Bed-sitting room accommodation, to give it its grandest name, is synonymous with London loneliness and worse. But Quentin Crisp made bedsits glamorous. That is to say the stories about Crisp did, those mostly being told by Crisp himself.
It helps that the bedsit he lived in for over 40 years was at 129 Beaufort Street in Chelsea, named after Beaufort House where Sir Thomas More lived until 1535, when he was whisked to the Tower to be beheaded. Crisp took up residence in SW3 at the time of the Blitz, having failed to be admitted into the British Army because the medical board pronounced him to be “suffering from sexual perversion”.
By then, the man born Denis Charles Pratt in Sutton in 1908, had already lived for 10 years in a bedsit in Denbigh Street, Pimlico, whose 1930s streets he walked with what we might call gay abandon if the joke were less low rent.
He had studied in London for a few years before moving to the city: first (unsuccessfully) journalism at King’s College, then art at Polytechnic-Regent Street. He spent his spare time at the Black Cat pub in Old Compton Street, where he socialised with other young men, including prostitutes, becoming one himself for a few months.
Crisp would later describe this activity as a search for love which led only to degradation, but he displayed the sartorial flair he acquired during that period of his life with no obvious sign of regret. He wore his hair long and dyed, painted his nails red and wore the kinds clothes that made the word “flamboyant” a kind of code when applied to men.
It brought him some local renown in a now exclusive London neighbourhood that had fallen prey to slums. It also brought beatings and arrests. Nothing, it seemed, would stop him, including wartime blackouts – fruitful interludes for picking up GIs.
As for his bedsit dwelling, it conformed to the tenure’s enduring link with squalor, but Crisp famously dismissed that as a lifestyle choice – “after the first four years the dust doesn’t get any worse” – as was his entertaining on the premises, where he displayed his gifts as a raconteur. All this went on for years without the wider world’s knowledge. Crisp earned a London living first in design and technical drawing and then, from 1942, as a life class model.
Then, in 1963 or 1964 – accounts vary – he did a radio interview with poet and Fitzrovian Philip O’Connor, which led to him writing The Naked Civil Servant, the memoir that would make his name. Published in 1968, one year after homosexuality was decriminalised for men aged over 21 and two years before the first gay rights demonstration took place on Highbury Fields, it became a TV series, making stars of John Hurt, who played Crisp, and of Crisp himself, whose resulting one-man show was a huge hit, selling out the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane.
Crisp’s London years ended in 1981 after he took his show to New York and stayed there – residing, rather suitably, at the Hotel Chelsea. Did he transcend those London bedsit clichés? His legend and many of his friends say he did. But in 2019, 20 years after his death, someone else who knew him described Crisp as “the loneliest man I ever met“. Take your pick.
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