’t shun them, I simply have no interest in them.
You say at one point in the book that you regarded all heterosexuals, however low, as superior to all homosexuals, however noble. What did you mean by that?
The world belongs to straight people, and they must be regarded as superior. The superiority of numbers, of power, of know-how, of worldliness is all with straight people – that’s the sense in which they are superior.
Do you have a secret admiration for heterosexuals?
I suppose I do, yes. Especially the ones who seem so totally at ease with themselves.
During the 1930’s you began to meet a greater number and variety of homosexuals, but because you did not conform to their rules you were ostracized by them too. It must surely have been much harder to bear the hostility of homosexuals.
Yes, I was very disappointed when I first found that the homosexual community distrusted, disliked, even despised me. I got used to it and I suppose in England most of my friends were straight women, because they expected nothing of me, and in any case these were women in happier times, before they decided they had to be people. When women were women, one of the things they liked to do was chatter, and I’m a born chatterer, so I could sit with them, and entertain them and they could be nice to me. I didn’t really ever get on with men because they only ever speak to me about money and politics and sport, about which I know nothing.
It seems that because you publicized homosexuality and flaunted your own, you angered a great many homosexuals who preferred to remain incognito. Did you not sympathize with their position?
I understood their position but I don’t really believe that my being obvious made any difference to them. Everything is so changed now. Nowadays if two men take an apartment in any big city in the western world, it is assumed they are gay. In a time gone by, people would have assumed they were sharing a place and halving the rent. Friendship is disappearing altogether and sex has taken its place.
From where did you derive the courage to display all the trappings of homosexuality at a time when it was firmly in the closet?
I couldn’t do otherwise. I was hopeless at being a real person, and even when on occasions I was not wearing make-up, it made no difference. People still stared at me.
When the war broke out you were turned down by the medical board on grounds of sexual perversion. Did you receive that as an accolade or were you humiliated by it?
I wasn’t humiliated. People had told me I would never get into the forces, but I hadn’t believed them. I had no money, I couldn’t get a job, and I imagined it would solve all my problems.
What were your feelings about the war?
It was very nice when it came. First of all, there was a whole year in which you never saw any war whatsoever, and you could only read about it in the papers. But then the war came to London and the sky was pink with doom, the ground shook with the anti-aircraft fire, and you could hear the shrapnel falling. And that was very exciting. I decided I wouldn’t accommodate the war at all, so if I was invited out I went out, whether there had been the air-raid warning or not – it was all a lottery in any case.
The war seems scarcely to have impinged on you – at least it hardly figures in your account of those years. How did you manage to avoid thinking about it, worrying about it?
I just didn’t alter my life, I went on exactly as though there was no war. The only wonderful aspect of the war was the American soldiers. Americans listen to what you say, Englishmen never do. It felt you were being courted to some extent.
When you found unfurnished accommodation, you discovered that squalor was your ‘natural setting’, as you called it. Was this primarily a reaction against your mother’s domestic orderliness?
I don’t think so. It was just natural laziness. I didn’t want to clean everything, and so I thought, I won’t, and we’ll see what happens. Then I formulated the idea that after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.
Is that what you truly believe, or was it something you said primarily to shock people or to amuse them?
I never say what I don’t mean. And I’m not the only person to think that way. There was once a woman called Nancy Spain who went on to Woman’s Hour and said that only a fool would make the bed every day. It shook England, but in fact it was a message of hope. I once watched a woman dust the rails under the chairs, and I told her there was no need to do that. She said, ‘I know there isn’t, but if I don’t do it they haunt me.’ And that is the way women feel. Women in England are all in a blind rage by half-past ten in the morning, because they’ve had to skirmish round the house, and dust everything, and put everything right, was everything. But there’s no need.
You criticize the advertising industry for spreading the idea, against all evidence to the contrary, that sex leads to happiness. Would you at least concede that it leads to pleasure, perhaps the greatest pleasure of all?
It leads to pleasure, but with penalties. Homosexual intercourse is often actually painful, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes nasty, so you have to think, do I really want this? There was once a programme about hepatitis, and a woman interviewed a young man and asked how many times on average he had sexual relations. He replied, ‘Six’, and she said, ‘Six times a week?’ He replied, ‘No, six times a night.’ Now at that rate, it can’t go on being a pleasure – it must simply be a score. I think it’s a form of pleasure which some people cannot do without, but I don’t believe it is a form of happiness.
Could you yourself do without it?
I can do without it now, and I have done for the last twenty years or so. In the past if I felt sexual urges I usually masturbated, which is less trouble. And so much cheaper.
Why is the homosexual generally more promiscuous than the heterosexual?
