Interview: Phillip Ward on the inimitable Quentin Crisp

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Quentin Crisp came to the world’s attention in 1968 when, at almost 60 years old, his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, was published. The book became a film and won John Hurt, who played Quentin, the 1976 BAFTA for Best Actor. Crisp moved to America when he was 72, where his life became the subject of Sting’s An Englishman In New York. He died in 1999, having published 14 books and starred in more than 20 films. Laurence Watts interviews Phillip Ward, a close friend of Quentin’s and now executor of his literary estate.

The Naked Civil Servant elevated Quentin Crisp to the status of gay icon when it was published. The autobiography highlighted Quentin’s pioneering existence as an openly gay man in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. The book detailed the hostility Crisp encountered while homosexuality was illegal in Britain; his dalliances with US troops during the Second World War when he was exempted from National Service for being gay; and the many jobs he undertook during his lifetime. I ask Phillip how he came to know Quentin.

“I first became aware of Quentin Crisp one evening in 1975 when I was 19 years old,” he tells me. “My mother switched the television to the local public broadcasting station. A movie had just begun. It was The Naked Civil Servant. Quentin appeared at the beginning of the film, teacup in hand, to introduce the movie about his life. I ended up admiring Quentin for many reasons, but mainly as someone who introduced me to “self” when I was a teenager contemplating self-discovery in an environment that did not encourage or reward such behavior. The Naked Civil Servant opened my eyes to the fact I was not alone.”

“It wasn’t until eleven years later, in February 1986, that I first met Quentin in person. I was working as an editor in New York when my secretary struck up conversation with him while standing in line at the East Village post office. Since he was listed in the phone directory, I encouraged her to set up a dinner date with him that I could come along to. Consequently, I was overwhelmed by his kindness and warmth.”

Phillip struck up a friendship with Quentin and began to escort him to galleries, movies and restaurant dates with his fans. Their relationship evolved to the point where Phillip acted as Quentin’s personal assistant and gatekeeper.

“In the early 1990s, Quentin lost the capacity to use his left hand due to illness. This meant he could no longer use his typewriter. Together, we provided the articles and reviews he was commissioned to write thanks to Quentin’s clear dictation and my transcribing his words on my computer. Quentin liked to call it the ‘demon machine.’ I effectively became his left-hand man.”

Quentin passed away in November 1999 in Manchester, England, one month prior to his 91st birthday. He had been about to embark on a revival tour of his one-man show. By then Ward’s relationship with Crisp had developed to such an extent that Quentin left him the responsibility of dealing with his ashes and named him the executor of his estate. After cremation in England, Quentin’s ashes were returned to New York and scattered over Manhattan. What was it Quentin liked so much about America?

“He loved engaging the American public,” says Ward, “both in performance and out on the streets. He was constantly recognized wherever he went. In New York City, Quentin was able to live life openly and freely the way he wanted and without fear of violence, unlike his experience in England prior to moving here in 1981.”

Quentin describes his decision to move to America in the as yet unpublished The Dusty Answers, his last book, completed shortly before his death:

“Coming to America is the single event that most changed my life. I only made two decisions for myself in the whole of my life: I left home when I was about twenty-two and I left England when I was seventy-two. America is the land of plenty. It is also the land for doing fame, which I have done for nearly twenty years. I could not have imagined any of all that has happened since I moved here.”

I ask Phillip why it was that Quentin was so embraced by America.

“It was his openness and desire to share his philosophy of life with all who would listen. But it wasn’t just America or New York; it was the world at large, even England, though Quentin never believed it. Even in old age, his memory of life in England continued to irritate and anger him. For him life in America was the total opposite. Americans embraced and loved him for who he was. His honesty of heart and acceptance of all people, equally and without judgment, allowed the public to engage Quentin as if he was their closest friend.”

Though Quentin may have received special treatment in America because of his celebrity or old age, the decade that followed his passing witnessed Britain overtake America in the field of gay rights. Five years after his death Britain introduced civil partnerships, gay marriage in all but name. In spite of lackluster support for the gay rights movement during his lifetime, Phillip supposes that Crisp would be pleased at this turn of events if it enabled gay men and women to be happy. Did Quentin ever express regret at never having found someone to settle down with? In answering Ward references a former lover of Quentin’s and a one-time flat mate:

“Quentin never regretted not having found his great dark man,” he says. “He settled down alone with himself, which I believe is what he wanted from the start. Barndoor demonstrated that pretty well, wouldn’t you think? And living with another person was certainly out of the question; just think of the disaster of living with Thumbnails. Once done was one time too many for him! Quentin enjoyed being by himself, because he was his first love and that lasted until the day he died. Despite publicly stating that he didn’t believe in friends though, Quentin had a number of close friends with whom he shared his life.”

Quentin’s life can easily be divided into two: the long period before his fame and the shorter period thereafter. Does Phillip think Quentin regretted having not made the most the 60 years before The Naked Civil Servant was published? It’s a rather late age at which to become famous.

“I don’t think Quentin regretted anything because his experiences allowed him to live his life as an individual without the approval of anyone else and without having to join a group to demonstrate the right to be himself. His true regret would probably be not having moved to New York City sooner than 1981. He once told me that had he moved here in his 30s, 40s or even 50s he would have done so much more with his life than when he arrived here at 72.”

In spite of, and perhaps because of, his eccentricity and refusal to hide his homosexuality, Quentin’s professional life up until the publication of The Naked Civil Servant can best be described as mediocre. The same cannot be said of what he did afterwards: books, reviews, interviews, shows and TV and film appearances followed. Did Quentin enjoy fame when he finally found it? Quentin answers the question himself in this extract from The Dusty Answers:

“One advantage of fame is that it enlarges your social horizon. You meet people whom you would not meet if you were not famous. I don’t understand why I am famous, but I don’t question it. I think I am notorious. To be famous is usually a term of praise. It means you’ve done something, done some good, to an excessive degree that draws the attention of the world to you. If you’ve merely done something to an excessive degree for no reason at all, which doesn’t do anyone any good, I think you can only be called notorious. That is what I am and I live on it, so I can’t complain of it.”

Quentin once famously quipped that: “books are for writing, not reading.” That he ended up writing fourteen, yet admitted to reading so few is interesting. Was Quentin was a reluctant author?

“I personally feel that Quentin did read,” Phillip tells me, “but he was a prankster and told people what he thought they wanted to hear. It was his nature to learn and understand people and reading was part of his life. How else would he have been able to conduct in-depth conversations about the works of Proust? How else would he have acquired such a vocabulary? I also believe Quentin wanted to be a writer from early on. In his youth he wrote poetry and plays, a couple of which were produced on radio and stage. We must also remember that his first published book, a manual on advertising fonts of all things, appeared over thirty years before The Naked Civil Servant was published.”

Aside from the witticisms, books and performances that peppered Quentin’s resume, I ask Phillip to sum up what he believes Quentin’s legacy is?

“Quentin provided us, the world at large, gay and straight, with a simple philosophy of happiness and being. There are no boundaries to his mantra of ‘being one’s self’ at all times without apology or gain. That is what Quentin was and expressed daily. I encourage everyone to read Quentin’s works and hear his recordings. His philosophy will have some sort of impact on you, whether you invite it or not.”

In many respects Quentin Crisp was very much a product of the era in which he lived. In contrast to those times however, he was a pioneer of self-love, self-expression and self-acceptance. Given the difficulties he faced in the first two thirds of his life, I for one am happy the sacrifices he made to be himself finally paid dividends to him in the last third.

Abridged extracts from The Dusty Answers in this interview are provided by kind permission of The Quentin Crisp Archives.