Charles Webb, novelist who found fame, if not fortune, with his novel The Graduate – obituary
Charles Webb, who has died aged 81, was the author of The Graduate, the 1962 novel that became Mike Nichols’s era-defining film of the same name.
Starring Dustin Hoffman as the disaffected graduate and Anne Bancroft as the older woman who seduces him, the film crackled with sexual tension and assaulted the materialist values of white middle-class America while taking $100m at the box office.
The book sold respectably for a first novel, but it was the film that propelled its hero, Benjamin Braddock, to fame. His lament that “For 21 years I have been shuffling back and forth between libraries and classroom. Now you tell me what the hell it’s got me” chimed perfectly with young Americans horrified that their affluent society was sending its children to die in Vietnam.
But although the film could have made him a rich man, Webb was an idealist who loathed the American obsession with status and determinedly avoided his fame and wealth. Complaining that the book “defined my whole life. I just want to run away”, he sold the rights to the novel for $20,000 and never received another cent from the film’s success or its many stage adaptations. He signed his book royalties over to the Anti-Defamation League and gave away his houses and possessions, including paintings by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg.
Committed to an existence of artistic purity with his like-minded wife, Fred, Webb published several poorly received novels before immersing himself in blue-collar work.
Having lived for many years in motels and trailer parks, in 1999 the couple moved to Newhaven in Sussex, where they lived in a spartan flat above a pet shop. From there Webb published his first novel in 25 years, New Cardiff, which was made into a film, Hope Springs, starring Colin Firth. Despite living in abject poverty, when he sold the film rights for £10,000 he used all the money to establish a prize for a work of art best expressing the difficulties of being part of “a creative minority”.
Charles Richard Webb was born in San Francisco on June 9 1939. He was educated at Midland School and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he read American History and Literature. Alienated by his expensive education, he refused to join a university fraternity and suggested that his parents had selected his schools “on the basis of how it looked to their friends”.
At university he met his wife, Eva Rudd, an East Coast heiress who traced her ancestry back to the Mayflower. Love blossomed after they discovered a shared enthusiasm for the blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner. They had their first date in a graveyard; they arranged a shotgun marriage, which they cancelled after an abortion, and when they finally married they sold their wedding presents back to the guests and donated the money to charity.
Upon graduating Webb obtained a grant and wrote The Graduate (1962). In the novel Benjamin returns to California from his Ivy League university with a prize for literature and the world at his feet. But he is unimpressed by his opportunities, preferring to slouch around drinking beer and watching television. His parents despair at his apathy, but it is one of their friends, the alcoholic Mrs Robinson – symbolising the degeneracy of their generation – who seduces him.
After a joyless but intense affair Benjamin falls for her daughter, Elaine. But when Mrs Robinson vengefully reveals their affair to Elaine, her daughter is horrified and refuses to see him. Undaunted, Benjamin follows her to Berkeley to win her love, which he achieves in a dramatic finale, whisking her from the altar as she is about to get married.
Although there was an autobiographical element, Webb denied having had an affair with his snobbish mother-in-law, whom he hated. Rather, Mrs Robinson was based upon a bridge partner of his father’s, to whom he “never said more than 10 words”. Although Elaine was based on his wife Eva, it was as a young lover “battling convention” rather than as a character, and the strong-minded Eva considered Elaine “wimpy.”
The novel, which was written in a sparse, dialogue-heavy style, was politely received by critics, less so by Charles’s and Eva’s families. Webb’s father, a heart surgeon, tossed it to the floor and announced: “This is crap.” However, after the success of the film attitudes softened, which merely proved to Webb that for his parents “success is what they related to.”
Mike Nichols’s 1967 film, which was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Director, was made with his second-choice cast. He had wanted Robert Redford and Doris Day but Redford considered he was too old, while Day said the novel “offended my sense of values”.
The default casting of the unknown Hoffman was inspired. Although the screenwriter imagined Benjamin’s family as “human surfboards”, the short, dark actor’s modest stature and East Coast earnestness accentuated his alienation among the palm trees of southern California.
Abetted by a chart-topping Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, The Graduate became a box office triumph and Benjamin a lightning rod for disillusioned youth. But although the film ignited the careers of Nichols, Hoffman and Simon & Garfunkel, Webb sidestepped the limelight, fearing that the attention would distract him from his art.
