Tusker’s Badass of the Month is a new series debuting this issue that chronicles some of the baddest, toughest, smartest men/women who fought good fights, made lots of enemies and were controversial, never conventional. Their stories may offend you — get over it. They lived fully — learn from it.
Man for All Seasons
Bob Crisp didn’t care what anybody thought and maybe that’s why the Nazis and cancer couldn’t kill him.
No one ever put Bob Crisp in a box and labeled him. Superficially you could say he was a dashingly handsome decorated war vet renaissance man. His outsized libido and booziness along with a quest for what most consider crazy get in the way of any respectable depiction, but let’s try. He was a star athlete, WWII hero, accomplished author and just a good guy to be with on a Kilimanjaro climb or at a Greek taverna.
“He was a remarkable and extraordinary man. An absolute charmer. And an absolute shit,” his son Jonathan recently told The Guardian. The drinking, womanizing, and gambling, Jonathan adds, “can seem heroic or can seem awful. It depends which side of the coin you were on.”
It was never about coin for Crisp. Money never motivated him and in his home, sanitation and drinking water were not essentials. He could do without as long as his hovel was in a beautiful, culturally fresh place.
You couldn’t invent a fictional character that came close to Crisp’s capers. Trying to figure out which Crisp stories are true is best left to his two sons. Not surprisingly Crisp was a lousy, absentee father but still Jonathon is paying him homage piecing together his father’s biography. It’s a story that begins in Calcutta where Crisp was born then leads to his South African cricket career followed by his Nazi killer war years and finally his victory over terminal cancer. Crisp wrote three of his own books before he died at 84 in 1994. Two of his books chronicled his war exploits as a tank commander and are arguably the best tank warfare WWII reads. Crisp comes off as one courageous, war mongering, crazy son of a bitch. He was more than that.
Crisp made his first Kilimanjaro ascent in 1932 and did it far differently than contemporary climbers, like Tusker’s Eddie Frank who shares Crisp’s South African heritage and love for adrenaline rush adventure. Eddie always has a Plan B and C in his backpack while our man Bob was a mostly wing and a prayer guy. On Crisp’s Kili climb he didn’t have porters or any medical equipment. When he was descending into the foothills he came across one of his South African mates. He enjoyed the climb so much he volunteered to accompany his friend back up. When his buddy broke his leg near the summit, Crisp carried him to the top and back down to the nearest hospital. Embracing challenge and hardship were Crisp’s trademarks and he did it without pissing and moaning. He sucked it up and got on with it relishing the moment.
Crisp’s turn as a star cricketer came on the green lawns of mid-30s England where he broke records and established South Africa as a coming world power in the sport. He was both a star bowler and batter and used his star power to tour the world and bed as many women as possible. When WWII broke out he jumped at the chance to kick Nazi ass. Crisp had a keen sense of power gone wrong and never gave authority a whisk of respect. He was an early opposing voice to his homeland’s apartheid and later during his journalism career founded Drum, a groundbreaking anti-apartheid magazine.
Battling Rommel’s better equipped panzers in the deserts of Libya, Crisp should have died numerous times. He had more wounds than a cowboy in a spaghetti western after getting 17 tanks shot out from under him, but he took down more German tanks and planes and wasn’t shy to tell his surrealist story in his second book, “Brazen Chariots.” Crisp should have been buzzard scraps after shrapnel hit him in the head swelling his brain during a climactic victory over Rommel in Operation Crusader where earlier Crisp was reported killed in action. Not quite.
After the battle he was transported 50 miles through the desert in a rickety ambulance. “I was in a hell of a mess, but I was far from dead. The trouble was the only position that did not give me acute discomfort was sitting up. I couldn’t lie on my back or the left side because of the wound in my head, I could not lie on my right side because my right hip was extremely painful (he had a broken hip) and when I did sit up I felt (car) sick. It was as though my brain were being squeezed slowly through my skull,” Crisp wrote near the end of “Brazen Chariots.”
Cancer Cure: Retsina + Chemo
When Crisp was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1960 he reviewed his bucket list and headed for Greece. He always wanted to traverse Crete with a donkey and so he set out with a few drachmas and his retsina-fueled charisma.
When Jonathan flew to Greece to meet his father, he found him at the head of a table in Lela’s Taverna gleefully holding court. “There were 10 women around him. And it was clear he was bedding all of them. He was 70 at the time.” Jonathan says the local women recruited him to get closer to Bob. “You must help me; I am in love with your father.” Some of them were in their mid-20s. Some of them were in their mid-50s. It didn’t make any difference to Bob.
Perhaps he had too many women and when he moved around Greece he didn’t exactly leave a forwarding address. Jonathan found him years later, living alone in a goat hut on the Mani peninsula. He had no running water, and no bathroom. But he did have a cravat, and a clipping from a biography of Field Marshal Alexander which read, “The greatest Hun-killer I ever knew was Major Bob Crisp.” The page had been laminated, and Crisp took great glee handing it to any Germans he met in the village. “He thought that sort of thing was funny.”
Overdosing on Life
It wasn’t the retsina or the love juices or a healthy Mediterranean lifestyle that Bob imbibed that beat cancer, although they may have helped. He was diagnosed when he was 60, and told it was terminal. What likely cured Crisp’s cancer, was an experimental drug, an early form of chemotherapy, which he was given by Greek doctors. He was told to apply it to his body, but instead he drank it. “It was so disgusting that he mixed it with a bottle of retsina and drank that instead,” Jonathan told the Guardian. His recovery didn’t go unnoticed by the medical world and he was flown to England and the U.S. by various consultant oncologists, who were trying to find out whether he had found some miracle cure that combined unknown chemicals and rotgut alcohol.
Crisp was born with an overdose of the will to live that the docs will never be able to bottle or put in a pill. He figured things out on his own and was his own best doctor. During the war, Crisp caught crabs after stealing another officer’s pair of silk pajamas. Crisp’s cure? Frying his stones in high-octane petrol.
What finally got our man Bob, was time. If he had a bucket list every place and activity was crossed off. He had done and seen it all and we wish we could have sat in the taverna next to him or in a tank in the Libyan desert or on top of Kili listening to his stories.