Monday, March 7, 2011

* "You-Know-Who": The Naked Civil Servant at Yale Divinity School, November 9, 1977

Yale Divinity School
Long before transvestitism was mentioned in
public discussions  in America, 
I, and fellow Yale Divinity School student Carol Brock, 
invited Quentin Crisp to address Yale Divinity School,
 a rather audacious invitation for 1977.
 Here are excerpts from his talk.

Are we all agreed then: 
Psychology was a mistake?

My friend, and fellow Yale Divinity School student, Carol Brock Hartman (M. Div. '80) invited me to see the one-man performance at The Long Wharf Theatre  in New Haven, of Quentin Crisp, the famous British transvestite, entitled The Naked Civil Servant, after the title of his autobiography.  

We both were so enthusiastic about the performance of this then 71-year-old actor/author (68 years old on some days; he was vain )  that we decided to shake up the over-starched Divines at YDS a bit by inviting Quentin Crisp to speak at the Divinity School.

To our surprise, he accepted.

He delivered his talk with coiffed purple hair beneath his trademark wide brimmed hat, and with brightly polished  fingernails. The Divines boycotted the event but about  fifty people attended, including, several psychology faculty. The psychology faculty invited him on the spot to participate in an interview on the nature of transvestitism.

He agreed.
A most obliging gentleman was he.
Here are some of the quotes from that talk.


He began his talk with this non-sequitur which drew a big laugh from the audience:

  • Are we all agreed then: Psychology was a mistake?
  • Someone may be a homosexual for part of his life, or have homosexual feelings for only one person in his life. Fifty years ago if someone asked me, Are you a homosexual? I would say passionately, "Oh yes! YES!" Now I say, "Not today, thank you."
  • I have never known what it is not to be laughed at. My brothers and sisters laughed at me when I was a child and so on. There comes a point in one's life when you find out what it is that causes their laughter and then you take it into yourself and exaggerate it, thereby making the joke your own, not others'.
  • I never wanted to leave home. When my brothers were wishing to be great things like ships' captains, I wanted to be a chronic invalid.  And I was good at it!
  • I never wanted to play boy's games. And the primary reason is that I simply didn't want to get hurt.
  • I have accepted the eternal disgrace of being someone who does not have an intimate relationship.
  • I am married to the world  . . . When I go out in public it requires so much of my energy and self that when I come home I need to be alone. people ask, "What do you do when you're home?" and I say,"Nothing." "Oh, but surely you read," they say. "No, I do nothing. Sometimes I just sit for an hour without moving. I cannot even recall my thoughts during that hour."
  • There was no 'choice' involved. My deformity required that I be the way I am. I have never really known what it was to be a person. I have always felt I was someone imitating a person.
  • I did it for my self, first of all, not for others. I wanted to give total expression to the feminine part of my personality.
  • It is the feminine part of my personality, not homosexuality, that is important to me. If I had to make a choice I could have easily been celibate rather than give up expressing the feminine in myself.
  • Even now I don't have 'conversations' with people: I give 'interviews!' The taxi driver doesn't talk about the weather with me, he says, "I know YOU!"
  • For years I was a total outcast. Now I am a fashion. I have never been just a person. Perhaps when this passes, I will be just an old man nobody remembers.
  • If by"God" you mean the organizing principle of the universe, then yes I accept that. But I cannot believe in a God susceptible to prayer, to petition: A God concerned with Western nations, white races and primarily among them 'men.'
  • "You-Know-Who" [Mr. Crisp's euphemism for God]


The Telegraph

Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp, who has died aged 90, was the author of The Naked Civil Servant (1968), which told of his adventures and ordeals as a self-proclaimed - indeed exhibitionist - homosexual before during and after the Second World War.

