This Christmas Day, remember to light a 109th birthday candle in honor of Quentin Crisp, one of the greatest homosexuals to have ever lived.
Born on Dec. 25, 1908, under the name Denis Charles Pratt, Crisp hailed from origins that were aggressively ordinary. But as he strove to escape his suburban hometown, he began painting his nails and surviving through sex work. He modeled nude for art classes and lived a wild, extravagant life that would go on to form the basis of spellbinding plays. In the way he lived, Crisp established the template for queer sissies who would follow.
He was always a delicate child, and recalled later that he drew frequent abuse from other young people. He bounced around in his early twenties from one school to another, studying journalism and art while spending time in Soho cafes.
During that time, he dabbled in sex work. Later he explained that he was “looking for love” but instead found the life degrading. It was the 1920s, and Crisp certainly turned a lot of heads with his bold look: his nails were painted, he woke makeup in exaggerated patterns and he dyed his hair red. Among his bohemian friends, he was a hero; among the general public, he was a pariah.
In an unlikely move, Crisp attempted to join the Army, which refused his offer of help due to what they perceived as “sexual perversion.” So instead he helped the war effort by providing physical comfort to American soldiers during and after the Blitz.
He supported himself over the next three decades as an artist’s model and a writer of witty essays. His book The Naked Civil Servant was a critical hit. A documentary version was made in the late 60s, and then a dramatic version starring John Hurt came out a few years later.
That made Crisp an overnight star in circles that had never even imagined that a person like him could exist. He began touring the world, reading essays, telling stories and answering questions. He published his phone number, and invited anyone to call him and take him to dinner — while they had to pay, he would regale them with stories.
Over the course of the ’80s and ’90s, he moved into acting roles and appeared with Helen Mirren in Hamlet. Most of his appearances were in strange low-budget films, with occasional cameos on TV shows like The Equalizer and movies like Philadelphia.
The Legacy of Quentin Crisp
Death came in late 1999 with a heart attack just before he turned 91. But his legacy lives on in the art of those inspired by his work. Sting wrote the song “Englishman in New York” about him. Herb Ritts photographed him. Andy Warhol wrote about him in his diaries.
But beyond those creative works, Crisp’s impact remains evident across the gay community. He lived boldly, unapologetically and delighted in attention. Quentin Crisp showed the world how powerful and unafraid an effeminate man could be, and lent courage to countless genderqueer people before the term even existed.
It’s fitting that his birthday is on Christmas Day.Quentin Crisp was the greatest Christmas present gay men could have asked for.
Featured image by Edward Barber of Quentin Crisp’s Chelsea apartment in 1975