By Guy Kettelhack
I can think to offer no higher praise of Nigel Kelly’s warm, straightforward, detailed account of Quentin Crisp’s life than to say that its abiding effects are conversational. Mr. Kelly provides as simple and direct an extended answer as can be imagined to the question, “Who was Quentin Crisp?” As if over coffee at Quentin’s favorite East Village diner in Manhattan, most readers will, I think, enjoy a sense of “settling in” with Nigel Kelly to hear a full report of a very rich life — full of incident, art, writing, theatre, travel, family, friendship, losses and gains: indeed, a much more “normal” life than one might have expected from the p.r. (which Quentin Crisp, of course, did nothing to discourage), promoting the persona of a sort of lost waif — an ill-equipped creature cast upon the waters of “fate” who initiated no choice beyond that which resulted in his remarkable appearance. “What else could I do?” is a quentissentially Crispian (and maybe not rhetorical) question.
Of course the question of “who Quentin Crisp was” remains, and surely will always remain, a conundrum. But one of the challenges – perhaps obstacles – to gaining entry to the Realm of Crisp through the writings of others, is that nearly every writer who’s opined about him – myself included – has largely not been able to keep from appropriating Crisp for his or her own uses. I was introduced to Quentin Crisp in 1982, shortly after I signed on as his agent Connie Clausen’s assistant. It was the beginning of an extraordinary friendship which, because it was involved with business (that is, the sacred object of getting Quentin money), became quite powerful, I’d like to think, in both our lives.
A word about Connie Clausen, which, simply because I’m one of the few still here to report on her friendship with Quentin, I seem all too singularly able to provide. She and Quentin adored each other – so comment is called for. Connie was a brilliant, beautiful, exasperating force of life – blonde and Wisconsin-raised – as American as Quentin was not. She’d had a stormy life full of dramatic rises and falls, which went from being a pink tutu-ed girl on the back of an elephant in the Barnum & Bailey circus (about which she later wrote a vibrant memoir), to working at MGM publicity during the heyday of Rooney and Garland, to acting on Broadway and television, to discovering “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “Watership Down” at Macmillan (which instantly made her a vice-president), to starting her own literary agency on the proceeds of a settlement she’d received from New York City for having fallen down an open manhole – well, that gives you the barest sense of the wild ride. She’d seen Quentin perform in 1981, I believe, and was instantly smitten: decided right then and there that she had to represent him. Quentin (surely reiterating his eternal “I want what you want”) happily agreed. Thus began an extraordinary bond – which I was privileged to observe from the front row – which consisted for me, often enough, of sitting at their knees during scotch-and-spaghetti dinners to which Quentin would bus uptown weekly. Hollywood, to both Quentin and Connie, was Olympus – or anyway, had been during its ‘heyday.’ I was privy to a charmed love – Connie with her good-natured cursing, Quentin with his incisive very funny “politesse.” It was the first clue of many – many more provided by Nigel Kelly in this biography – that Quentin Crisp was, despite many rumors to the contrary, a very happy man.
Talk to anyone who knew Quentin in as particular a way, and you’ll receive a flood of anecdote. It’s my contention that you could get to know the essential Quentin Crisp merely by having lunch with him at his favorite diner – you could, anyway, if you were paying attention. He gave himself unstintingly to anyone who asked. Of course what you made of what he gave you wasn’t his business. And indeed, a lot has been written and said about him which always says more about the observer than about Crisp.
Not that Quentin minded this – or would mind now. He expected it, and applauded it. (It was publicity, which he craved!) Like two of the icons he most revered, Greta Garbo and Andy Warhol, he wanted only to provide a “blank canvas” onto which others might feel free to paint their own pictures – which virtually always became self-portraits. We are, as Quentin believed, not trapped but liberated by our own points-of-view. We may be all we have, but oh – the wonders that embracing our idiosyncrasies can bring to life – and to engaging with each other! The shows we can put on! (Like the Connie-and-Quentin show.)
So, we have a not inconsiderable body of articles (academic and otherwise), plays, biographies, memoirs, films and one-man/woman-shows created either by those who “knew Quentin when” or who for some ideological or personal or mercantile reason felt that he represented something crucial which required expression – but which, whatever their merits or failings, can’t allow us to see the unadorned Crisp.
Nigel Kelly has come closest to anyone I’ve read to doing just that: not only by providing a clear narrative of Crisp’s life – but by regularly punctuating it with Crisp’s own words. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Quentin Crisp emerge more strikingly, in a context provided by someone other than himself, than in this book. Crisp’s sharpness, acuity, wit, intelligence all gleam herein – not least because of the marvelously unobtrusive frame Nigel Kelly provides.
The only fault I can find in Nigel Kelly’s modesty is that he says virtually nothing about himself. He will, I hope, forgive me for telling what I know about him. I had the pleasure of meeting Nigel and his wife Karen on a very wet Thanksgiving night in London in 2009. He and Karen hadn’t been to London for some years – they live in a town in Northern Ireland – so I had the welcome sense that this was as much a special trip for them as it was for me. Circumstantially, things couldn’t have gone worse. Not only was it raining hard, but the Chelsea pub (one I had thought from the outside would be civilized and quiet enough for conversation; it also wasn’t far from the Chelsea Arts Club which figures in Quentin’s past) and the South Kensington restaurant to which I dragged the long-suffering Kellys were rowdy and noisy and we had, virtually, to shout at each other to be heard. But what amiable shouting it turned out to be. Following Quentin’s example, we soldiered on – wet, deafened and bedraggled. We had a great and gratifying time.
Nigel Kelly told me he was a boy in his early teens when he first saw “The Naked Civil Servant” on television. He lived in a then still very war-torn part of Northern Ireland, collectively a society in which revealing “who you were” had great and often fatal consequences. Nigel was riveted by Crisp’s courage: by this tale of a man who clearly didn’t feel he could be anything other than “who he was.” He began what has turned into a lifelong fascination with Quentin Crisp, whom he regarded then, and regards now, quite simply as a hero. Chance, luck, interest and receptivity alerted him to various opportunities which have led him to a worldwide correspondence with Crisp’s friends, Crispian ‘experts’ and other aficionados via a website he constructed for the purpose, which have led him to the writing of this book.
Nigel will, I hope, forgive me for outing him as a heterosexual – which I do here only to underscore that “sexuality” or a “gay” identification with Quentin Crisp, isn’t, as it has been for so many others, what’s drawn him to Crisp. Nigel seems to me to have “gotten” Quentin Crisp in a very rare way: he sees the man without defensiveness. I’m not sure one can say that about very many other Crisp observers. His interest here is, I believe, in teasing out the particulars of whatever gave rise to the phenomenon of a man who so evidently, heroically (and for so long), was able to “be himself.” This degree of self-realization took something extraordinary – something which will always deserve our attention and curiosity. Nigel Kelly does his considerable unpretentious best to offer us, if not explanation, than at least a better sense of the context and details of Crisp’s life which underlie this “achievement of self” than we’ve had from anyone else.
Do please sit down now with Mr. Kelly’s story of Mr. Crisp, and find this out for yourself. You’ll enjoy the conversation. Then, as I think you will want to do, return to the extraordinary words of Quentin Crisp himself – words to which this book provides a wonderfully welcome and useful introduction.
Editor & Compiler of The Wit & Wisdom of Quentin Crisp“
Former New York agent, with Connie Clausen, of Quentin Crisp