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Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck (November 19, 1889 – October 13, 1966), known professionally as Clifton Webb, was an American actor, dancer, and singer known for his roles in such films as Laura (1944), The Razor's Edge (1946), and Sitting Pretty (1948), all three being Oscar-nominated. He was known for his stage appearances in the plays of Noël Coward, notably Blithe Spirit, as well as appearances on Broadway in a number of very successful musical revues.
Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the only child of Jacob Grant Hollenbeck (1867–1939), the ticket-clerk son of a grocer from an Indiana farming family, and his wife, the former Mabel A. Parmelee Hollenbeck Raum (Parmalee or Parmallee; 1869–1960), the daughter of David Parmelee, a railroad conductor. The couple married in Kankakee, Illinois, on January 18, 1888, and separated in 1891, shortly after their son's birth. According to Marion County, Indiana, marriage records, they married in Indianapolis on January 18, 1888. The family lived at 305 N. Mississippi Street, Indianapolis.
In 1892, Webb's mother, now called "Mabelle", moved to New York City with her beloved "little Webb", as she called him for the remainder of her life. She dismissed questions about her husband, Jacob, who like her father, worked for the Indianapolis-St. Louis Railroad, by saying, "We never speak of him. He didn't care for the theatre." The couple apparently divorced, since by 1900, Mabelle was married to Green B. Raum, Jr. New York City's 1900 U.S. census indicates Mabelle and her son were using the surname Raum and living on 101 West 77th Street with Green Berry Raum, Jr., a copper-foundry worker, who gave his position in the household as Mabel's husband. Raum was the son of General Green Berry Raum, former U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and former U.S. Commissioner of Pensions. Webb's father, Jacob, married, as his second wife, Ethel Brown, and died in 1939.
By age 5 Webb was taking dancing lessons; at 7 he made his official debut with the Children's Theatre in Palmer Cox's "The Brownies" at Carnegie Hall. This was followed by a tour in vaudeville with "The Master of Charlton Hall" and then "Oliver Twist." Later he played Tom Sawyer in "Huckleberry Finn." When Webb was still a young teenager, Mabelle arranged for him to study painting with Robert Henri and music with Victor Maurel. This led to Webb's debut in light opera in 1906, with the Boston-based Aborn Opera Company's production of "Mignon."
Back in New York, he teamed with Mae Murray in a ballroom dance act, touring the Keith circuit and performing in Manhattan restaurants, ridding the same wave of interest in dance that propelled Marion Morgan and her troupe to fame. He was also studying voice again with Victor Maurel, but there was a falling out. It may be worth remembering that Maurel's wife was the over lesbian Fred de Gresac. In October 1914 Maurel had Webb arrested for lack of payment; Webb claimed that Mabelle, now operating a theater called the Folies Marigny, "took all he earned." According to the account, Webb "begged to be allowed to secure bail," insisting " a night or so in Ludlow Street Jail was abhorrent to him." He was allowed to put up $200, borrowed from a friend at the Jardin de Danse; whether or not he ever settled with Maurel is unknown, but he'd proudly point to their association for the rest of his life.
By 1917 he was the sinewy, sensuous dancing star of "Love O'Mike," a musical comedy produced by Elisabeth Marbury and Lee Shubert. During the show's run, Dr. Karl Reiland, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in New York, publicly objected to Webb's dancing, calling modern dance nothing more than "jungle antics."
As Webb's fame grew, so did the gossip about him. He lived with his mother on an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and at the Park Lane Hotel in New York City, along with a black French poodle named Ernest and a parrot, Goo-Goo, which was notorious for insulting guests, much to Webb's delight.
By the mid-1920s, Webb was one of Broadway's highest-paid stars, reaching his apex with "Three's a Crowd" in 1930 (performing a crowd-pleasing snake-hips dance with Libby Holdman) and "As Thousands Cheer" in 1933 (impersonating Mahatma Gandhi, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Noël Coward's butler mimicking Coward's effete mannerism.)
Clifton Webb had made several silent films in New York, but it wasn't until 1935 that Hollywood offered him star billing, in an MGM picture opposite Joan Crawford. Positioned as a dancing star in the Fred Astaire mode, Clifton went west for a round of high-profile social appearances. He arrived white-glowed and top-hatted, with Mabelle on his arm and trailing his fancy-cut French poodle on a leash. The poodle was named Ernest, after Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest). He told Hedda Hopper that Ernest was "a very snooty fellow who doesn't go in for proletarian backgrounds." His contract torn up, Webb gave an interview back at the Lombardy Hotel in New York, Goo Goo perched haughtily upon his wrist like a falcon."Everyone knew about Clifton," remembered one of the actors who played with Webb in the Chicago company of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "but he would have been mortally offended if anyone said, "You silly fag." Nobody did that. One's private life was private."
In 1938 Webb appeared on Broadway in You Never Know, written by his good friend Cole Porter. After The Man Who Came to Dinner opened in the fall of 1939, with Monty Woolley, Webb was cast as the acidic Sheridan Whiteside to the touring version, in which he remained for a year and a half.
