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A unique voice--both shocking and sharp--goes silent

If author-wit-gay hero Quentin Crisp had a mantra, it might have been a line from the song "An Englishman in new York," Sting's musical homage to Crisp: "Be yourself, no matter what they say." Crisp wasn't exactly politically correct. He referred to homosexuality as an "illness" and to concern for the AIDS epidemic as a "fad." Nor was he swayed by public sentiment--he felt the late Princess Diana "got what she deserved."

But while he wasn't supportive of the gay movement, he was a relentless gay activist by virtue of his unrepentantly flamboyant appearance. Crisp was a slight, dandified figure who colored his hair red or lavender and admitted that wearing makeup--at a time when many women don't--made him "not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one."

"He was a one-man gay pride parade," says writer Armistead Maupin. Maupin met Crisp many times but admits he isn't sure he ever really knew him. "He was a relentlessly unsentimental man of steel," says Maupin, who says Crisp thought of the younger generations as "Johnny-come-latelies."

In truth Crisp was a late bloomer himself. Born ("reluctantly," he once claimed) Denis Pratt in 1908 to middle-class parents in Surrey a suburb south of London, he was openly homosexual from the 1920s. But he struggled for decades, when not on the dole, as a book illustrator, part-time prostitute, tap-dancing instructor, and nude model in a government-funded art school. Like a gay Grandma Moses, Crisp reinvented himself late in life, embarking on a successful new career as a writer and speaker. He was 60 when his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was published and nearly 70 when John Hurt, played him in the book's widely praised BBC version. He wrote more books, on topics such as film criticism and good manners, and he later even dabbled in acting, notably as Lady Bracknell in an off-Broadway The Importance of Being Earnest and as Queen Elizabeth I in Orlando.

Author-screenwriter Gavin Lambert (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) saw both Crisps. When the two met at a London party in 1948, "I thought him very low-key," says Lambert, even though his new friend's ensemble included open-toed sandals and painted toenails. Other guests didn't object--"they just asked if he was cold." Seeing him again 30 years later, Lambert noted that although the "amazing and brave" Crisp still had his bravura, he'd also developed a "hard shell." Indeed, Crisp had moved to New York City in 1981, vowing never to live in England again--though, in irony he was accustomed to, that's where he died, at age 90, on November 21.
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Article Details
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Author:Kinser, Jeremy
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 18, 2000
Previous Article:1999 THE YEAR.

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