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Book review: “The Last Word” by Quentin Crisp

That incomparable non-conformist’s third volume of autobiography is drolly philosophical and contains startling personal revelations about his identity.

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

With his characteristic philosophical drollness, Quentin Crisp’s posthumous, third volume of autobiography, The Last Word is not only an entertaining chronicle but a revelatory one as well. After decades of being revered as a 20th Century gay icon, he discloses that he was actually in fact transgender.

The only thing in my life I have wanted and didn’t get was to be a woman. It will be my life’s biggest regret. If the operation had been available and cheap when I was young, say when I was twenty-five or twenty-26, I would have jumped at the chance. My life would have been simpler as a result. I would have told nobody. Instead, I would have gone to live in a distant town and run a knitting wool shop and on one would ever have known my secret. I would have joined the real world and it would have been wonderful.

If you are reading this and are gay, think of me as one of your own even though you now know the truth. If it’s confusing for you, think how confusing it has been for me these past ninety years.

This profound confession is from the book’s first chapter “Sex, Sexuality and Identity.” It’s a serious analysis of his troubled English childhood, being a male prostitute in his youth and the impact of his sexuality on his existence. It’s all rendered with depth, insight and flashes of his patented humor.

Having given up sex at thirty, imagine my surprise when an African-American man tried to pick me up the other day. I’m now ninety. He was a taxi driver who had just brought me back from the airport. When we arrived outside my house he asked me, “Are you a man or a woman?”

When I told him, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not a woman,” he asked if I would give him a blowjob. I politely informed him, “I’m afraid I’m too old for any of that sort of thing.”

It passed pleasantly and he wasn’t angry. He just accepted the fact. I didn’t pretend to be shocked or anything like that. That is the only time in America anyone has ever propositioned me.

Unlike Crisp’s previous memoirs The Naked Civil Servant (1968), which The Times Literary Supplement derided for its “jaunty style,” and How to Become a Virgin (1981), The Last Word was technically not written by him.

When he was in his 80’s, due to infirmity he was unable to write by hand. His close friend and executer Phillip Ward conducted and recorded a series of in-depth interviews with him as he approached and reached 90. Mr. Ward, who provides the informative afterward and Laurence Watts who wrote the explanatory foreword have supremely edited these transcripts into 206 pages that are organized as seventeen chapters.

These vividly transmit that distinctive voice and sensibility that Crisp’s admirers continue to cherish. His aficionados will want to keep a pen handy while reading The Last Word to underline the many choice bits.

“Influence,” “My Family,” “The Trappings of Notoriety,” “Being a Tramp” and “Living a Long Life,” are titles of some of the the book’s other chapters that contain non-linear, free associative observations and declarations. Familiar facts are expanded upon and there is plenty of new material that makes this a definitive summation of Crisp’s life.

“The failure of my parents ill-conceived marriage was plain, my mother was extravagant and my father was penniless. It’s not a good combination.” He grew up as one of four children and early on was dressing up in women’s clothes. He lived openly gay which was virtually unheard of in pre-1967 England, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence.

“It got the ball rolling,” he says of the publication of The Naked Civil Servant, which initially sold 3000 copies. It was instigated by a publishing executive hearing him being interviewed on the BBC in 1964. The acclaimed, 1975 television adaptation starring John Hurt put him on the path to fame.

A whimsical anecdote recounts how he came to change his name from Denis Pratt, “which I was quick to get rid of,” to Quentin Crisp. His early years spent working at office jobs in book production are described, as is his career as an illustrator and textbook author.

There’s a beautiful section devoted to Crisp’s adoration of theater that captures the glories of the London theater scene of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with loving sketches of Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. This enthusiasm comes full circle in the 1970’s.

After performing his solo piece at a pub’s performance space at lunchtimes to at first sparse audiences, he amazingly goes on to appear in it at major West End theaters for extended engagements. This brings him to New York City for an Off-Broadway run and then touring around the United States. His sole legitimate stage appearance was as Lady Bracknell in a 1980’s, Off-Off Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t come to America when I was young…I cannot stress enough how much I like New York City.

In 1981, at the age of 72, he moves permanently to the U.S. and settles into an infamously grimy studio apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which becomes his base of operations for the next 18 years. He grouses about the $200 month rent which is considerably more then the $30 a month he was paying for the one room he rented for 41 years in London’s Chelsea section. There is a lot of discussion of money and being frugal due to having spent a lifetime in relative poverty. To his nieces and nephews he left the bulk of an estate of over $1 million, accrued in later life from book royalties, speaking fees, film appearances and commercial work.

“What does it all mean?” he adlibs during a film shoot to promote the fragrance Ck One while surrounded by a group of thin, young male and female models including Kate Moss. “Say that again,” exclaims Calvin Klein, and it becomes the spot’s tagline.

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” is Bette Davis’ often quoted zinger, and Crisp details his increasing decrepitude with candor. A testament to his enduring cultural significance is the figure of him in the Times Square branch of Madam Tussaud’s wax museum that went on display in 1999.

Quentin Crisp in the late 1990’s
Photo credit: Philippa Elmhirst’s

Quentin Crisp was born on Christmas Day in 1908, and died in his loathed, native England, on November 21, 1999, as he was about to deliver a series of speaking engagements. That it took eighteen years for The Last Word to come out is not lamentable. It arrives at the right time.

“Generally however, I expect the twenty-first century to be nastier than the twentieth.” The nastiness of this era is lessened by the joy of experiencing a new work by this inspiring iconoclast.

The Last Word is being simultaneously published with Quentin Crisp: In Black and White. It is a book of photographs taken of Crisp by Martin Fishman

The Last Word by Quentin Crisp

Edited by Phillip Ward and Laurence Watts

Published by MB Books

Paperback $14.99 (220 pages)

For information and to purchase visit http://www.crisperanto.org

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (421 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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