There are plenty of people who, in their youth, rail against the system, buck convention and convince themselves they can live a life of artistic purity without material possessions. Happily for all, the phase is usually short-lived.
But for Charles Webb, the author of The Graduate who died last week aged 81, dogged self-deprivation was a more permanent way of life.
His 1963 first novel, about a college graduate who embarks on an affair with the wife of one of his father’s business associates, was turned into an Oscar-winning film by director Mike Nichols that grossed $100 million, launched Dustin Hoffman’s career, jump-started Anne Bancroft’s, spawned endless money-spinning theatre revivals and made everyone involved a lot of money.
Except Charles, that is, who — along with his wife Fred — spent his life rejecting fame and fortune.
They gave away everything. Their tickets to the film’s star-studded premiere, the $20,000 rights to the novel, his royalties (which they signed over to the Anti-Defamation League), his inheritance from his father, her inheritance, their art collection (including paintings by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg) and three or four houses — he could never quite remember how many.
For Charles Webb, the author of The Graduate who died last week aged 81, dogged self-deprivation became a way of life. He is pictured with his wife, Fred, in New Jersey circa 1993
Charles’s 1963 first novel, about a college graduate who embarks on an affair with the wife of one of his father’s business associates, was turned into an Oscar-winning film by director Mike Nichols that grossed $100m and launched the career of Dustin Hoffman (above, in the film). It made everyone involved a lot of money – except Charles who, with his wife, rejected fame and fortune
Charles and Fred’s zeal for anonymity meant that, as well as being poor, they were peripatetic, zigzagging across the States, moving on when anyone linked him with The Graduate or became too interested in their boys’ schooling. They took their camper van on the QE2 to France and, in 1999, moved to England (above, Charles in Brighton in 2005)
‘It didn’t feel like a big deal at the time,’ he once said.
Their property giveaway included the bungalow in Hollywood that he bought with the film rights for The Graduate. Within a week he had returned the keys to the estate agent and told him to give it to someone because he felt that owning the property was ‘unexplainably oppressive’.
So for more than half a century, home became a series of scruffy bedsits, caravan parks, campsites, a truly decrepit flat above a pet shop, their VW camper van and — much to their two sons’ initial horror — a French nudist camp, where they worked as caretakers.
While Charles wrote plenty more books — all dialogue-heavy, like The Graduate (he once insisted he could only write dialogue) — none of them took off like the first
Because while Charles wrote plenty more books — all dialogue-heavy, like The Graduate (he once insisted he could only write dialogue) — none of them took off like the first.
It perhaps didn’t help that he hired a lawyer to prevent the words ‘By the author of The Graduate’ from appearing on the cover of his next book because it was ‘exploitative’, refused publicity requests for all his books and loathed being identified as the author of such a great hit. He frequently complained that ‘it defined my whole life, I just want to run away’.
So they spent their lives flipping burgers, washing dishes, picking fruit, cleaning houses and relentlessly rejoicing in life’s simplicity and anonymity.
‘We didn’t want any part of a lifestyle that had to do with sacrificing something for the almighty dollar. With every choice we’ve made, we’ve asked ourselves first: is this for money or for art?’ Charles said in a rare interview. ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness. You can’t throw money at problems.’
Their philosophy led to often grinding poverty — the bailiffs came knocking on more than one occasion — but they embraced that, too.
‘When you run out of money, it’s a purifying experience,’ said Charles. ‘There’s nothing like it. It focuses the mind like nothing else. You sometimes regret not being the kind of person who sorts out savings bonds or insurance policies. But you reach a point when you have flashes of insight into things.’
To many, this might all sound dreadful. Certainly, their families struggled to get their heads around it. But Charles and Fred were convinced that, as creative artists — part of the ‘creative minority’, as they put it — they were fated to live outside normal society.
‘It wasn’t just slumming for slumming’s sake,’ Webb once insisted. ‘It was a need to study something, to understand something. And being short of money was part of it.’
It was also exactly the life Charles wanted — as far as he could get from his affluent childhood in California.
Charles Richard Webb was born in 1939 in San Francisco and grew up in the swanky Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. His father was a wealthy heart specialist and his mother was a self-obsessed socialite.
Charles gave away everything, including the $20,000 rights to the novel and his royalties. For more than half a century, home became a series of scruffy bedsits, caravan parks, campsites, a truly decrepit flat above a pet shop, their VW camper van and — much to their two sons’ initial horror — a French nudist camp (file photo), where he and Fred worked as caretakers
Charles’s upbringing was privileged —tennis courts, swimming pools, prep school, Ivy League College — and driven by his parents’ relentless obsession with appearances.
Charles later described his earlier life as ‘an endless depression’, adding: ‘That’s partly what The Graduate was about. I was just a mess — a manic-depressive, neurotic kid.’
But while he railed against the social side of Williams College, Massachusetts, he excelled in his studies.
He edited the college newspaper, fell in love with Fred — they had their first date in a graveyard — and won a creative writing grant from the college that resulted in The Graduate.
The book, in which Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) returns to California from his Ivy League university with a prize for literature but, disillusioned, slobs around drinking beer and watching television, then is seduced by Mrs Robinson, one of his parents’ alcoholic friends, before falling for her daughter, was heavily autobiographical.
