Final dispatches from a resident alien
BOOK EXCLUSIVE: ROBERT INCE
After almost two decades since his passing, the final instalment in Quentin Crisp's trilogy of memoirs is finally getting a release. On the eve of its publication, Q&C talks exclusively to his friend Phillip Ward in New York about 'The Last Word', a fitting swansong for England's most famous and self-proclaimed stately homo.
Back in the 90s, when I was an impecunious student in the north west of England, I almost had the opportunity to experience a private audience with the legend that was Quentin Crisp.
Performer, writer, raconteur, actor, artist’s model and England's most famous ‘stately homo’, 90-year old Crisp was back in the UK to tour his one-man-show one last time. My then boyfriend's university lecturer was a friend of Crisp and it was decided that when the tour came to Liverpool, he would stay with him and be guest of honour at a specially invited dinner party where we'd be on the guest list. But it never happened as Crisp passed away on the eve of the tour in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester where he’d been staying on another friend’s sofa (it was his wont to eschew hotels in favour of something a little more homely).
As master of the bon mot, dinner with Crisp was said to be ‘one of the best shows in New York’ which made the fact it never happened for me even more lamentable. Sadder still that he died in a gloomy Manchester suburb, a world away from his beloved Manhattan in which he’d made his permanent home in the early 80s, living in a rooming house in the East Village. In America he claimed ‘happiness rains down from the sky’ and maintained his eccentric lifestyle, notoriously refusing to ever clean his flat, accepting dinner offers from strangers, and even inspiring Sting to write the famous song ‘An Englishman in New York.’
A gay icon to generations, Crisp was born Dennis Pratt on Christmas Day in 1908 in Sutton, South London, and went on to become known for his flamboyant appearance and sharp wit. He achieved international fame, and notoriety, through his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant and the hugely successful TV film adaptation starring John Hurt.
Hero to many and foe to others, there was no disputing the disparate mixture of feeling towards the late Quentin Crisp. A polarising and seismic figure in gay culture and variously described as, and taking pride in being ‘a freeloader, a dilettante, a butterfly on the wheel’, his friend the dramatist Bernard Kops said Crisp ‘made people revise their prejudices and preconceptions in a way that was marvellous. He was a pioneer, the John Logie Baird of camp.'
Quentin Crisp once said that 'autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last instalment missing.' Which makes it rather fortuitous that his long-standing friend Phillip Ward was able to ensure that last instalment wasn't lost to the world. For the last 18 years he has been working on completing Crisp's final autobiography, having transcribed and edited hours of audio recordings left by Crisp in his final years.
On the eve of the book's release, Q&C caught up with Phillip at his home in New York and found out what it was like being companion to one of the world's biggest and controversial gay icons and how it feels to have placed the final jigsaw piece in the puzzle of one of the most important legacies in LGBT history.
Q&C: It’s been 18 years since Quentin Crisp's passing, why has it taken so long for the book to be published?
PW: There are various reasons. Unfortunately, a combination of personal events over the years created the delay in transcribing tapes and editing the material. A heavy responsibility fell upon me at Quentin’s death and that was to manage the legalities of his estate with estate lawyers, family, outsiders and so on. It was a daunting task while attempting to live my own life. This involved much of my time and lasted for more than three years. It demanded quality attention.
Also, I found it very difficult, virtually impossible, to listen to the recordings Quentin and I made for The Last Word manuscript. To hear his voice was too heartbreaking. I had lost a dear and close friend, a family member, and one with whom I had shared nearly fourteen years, privately and publicly. But now I had to revisit hours of recordings, remembering him alive was too painful and, emotionally, this made it impossible to transcribe the recordings because the tears would blind me. With listening to the recordings, memory flashed back to the real moment in time halting me to a standstill, making me unable to focus and move forward. The pain of loss was great.
It took me several years to overcome the inability to focus and concentrate, to listen to the tapes without breaking down into a cloud of sadness. Finally though, with constant positive encouragement from my former partner Charles Barron and various friends, I transcribed hundreds of hours of audio Quentin prepared for The Last Word, and edited the manuscript to what I feel is one of his best books. It is his final word on and about his life, and is filled with his wit and wisdom and his philosophy of life and delivered by a man who is coming to the end of his life—with full knowledge and willingly. The book is the perfect bookend to Quentin’s story.
Q&C: How did you first come into contact with QC and what do you consider was the catalyst for the ensuing and enduring friendship?
PW: Like most people, I first became aware of Quentin Crisp from watching the movie about his life in England, The Naked Civil Servant with John Hurt. One evening in 1975, my mother switched the television station to the local public broadcasting station where Quentin Crisp was introducing the film with a teacup in hand addressing the viewers. And while watching the film, never did I realise nor even imagine the significance or the importance Quentin Crisp would be in my life. Neither would I have believed meeting him nearly ten years on only to become a friend and part of his New York City life until his death in 1999.