I secretly think – though I have been shouted down on this – that it is because it is not very satisfactory. Just as if you eat food that doesn’t nourish you, you eat more food, so people who indulge in unsatisfactory sex are often extraordinarily promiscuous.
You seem very cynical about sex, calling it ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. Was this some sort of defence mechanism operating?
I don’t think so. It’s just that I don’t set much store by sex, and I have had less sexual experience than most people. But certainly, it is a refuge of the miserable in so far as people who are not content with their lives have to go out to look for sex. And that applies to the heterosexual man as well.
Have you ever had a happy sexual relationship?
I’ve had pleasant sexual relationships. I couldn’t say I ever met anyone who fulfilled my dream which was to be admired for sexual and other reasons. I suppose the truth is, I do not deserve it, but you don’t realize that in the beginning.
Your relationship with American GI seemed to be one of the most satisfactory but even then there was no love. Was there affection?
There was affection, and he was friendly, which is rare in homosexual relationships.
But you never really fell in love…
I don’t think I quite know what that phrase means. I understand that you can fancy somebody, or wish them well, or you can enjoy their company, but I don’t know anything beyond that.
Towards the end of the war you became a model and posed for art students. I imagine that had greater appeal than your other jobs…
It did. In the beginning I really liked it in spite of the terrible suffering involved in sitting. There was hardly any limit to the discomfort I could endure, but you can only get better at it for the first two or three years. When you begin, you think I wonder if I’m going to faint, but after a bit there’s nothing you can’t do. I did it on and off for thirty-five years and in the end I was half asleep half the time. But yes, I like it in the beginning.
One imagines that you might have lived a rather promiscuous life, but this seems not to have been the case in the early days. For many years you were able to live without sexual encounters at all. Was this primarily lack of opportunity or lack of desire?
I never really desired much sex. I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a man from somewhere’. If it presented itself to me, fine, if it didn’t, I went without it. Now I haven’t had any sex for at least twenty years and this doesn’t worry me in the least. My appetites are in general much weaker than other people’s – I’ve never been drunk, I never overeat, I have never done anything to excess. Even at my worst I was never as promiscuous as most homosexual men are.
After the war you took to the movies and watched anything as long as it wasn’t English. Was this a kind of escapism or was it a genuine passion?
It is a genuine passion. Nothing ever happens in English movies, which is why I dislike them, and in any case I’ve always been American in my heart. When I was a child my mother took me to the movies in the spirit of ostentatious condescension; the cinema was for servant girls, and people with taste went to the theatre. She told me America was nothing like how it looked in the movies, but she was wrong. Everybody who comes from England to America agrees it’s more like the movies than you’d ever dream.
Are you lonely ever?
I like solitude, but of course I’ve never been put to the test because I’ve always lived in big cities. If I spent a whole week in my room doing nothing, I would reconstruct myself, go out, walk from where I live up to 14th street and back again and I would be really surprised not to meet somebody with whom I could have a cup of coffee and discuss the secret of the universe. I’ve never lived in a village and I hope I never shall.
Your first major writing success was The Naked Civil Servant which was soon made into a TV movie. Was that the first real flush of success for you?
Yes, but it was only a mini-success. It did not lead to any work, I wasn’t invited to review other people’s books and say they were worse than mine, and no one asked me to write anything else. It wasn’t until it was made into a television play that my whole life changed. That was in 1975, and the book came out in 1968, so there were seven long dark years in between.
John Hart’s portrayal of you was so widely acclaimed. Were you yourself happy with it?
I was indeed. It was a marvellous reproduction of my voice for one thing. He was slightly more defiant than I ever was, but only minimally. He’s born to play victims. After he played me he went on to play Claudius, which is really only me in a sheet, and then he was the Elephant Man. People sometimes ask me if I feel like an elephant man, and I do, I do.
One success led to another, and you soon had your own one-man show at the Duke of York’s. Did your life change as a result?
I felt my way of speaking, my way of expressing myself, had started to pay off, yes, but my life didn’t change very much. I didn’t branch out, I didn’t spend a lot of money. I went on living in one room, and I still live in one room.
Your success in England was readily exported to America. You say you have always felt your natural milieu to be American. It must have seemed like a dream come true…
To come here was quite quite wonderful. Happiness rains down from the sky in America. I agree with Millicent Martin who is now an American by marriage. She said the difference between America and England is that in America everyone is always in favour of whatever you propose to do, and this is absolutely true. If you stand up in a bar and announce that you’re getting up a cabaret act, everybody will ask, where are you gonna appear? what are you gonna wear? In England if you told your friends you were getting up a cabaret act, they would say, for God’s sake, don’t make a fool of yourself. Everything is a warning in England. I didn’t know there was any happiness in the world, till I got here.
You say the English have etiquette and the Americans have manners. How would you explain the difference?
