Ghosts, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Clifton Webb’s Ghost-Forgotten Hoosier Hollywood Icon

webb1Original publish date:  November 9, 2008

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you should recognize the name Clifton Webb. If you’ve never heard of him, but consider yourself a fan of old Hollywood movies, don’t despair as you’ve probably seen Webb in one of his many old movies or television appearances made during his long career in Tinseltown. He’s one of those great character actors whose face is very familiar but whose name escapes us. So great in fact that he was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globe awards ( winning one in 1946) during his career. His story is sadly sweet.

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you should recognize the name Clifton Webb. If you’ve never heard of him, but consider yourself a fan of old Hollywood movies, don’t despair as you’ve probably seen Webb in one of his many old movies or television appearances made during his long career in Tinseltown. He’s one of those great character actors whose face is very familiar but whose name escapes us. So great in fact that he was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globe awards ( winning one in 1946) during his career. His story is sadly sweet.  Clifton Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck to a multi-generational Hoosier farming family in Marion County on November 19, 1889. If you find a biography on Mr. Webb, it will most likely claim that he was born in Beech Grove. However that information proves faulty when you realize that Beech Grove wasn’t formed as a community until after he was born. Beech Grove as we know it was not formed until 1906. Before that time it was known as a region known for the many Beech trees that populated the area. The town of Beech Grove was formed when the Big Four railroad began to use it as a hub during the early 1900s.

It’s much more accurate to say that Clifton Webb was born nearer to Brookville Road in the South eastern area of Marion County. So it’s accurate to say that Webb started life as an east-sider. However, he did not stay long. Webb’s father, Jacob Grant Hollenbeck (1867-1939) , was an Indiana farmer and sometime green grocer. His domineering mother, Maybelle A. Parmelee (1869-1960) was the daughter of a railroad conductor. Maybelle insisted that her “Little Webb” keep her family name along with that of Webb’s father. She moved with her “little Webb” to New York City after her husband’s job as a ticket taker did not suit her plans for her son’s career advancement in the theater.

Maybelle was known to tell anyone she came in contact with the “We never speak of him. He didn’t care for the theater.” Maybelle had “little Webb” enrolled in singing, dancing, & acting classes in New York City by the age of 5. Maybelle was an effective and aggressive stage mother who managed to get “little Webb” his stage debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of only 7 in a play called “The Brownies”. Webb was so effective in this first role that he was signed up to tour with a traveling vaudeville acting troupe. Shortly afterwards he was tapped for lead roles as Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist. Maybelle kept “little Webb” busy between performances with painting and opera lessons. Webb quite school by the age of 13. He was performing opera solos on stage by the age of 17.

By the age of 19, Webb had dropped both the Parmelee and Hollenbeck names and adopted the stage name we know as “Clifton Webb”. He was performing regularly on Broadway and it was not unusual to find his mother Maybelle’s name listed in the playbill along with her “little Webb” as a minor scene player or extra. During this period, Webb co-starred with legends like Will Rogers and Al Jolson in plays and musicals written by luminaries like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern. Webb received billing above Humphrey Bogart in Bogie’s first stage performance. Although he appeared in a few silent films in the 1920s, he stuck to Broadway until 1944.

webbclifton01Webb was tapped by director Otto Preminger to appear in the classic “Laura” alongside Gene Tierney. He would receive his first Oscar nomination for this appearance, even though he was relatively unknown to movie fans. 2 years later in 1946 he again starred with Tierney in the cult classic film “The Razor’s Edge”. He received his second Oscar nomination for this role. Webb’s created the lasting character “Mr. Belvedere” in 1949 for the film “Sitting Pretty” and would reprise the role 2 more times. This character would earn him his third and final Academy Award nomination. This same “Mr. Belvedere” character would be retooled as a TV show and played by 4 different actors from the 1950s thru the 1980s.

