QUENTIN CRISP — on fame, integrity, expatriation, freedom, heroes, equal rights and death
In February of 1993, Quentin Crisp was 84 years old. And I was 23.
One morning, from my tiny Austin bedroom, I dialed the number to Crisp’s apartment located in lower Manhattan’s Bowery district.
This interview with the hard-of-hearing octogenarian was the first I’d ever conducted — with anyone.
To prepare, I purchased a tape recorder and phone patch at Radio Shack.
Back in ’93, Crisp was an unfamiliar name to most twentysomething alterna-queers living in Texas’ capital city. (I was the only person I knew who read “The Naked Civil Servant.”)
However, with some prodding, I could make others recall the sprightly walking bass-line from a familiar song: Sting’s 1988 nouveau jazz-pop single, “Englishman in New York,” which was written to honor Sting’s personal hero.
The rockstar singer for The Police and erstwhile gender-fluid raconteur had first united in “The Bride” — the forgetful 1985 celluloid adaptation of Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” (which also starred Jennifer Beals and Geraldine Page). Sting played Baron Frankenstein, and Quentin was his assistant, Dr. Zalhus.
At the time of this phone call, Crisp’s star was about to rise yet again.
Later that year, Sally Potter’s “Orlando” would be released in which Crisp became England’s Elizabeth I — a very arch, very forlorn, very touching old queen.
"Orlando" nabbed two Oscar nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Even though Quentin and I had previously traded letters, this bland Austin-to-Manhattan phone conversation sparked a media dialogue that lasted for six years — including the time Quentin referenced me in his diaries....
CRISP: Oh yes?
KUSNER: Good morning, Quentin.
Yesterday, we spoke. You agreed to a phone interview.
So tell me: What have you been working on recently?
Can you speak very loud? I’m now very deaf.
OKAY! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING ON RECENTLY?
I’m not working anymore.
I became too ill to continue to write my diary in The Native, which is a paper published in New York.
So now I really don’t do anything.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t already met?
I don’t mind.
I meet anybody who wishes to meet me.
How's life in New York City treating you?
Well, of course, life is very easy for me in America — compared with England.
Because here in the U.S., everybody is your friend.
What are you scared of?
I suppose I would be fittingly frightened if attacked.
But, of course, it’s much less frightening to live in New York than London.
Because in London, nobody is your friend.
Has America abused its right to freedom of speech?
I don’t think that freedom of speech is a good thing.
This idea that everybody should say everything is unpleasant.
I’m very guarded in what I say.
What’s more important: wisdom or style?
You only know whether something is wise from the way it’s put, which is for style.
Homosexuals are the only minority that cannot reproduce itself. With that in mind, what’s your opinion about gay rights concerning lifting the military ban and gay marriages?
Well, it’s not for me to upstage a Kennedy.
But I do think that the gay people might do something for America instead of making demands for themselves.
Okay.... Anything else?
When you were a child, what did you want to be?
A chronic invalid.
Who have been some of your heroes?
I don’t think I ever had any heroes.
This idea of role models is entirely new. There were no role models when I was young.
What was the last film you watched?
I can’t now remember.
I was taken to see “The Last of the Mohicans,” which is kid’s stuff, of course.
I go to the movies less often now than in a time gone by.
Which is more important: fame or integrity?
I don’t think fame without integrity is of any use.
I mean, what do you want?
If you want fame at all — is to be known for who you are.
Is there any message you can provide for today’s youth?
I don’t think there is any message — except that the young should all stop thinking that they have rights.
Have you been provoked into any arguments recently?
Not really. No.
What do you think of arguments?
Well, genuine argument is fine.
Mere wrangling, of course, is useless.
Sting immortalized you as the “Englishman in New York.” How would you like to be remembered?
Those who ask how you want to be remembered think they will look down from a cloud and count the people at their funeral.
I’ve got news for them: They’ll be dead.
It doesn’t matter how you’re remembered.
Call to Quentin: Feb. 17, 1993. at 9 a.m. CST
Video jockey KAREN 'DUFF' DUFFY on ... eye-witnessing Sinead's freaking epic 'SNL' gig ... Woody Allen phone-bombing her voicemail ... and dancing like a dying gangster with flailing appendages
Dig, if you will, the picture ...
Karen "Duff" Duffy — goddess of the 30-second attention span — chills in her Manhattan apartment, which is littered with unpaid cable bills and half-read, undeserving screenplays.