Having returned his invitation to the premiere, Webb refused to be involved in the film’s promotion and assigned his novel’s ballooning royalties to the Anti-Defamation League. When the producer offered him an ex gratia payment of $10,000, Webb declined.
He also disposed of his and Eva’s substantial inheritances. Having held a free garage “sale”, he gave his beach front house to an estate agent’s daughter whom he had never met. Subsequently the couple gave away three more houses.
Unencumbered by property, possessions or fame, and living in motels and trailer parks, Webb returned to his work. But although his spare prose and airless sense of ennui had enhanced The Graduate, his narrative style, which scrupulously avoided psychological explanations and allowed longueurs to settle upon the text, was less well-suited to novels devoid of a similarly powerful protagonist.
Love, Roger (1969) was a circumspect love story about a man who – like Webb – seemed only to want to disappear. The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970) concerned a recently married couple undone by the husband’s addiction to watching other women, and a characterless wife manipulated by her older sister. It too was filmed, but lacking attractive characters or major stars, it failed to reprise the success of The Graduate.
This did not concern Webb, who was nevertheless irritated by reviewers’ unflattering comparisons of his later work with his debut. His idiosyncratic prose style – more screenplay than novel – was again apparent in Orphans and Other Children (1975) and The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place (1976), works that seemed to tiptoe almost apologetically into existence.
The novelist refused to promote them, comparing book-signing tours to “BSE-cows being fed to other cows” and complained of publishers “breathing down your neck to produce. It’s always more, more”.
He did write more but, after the poorly-received Elsinor (1977), Booze (1978) and The Wilderness Effect (1982), he lapsed into silence, although he never stopped writing.
Instead the Webbs chose to pursue a blue-collar existence. Living in a single room in Santa Barbara for three years, they undertook clerical work, flipped burgers, stacked shelves at K-Mart and worked in the fields alongside Mexican immigrants. The experiments in social mobility were not always successful. The moment their fellow workers discovered their identity they “treated us differently. We’d always have to move on.”
In the early 1990s they headed East. As they were home schooling their children, which was then illegal, they lived in places where few questions were asked. Motels gave way to trailer parks and finally, after they had been employed as cleaners at the country club where Eva had “come out” as a debutante 30 years before, they took anti-materialism to its logical conclusion and became caretakers in a nudist colony.
Meanwhile Eva shaved her head “to escape the tyranny of femininity” and changed her name to Fred (after a couple of weeks as “Anxiety”) to show solidarity with a Californian society for men called Fred who suffered from low self-esteem.
In 1999 they moved to England, where they found “the distance to express the anti-Americanism we’ve always felt”. They settled on the East Sussex coast.
Unfortunately their arrival coincided with a high-profile West End production of The Graduate starring Kathleen Turner and, subsequently, Jerry Hall. Interviewed in their one-bedroom flat, the pony-tailed Webb declared he “couldn’t care less” that Jerry Hall was making more money in a single week than he had earned from his story in his lifetime.
In 2003 he published New Cardiff, which concerned a British artist who travels to Vermont after being invited to his girlfriend’s wedding – to someone else. Playing with themes of dislocation and alienation that had informed his life, the novel displayed the minimalism and authorial disengagement that had characterised all his work. Described as “effortlessly delightful” and “exquisitely planed” by Nick Hornby, it became Hope Springs (2003), starring Colin Firth which, to no one’s great surprise, Webb declined to promote.
In an age of rapid consumption there was an undeniable grandeur in Charles Webb’s life-long adherence to his ideals. He gave away the £10,000 he earned for the film rights to New Cardiff as an art prize to a man who posted himself to the Tate gallery in a cardboard box.
In 2007 he published a sequel to The Graduate, the 1970s-set Home School, in which Benjamin and Elaine are fighting the authorities – as did Webb and his wife – to allow them to take their children out of school and educate them at home. They enlist the help of Mrs Robinson – who seduces the school principal.
The £30,000 advance Webb received for the novel allowed him, finally, to pay off his debts.
Charles Webb married Eva Rudd – later she changed her name to Fred – in 1960. They had two sons. In the 1980s they divorced to protest against the prohibition of gay marriage but never stopped living together.
Charles Webb, born June 9 1939, died June 16 2020