by Stephen Sorrentino

Back in the dark ages, before such titles as Queer as Folk, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and eventually in my own life, Homo Heights, one's only chance to get a glimpse of Gay and Lesbian culture was to watch PBS late at night. At the age of 16, I caught The Naked Civil Servant.

From that moment I knew I wanted to meet the author and the man who lived this life I had seen before me. Finally in 1990 I had an opportunity to go to an AIDS benefit in The Hamptons on Long Island. Six friends and I went on the trek and arrived to find Mr. Crisp seated in a large chair selling and signing his books before he was to speak at the event following. I had in the past, lived and worked in the entertainment business for most of my life and had never felt star struck by any performer. Remembering that I had met and mingled with mighty names of the day such as Elton, Billy, Yoko, and Rod, I thought this no big deal.

Drawing closer for my autograph of his book How to Go to the Movies, I noticed something that I had not experienced since I was five years old. Remembering myself on a long line to meet the great “Miss Louise” from TV’s "Romper Room," where I had rehearsed my speech with my dad over and over, “Hello Miss Louise, I watch you every day. Happy Easter” over and over until the words became a well-oiled machine ready to leap into gear on cue. The moment had arrived, up on a small stage in front of Miss Do-Be a Do-Be herself, I fell into ruins … nothing, no oil, no gears, just some semblance of a Jerry’s Kid unable to move or make a sound. No Happy Easter, no I watch you every day, no hand shake, no eye contact. There I was, a comatose five-year-old Stepford child stuck in place in front of 400 waiting fans. “Take it away,” said the assistant as Miss Louise smiled with wonder and puzzlement etched upon her famous TV Face.

Coming back to myself here in line to meet Mr. Crisp, I began to look long at him in a haze, drinking in the life that he led made me dizzy. Thinking about his childhood as little Denis Pratt, a virtual alien in his world made me want to get to know him. What was he really like, was the film of his life true to his actual story?, why did they pick John Hurt to portray him? All these questions and feeling rushed through my head within the minute or so I waited to ask for the signature. What would I say? “Hello Quentin?"—no, too pushy—“Hello Mr. Crisp?"—no, too formal. I thought of the other celebrities I had dealt with in the past and tried to draw upon those catch phrases and icebreakers. “Hello Elton. Great show, going for cocktails tonight?” or “Ms. Mercury, you were fabulous this evening dear, a regular Pola Negri, I am a friend of so and so’s how do you do?”

Suddenly my daze cleared and I heard a small, yoda-like voice saying, “What would you like on your book?” There it was, the voice, the mannerism, the accent. But wait, he was not playing Quentin Crisp in a movie; he was Quentin Crisp! I wondered, How did John Hurt get his mannerisms and voice so close?.

I then realized that I owed him an answer. Looking around at the angry trendy yet well-dressed mob waiting in line behind me I answered the question with what came from deep in my creative, sometimes abstract mind: “Lettuce, tomato and mayo please!” A silence that seemed to last a decade or so ended with a hearty belly laugh and a soon-to-be familiar “Wonderful!” he said.

That night at the event I listened intently to his stories, views, and observations until a man who had had ten or so cocktails too many became rude to Mr. Crisp and was harassing him verbally. He was being “cute” at Mr. Crisp’s expense. One look in his mirror would have proved to this man that “cute” had left the station many cocktails ago.

Crisp did what he could to disarm the man; then I remembered reading that Crisp considered himself a victim. I remembered that I was not in my 80s and had played high school football and considered myself much less of a victim and felt a wave of chivalry run through my body. A friend and I escorted the “cute” patron upside down and in protest to the parking lot and was not seen again for the remainder of Crisp’s visit.

Later that evening a man told Mr. Crisp that a friend and I were the men who got rid of the rude man. He leaned in close and said, “I didn’t notice him at all.” A quick smirk and an extended hand brought Mr. Crisp and me together for the first of many times. I would go on to consider him one of my best friends and me his. We went on to star in a film together, travel to Minneapolis in the dead of winter without his photo identification, a fiasco worthy of an entire book in itself. (Look for Crisp Conversations, coming soon.)

I miss my friend dearly and not a day goes by that I don’t recall a phrase or story or wisdom that he shared with all of us. I had no idea that the 16-year-old watching PBS alone in his room would be so positively influenced one day by the naked civil servant himself.

I miss you, Mister Crisp. Sometimes wish that I could call him and hear the familiar “Oh yes?” and the eventual soft flutter “Good-bye.” I consider myself lucky to have been his friend and hope someday as an actor, entertainer or just human being to glean some of the things that cannot be taught in a classroom or from a book, but which has to be earned and achieved.

It’s what I call Crisp Star Quality.

Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Sorrentino for

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