What follows is the first of four exclusive extracts from The Last Word by Quentin Crisp, the final installment of his autobiography, written in the last years of Crisp’s life, published worldwide by MB Books and available to buy on Amazon.
Chapter 1: Sex, Sexuality and Identity
This will be the last book that I write. What little I can say and do is almost done because, at the end of the day, I am nobody and I am nothing.
Most of my life is contained within the pages of The Naked Civil Servant and How To Become A Virgin. The former deals with my so-called life in England and the latter with my rebirth here in America. I only have a few more stories left to share before my well runs dry. I know and hope that the end is near. This book will be my swan song. A chance for me to have the last word.
Where then should I begin? I’ll begin with my truth, at the very beginning.
I don’t think there was a single event or thought in my life which shaped who I am today, but there was one long daydream that I lived in, up until at least the age of eleven or twelve. So let us begin this book with that daydream.
When I was very young, my mother read romantic poems to me. She recited Idylls of the King by Mr. Tennyson and the narrative poems of Mr. Scott, which very few have heard of. Scott’s poems included tales like The Lady of the Lake and Marmion which inspired me to dream about fair ladies and brave knights, fostering my romantic inner life and shaping my daydream.
I began writing my own poetry. One day my sister and my mother found it and read it. Despite knowing it wasn’t for public reading they nevertheless laughed at it, which hurt me a great deal. My sister was malicious. She would say of me, “Oh, he likes to be different.”
She never thought, “What is his problem? What can be done about it?” She just thought I was showing off. Of course, I was showing off, but at the same time I was in a terrible bind about who and what I was, something she didn’t recognize or bother to think about.
My daydream as a child was of growing up to be a very worldly, very beautiful woman. Those were my only daydreams. I played games of make believe with very little girls in the neighborhood. I had no male friends at all. I only had girl friends who could be ruled and made to play parts in my daydreams.
I remember playing a game of make-believe when I was nine or ten with a girl and one of her friends. One of the girls said, “You can be a great, dark prince.”
The girl next to her who knew better said, “Oh, he never plays the parts of real men.”
And I remember thinking, “No, I never do.”
And the first girl continued excitedly, “Oh. Well then, I will be the great dark prince.” It didn’t matter to her whether she played a male or female part, it was only a game. To me it was more serious than a game however, though I didn’t comprehend it at the time.
I never had boy friends because boys wanted to play rough games and sports and I was never any good at those things, so I never was with them. I don’t remember ever meeting boys or men and falling in love with them and them kissing my hand or anything like that. I was just always this beautiful creature.
Had I been born a woman, none of my life would have happened and I could have been happy. Well, perhaps that’s stretching a point. Let’s just say I might not have been quite as unhappy. And of course when you’re on the outside looking in, it always seems that other people are happier than you are anyway.
At the age of ninety, it has finally been explained to me that I am not really homosexual, I’m transgender. I now accept that. All my life, I have wanted to be part of society without having to alter my daydream, my own reality. When it comes to sex, these days I’m asexual. Nevertheless, I’m now convinced that it has been my view of myself and not my view of men that has been my trouble.
I no longer see myself as homosexual, though it is a word I have used to describe myself and which others have understandably used to describe me. I don’t actually see myself as a man though, of course, I know I’m not physically a woman.
To start, I don’t dress like a woman. I did know a man once who worked as a waitress for at least six months and who changed into his uniform in a room where other women were changing and was never detected. That’s pretty amazing to me. I don’t think I could have done that though. I think my body is too like a man’s body to have lived as a woman with any kind of success.
I have also only ever worn drag once. I suppose you could say it was a success in that nothing happened. I put on women’s clothes, I left the place where I lived, I got on a bus and went to the Regent Palace Hotel, had a drink there with my friend, got on another bus and came back. It was uneventful, but I think I did it to prove to myself that I could live the life of a woman albeit only for a few hours. I don’t really know what I expected.
I never came ‘out’ as transgender or gay because I was never ‘in’ and I’ve never known anything except the life I have. I either lived in the dream world in which I was a woman or else I lived awkwardly in the outside world where I was inadequate. The only difference is that now I live my whole life unified by the fact that I can live in the outer world the way I live in my head. I couldn’t always do that and it’s a freedom I now cherish.
I don’t think I ever consciously questioned my sexuality, my identity, my gender, or my daydream. It folded around me rather like the dream of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the last line of which is, “Life that can be cruel, can also be kind.” The dream that meant so much to her finally closed about her. The dream that I am really a woman closed about me entirely. I went through life as though I was a boy in the outer world, but in my head I went on as though I were a woman. This explains why my life has been so strange.
I never went out in the evening thinking, “Now I must get some sex,” which nowadays most people do. I went out saying, “I must be my glorious self and it will attract people to me.” I didn’t want any results. I just wanted to be admired. I think a lot of women think this way. Ms. Dietrich said, “You have to let them put it in, or they don’t come back.” That’s a wonderful thing to have said. She didn’t want sex. She wanted admiration, applause and praise. Sex would have smudged her makeup and spoiled her hair.
By accident then, I have become a sort of national hero, or worse (because I now realize it misrepresents me as much as how I managed to misrepresent them) a gay national hero. In reality, I was only ever a hopeless case. If I had tried to disguise myself as a real person, everyone would have said, “Who does he think, oh, I beg your pardon, who does she think she is?” I never did it and that gave way to the image that I have, the legend, if you will.
The only thing in my life I have wanted and didn’t get was to be a woman. It will be my life’s biggest regret. If the operation had been available and cheap when I was young, say when I was twenty-five or twenty-six, I would have jumped at the chance. My life would have been much simpler as a result. I would have told nobody. Instead, I would have gone to live in a distant town and run a knitting wool shop and no one would ever have known my secret. I would have joined the real world and it would have been wonderful.
Having said that, and ignoring the biological impossibility for a moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman with children. I would have accepted children if they somehow came into my life, but the truth is I don’t really like children. I am amused when people say to me, “But you were a child once.” I was, but I wasn’t the kind of child that made you like children.
Now, for the rest of this book you will have to forgive me. Having labeled myself homosexual and having been labeled as such by the wider world, I have effectively lived a ‘gay’ life for most of my years. Consequently, I can relate to gay men because I have more or less been one for so long in spite of my actual fate being that of a woman trapped in a man’s body. I refer to myself as homosexual without thinking because of how I have lived my life. If you are reading this and are gay, think of me as one of your own even though you now know the truth. If it’s confusing for you, think how confusing it has been for me these past ninety years.
© 2017 Phillip Ward. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
About Quentin Crisp:
Quentin Crisp (Dec 25, 1908 - Nov 21, 1999) was an English-born writer, actor, eccentric and raconteur. He became famous from the publication of his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which chronicled the oppression he faced as a homosexual in England before, during and after World War II. Crisp performed a one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp, which he toured nationally and internationally and which won an L.A. Drama Critic’s Circle award. He moved to New York at the age of 72 where he wrote books on style, culture and manners, appeared in numerous films, published a second autobiography, How To Become A Virgin, and became the inspiration for Sting’s hit song, An Englishman In New York. Dinner with Crisp, whose telephone number was listed in the local telephone directory and who never turned down an invitation to dine, was often called ‘The best show in New York’. The Last Word is the third and final installment of his autobiography.