Around 10 p.m. on a brisk Sunday evening in early November, Penny Arcade, the Manhattan performance artist and former Warhol starlet, was onstage with a four-piece pickup band at Joe’s Pub in the East Village. The petite and curvy Ms. Arcade, 58, who was wearing snakeskin platforms and a sleek back cocktail dress, explained she would be doing some improv. No big deal. Nothing too good, she joked. But before launching into the first number, a loungey “anti-careerism” piece called “No Mona Lisa,” she took a moment to quote her friend Quentin Crisp, the late British writer, actor and raconteur who is the subject of a new biopic tentatively slated for release early next year on a U.K. television network.
“Before he died, Quentin used to say to me: ‘Ms. Arcade, I’m going, you’re staying. I feel sorry for you,’” she said in a raspy English accent, to bursts of laughter from the audience at Joe’s. “But he also said to me, ‘Not to worry, Ms. Arcade. Time is kind to the nonconformist.’”
The film, An Englishman in New York, which was shot almost entirely in New York this past September, is a follow-up to the acclaimed 1975 TV movie The Naked Civil Servant, so named for the autobiography that catapulted the flamboyant, openly gay and sometimes controversial Crisp—he once infamously dismissed AIDS as a “fad”—to fame in 1968 at the age of 59. It picks up in the late ’70s when Crisp moved from London to the Lower East Side, where he was embraced by the arty downtown luminaries of the day, not least of all by Ms. Arcade, who became one of his closest friends toward the end of his life. Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon plays Ms. Arcade in the movie.
Ms. Arcade, whose real name is Susana Carmen Ventura, has had a long and accomplished (if under-noted) career—or, to use the word Ms. Arcade might prefer, “vocation.” She was a teenage superstar in Andy Warhol’s Factory; has written and directed 10 original performance pieces, including her landmark 1990 sex and censorship communiqué, BITCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WHORE!, and 2002’s anti-Giuliani rant, New York Values; and she’s performed in more than 30 cities worldwide, from Rio to Sydney to Vienna. Upcoming projects include a three-week run of a revitalized BITCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WHORE! in San Francisco, and a new full-length show called Longing Lasts Longer, which will premiere in Frankfurt on Dec. 5. Needless to say, age hasn’t slowed her down.
Still, after four decades working in New York as a full-time artist, she still doesn’t earn a living here, hence her frequent jaunts to perform in other time zones. (What sounds ideal to us is work for others, apparently!) It seems like all the local bookings are going to people 30 years her junior fresh out of art school, she said, and also noted that no mainstream publication in this city has ever published a proper profile of her. (Indeed, Ms. Arcade claims this one is the first, although several shorter articles about her have appeared in the pages of this newspaper over the years.) What gives?
“America is obsessed with potential and dismissive of accomplishment,” said Ms. Arcade, smoking an American Spirit in her Stanton Street apartment about a week before the Joe’s Pub gig. “I fought that fight for a really long time in New York, and it’s quite sad, but the truth is, there’s no work here, even though the audience really clamors to see me and other people like me. There’s no longer an artistic community. It’s been decimated by real estate interests and the suburbanization of the city. I don’t think you can say that too many times.”
WHICH ISN’T TO SAY that Ms. Arcade is contemplating packing up for a Florida condo. In fact, she’d probably tell you her best days are ahead, that getting older means getting smarter and wiser and better. “People have actually bought into the idea that you have this point of view by the time you’re 22 to 30, which is impossible,” she said, incredulously. “How can that be? Wisdom is accrued over time, and there are no shortcuts in self-development.”
Perhaps that explains why Ms. Arcade quotes Quentin Crisp so often. “Quentin was a phenomenal role model,” she said. “When other people his age were ready to go into the nursing home, he came to New York and created a brand-new life for himself. So everything he said to me becomes of great value on a daily basis.”