It's impossible to separate Webb's offscreen star persona, urbane, caustic, arch, and decidedly homosexual, from his screen roles: Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner (1946), Elliott Templeton in The Razor's Edge (1946), Lynn Belvedere in Sitting Pretty (1948). Clifton was always playing himself. "His characters were straight enough for the censor," critic Leonard Leff observed, "and gay enough to lend color to the narrative and offer pleasure to homosexuals in the audience."
By the time director Otto Preminger wanted him for Laura (1944), there was still a sense that the longtime Broadway headliner was too hot for Hollywood to handle. The response of Fox casting director Rufus LeMaire to Preminger has become legendary: "You can't have Clifton Webb play this part," he said. "He flies." But that was precisely why Preminger wanted him. He knew Webb was "a little effeminate," having seen him in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" at Los Angeles' Biltmore Theatre. Hedda Hopper said the character of Waldo was "a combination of Cholly Knickerbocker (aka Maury Paul) and Alex Woolcott", both well-known homosexuals.
In The Razor's Edge (1946), based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel of the same name, Edmund Goulding encouraged the very gay Clifton Webb to play his character the same way.
After his memorable villains, Webb was offered a change of pace: the urbane, acerbic baby-sitter Mr Belvedere in Walter Lang's comedy Sitting Pretty (1948). Webb stole the picture from its nominal stars, Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara, and was promptly launched on a series of starring vehicles showcasing his "fliply arrogant" personality. He played Belvedere again in two sequels, as well as an ironic angel in For Heaven's Sake and an eccentric professor in Dreamboat. The fathers he essayed in Cheaper by the Dozen and Elopement are ostensibly heterosexual married men, but are in fact prickly, haughty, exacting old queens.
When Webb starred in Titanic (1953), the jokes were inevitable. Among the mementos he left, now archived at Boston University, there is this: a plaque bestowing the "Sybil and Richard Burton Award to Clifton Webb for the excellence of his going down (on the Titanic, of course)."
Actor Robert Wagner, who co-starred with Webb in the films Stars and Stripes Forever and Titanic and considered the actor one of his mentors, stated in his memoirs, Pieces of My Heart: A Life, that "Clifton Webb was gay, of course, but he never made a pass at me, not that he would have". "Webb simply adored Bob Wagner, who was then just about the best-looking actor in Hollywood," said Robert Wheaton. Wagner himself recalled Webb as "very kind and very generous... part of the family, in fact." Indeed, Webb remained in the actor's life even after Wagner's marriage in 1957 to Natalie Wood; a snapshot in Webb's private collection shows him in a simple cardigan sweater, beaming like a proud grandfather, surrounded by Wagner and his daughters.
In 1954, Tom Douglas and Clifton Webb were travelling with Dorothy di Frasso on a train, when the latter died apparently of heath attack.
Ray Striclyn remembered an incident during the making of The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959). Webb obtained tickets for him and another young actor from the cast, Ron Ely (later TV's Tarzan), to see Noël Coward in "Nude With Violin." When Clifton inquired later how they liked the play, Ely remarked, "Oh, it was okay, but that Coward guy was kinda..." He made a gesture that indicated "swishy." "I thought Clifton was going to explode," the actor Ray Stricklyn, who played Clifton's son in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, said. "He quickly exited the set. He later told me that he'd gone to Buddy Adler's office to demand that Ron be fired, "I don't want anybody that stupid working in my picture!"" It was too late to recast Ely's part, however, so Webb simply cold-shouldered him for the rest of the shoot.
Webb never married and had no children. He lived with his mother until her death at age 91 in 1960, leading Noël Coward to remark, apropos Webb's grieving, "It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71." "I don't remember his ever having a lover," said Charles Williamson, who knew him through George Cukor. He did, however, enjoy the company of young men, who often gathered poolside at his pink stucco house on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. "I remember Clifton would disappear with them into the poolhouse, telling his mother they were off to check the garden," said Robert Wheaton. "Mabelle would keep quiet for about a half hour and then she'd call out, "Clifton, where are you?" And he'd say, "Coming, Mother"."
Clifton Webb wasn't unfamiliar with the gay circles in the film colony. Hedda Hopper wrote that he socialized with Monty Woolley and Laird Cregar. He was often a guest (with Mabelle) at George Cukor's, and even more frequently at Cole Porter's. He was very close to William Haines and Jimmie Shields. The television actor Richard Deacon became a good friend, and at one point threw a party for Clifton, trying to set him up with a young man. Ray Stricklyn remembered the potential date arrived wearing very short denim cutoffs, "his enormous cock practically poking out from below." Stricklyn said Clifton was "appalled, thinking him quite crude, and refused to have anything to do with him."
Everyone from Debbie Reynolds and Darryl Zanuck to Lady Mendl and Lord Snowdon flocked to Clifton Webb's elite parties and delighted in his campy humor.
Due to health problems, Webb spent the last five years of his life as a recluse at his home in Beverly Hills, California. On October 13, 1966, Webb suffered a fatal heart attack myocardial infarction at his home at the age of 76. He is interred in crypt 2350, corridor G-6, Abbey of the Psalms in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, alongside his mother.
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