Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck was born in Indiana on November 19, 1889. His father, Jacob Grant Hollenbeck, a ticket clerk, had married Mabel A. Parmelee, daughter of a railroad conductor, earlier that year. They separated in 1891, and ‘little Webb’ was raised by his mother. They moved to New York City in 1892, and Mabel remarried in 1900.
The young Webb took classes in theatre and dance, leaving school at thirteen to study music and painting. At seventeen, he sang with the Boston Opera Company. By 1908, the nineteen-year-old was known as Clifton Webb, a professional ballroom dancer who would appear in over two dozen operettas before making his Broadway debut in 1913’s The Purple Road, with mother Mabel also joining the cast.
In 1914, Clifton and Mabel (now calling herself Mabelle Webb) sailed for Europe, where they befriended a young American actress. Born in Kansas City in 1890, Jeanne Eagels had made her Broadway debut as a chorine three years previously, before graduating to a dramatic role in The Governor’s Boss, which had folded in April. While Jeanne was still a struggling actress, Webb was already an established star. Nonetheless, both he and Mabelle quickly grew fond of her.
“The great thing about Jeanne was our intense love for one another,” Webb wrote in his unfinished memoir, Sitting Pretty. “We were too much alike. She had that husky kind of voice combined with her cock-eyed sense of humor and anybody who has a sense of humor endears themselves to me immediately.”
“We went to a party [in Paris] given for (actress) Gaby Deslys,” Webb continued, “and everybody came dripping jewels, but Jeanne always did the reverse. She came in a beautiful organdie dress . . . having no jewels . . . she loved the reverse scene.” This may have been a matter of necessity rather than a bid for the spotlight. On July 6, Variety reported that Jeanne’s hotel room had been robbed.
After returning from Europe, Clifton appeared in Dancing Around, an Al Jolson musical. In 1915, he held his own in a star-studded revue, Ned Wayburn’s Town Topics. In January 1917, he began a nine-month run in Jerome Kern’s Love O’ Mike. In April, America entered the First World War.
On October 5, nearly 500 performers volunteered their time for the Rosemary Pageant, in aid of the American Red Cross. 7,000 people gathered at an open-air theatre on Long Island. A series of giant tableaux celebrated great historical achievements of the Allied nations. The French honorarium told the story of Joan of Arc in three scenes, with Jeanne Eagels playing a supporting character.
A photograph taken during the week of September 23 at the Hippodrome Theatre shows the cast rehearsing in street clothes. One of the spectators, Clifton Webb, was scheduled to dance the Pavane with Mrs. Ben Ali Haggin, wife of one of the producers. The one-night performance was also filmed, and shown in movie theaters around the country. Entitled The National Red Cross Pageant, the film raised thousands of dollars to send overseas.
Over the next four years, both Clifton and Jeanne’s fortunes flourished. In May 1921, accompanied by Clifton and Mabelle, Jeanne set sail aboard La France. She hoped to spend time in England, France, and Spain, while Clifton performed in Europe.
Since their first meeting in 1914, Mabelle and Clifton had taken Jeanne under their wing. She was always welcome at their West 58th Street apartment, mingling with fellow actors, artists, writers, opera singers, and musicians. She was also often spotted with Clifton at the opera, dining in restaurants, or ice-skating in Central Park. If one of the friends had a night off, they were usually found backstage at the other’s current show.
“We never went anywhere without one another,” Webb recalled. “People would say ‘God damn it—if you aren’t married, you should be.’” Wedding rumors were fueled on May 13, when the Evening Telegram published a photograph of Jeanne leaving for Europe with a large orchid pinned to her coat and referring to Clifton as her “fiancé.” Until then, her love life had mostly been a private affair, but a syndicated article released after Jeanne’s departure under the headline “How the Young Stage Dancer Won the Leading Lady” changed all that.
