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Charles Webb Enters Heaven

Still from The Graduate.

Charles Webb, author of The Graduate (an identity that dogged and bedeviled him his whole life). died a few days ago at age 81. I met Charles in early 1970, shortly after the release of his second novel, The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker. I was waiting for my own novel to come out that summer and decided as a way to stop obsessing about it I would help promote the work of some other writers whose work I admired. Like nearly everyone of my generation, I had been hypnotized by the movie of The Graduate, and when I read the novel I realized all the producers of the movie had to do for a script was transcribe the dialogue of the novel (not an ordinary formula.)

The sale of Webb’s novel to Hollywood was modest, and after it became one of the biggest grossing films of its time, I was told that director Mike Nichols had sent Webb a check for $5,000. Novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne told me when he reported that tidbit: “that was like giving Charles Webb a tip.” Other writers would have screamed, or sued. But Webb didn’t want the money anyway.

I called Webb and his wife Eve answered, explaining it would take a few moments to get Charles to the phone.

“He’s outside on the front lawn,” she said, “eating the grass.”

I laughed, thinking maybe this was a hip new term for consuming marijuana. I was wrong. Charles came to the phone and explained that he in fact had been eating the grass on the front lawn. I no longer remember whether he felt it was a source of vitamins, but at any rate he believed it was a healthy thing to do.

All of the true stories about Charles and his wife make them sound like bizarros – the kind of people you’d rather read about than spend any time with. In fact, they were lovely people. Charles explained when we met that he had got something like sixty thousand dollars (either an advance or a first royalty) from the book sales of The Graduate; he donated the money to the Audubon Society. What a mad thing to do! I, being practical, used the first royalty from my own first novel to buy a townhouse on Beacon Hill. If I still owned it I would be a millionaire, but I sold it after a few years for a profit of $3,000, which I soon frittered away. I might as well have donated my royalty to the Audubon Society.
I kept in touch with Charles, and he and Eve and their two little boys came to visit me in Hollywood in 1977, where I was living while writing for the NBC primetime series I created called “James at 15.” With the loot from TV deal I had bought a house with a swimming pool, while Charles and his wife and their sons were living in a Volkswagen bus they had driven from New York to California staying at campgrounds along the way (they were home-schooling – or “home-bussing” the kids.) I remember that afternoon with the Webbs as sunny, in both weather and conversation. They were pleasant and fun to be around.

While Charles was able to decline an inheritance from his father, he was unable to spurn his mother’s money, which may have prompted him and Eve to buy a bungalow in California. They sold it and two other houses that followed, deciding that ownership “oppressed” them.” A few years after I entertained the Webbs at my house-with-swimming-pool I sold it for about the same slim profit I made on the Beacon Hill townhouse, renouncing Hollywood and all its accoutrements as I scurried back to Boston in a barrel. (Writing for TV I found to be “oppressing.”)

Having shed their properties, the Webbs moved to England so that Charles could learn how to write an English character. He evidently succeeded, writing a novel called New Cardiff that was well-received and enabled him to pay off accumulated debt. Despite the new literary success Charles refused to do the book-publishing dance of the Boobies, claiming that book-signings were “a sin against decency.”

Living in Brighton with little or no furniture, Webb and his wife (she had changed her name to “Fred,” in sympathy with a self-help group for men with low self-esteem) found they could get along with only one change of clothes. They were people of principle. They had divorced in 1981, not because they no longer loved each other but to protest the institution of marriage. They re-married in England for the practical procedures of immigration law.

Though he succeeded in shedding houses and money (when it came he gave it to charity), Charles could never get rid of his association with The Graduate. His son David, a performance artist, probably came closest to purging the book from the family name when he cooked a copy of it and ate it with cranberry sauce.
When I think of Charles Webb I think of Jesus telling the rich man to give up his money; it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Jesus said, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I have no idea if Charles was a Christian, or followed any religious path, but he lived like a man who took Jesus’ words seriously- eschewing the trap and trappings of fame, fleeing from money as if it were the plague. I am sure the gates of heaven opened wide for Charles Webb.

This July is the 50th anniversary of Dan Wakefield’s best-selling novel Going All The Way.