Some of Webb’s other films (He made 25 films in all) include: “The Dark Corner” in 1946, “Cheaper by the Dozen” with Myrna Loy in 1950, “For Heaven’s Sake” in 1950, “Dreamboat” in 1952, “Woman’s World” in 1954, “Titanic” in 1954 (He played Barbara Stanwyck’s doomed husband), “Three Coins in a Fountain” (1954), “The Man Who Never Was” in 1956, “Boy on a Dolphin” (1957), and “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker” in 1959. It’s been claimed that Webb’s real life persona was most like that of his “Mr. Belvedere” character, described as being somewhat of a “Sophisticated, stuffy, effete snob” by some who knew him. It was no secret that Clifton Webb was gay. This at a time in Hollywood when it was an unwritten rule in Tinseltown to “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Clifton Webb’s elegant style landed him on Hollywood’s best dressed list for decades. Webb was the subject of many great stories and quotes in Hollywood. One of comic Bob Newhart’s favorite stories is to relate how while he was a young & naive star in Hollywood at one of his first exclusive parties, Clifton Webb approached this wide eyed newcomer and startled Newhart by asking him if he wanted to dance. Despite this obvious frankness, Clifton Webb managed to keep his personal life out of the Hollywood tabloids. Although the rumor in late 1950’s Hollywood was that Webb was once romantically linked with fellow Hoosier icon James Dean. It was widely known that Webb openly flirted with young, good looking men at parties in Hollywood, taking satisfaction in garnering more attention from them than the women in the room.

However, this is all unsubstantiated Hollywood gossip. Webb was never seriously linked to anyone in Hollywood, male or female. He never married. This is at least due in part to his abnormally close relationship with his mother, who seemed to be the sole object of Webb’s tenderness and love. She lived with her son until her death at age 91 in 1960. Webb was distraught. So much so that his friend Noel Coward tried to get him to snap out of the deep depression months after her death by telling Webb, “It must be difficult to be orphaned at 70, Clifton.” As for trivia, cartoonist Jay Ward claimed that he modeled the “Peabody” character from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show on Clifton Webb.

Direct quotes attributed to Webb include, when speaking of his alternative lifestyle, he said “It’s never morals, it’s manners.” and “You can be rich and dull or poor and amusing–but you must always contribute something to the community.” On the subject of wearing a partially exposed handkerchief in a suit jacket pocket, Webb said “Never pointed, never square…it should always be, of course, pear shaped.”

Clifton Webb never really recovered from the loss of his mother and his health began to suffer for it. He reportedly locked her room and refused to remove her belongings, choosing instead to leave everything just as he left it. He spent the last 5 years of his life as a sad, lonely recluse in his Beverly Hills home. Sadly, upon her death he slipped into a prolonged period of denial and depression going so far as to contact dozens of clairvoyants and spirit mediums in an effort to contact the spirit of his dead mother. One of these mediums was the former Blonde Bombshell star Mae West, who was herself known for a powerful spiritually intuitive gift of communicating with the spirits of the dead.

Clifton Webb died of a heart attack on October  13, 1966 at the age of 76. He was awarded his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame. It’s located at 6840 Hollywood Blvd. He was interred in a burial vault at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. His is crypt 2350, Corridor G-6 in the Abbey of Psalms. Why so much detail about Webb’s burial spot? Because it’s rumored to be haunted by Webb himself.

Rarely will you find accounts of ghosts “haunting” their gravesites, but Clifton Webb is the exception to this general rule. Clifton Webb’s restless spirit has been seen haunting the crypt in the section known as “The Sanctuary of Peace” where his mortal remains were laid to rest. Mr. Webb is always seen fastidiously dressed in his dapper suit and sometimes has been known to startle visitors by yelling at them in his distinctive voice. There are even a few accounts of Mr. Webb haunting his old house at 1005 Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills before it was torn down many years ago. It has been claimed that the reason for his haunting is his reluctance to relinquish his fame and the fear that his legacy might be forgotten. The precursor for these ghostly visits by Webb in his burial vaults is the unnerving sound of the marble slab that covers the opening shifting back and forth.

Clifton_Webb1I can tell you from first hand experience, this slab does indeed move to and fro within the slot that covers the burial cavity. I had heard these legends and visited the Hollywood Forever cemetery 9 years ago to test the theory. I will tell you that it’s an eerie feeling and an even stranger sound. If I were alone in that vault and heard that sound without explanation as to whom or what was causing it, I would not stick around to see if it was my famous fellow Hoosier, Clifton Webb!

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