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
Quentin Crisp's apartment exterior.