It was February 1986 that I met him while working as an editor in a production house. My secretary met him while standing in line at the East Village post office, only blocks from his rooming house, during her lunch hour and engaged him in conversation. As he was listed in the phone directory, I encouraged her to set up a date for dinner. I would come along! And, consequently, I was overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit and kindness—and with his honesty of heart. And despite his spoken adversity toward love and being loved, Quentin exuded unconditional love to those he believed in and trusted. Because of this and over the years that followed, I enjoyed an intimate and close friendship with Quentin Crisp and one which I cherish daily.
During the beginning of our friendship, I would often escort Quentin to galleries, movies, and even to restaurants to meet up with fans that had invited him out for dinner. Or we'd regularly sit alone in his room at The Eastwick on East Third Street. Even my former partner Charles Barron would often cook meals for Quentin, especially on days when he and I would work together at my apartment on Christopher Street. Our relationship evolved to where I pretty much became Quentin's assistant and attended to many of his needs, especially as he grew older and required help from his friends (even though he insisted he did not believe in friends). I also became his 'gatekeeper', the one to pull him away from additional invitations even while at events, mainly because Quentin could never say no to any invitation presented to him. We had our language of codes in which to alert me to quickly whisk him away while he assumed the role of 'I go where I am told to go' and for him not to have to decline their requests.
In the early 1990s, Quentin lost the capacity to use his left hand because of illness, and this prevented him from using his trusty companion, the typewriter. Luckily, 'my useless hand' was not his dominant right hand and he was able to continue to scratch out his compositions. He received many offers for articles and reviews and needed assistance in providing the hard copies. So along with my computer, or the Demon Machine as he liked to call it, and Quentin's clear dictation, I was able to transcribe his voice as quickly as he spoke the words. I became his 'Left-hand Man' typing and readying his manuscripts.
My relationship with Quentin Crisp was a private affair, the way in which we both wanted it to be. I had known him since February 1986 and had been a friend ever since that first encounter. He agreed not to mention me in his writings, if at all rarely and honored that until his death. Quentin Crisp was a friend, an extraordinary man who meant so much to many people and me. He was a total being of what it means to be human: be true to one's self. If you breathe it, live it! For over thirty years now have I known Quentin Crisp—through his writings and as a friend. As he was a mentor and a friend, I listened to his wisdom and feel I am a better human for having known him.
Q&C: What was he like as a person and what do you miss about him?
PW: Quentin was one of a kind. He was a philosopher, an observer of life, a survivor and a beacon of hope for many. He was a gentle being. In life, his primary mission was his immediate happiness and of those around him. He leaves behind a legacy of great importance to the world’s gay and straight communities of which The Last Word is his swansong.
What I miss most about Quentin is difficult to say because I miss everything about him. Everything. He was part of my life for thirteen years. In the end, I had a longer adult relationship with him than I did with my mother and father, and for me, he fulfilled both of those roles. So I miss that familial connection, and he was family. I also miss his voice and touch tremendously, but that's the beauty of memory. We can meditate on memories to feel and hear such particular aspects of our past, and that's what I often do. I miss the whole being of Quentin Crisp.
Q&C: What sort of subjects and stories can we expect in the book?
PW: The Last Word is different from Quentin's other autobiographies, The Naked Civil Servant and How to Become a Virgin, particularly so in the book's conception and message. In his lifetime, he published fourteen books. The Last Word is his final contribution to that list, and it is the only book he wanted to write. All other books he was asked to write. The theme of The Last Word and what sets it apart from anything else he produced in a book or explored in public is what it means to seek closure in life. The book is Quentin's valedictory. It is his deepest attempt to tell us what the lessons of his nearly ninety-one years on the planet have been. As usual, he approaches the 'topics' of his life—which include old age, sickness and his nearness to death—with unflinching honesty and openness. But in The Last Word, we get what Quentin almost never permitted himself to share about his life in any other public forum: we get his heart, his untrammeled feelings about what the gift of his life has meant to him. It is a view of Quentin Crisp not shared with the public in his lifetime. It is probably the most personal and most unusual book he ever wrote, and this is what makes The Last Word an incalculable gift to the rest of us.
Q&C: How did the book initially come about and how was it developed as a collaboration?
PW: Sometime in 1997, Quentin approached me with a request to help him write one final book. This was odd. Up until that point, Quentin had confessed to only ever writing books that were requested of him. This one would be different. This would be the first and only book he wanted to write. It would also be his last. In it, he wanted to voice all that he had left to say.
His original idea was to call the book The Dusty Answers, a reference to the fact that we would record material for the proposed tome from the subject matters that arose from the Q&A portion of his one-man show. In the end though, since Quentin’s purpose was to have the last word on his life, we went with a different, more appropriate title. For the next two years, Quentin and I would record our conversations, slowly creating the content (for the book). We finished those sessions in July 1999, about four months before he died.
