Charles Webb, Author of “The Graduate,” Dead at 81

Webb lived an unconventional life after finding literary success

Charles Webb
Charles Webb, author of 'The Graduate' photographed in Brighton, UK in February 2005.
Andrew Hasson/Photoshot/Getty Images

Some writers responsible for generation-defining works of fiction go on to fame and fortune. Others choose a lower-profile life. The latter would aptly describe Charles Webb, who died on June 16 at the age of 81. Webb is best-known for his novel The Graduate, which was inspired by his own life and was memorably adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols. While Webb continued writing and publishing books, he also opted to spend much of his life in relative poverty.

As John Leland writes in his obituary of Webb for The New York Times:

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.

Born into an affluent California family, Webb drew upon his own experiences when writing The Graduate, including his disillusionment with a materialistic society. His own marriage offered glimpses of the unconventional approach to life he would take in the ensuing decades. As Beverly Gray wrote in Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, a book on The Graduate‘s cultural impact, the newlyweds sold their wedding gifts back to the gifters:

A few years later, Webb could not explain his motives, other than to say (to Los Angeles magazine’s John Riley) that he didn’t want the presents to own him. This eccentric rejection of material objects, even those given with a full heart, would point toward even more flamboyant gestures in the years ahead.

The couple lived on the East Coast for a few years after their marriage before relocating to California; Webb worked a series of jobs while continuing to write. Eventually, they moved to England, where he and his wife Fred lived until their deaths. Webb’s work has endured — and it may well be ripe for a resurgence.

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