The story neatly duplicated what happened to Charles when he left college in 1962 and refused to embrace the American establishment as his overbearing parents expected.
Charles’s upbringing was privileged – tennis courts, swimming pools, prep school, Ivy League College – and driven by his parents’ obsession with appearances. He described his earlier life as ‘an endless depression’, adding: ‘That’s partly what The Graduate was about. I was just a mess – a manic-depressive, neurotic kid.’ (Above, Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in the movie)
(The only thing missing — much to Charles’s regret — was the affair. Mrs Robinson was based on a bridge partner of his father’s to whom he ‘never said more than ten words’.)
Like Charles, Ben fell in love with a girl whose parents thought him not good enough. Indeed, Fred’s parents loathed him. Back then, she was Eve Rudd, an East Coast heiress who could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower.
She was also a brilliant musician, hugely talented at drama, dance and art, constantly wore a black shawl over her head and rejected potential suitors if they hadn’t read anything by the blacklisted Hollywood scriptwriter Ring Lardner.
‘Charles was the only one who had. I knew I’d found my person,’ she said.
He was drawn to her artwork — one collection featured small male portraits with women’s underwear sewn into the canvas beside them — her passion and the fact that she was equally enthusiastic about anti-materialist ideology.
Money doesn’t buy happiness. You can’t throw money at problems… When you run out of money, it’s a purifying experience
So he supported her when she dropped her surname in the cause of gender politics and adopted different first names: Sasha and, briefly, Anxiety, before Fred (to show solidarity with a Californian society for men called Fred who suffered from low self-esteem), and started shaving her head daily ‘to escape the tyranny of femininity’ — something she continued to do for decades.
After their lavish wedding reception in 1962 and much to their parents’ fury, they sold all their wedding presents and gave away the money.
They tried settling down again after the bungalow gift, this time in a three-storey house in Massachusetts. But it also became too ‘oppressive’ so Charles gave it to the Audubon Society.
A third house, in upstate New York, went the same way in 1976 — though later in life Charles could never remember whether he’d bequeathed it to Friends Of The Earth or returned it to the agent. There might well have been a fourth property, too, but he never felt it important enough to bother about.
In 1981, they divorced in protest against ‘the inequality of women in marriage’ but did not regard themselves as unequal partners and continued to live together, home-schooling their sons John and Dave at a time when it was illegal to do so in the U.S. and encouraging them to bleach their hair white and never conform.
(Dave went on to become a performance artist, who once cooked and ate a copy of The Graduate with cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving dinner. John works in the petroleum industry.)
Fred and Charles went on to settle in a flat above a pet shop in Newhaven, East Sussex, just as a high-profile West End production of The Graduate starring Kathleen Turner (and, subsequently, Jerry Hall) was opening in the West End. (Above, Hall in the stage show)
Charles and Fred’s zeal for anonymity meant that, as well as being poor, they were peripatetic, zigzagging across the States, moving on when anyone linked him with The Graduate or became too interested in their boys’ schooling.
They took their camper van on the QE2 to France and, in 1999, moved to England.
‘We didn’t know anyone here. We just thought it would be a nice place to hang out,’ he once said.
They settled in a flat above a pet shop in Newhaven, East Sussex, just as a high-profile West End production of The Graduate starring Kathleen Turner (and, subsequently, Jerry Hall) was opening in the West End.
Eventually, Charles began writing again and his 2002 novel New Cardiff was made into the film Hope Springs, starring Colin Firth and Minnie Driver.
Yet again — despite struggling with the rent and the fact that Fred had suffered a nervous breakdown — he gave away the advance for his book, this time to artist Dan Shelton, who used the money to post himself in a sealed box to Tate Britain.
For years Charles baulked at the idea of a sequel to The Graduate because when he sold the film rights for such a paltry amount, he had also signed away the film rights to any further books involving the same characters.
But in 2006 he relented and wrote Home School, which found Benjamin and Elaine living a life again, mirroring the Webbs’ own post-Graduate experience. The advance finally helped pay off their debts.
Fred had been battling for years with worsening eating disorders and, in 2001 suffered what Webb described as ‘a really severe breakdown’.
For two years, she did nothing but sleep, eventually re-emerging with two personalities: one perfectly normal, the other a five-year-old child.
‘One night we’ll be lying in bed, watching television and talking away. Then the next morning Fred will wake up as a five-year-old. It’s like a totally clear-cut process,’ he once said. ‘But when she’s going the other way, it’s a little more difficult. She seems less willing to make that transition.’
It was like that for years, as all the time they shuttled between rented flats and cheap hotel rooms, somehow just managing to keep their heads above water — although once Charles was so desperate, he went on local radio to ask if anyone could put them up for a while (a listener obliged).
Goodness knows how Charles didn’t go mad himself, but somehow he coped and theirs was an extraordinary bond. Friends described them as ‘like one person’, always ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.
When he gave his occasional interviews, she was either present or linked in by earpiece so she could hear every word, They remained devoted to each other until Fred’s death early last year.
Asked if he had any regrets — about selling his book for so little, giving away so much, forcing themselves to live so meagrely — Charles once said: ‘I think when something seems inevitable, regret is a luxury you can’t afford’, but still insisted that ‘the more I look at it, the more I can see that there is a bizarre order to it all’.