Q&C: After the success of John Hurt’s portrayal in two films about QC’s life, including the Naked Civil Servant, do you anticipate another film based on the new book?
PW: I would be delighted should there be another film based on Quentin’s life based on what he writes about in The Last Word. The movie would certainly provide the perfect bookend to the trilogy of his autobiography.
Q&C: What do you feel Quentin Crisp’s legacy is in the current modern gay world? Does his story still matter and is his voice still relevant?
PW: Quentin Crisp remains relevant today. His message is universal and timeless. Granted his way of living was not the easiest approach nor is it the ideal avenue in which one would want to live, but the way he lived his life and what his life offered provided a wisdom by which to live our lives. We do not have to live in poverty or squalor, but we do have to possess the courage to stand tall at being our individual selves. Doing so provides us an independence of being, the strength to carry on and achieve a productive and successful life, something which Quentin did.
In my perception, Quentin was and is a Buddha. He challenged the mind into action. His words provoke the heart and mind into action. His writings and the videos of him being interviewed, although they may often sound flippant or self-serving, have an underlying message of encouragement and hope; a message of happiness and love, unconditionally; a message of accepting oneself no matter what nature has provided you. Be yourself no matter the cost because it is only then that you will have lived.
Quentin’s relevance is endless, but what I find interesting today within the culture of the gay community is the dismissal or disinterest of remembering our past. It is our past that has helped create our present and will enhance our future. And, at large, Quentin is often ignored by the gay community, partly because of his stern opinions about life as a homosexual and his remark on AIDS. But what they neglect to see is that the audacity of individualism was the strength in which Quentin Crisp lived and performed his life and offered to the world.
His leadership at being this unique individual has encouraged countless men and women the courage to accept themselves unconditionally and to live their lives unapologetically and more fully than what Quentin could have done in his youth. With Quentin’s courage, he produced a hefty catalog of writing and performances that many of us can only dream of achieving, but he did achieve it regardless of the suffering he endured over the nearly ninety-one years he lived. And it is these achievements that are available as handbooks for the future. The audacity of spirit gave us Quentin Crisp. And I am thankful for that.
It was the discovery of a new word, a new language that provided Quentin a fresh understanding of who and what he was. He was transgender; he was not homosexual after all. Quentin desired only to be a woman, and he lived his life as such—all the while accepting the pain of abuse for his decision of accepting his fate in life. But happily and luckily, at the end of his life, this new language and a new word, transgender, entered his mind and it made him happy in knowing that he could now understand himself more clearly and more fully, and as always without apology.
Quentin gave of himself unconditionally and never expected anything in return for his kindness and sharing of self. Sharing is what he did daily, going out to lunch with strangers at 'half past twelve' at the local Greek diner, Cooper Square Diner on Second Avenue at Sixth Street. People would treat him to lunches or dinners in exchange for being in his presence and hear him perform for the next two or so hours. He was always on; the persona was always ready to perform for his meal. Quentin also gave of his wealth, freely. Only when he was pressured to change his behavior or alter his desire to save his money to share with his family did Quentin resist. Quentin shared from the wealth of his heart daily, monetarily and that of his time. “It is what you do if you intend to live in the profession of being,” he would often tell me. “It has it rewards!”
His rewards were the people with whom he engaged and entertained. This was his life, and he lived it to the fullest possible, and it has provided us a road-map to follow or not to follow. His message is clear: Accept yourself for who and what you are and be the person you are destined to be without apology. What matters is that you obtain and maintain the courage to be your self and to construct your individualism in a style that fits your life’s needs and desires. Pinpoint your daydream and pursue it with flare and determination. Understand your sexuality and do not let societal pressures ordain who and what you are on the inside even if your outside does not truly reflect your interior self. “Be yourself no matter what they say.” Live your perpetual daydream as Quentin Crisp did. He proved that it does pay off.
Q&C: What do you think he would make of the world today?
PW: I feel that Quentin would be horrified by the world of today. Terrified. However, during his life in New York City, Quentin was able to live a life openly and freely the way he wanted and without the fear of violence projected toward him. And as it was his quest, I feel he would continue to find happiness no matter the condition of the world today. All the happiness that appeared in Quentin’s life appeared after his move to America, and he regretted that he hadn’t gotten here earlier in life.
New York and the rest of America continued to be paved in the gold of his youth while Quentin lived his life fully. “I don’t want my time dead. Time is meant to be lived! You must try everything. Have children. Behave in such a way that monuments are built to you. Rule the world! Have streets and theaters named after you. Write your autobiography. These are ways to stay alive, and this seems to be a preoccupation with being human.” So, Quentin would probably dismiss the world’s condition and go on living his daydream and continue to spread his philosophy of happiness.
The Last Word is published on November 21 by MB Books available in hard copy and e-book via Amazon.