"A very interesting person!" observes the title character of the film Orlando, speaking of Queen Elizabeth. But the exclamation would fit just as well for the man who was playing her: Quentin Crisp.
Crisp, who visits the Valley this weekend, was born Denis Pratt--"My name before I dyed it"--into middle-class circumstances in Surrey, England, in 1908. From childhood, he recognized himself as "different." In his early 20s, he came out as "not merely a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one."
In 1968, he published a memoir, The Naked Civil Servant--the title is a reference to his 30-plus-year career as an artists' model at government art schools. This hilarious work was made into a television film, starring a well-cast John Hurt as Crisp, in 1975, and suddenly Crisp was out of the underground and a darling of the literati. By the early '80s, Crisp had relocated to New York, become a fixture on David Letterman's Late Night and other talk shows, and broken into movie acting.
He's also authored several more books--his Phoenix appearance coincides with the paperback release of three of them (Resident Alien, The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp and How to Have a Lifestyle)--and, at 89, he remains one of the more scintillating speakers on the national lecture circuit. Pretty impressive for a man who claims his childhood ambition was to be a chronic invalid.
The story of the heroic social defiance of this soft-spoken, slyly self-deprecating little man is extraordinary. What compounds the accomplishment is Crisp's talent--he writes like a dream. He speaks with the same wry brilliance. By phone from his New York apartment, he offered up nuggets like these off the top of his head:
On the secret of happiness:
"You never, never work. That's a great mistake. Before I do anything, before I lift a finger, I always ask myself, 'Can I get out of it?' I've lived in Manhattan for 18 years without working."
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Well, isn't he an actor?
"If you don't want to act in Manhattan, you have to keep moving, because if you stand still, someone will ask you to be in a movie." (He next appears in an indie called Homo Heights.)
And isn't he a writer?
"I did write, but in the same month my hand became paralyzed, the paper for which I was writing folded, and my agent died. I took that as a sign from You Know Who that my writing career was over."
--M. V. Moorhead
"An Evening With Quentin Crisp" begins at 7 p.m. Friday, April 3, at Arizona History Museum, 105 North Fifth Street. Admission is free. Crisp will sign his books at the Arizona Book Festival at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 4, at Margaret T. Hance Deck Park, Central and Culver; and 1 p.m. at Borders Books & Music at Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Suite 200. 256-7476, 957-6660.