She first met Crisp (real name: Denis Charles Pratt) on the corner of Second Avenue and Seventh Street one February afternoon in 1982 when he was 72 years old. A few years later, she saw him sitting by himself at a going-away party for Holly Woodlawn—the transgender actress with whom Ms. Arcade shared the screen in the 1971 Paul Morrissey-Andy Warhol film, Women in Revolt—and went over to say hello. A few weeks after that, Ms. Arcade was at the Limelight (oh the ’80s!), and once again, there was Crisp, sitting by his lonesome at the bar. She decided to strike up a conversation, and they hit it off immediately. Later that evening, Michael Musto, the Village Voice gossip columnist, stopped Ms. Arcade on her way to the ladies room and told her she was the only person he’d ever heard Crisp, known for his curt, Oscar Wilde-like one-liners, “have a real conversation with.”
“She brought something out in Quentin,” Mr. Musto said. “He really responded to her.”
After that, Penny Arcade and Quentin Crisp were inseparable. “It was each of our last big fag/fag hag relationships,” she said. They started performing together in 1992, when they began working on what would become a performance piece called The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp, footage of which Ms. Arcade and one of her longtime collaborators, Steve Zehentner, are currently editing for a DVD that will be released by Christmas, Crisp’s birthday. (He would have been 100 this year.)
On Nov. 21, 1999, Crisp died in Manchester, England, at the age of 90. It was the same day An Evening With Quentin Crisp, a new one-man show that had temporarily lured him back to England, was to have opened. He and Ms. Arcade, who thought he was in no condition to travel (she said he had congestive heart failure, prostate cancer and a major hernia), had argued about his accepting the booking, a scene Richard Laxton, the director of An Englishman in New York, re-creates when John Hurt, reprising his role as Crisp, which he played in The Naked Civil Servant, tells Cynthia Nixon about an offer he’s had to tour the U.K.
“She looks absolutely devastated,” Mr. Laxton said of Ms. Nixon’s performance as Penny Arcade, “because he’s quite old and fragile and she doesn’t want him to go, and in that scene you really get a sense of how much she cares for him and how much he means to her. It’s very moving.”
As Ms. Arcade tells it, she called Crisp the day he left for England. “I want to say goodbye to you forever now in case you die in Manchester. I have been very fond of you over these many years. Would you send me a sign?” she recalled saying to him. The next night, Ms. Arcade was at a wedding reception at the loft of “dermatologist to the stars” David Colbert when, spookily enough, his enormous TV suddenly turned on, and there on the screen was an episode of Charlie Rose featuring Quentin Crisp. Two days later, Ms. Arcade returned to her apartment following Sunday brunch to find a message on her answering machine from a New York Times reporter.
“Don’t you know?” the reporter asked when Ms. Arcade, unaware that Crisp had passed, called him back. “He died last night.”
“I’ve always taken that as a concession from Quentin, who argued that death ends everything, to let me know that there is something beyond ordinary existence,” she said.
Asked how she felt about the film, which Mr. Laxton said would be screened in New York following its U.K. debut on ITV, Ms. Arcade said she’s optimistic. “It will certainly make more people curious about what it is I do,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s focused on preparing her new one-woman show, on which she’s collaborating with Mr. Zehentner and visual artist Jasmine Hirst, for its German premiere in a few weeks. Inspired by Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, it explores “forlornness and loss and longing,” she said. One of the characters is a woman alone in a hotel room in Turkey, “losing her mind because her husband’s left her”; another’s a cabaret singer who’s “kind of a Giulietta Messina character that’s a little bit of a sad clown and a little bit of an off-kilter Marlene Dietrich.”
Like Crisp before her, Ms. Arcade said she expects to be performing until the end of her days.
“In Quentin, I could see what the possibilities for aging were,” she said, looking at a picture taped to her kitchen wall of her and Crisp from a 1993 issue of London’s Sunday Telegraph Magazine. “Also through Quentin,” she continued, “I could really understand that as you get older, things become clearer. When biology loses its stranglehold on you and sort of tosses you to the side, if you have a rigorous inquiry into what it is to be alive, you can really examine the world, you know? It’s really fun.”