How we met - Quentin Crisp & Donald Carroll

How we met - Quentin Crisp & Donald Carroll image

2nd July 1995

Quentin Crisp, born in 1908, went to art school, but never earned his living as a painter. After a spell as a male prostitute, he was an artists' model from 1930 until 1978. He now lives and performs one-man shows in New York. His first book was The Naked Civil Servant; his latest, Resident Alien, is his edited diaries. Donald Carroll was born in Texas in 1940 and read philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. He worked as an editor at Thames & Hudson, and then as a literary agent. Now a full-time writer of humorous books, he lives in Gloucestershire with his fifth wife; he has four children from previous marriages

QUENTIN CRISP: I first met Mr Carroll on the telephone. I had spoken words on the radio about my life, on the Third Programme, for Phillip O'Connor. A publisher, Mr Kimber, telephoned me and said I should write a book. He said that if I wrote a 2,000-word synopsis of my life story he would let me know whether he would give me a contract.

When he read my 2,000 words he fainted dead away and said he could never publish such a book, it was too scandalous. I was describing all this to the art masters of Maidstone College, and a man called Citizen Kaine, Bob Kaine, said, "I have my spies and I will put them out." And he came back with the name Donald Carroll. He said that if I gave him the 2,000 words that had frightened Mr Kimber and a transcript of what I had said on the radio, and photographs of myself, he would undertake to sell the book. I telephoned Mr Carroll and he said, "You'd better come and see me." So I crossed the river from Chelsea to Putney.

He was with his first wife then, and she took one look at me and swept their two tiny children out of the way. Donald told me that if I wrote a few hundred words every week, he would collect it all together and find a publisher. Within six weeks he had sold it to Mr Maschler at Jonathan Cape.

When I first met Donald I was surprised because he was just like a human being, and most of the people I knew were not. Mr O'Connor, for example, was a Hungarian. But Mr Carroll spoke very little, he was very unemphatic, he just encouraged me to speak. My book took about six months to complete, and I wasn't very pleased with the title, The Naked Civil Servant. I had wanted to call it My Reign in Hell, because everywhere I go I have to explain that I never worked in the Civil Service, that I was a male model, but that it was just like being in the Civil Service.

After the book was published, Donald stayed around. I don't know why, because his work was done. He had undertaken to write a book on lifestyles, and he asked me to help him. We went on a tour around America to publicise Doing It With Style and got on very well, which surprised me. We even slept in the same room on the odd occasion, and I snore terribly, but he never complained. He never objected to anything I had written, or if he did he objected very quietly. I have never seen him lose his temper, but I have seen him scornful of people. The tour had been badly arranged, so that we turned up where they weren't expecting us, but though he was contemptuous he never flew into a rage.

He's got married an awful lot, and I've met all of his wives. He is so cynical and says exactly what he thinks and I don't think women like that. I think they like to be told a lot of rubbish. If they asked him "Do you really love me?" he would evade the question. So I think he's not satisfactory to women because he's not emotional.

There's nothing really that I don't like about him, though I think it's unwise that he gets married so often. And it's rather annoying because I get on very well with people's wives and mothers and so on, but I never get to know a Mrs Carroll really well because they are always gone by the time I've got to know them.

I don't think I've got much in common with Donald. He is not sentimental. I like Tennyson's poetry, and he finds it too emotional, so we are different temperamentally. I think he's a very good writer, though he writes very cynical books and that worries me, because I don't like too much cynicism, it's too glib. He's a very amusing man. He likes to tell me things which are an expression of the folly of human beings. I don't think I've ever shocked him as he isn't shockable, he's very sophisticated and very civilised. He knows everything about my life. I never hesitated to tell him anything, and many of the things I told him were shocking because I lived a very sordid life - I was a male prostitute for six months. He never expressed any shock or disapproval, and perhaps that's why we worked well together. I don't think he's influenced me, though I think his whole life is a warning, because he gets married to these women and obviously he should have waited, and then he wouldn't have. And yet he's not an impetuous man. That's funny, isn't it? He's not my best friend - I fight shy of having a best friend, because they hang on you. Mr Carroll would never hang on you, or accuse you of not having done what you said you'd do, or of not caring about him enough. He just turns up, we talk, then he goes and you don't see him for ages. He's never laid claim to any part of my life.

DONALD CARROLL: I first met Quentin Crisp on the telephone, in 1965. I had set up my literary agency, and most of my clients were poets. One evening I was at a dinner party with the publisher Constance Kaine and her husband, Bob, a very underrated English artist, who happened to be the vice-president of Maidstone College of Art. I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have any star commercial authors - or at least none of them were stars at that time - and Bob told me there was an artists' model at the college who he was certain had a wonderful book in him. The model's name was Quentin Crisp. So I called him and explained what I had in mind. He lived in Chelsea, I lived in Putney. I offered to pick him up and he told me that he would come by public transport as I was on the No 14 bus route, only a stone's throw from him. "And stones will be thrown," he added. He arrived at the door, and my first wife took one look at him with his make-up and his violently hennaed hair and scooped up our two infant children, raced to the back of the flat and wasn't seen for two days.

I instantly realised that working with Quentin was going to be fun. What surprised me was that not only was the stuff witty, and truthful and scandalous, but that it was incredibly well written. Like me, Quentin is a grammatical and syntactical Stalinist. He told me he would rather go without mascara than split an infinitive, which would be quite a sacrifice I can tell you. I really admired his dedication and his conscientiousness.

After The Naked Civil Servant was published, the embers of our friendship remained warm. We wrote and saw each other often enough for him to remember all my wives better than I do - and my girlfriends - which is remarkable. In the Seventies I moved to Los Angeles and then to New York. Quentin was there too and we met up and did a book on style together. It was published in 1981 and we did this hilarious coast-to-coast tour. Quentin said we were the Laurel and Hardy of the wine and cheese belt. When we were on the radio in Washington, the presenter said, "Mr Carroll, you seem to have been married a lot of times." And Quentin leant over and said, with this appalled expression on his face, "Yes, and he's about to do it again." Sometimes we shared accommodation and Quentin would slightly irritate me because he'd touch up his hair dye with a toothbrush and on more than one occasion I found my teeth turning purple.

That year he moved to New York permanently, which slightly surprised me, as one of the first things he ever said to me was, "I don't hold with abroad." He's the kind of person who believes the French speak English the minute our backs are turned. He loves America, he feels welcomed there, in contrast to the way he felt in Britain. He likes the New York police, they're very sweet to him. They look alarming with their fat bellies and big revolvers, but they come up to him in the street and ask how his latest one-man show is going and wish him good luck.

Quentin is very, very compassionate and infinitely agreeable. He can be very serious and funny at the same time. He's also very brave. He had an awful life in England in the Thirties, being abused and gay-bashed. To maintain his dignity in the face of all that is remarkable. He is the same whether he's receiving humiliation or adulation. He's not a publicity- seeker so much as a publicity-accepter. After he wrote The Naked Civil Servant he said he had decided to be not only a self-confessed but a self- evident homosexual. So he knew people would heap opprobrium on him, but he dealt with it in a courteous, civilised, dignified way. He came out not unscratched, but more or less intact.

There's nothing I don't like about him, though I occasionally get tetchy about his utter helplessness. But he's made passivity his style: he expects other people to help him and they do. I don't think he even pushes buttons in lifts. But I can't complain about that - it's like complaining about the Queen being regal. If I didn't see him any more I wouldn't miss him. That sounds callous, but I've known him for 30 years, and I've got so many memories of him in my memory bank that I'd be able to live off them for the rest of my life!