Charles Webb, elusive author of 'The Graduate,' dies at 81

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Charles Webb, elusive author of 'The Graduate,' dies at 81
His novel was turned into an era-defining movie, but he was never comfortable with its success, and he chose to live in poverty.

by John Leland

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Charles Webb, who wrote the 1963 novel “The Graduate,” the basis for the hit 1967 film, and then spent decades running from its success, died June 16 in East Sussex, England. He was 81.

A spokesperson for his son John confirmed the death in a hospital but did not specify the cause.

Webb’s novel, written shortly after college and based largely on his relationship with his wife, Eve Rudd, was made into an era-defining film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, that gave voice to a generation’s youthful rejection of materialism. Webb and his wife, both born into privilege, carried that rejection well beyond youth, choosing to live in poverty and giving away whatever money came their way, even as the movie’s acclaim continued to follow them.

“My whole life has been measured by it,” he told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2007, when the couple were living in a drab hotel room paid for by British social services.

Webb published eight books, including a sequel to “The Graduate,” “Home School” (2007), in which the main characters, Benjamin and Elaine, are grown up and teaching their children themselves. He agreed to publish it only to pay off a 30,000-pound debt, said Jack Malvern, a Times of London reporter who was friendly with Webb and helped with that deal.

“He had a very odd relationship with money,” said Caroline Dawnay, who was briefly Webb’s agent in the early 2000s when his novel “New Cardiff” was made into the 2003 movie “Hope Springs,” starring Colin Firth. “He never wanted any. He had an anarchist view of the relationship between humanity and money.”

He gave away homes, paintings, his inheritance, even his royalties from “The Graduate,” which became a million-seller after the movie’s success, to the benefit of the Anti-Defamation League. He awarded his 10,000-pound payout from “Hope Springs” as a prize to a performance artist named Dan Shelton, who had mailed himself to the Tate Modern in a cardboard box.

At his second wedding to Rudd — they married in 1962, then divorced in 1981 to protest the institution of marriage, then remarried around 2001 for immigration purposes — he did not give his bride a ring, because he disapproved of jewelry. Dawnay, the only witness save two strangers pulled in off the street, recalled that the couple walked 9 miles to the registry office for the ceremony, wearing the only clothes they owned.

Lots of people momentarily embrace the idea of leaving the rat race, like the characters in “The Graduate.” Webb and Rudd did it, with all the consequences it entailed. If they regretted the choice, they did not say so.

“When you run out of money it’s a purifying experience,” Webb told The Times of London after the couple moved to England. “It focuses the mind like nothing else.”

Charles Richard Webb was born on June 9, 1939, in San Francisco, and grew up in Pasadena, California. His father, Dr. Richard Webb, was a heart specialist, part of a wealthy social circle like the one Charles would skewer in “The Graduate.” (Charles described his relationship with his father as “reasonably bad.”) His mother, Janet Farrington Webb, was, he said, a socialite and an avid reader from whom he “was always looking for crumbs of approval.” He said “The Graduate” was an attempt to win her favor; it went decidedly wrong.

A younger brother, Sidney Farrington Webb, became a doctor in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Charles Webb went to boarding school and then to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned a degree in American history and literature in 1961. He said his schools had been “chosen” for him “on the basis of how it looked.” A mediocre student, he nonetheless managed to win a two-year writing fellowship, which he used to write “The Graduate.”

While at Williams, he met Rudd, a Bennington College student. She was a former debutante from a family of teachers with a bohemian streak — her brother was avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd — and they both rejected the bourgeois worlds of their families. Their first date, they told interviewers, was in a cemetery.

Their romance, and her mother’s disapproval of him, became the basis for “The Graduate.” The inspiration for the character Mrs. Robinson, who seduces young Benjamin, may have come from one of his parents’ friends, whom he accidentally saw naked.

Reviewing the book in The Times, Orville Prescott called it a “fictional failure” but favorably compared its protagonist to Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

With its mumbling ennui and conversations that do not connect, the novel captured the moment just before the repressed Eisenhower era blossomed into the Technicolor 1960s. The characters are not idealistic; they’re groping for ideals, their flight from their parents’ values and lifestyles more solitary than collective. In the last pages, Benjamin and Elaine are alone on a bus, shaken, heading into a future that is opaque to them. Hello darkness, my old friend.

So began the iconoclastic journey of Charles and Eve, who later adopted the single name Fred, in solidarity with a self-help group for men with low self-esteem. Despite her parents’ intervention, the couple married, then later sold their wedding gifts back to the guests and donated the money to charity.

“Their wedding was a total contradiction to the way they ended up living,” Priscilla Rudd Wolf, Eve’s sister, said in an email. “It was a big wedding; my sister wore a white bridal gown; I was maid of honor. It was in the Salisbury School Chapel, where my parents taught, and the whole town was there.” She added: “They seemed like a typical all-American couple off to a typical all-American life. But that wasn’t to be.”

Shedding their possessions became a full-time mission. They gave away a California bungalow, the first of three houses they would jettison, saying that owning things oppressed them.

Webb declined his inheritance from his father’s family but was unable to decline the money from his mother’s; so they gave that away, along with artwork by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.

As the 1960s bloomed, the couple underwent gestalt therapy. Fred, a painter, hosted a one-woman show in the nude as a feminist statement. She shaved her head — in order, she said, to shed the oppressive demands of feminine adornment.

They moved to California and then back east to a dilapidated house in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, in Westchester County, and had two sons, John and David.

Webb followed “The Graduate” with “Love, Roger” (1969) and “The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker” (1970), which Lawrence Turman, who produced “The Graduate,” turned into a movie starring Richard Benjamin. It fizzled. Critics compared his later books unfavorably with his debut.

He refused to do book signings, Dawnay said, viewing them as “a sin against decency.”

In the late 1970s the couple moved back to the West Coast and took their sons out of school, choosing to home-school them, which was not sanctioned at the time. So the family moved around, at one point living in a Volkswagen bus, driving from one campground to another. In a 1992 interview with The Washington Post, John Webb called that part of his education “unschooling.”

Charles Webb worked menial jobs: clerk at a Kmart, itinerant farmworker, house cleaner. The couple were caretakers at a nudist colony in New Jersey, earning $198 a week.

Webb complained about being tied to “The Graduate,” but in the early 1990s he wrote a sequel, “Gwen,” narrated by Benjamin and Elaine’s daughter. Benjamin works at a Kmart and as a janitor at his old school, finding liberation in giving up his material trappings to serve others.

“Gwen” was never published; Webb went nearly 25 years between books before “New Cardiff,” in 2001.

By then the couple were living in England — they had moved there, he said, so he could try writing an English character — and their sons were grown.

Dawnay, who visited the couple in Brighton, said they lived with almost no furniture and only one change of clothes. Although “New Cardiff” was warmly received, it did not revive Webb’s career, nor did the “Graduate” sequel he finally did publish, “Home School.”

Fred, Webb’s wife, died in 2019, Malvern said, leaving him quite alone, although he is survived by his sons — David, a performance artist who once cooked a copy of “The Graduate” and ate it with cranberry sauce, and John, a director at the consulting and research firm IHS Markit — and his brother. Malvern said he did not know whether Webb had still been writing.

Webb’s death brings to a close a decadeslong experiment that was less a retreat than an attempt to change the terms of engagement between artists and the world.

As he once told The Boston Globe, “The public’s praise of creative people is a mask — a mask for jealousy or hatred.” By the couple’s various renunciations, he said, “We hope to make the point that the creative process is really a defense mechanism on the part of artists — that creativity is not a romantic notion.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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