December 25th, 1908 – The Birth of a Dandy

Today-In-History

Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey in England on December 25th, 1908, the fourth child of lawyer Spencer Charles Pratt and former governess Frances Marion Pratt. In his early 20s he changed his name to something that he felt better suited his cultivated effeminate appearance that both shocked contemporary Londoners and provoked homophobic attacks. This man was none other than Quentin Crisp.

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From his conventional suburban background Crisp grew up with feminine tendencies exemplified by his make-up and painted nails and work as a rent-boy. He then spent thirty years as a professional model for life-classes in art colleges. The interviews he gave about his unusual life attracted increasing public curiosity and he was soon sought after for his highly individual views on social manners and the cultivating of style.

The fledgling dandy (photo by Angus McBean)

The fledgling dandy (photo by Angus McBean)

At the outbreak of World War II Crisp attempted to join the British army, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical board on the grounds that he was “suffering from sexual perversion.” During this time, he moved into the bed-sitting room he would occupy for over four decades until he emigrated to the United States in 1981. In the intervening years he never attempted any housework, saying famously in his memoir: “After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” In 1942 he became a full time model for life classes in London and the Home Counties, and continued posing for artists for the next three decades. “It was like being a civil servant,” he explained in his autobiography, “except that you were naked,” thus the title The Naked Civil Servant.

John Hurt (left) portrayed Quentin Crisp (right) in 1975

John Hurt (left) portrayed Quentin Crisp (right) in 1975

In 1975 the television version of The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and US television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a new direction: that of performer and tutor. He devised a one-man show and began touring the country with it. The first half of the show was an entertaining monologue loosely based on his memoirs, the second half was a question-and-answer session with Crisp picking the audience’s written questions at random and answering them in an amusing manner. After performing the show for a run in New York City, Crisp decided to move to New York permanently and set about making arrangements. In 1981, he arrived with few possessions and found a small apartment on East 3rd Street in Manhattan’s East Village.

English writer, actor, artist's model and gay icon Quentin Crisp (1908 - 1991), Old Compton Street, London, 26th June 1996. (photo by Donald Maclellan/Getty Images)

Quentin Crisp back in London in June 1996. (photo by Donald Maclellan/Getty Images)

Crisp became a U.S. citizen and lived in New York City until he died of a heart attack in November 21st, 1999 nearly one month before his 91st birthday in Manchester, England on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. He was cremated with a minimum of ceremony as he had requested and his ashes were flown back to Phillip Ward in New York.

From his 1987 album …Nothing Like the Sun, Sting recorded and released the single “Englishman in New York” written about Quentin Crisp not long after Crisp moved from London to an apartment in the Bowery in Manhattan. Crisp had remarked jokingly to the musician “that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers so that he could commit a crime and not be deported.”

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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