Iron butterfly

Many of us fancy that we could earn a handsome living simply by sitting on a stage and talking about our lives in a clever way. After all, we spellbind friends, lovers, and co-workers for free every day, right? But truly, who among us is qualified for such a deceptively easy career? Wealth and influence are no measure of potential success in this rarefied field--would you pay money to see Bill Gates be pithy for an hour?

If the gold standard were replaced by something even more precious--namely, wit--then Quentin Crisp could make a hostile takeover of the entire silicon industry. The British-born author, actor, film critic, and lecturer will celebrate his 90th birthday this Christmas. The party will take place during a national tour for his one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp. The show is part of a revival of Crispiana that includes the American publication of his New York diaries, Resident Alien, and, of all things, a Web site that sells Quentin merchandise and an ill-fated Scotch whiskey bearing his name and face on the label. He is somewhat bewildered by both.

"I was put on to the Internet through no fault of my own. I was walking down Second Avenue, and a mobile home pulled up in front of me and two men jumped out. I was told they could put me in touch with 2 million people. And I wondered, Why? I can't cope with the people I'm already in touch with. As for the Scotch, I fancied I'd get six cents per label. But really, can you imagine someone stumbling into a dark room, leaning across the bar, and saying in a husky voice, 'Give me a double Quentin'?"

Crisp's classic 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant once compelled a critic to describe him as a "self-confessed homosexual," to which he replied: "I never confess anything. I am a self-evident homosexual." He shudders at the appellation "gay activist." ("Many gays and lesbians say they want to be integrated when they really just want to be acknowledged," he says. "When asked if you are gay, you must always say 'yes,' but beyond that, why volunteer information?"). But having never dwelled in a closet, he understands the ravages of public scorn. He was last in Dallas many years ago as part of a benefit tour of Texas to raise legal funds for a schoolteacher who was fired because he was gay.

It's all shaped the Quentinian philosophy that wit and nastiness are different species--though they can be mated if the target is appropriate. "When I'm unkind, it's about institutions or ideas, not people. The only thing unkind I've said about anyone recently was Princess Diana after her death. I insisted that all her life, she'd been spoiled. She was trash. How did she become a saint? America loves beautiful women, because of the film industry, and she's the only remotely beautiful woman who's ever lived at Buckingham Palace."

Insisting that "people are my only pastime," Crisp cites a simple reason he decided to abandon England: Americans love to talk. "In England, if you climb onto a bus and say something like, 'I've been waiting for this bus for three hours now,' a passenger will snap, 'Excuse me, do I know you?' In America, you can get the entire bus talking on the same subject. It's like a school outing."

--Jimmy Fowler

An Evening With Quentin Crisp happens December 11 & 12 at 8 p.m. and December 13 at 2 p.m. at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney Ave. Tickets are $13-$16. A MAC fundraiser and book signing with Crisp happens December 10, 7-9 p.m., at the 8.0 Bar, 2800 Routh in the Quadrangle. Tickets are $5. Call (214) 953-1212.


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