While a saintly image of Ernest Borgnine watches over Duff, the ravishing wisecracker says the rosary — praying that her Schwartzenegger-sized priorities remain balanced.
After unpacking her suitcase, Duff installs a new idol to her collection of satanic icons.
As if crucifying the messiah, she pounds a nail into her bedroom wall.
A brief wave of regret crashes over Duff.
She experiences repentance over a former decision while in Washington, D.C.
That's when Duff once sacrificed her passions to an uptight enemy.
However, a smile crawls across her face ... knowing that her job influenced the election of President Bill Clinton.
March 30, 1993.
Duff calls from her dressing room at New York's MTV Studios...
ME: This morning you were on MTV interviewing Chuck Norris.
DUFF: I've never seen that show that I do.
Really? Have you ever watched yourself on MTV?
Actually, I didn't have MTV for... Come to think of it, I never had MTV.
But I got a job there about a year ago.
It took me another three months to get cable because New York is all backed up.
But I didn't pay my cable bill. So they shut it off.
I think it would drive me mad to watch it.
When Elvis died, where were you?
Well, I was only a little kid.
I was with my grandfather, who's kinda like Thurston Howell III...
I remember we were at a pool.
That was like 1976-77, right?
So I was just a little kid swimming at somebody's pool. My grandfather told me. He broke the news.
If you were a hooker ... what kind of hooker would you be?
I don't know. That's kind of an interesting question.
I don't think...Lets see...
I'm trying to think of a way to turn this into a "fishing" kind of answer.
I'd be a hooker way out in Nantucket.
What won't you do on MTV?
Kiss anybody's butt.
They've got this whole cheesy thing about how "The New Music Revolution is Going to be Televised."
That's the biggest pile of malarkey I've ever heard.
So I refuse to do that.
And I refuse to be sycophantic.
I'm always stepping on people's toes — not that I'm intentionally being mean.
But I just feel like, "Gee... great video. Sorry about the song."
I dunno, I'm always getting in trouble.
I usually open up my evening show by saying, "MTV is a termite in the timber of integrity."
We're always asking the question: "Will we have to wait until the day that Dolly Parton sleeps on her stomach to see an inspiring video?"
Biting the hand that feeds you?
Will you be on MTV forever?
I mean, I feel lucky to be on MTV.
I made a cheeseball $2 production of me being a veejay and sent it in.
So this all happened rather suddenly.
But I've got other things in the works,
And, hey... Anybody who reads this, send in an audition tape. We really need good people. I wanna be in good company.
What films have you worked on?
Well, most recently, I had a cameo in "Last Action Hero," which is a Schwartzenegger movie,
I worked on "Who's the Man?"
I've worked on two Woody Allen films.
"Husbands and Wives" and "Alice."
Who did you play in "Alice?"
I played a secretary.
He shoots so many different scenes, so it's not really anything to toot my horn about.
But the fact that I've worked with him a few times has been great.
I also worked on "29th Street."
I've done about half a dozen films.
Which films have you turned down?
I've walked away from a couple of things that really kinda cheesed women out.
Right now, I've got a picture deal with a studio. So they're giving me scripts. And I can kinda choose which ones I wanna do.
I'm just in the process of that. So I'm really not, ya know, big enough to be turning stuff down.
I haven't really been offered that much. It's just getting rolling now.
Any plans for a singing-and-dancing career?
I've got Van Gogh's ear for music — the one he chopped off.
And when I dance, I look like a dying gangster with flailing appendages.
No. Not at all.
I don't dance. I don't sing. I don't watch MTV.
What's hanging on the walls of your apartment?
Nothing, right now. Because it's being painted.
But I travel all the time for MTV. So I've been buying art. Like really satanic, scary art.
I was just in Utah for the NBA All-Star Game, and I got this really satanic oil-painting of a pumpkin.
When I'm on tour with a band or whatever, I like to check out little galleries or local art.
I've got a big picture of Ernest Borgnine because I just won an Ernest Borgnine Look-Alike Contest.
My best friend and I dressed up as a two-headed Ernest Borgnine from "McCale's Navy" and we gave a dramatic recitation from his award-winning film, "Marty."
I have those pictures.
Plus, gold records from my boyfriend [Whitfield Crane, lead singer of Ugly Kid Joe] because he doesn't have a house.
What do you mean when you say "satanic art?"
Scary-looking. Really primitive.
Mark Kostabi — the artist — he made me two beautiful paintings because I interviewed him, which was awesome.
The best thing about MTV is the swag you accumulate.
