The unlikely style icon Quentin Crisp is being celebrated in "An Englishman in New York," a new film to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month to mark the tenth anniversary of his death at the age of 90.
If the title sounds familiar, it's because Sting wrote a little song about him you might have heard. But Crisp -- with his dandy style of a fedora resting on pastel-dyed hair, neck scarf, velvet coat and lapel pin -- was also a muse to fashion designers.
Probably the most outrageous tribute to him was created posthumously, by the gifted, avant garde designer Miguel Adrover. Adrover took the discarded mattress from in front of Crisp's building in the East Village of New York after he died (the Englishman was unfortunately famous for his filthy living conditions and iffy personal hygiene) and crafted a beautiful, Victorian-style coat from the stained fabric.
Crisp achieved fame in his native Britain as an openly gay man during the years it was not so safe to be so. His 1968 memoir "The Naked Civil Servant" (the title refers to his job modeling nude at state-funded art schools) was turned into a successful film in 1975 starring John Hurt, who also plays him in the new movie.
Crisp moved to New York in 1981, at the age of 72. He was famously available to journalists, and I interviewed him twice in the late 90s for the price of lunch (well ... plus a bottle of Johnny Walker and $50 because he said he couldn't afford his heart medication.) By that time his talent for the shocking remark ("I thought Princess Diana was trash and got what she deserved," he told me) had got him in trouble with the gay community, because of some rather heartless things he said about AIDS.
But it is the prerogative of the dead to be remembered fondly, and in our final interview in 1999 I asked him for his recollections of the 20th Century. They began with him as a child, throwing candy to soldiers in a parade marching off to World War I ("I thought -- they're going to die, what good's a toffee?"). He also remembered the invention of the crossword puzzle, reading Virginia Wolf's novel "Orlando" when it was new, and approaching Raymond Burr in a London cafe in the 60s, then at the height of his fame as "Ironside." "The most attractive man I ever met," he said.
"An Englishman In New York" probably will not reach a wide audience in this country. But it's nice to think there is one final doff of the fedora to this quintessentially eccentric Brit.