I first met Quentin Crisp in New York City in the mid ‘90s while I was on a promotional junket for my former publishing company. Mr. Crisp lived in a modest hovel on the east side of Manhattan, which he kept alarmingly unkempt for Britain’s “most famous fairy” (his words).
“After a few years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse,” was his explanation for the sordid squalor all about us when, with a colleague, I came to fetch him for lunch.
At the time, Quentin was arguably the world’s most celebrated gay author and raconteur, courtesy of his landmark autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which had been published in 1968 and then made into a popular television drama broadcast on both British and U.S. television. His newfound fame and the film’s residuals inspired him to make the jump across the pond in 1981 to “the colonies” as he referred to them, and he promptly ensconced himself in a modest little flat in the East Village. By now, Quentin had launched a career of having other people treat him to lunch or dinner, and, like a fussy prom date, to pay for any trivial necessities he might require along the way. It was quite charming really and one did not take offense as Quentin made it seem quite the natural thing to do.
“I have always relied upon on the kindness of strangers,” he would plead by way of gratitude, unabashedly borrowing the line from Tennessee Williams.
Although most adept at inventing his own quips and one-liners, Quentin was not above borrowing phrases and witticisms from others and customizing them for his own purposes. He would twist some trite platitude inside out until it sounded original and, in so doing, breathed new life into it. “Life is a peculiar thing that happened to me on the way to my grave,” he declared to me during our premiere lunch, “and I suspect the very purpose of this unfortunate existence is to reconcile the very splendid opinion we have of ourselves with the rather appalling things that others think of us.”
In a sense, Quentin Crisp was a colossal gay cliché: a flagrant, flamboyant, theatrical old queen, complete with blue rinse, red rouge, and pink powder. He was witty, outrageous, pathetic, and perfectly glorious all at the same time! Although our maiden lunch was a thoroughly entertaining affair, I did not expect to see Quentin again but, some weeks later, I received a call from New York in that unmistakable British dowager voice informing me that he was coming to the West Coast on business and hoped I would be available to dine. Of course, I agreed and went about arranging lunches and dinners to fill the holes in his schedule and, at least meal-wise, keep him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.
A lot has been written about Quentin Crisp, and I have no desire to compare or compete with any of it. There is no question but that he caused great consternation and confusion in the gay community by calling AIDS “a fad” and homosexuality “a terrible disease,” but such was his outrageous nature, fanned by the bellows of predatory journalists seeking a provocative sound bite.
I knew Quentin in my own way for a brief moment, and our relationship was droll, endearing, poignant, sad, strictly platonic, and most enlightening—although not perhaps in the way he might have desired. I’m not sure what drew Quentin to our acquaintance other than my interest. “You have carriage and ask the right questions,” he once said by way of a compliment. “You’re irreverent but not vulgar; I like that,” he observed.
For my part, Quentin was hugely fascinating: larger than life yet authentic. He delighted in the perverse and naughty but abhorred crudity and rudeness. He accused me of knowing more than I would admit, which pleased him and amused me. “I suspect you know why the Mona Lisa is smiling,” he purred wickedly.
Above all, what I gleaned during the brief period I knew Quentin was his profound regret for those things that might have been but for his manner and circumstances. Chief among these was a true and enduring romantic bond with a kindred spirit, something he had desired his entire life and had long since given up hope of ever finding. “There is no White Knight,” Quentin declared bitterly one night after one too many cocktails. “This is an illusion you must surrender as soon as possible if you are to survive this mad and desperate existence.” He wept gently as his tears glistened in the table’s candlelight.
Fueled by alcohol, it was alarming how quickly Quentin could go from satirical and amusing to morose and bitter. My dinner guest was suddenly unleashing a lifetime of pain, abuse, humiliation, regret, and acrimony. “You must accept the inevitable, my dear; this worldly life is but a dismal and pointless enterprise of pithy lessons and earthly disappointments which are wrought by cruel and false hopes, grudgingly appointed with temporary and fleeting delusions of grandeur and triumph!”
For all his engaging anecdotes and flagrant fabulousness, it would seem that Quentin had actually existed all these years as a stranger in a strange land. “We are not friends or comrades so much as forlorn strangers passing in the night,” he wailed, “futilely searching for that gentle, romantic courtier who will lift us from our dark despair onto his noble steed and off to paradise.” By now, Quentin’s face was twisted into a tragic, haggard grimace. “No, no, my young adventurer, you must directly awaken and heed my warning,” he mourned emphatically, “There is no great White Knight!”
At that moment, looking into his sad, ancient eyes filled with vintage mascara, I realized that Quentin Crisp must be the loneliest man I had ever met. His deep melancholy was only exceeded by the abject bitterness he had learned to temper with acerbic wit and self-deprecating humor. Whether he intended to or not, Quentin instantly inspired me to ensure I would never end up with a similar outlook and, soon after, I took sober inventory of my relational worth. Quentin’s dinner rant had been a caveat.
A short time later, Quentin returned to his bohemian lifestyle in Manhattan where he continued to hold public court both there and abroad until, four years later, death took him abruptly one month before his 91st birthday.
After that fateful dinner, I vigorously dedicated myself to self-awareness. I did my homework thoroughly and discovered that the key to happiness with another individual is not about searching for an ideal relationship; it is about striving to become one—and I set about learning to do so. Now, after nearly two decades of a wonderfully intimate affiliation with a kindred soul which has weathered many a life crisis for both of us and yet filled me with endless hours of delight and contentment, I remain both grateful to and hopeful that, wherever he is now, darling old Quentin has finally found his great and elusive White Knight.