And Kostabi makes these original paintings while you're talking and then flips them over.
I buy a lot of quirky, thrift-store art.
What are you reading?
This book by Paul Fussell called "Class."
Also "Head Hunting In the Solomon Islands Around the Coral Sea" by Caroline Mytinger. She's a physical anthropologist.
As an Irish Catholic, what did you think of Sinead O'Connor ripping up the pope's picture on "Saturday Night Live?"
I was there!
I was there in the audience, and it rocked my world.
I gotta tell you...
When she ripped-up the picture of Pope John Paul II, she was freaking.
It wasn't like she did it with a whole lot of conviction.
She was trembling. And everyone just shut the hell up.
No one laughed for the rest of the night.
Then, after every "Saturday Night Live," there's big hootenanny at some big bar. And it was so down.
On Sunday, I felt really bombed.
It really hurt me.
All day long ... I just couldn't forget what had happened.
It rocked my world.
The next week, I was at the Bob Dylan tribute where she got booed. So that thing has had a lingering effect.
I'm glad Sinead did it.For a bunch of reasons. She has a different perspective as a Catholic from Ireland.
But that whole night, just crashed.
Everybody was freaked.
Do you remember when the cast from "Saturday Night Live" edited that edition of SPIN?
SNL's cast members said Sinead surprised them. Wouldn't you sort of expect that from Sinead? She's so outspoken.
And when "SNL" re-aired the episode, they showed Sinead's taped rehearsal instead of what was broadcast.
Ripping up the pope's photo is the third most-remembered moment in TV history. Right next to Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald and Crispin Glover trying to kick David Letterman in the head. But I could understand it bringing the whole evening down.
You didn't expect it at all.
The way she did it, she was freaking and trembling. And her voice was quivering.
You know how it is when you're rude to somebody and you don't really mean it?
That feeling that you're like ... "Oh, my god..."
That was what it was like.
Do you still go to church?
I'd say every Sunday. And I usually try to go once or twice mid-week.
I try to say the rosary every day too.
I also have my little novenas and candles.
I visit a nursing home three times a week — so it's a big Catholic thing I'm lugging around.
If you won the lottery, would you quit working?
I'd quit MTV.
But I can't 'cuz I'm under contract.
No, I wouldn't.
Before I was working MTV, I was working at a nursing home.
I didn't have any money.
And now, 10 movies, 30 commercials, a TV pilot and a movie deal...
My bank account is a lot fatter.
But nothing else has changed.
I'd definitely keep working, because you'd just fall apart.
You gotta keep yourself inspired.
I wouldn't necessarily punch a clock.
But I would definitely be developing projects.
Name three good music videos.
Faith No More's "I'm Easy,"
Guns N’ Roses' "Garden of Eden."
Boy ... you asked for three?
I didn't mind Green Jello's "Three Little Pigs" — the song sucks but the video is cool.
Actually, I liked Ugly Kid Joe's new one, "Busy Bee".
What effect did you think MTV had on the '92 presidential election?
We had to grovel.
But MTV got younger voters to the polls. Only because they were guilted into it.
I hope those voters thought about issues rather than experiencing a knee-jerk reaction to "Choose or Lose! Choose or Lose! Choose or Lose!"
Tabitha Soren did a great job by having President Clinton on MTV ... as well as Ross Perot.
It opened people's eyes.
At the inauguration, President Clinton said thank you to MTV — that without MTV, he didn't think he'd win.
Last week, I was in Washington at a big, hoity-toity Horatio Alger event that I co-hosted with Maya Angelou.
I met Ross Perot, Gerald Ford and even Jack Kemp.
All of them told me, "I wanna be on MTV."
So people are certainly paying attention.
What's one of your biggest mistakes?
God... there are a million of them.
After I graduated from the University of Colorado, I lived in Washington, D.C., for a year-and-a-half.
It was the worst year-and-a-half of my life.
Stay away from D.C.
It was too conservative.
If you have any amount of passion, they think you're crazy.
It was a miserable time. I regret that.
Name three of your favorite celebrities?
Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine.
From your wealth of experiences, what advice can you share?
My dad gave me some good advice.
He said, "Life is like the three rings of a Ballantine Ale can.
One ring represents your family and friends.
One ring represents your spiritual life.
And one represents your professional life.
You should keep all rings the same size so you'll stay a balanced person.
If you focus too much on your career, or your boyfriend, or blind religious abandon...
Then ... boom...
You gotta focus equally — on each one."