Etiquette is a process of exclusion. The English have rules, and if you don’t know how to eat an artichoke then you’re not one of us; if you call a table napkin a serviette, you will not to be invited again. In America you have manners, which are a process of inclusion. When you’re with Americans they want you to feel you can do no wrong; that’s the difference.
Your performance in Orlando, as Elizabeth the First, has been widely praised. Was that something you enjoyed?
It was absolute hell, but being in a movie is always absolute hell. I wore two rolls of fabric round my middle tied with tapes, and then a hooped skirt tied with tape, and then a quilted petticoat and then an ordinary petticoat and then a dress, and I had a bodice so tight that it blistered my stomach. No wonder Queen Elizabeth was always chopping off people’s heads – she must have been in a permanent rage from having to wear those clothes.
Presumably now, with your writing and lecturing and TV and film appearances, you are better off in your eighties than you have ever been. Do you feel there is an irony there?
I suppose there is, I am better off, but not very much better off. People assume that if you’re famous you’re rich, which of course is not necessarily so, but provided I die in the next two or three years, I’m in the clear. In America everybody is your friend, but the system is ruthless. Once you’re unproductive you will end up living in a cardboard box on the street corner. So you have to get into your grave fairly quickly.
In your autobiographical writing you seem much concerned with the notion of happiness and what it consists in… for example, you think money is a prerequisite, and to look forward to the future spells the death of happiness. How would you describe the state of happiness, and have you achieved it in your life?
I’ve achieved a little of it. Happiness, I would say, is to live in the present, not to think about the past, not to think about the future, but to be here and be now, to be aware, to live inside your body. I think happiness is a physical thing.
Most people would define happiness in terms of loving and being loved. Does that strike you as being completely alien?
It’s alien to me. My happiness is a relationship between me and myself, not between me and someone else, which is always full of uncertainty.
You have described yourself as doing deliberately what you used to do by mistake, a way of getting the joke on your own terms. Have you arrived at a kind of contentment now, would you say?
Yes. Now I can behave in a way that is perfectly natural for me, and other people accept it, or appear to accept it. Perhaps it’s all an illusion, because in America if they don’t like you, they don’t say so, whereas if they do like you, they tell you. It’s completely the other way round in England – there you feel terribly disliked, but here in America it’s easy to get the impression that everybody adores you. But I would say that I’m happier than I ever expected to be.
You were a martyr, weren’t you, but your martyrdom was partly self-inflicted. You got so used to living in a world which scorned and hated you. Did you become a willing martyr in the end?
I suppose I expected the world in general not to accept me, not to like me, and to throw things at me and shout at me, so yes, I suppose I was the willing kind.
Would you have had the sex-change operation if it had been available at the time?
If it had been available when I was in my late teens, and I had had the money, I would certainly have had the operation. Then I could have gone away to a provincial town and run a knitting-wool shop, and nobody would ever have known my terrible secret. I would have been free.
You have been much preoccupied with the business of death, and have been predicting your own for some time now. Do you look forward to it?
Yes, it’s the next big event in my life. Like most people, I imagine, what one is concerned with is behaving nicely when you’re dying. A lot of people think it terrible to die alone, but if you die in the presence of other people you have to be polite while you die, which must be very difficult. So that is one of my chief preoccupations: how to behave nicely when I’m dying.
What is your attitude towards religion…has it changed at all over the years?
No, I think it’s always been the same. I don’t want to say anything that might give offence, but I can’t believe in a God susceptible to prayer. If God is the universe that encloses the universe, or if God is the cell inside the cell, or if God is the cause behind the cause, this I can accept. But I think it is actually wrong to teach children to bargain with whatever they think is God – for example, if you don’t eat sweets in Lent He will give you a bicycle with ten speeds. This is undignified. If there is a force that keeps the spheres moving in the heavens, why would it be preoccupied with us, and why would it be endowed with such wretched human characteristics? Why is it angry, why is it jealous, why is it forgiving? No, I don’t believe in that sort of God.
But do you expect any life after death?
I can’t afford to. What little I can do, say and be is complete, so it would be very dreary to have to come back. I can’t really imagine what life after death would entail; I can only imagine more of the life that I’ve already led, and that has been long enough.
Your life has been extraordinary by any standards, but it strikes the outside observer as having been a tragic one in some measure. Would you agree?
Yes. I don’t know how it could have been changed to make it less tragic. Other people grow up with their brothers and sisters, and they get on fine for the most part with them, and they go to school and make friends, and then they go out into the world and acquire workmates. None of that happened to me. I was alone, and I had to invent happiness.
Your autobiography ends with the words: ‘I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry…’ Would you use the same words today?
No. Today I am less confused, my hurts have been mostly healed, and I am well fed.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AUNTUMN 1993