Quentin Crisp
Photo: AP
Crisp never attempted to disguise the tragedy of his life; he did, however, know how to face it with both courage and humour. Witty, intelligent and cynical, he described how, in a period when most men "searched themselves for vestiges of effeminacy as though for lice", he had dyed his hair red, put on lipstick and mascara and painted his finger and toenails.
"I wore make-up at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful," he related. "From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any cafe or restaurant from which I was not barred, or any street corner from which the police did not move me."
The televising of The Naked Civil Servant, in 1975, directed by Jack Gold and starring John Hurt, launched Crisp at the age of 66 as "one of the stately homos of England" and into a new career as an actor.
In the spring of 1978, he appeared in his own one-man show at the Duke of York's theatre, London, preaching the gospel of self-knowledge and presenting himself as "a sad person's idea of a gay person".
The production, which Crisp described as "a straight talk from a bent speaker", received rapturous reviews, transferred to the Ambassadors theatre, and was later taken to Australia and many cities in America, including New York, where he took up residence on Lower East Side in 1981.
In England, he said, "the system is benign and the people are hostile. In America, the people are friendly, and the system is brutal." He found it easy, on the other side of the Atlantic, to maintain the illusion that people adored him.
But Crisp enraged militant homosexuals in America by refusing to align himself with their cause, partly because he wanted to maintain his individuality, partly because he genuinely believed that to be homosexual was "like having an illness".
He himself had "never really desired much sex"; nevertheless, it was clear to him that the promiscuity of homosexuals was a sign that the act was unsatisfactory - "just as, if you eat food that doesn't really nourish you, you eat more food."
He did not mention homosexuality in his one-man show, and in the 1980s airily dismissed the obsession with Aids as "a fad". The more that homosexuals insisted on their "rights", he thought, the more they distanced themselves from the heterosexual world - "and this is such a pity". For himself, he had always been conscious of being alone, and of having to invent his own happiness.
Denis Charles Pratt - he did not adopt his more effervescent name until his early twenties - was born at Sutton, Surrey, on Christmas Day 1908, the third son of a somewhat ne'er-do-well London solicitor and a former governess with mild social and artistic pretensions.
Denis's effeminacy was evident from an early age; his only boyhood ambition, he recalled, was to be a chronic invalid. Frail, pale and hopeless, he was "an object of mild ridicule from birth".
He cast himself as "a monstrous show-off", given to distracting the servants from their chores with improvised dance performances and poetry recitals. His mother was mildly irritated; his father apoplectic.
Nevertheless Denis attended Kingswood Preparatory School at Epsom, from where he won "a very poor scholarship" to Denstone College, on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire.
It was an experience for which he was retrospectively grateful. "If I had left straight from home and gone out into the world," he considered, "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 everyone was my enemy, and that I would have to find ways of dealing with this if I was to go on living." He reached the Sixth Form at the age of 15, and even commanded a squad in the OTC.
On his own admission he was never a temptation to other boys: "I was very plain. My rich mouse hair was straight but my teeth were not. I wore tin-rimmed spectacles."
Yet, influenced by the vamps of the silver screen - Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, "all icons of power" - the young Crisp dreamt of using sex "to allure, subjugate, and if possible destroy the personalities of others".
Reality was more prosaic. Leaving school in 1926, he took a course in journalism at King's College, London, but failed to get a diploma. He also attended art classes in Battersea and at the Regent Street Polytechnic.
But his high heels and red hair failed to allure prospective employers, and by the age of 19 he had fallen upon the seedier side of Soho - and more particularly the Black Cat cafe in Old Compton Street. The proprietor was later involved in a murder case; and many of his customers were male prostitutes. Crisp himself was "on the game" for six months.
In his early twenties, Crisp left home for good - though he always remained on good terms with his family - and developed the alarmingly effeminate persona and mannerisms which, he wrote later, immediately solidified around him "like a plaster cast" - and which resulted in his being frequently beaten up in the streets, sacked from jobs and thrown out of cafes.
Yet Crisp obtained work as a tracer with a firm of electrical engineers and also as a freelance designer in advertising and publishing, even producing two text books himself, Lettering for Brush and Pen (1936) and a manual on window dressing, Colour in Display (1938).
Already 30 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War, Quentin Crisp lied about his age and attempted to enter the Army, only to be declared "totally exempt, suffering from sexual perversion", after a searching physical examination by a medical board at a drill hall in Kingston-upon-Thames.
During the Blitz, Crisp walked the streets of London with characteristic bravado, never sheltering from the bombs, barefooted in all weathers. He caught the attention of the photographer Angus McBean - who took some remarkable portraits of him - and later of the GIs, who often mistook him for a woman.
In the summer of 1940, Crisp moved into the first-floor front bed-sitting room at 129 Beaufort Street, Chelsea, which was to remain his home until the end of the 1970s and which he never attempted to clean. "The dust doesn't get any worse after three years," he observed.
In 1942 he became an art school model. Over the next 30 years he worked in almost every art school in London and the Home Counties, usually posing nude and in a variety of arresting postures. One of his specialities was his crucifixion pose; others involved standing on his head or with one foot on the floor and the other on a plinth behind him.
During these years, Crisp became an increasingly familiar figure in the bohemian cafes of Soho and Fitzrovia, where he held court to anyone who cared to listen and - his hair now dyed brilliant blue - was himself proclaimed as one of London's Works of Art.
His attempts at writing were unsuccessful, though his poem about the Ministry of Labour, All This and Bevin Too (1943), appeared in pamphlet form. It was illustrated by Mervyn Peake, whom he had met in a cafe.
The Naked Civil Servant grew out of a radio interview in 1964 conducted by the off-beat Third Programme personality Philip O'Connor, which happened to be heard by the then managing director of Jonathan Cape. It was followed by How To Have A Life Style (1974) and an autobiographical sequel, How To Become A Virgin (1981), which told of his love affair with New York.
In later years, Crisp adopted the guise of Woman with a Past, re-arranging his receding hair - now sprayed pale purple - in a complicated set of Pompadour waves and curls. In his own words he adopted for all occasions an expression of "fatuous affability".
Drawn into "the smiling and nodding racket", he was to be seen at some of the flashiest parties in New York and London, and was also much in demand as a chat show guest and as an actor. He played Lady Bracknell in a Greenwich Village production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and a laboratory assistant in Sting's film The Bride (1985).
In 1993, at the age of 85, he appeared as an over-rouged and voluptuously becurled Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's film of Virginia Woolf's Orlando - though his acting showed considerable dignity and finesse. He also delivered an Alternative Queen's Christmas Message to the British nation from a suite in the Polaza Hotel, New York. "Towards the end of the run you can overact appallingly," he remarked in justification of such extravagances.
Crisp's views remained both unpredictable and independent. He described sex, psychiatry and other people as "a mistake". He hated Oscar Wilde, worshipped the Kray twins, and described Death in Veniceas a crashingly boring film. In an interview with The Oldie in 1994 he described homosexual intercourse as "often actually painful, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes nasty".
Although his West End show attracted distinguished admirers - John Betjeman, the Pinters, Lady Diana Cooper - he never clung to their coat tails. "Never try to keep up with the Joneses," he recommended. "Drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."
Every day he would breakfast at the same cafe in Cooper Square, lower Manhattan, and he was prepared to have dinner with anyone who turned up at his rooms. He took great care to avoid close friendships, never addressing anyone by their first name. His ideal, he said, was to have 365 friends, and to see each of them on one day of the year.
Quentin Crisp claimed to have no spiritual side."I am not a metaphysical person," he said. "I find it hard enough coping with real life". As for eternal life, he would not wish it on his worst enemy.