Webb’s only comment on the subject came nearly thirty years later, in his memoir, Sitting Pretty. “Jeanne and I had discussed marriage and were ready to take the step,” he wrote. “I talked it over with Mother. She gave me some advice. If you feel that way, wait a little while. You know what happens to most people when they marry in haste. We had a very romantic affair but marriage would have been fatal—we were very much alike. The moment she knew she had me, she would not have wanted me, and with me the same way. We were very sensible about it.”
Of course, Webb’s homosexuality—an open secret within the entertainment world—meant that theirs would have been a chaste love. His biographer, David L. Smith, suggests that the purpose of Webb’s trip was to visit an older male lover. While marriage to her best friend might have seemed like an ideal arrangement, it’s possible that neither Jeanne nor Clifton would have been satisfied if it had become permanent.
When Webb returned to New York in 1923, Jeanne’s role as Sadie Thompson in Rain – a sensational drama, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s acclaimed short story – had made her the toast of Broadway. Upon visiting her dressing room at the Maxine Elliott Theatre, Clifton discovered that Jeanne was not alone. Her companion was Ted Coy, a stockbroker and former athlete. Webb initially disapproved of the romance because Coy was a married man, but he would later leave his wife for Jeanne.
After a three-month run in the musical, Jack and Jill, Clifton’s next role was in a comedy, Meet the Wife, starring a young Humphrey Bogart. In 1925, he joined musical star Marilyn Miller in Sunny. In Treasure Girl (1928), Clifton performed Irving Berlin’s ‘Easter Parade’ and the Gershwins’ ‘I’ve Got a Crush On You’, both of which would become standards.
1928 was a turbulent year for Jeanne Eagels. In April, she was banned from the legitimate stage for eighteen months by Actors’ Equity, after failing to show up for work. Eagels insisted that she had been ill, and exhausted by the rigorous demands of touring. But rumours were swirling that Jeanne had been drinking heavily.
“The point is this: Jeanne Eagels never drank a lot,” he wrote in his memoir. “She couldn’t drink a lot—one drink and she’d be off. It was only when she played in Rain, beginning about the second year—and then in the show she would drink champagne. The rain never dried up and everybody felt this constant wet and dank.”
That summer, Eagels was granted a divorce from Ted Coy after a stormy, two-year marriage. She went on to make her first sound picture, The Letter, with Jealousy following the next year. Meanwhile, Clifton Webb was starring in a new musical revue, The Little Show, which opened on April 30, 1929, running for over 321 performances. Then on the evening of October 3, tragedy struck. After feeling ill for several days, Jeanne Eagels visited her doctor on Park Avenue. Minutes after arriving, she suffered convulsions and died.
“It was a Thursday night: I remember as I had a matinee the next day and was staying in town at the Algonquin Hotel,” Clifton Webb recalled. “I was playing in Little Show at the Music Box Theatre and was in my dressing room when a stage-hand told me. Said he’d seen it on the Times Square board and called the New York Times to confirm it. I called the doctor and got him. He was rather blasé about it: ‘Yes, it was an unfortunate accident.’ I phoned Mabelle and she was of course speechless. We wanted to talk to somebody about this tragedy and ended up with Tallulah Bankhead and Beatrice Lillie at the Elysee where Tallulah lived and stayed for up for hours. Then next day after my performance we went to see her—she was laid out at Campbell’s.”
Jeanne’s body was taken to the Campbell Funeral Home at 66th Street and Broadway, and placed into a silver and bronze casket. Years later, Clifton would remember that when Jeanne was brought out, “There she was lying with a pompadour. So my mother called an attendant and asked for a comb and she took it and dressed her hair. Jeanne wore her hair in ringlets. Mabelle took flowers and put them in her hands. So we did all we could.”
At twelve o’clock, the front doors were opened, and a crowd of well-wishers began filing past the casket. In a little over an hour, more than 150 people paid their respects. Jeanne lay in state all Friday afternoon and evening. One newspaper described how Mrs. Webb “tenderly rearranged the draperies and flowers, reluctant to leave their friend of over sixteen years.”
After a memorial service at Campbell’s, Jeanne’s body was taken to Kansas City for a family funeral. A simple headstone was decorated with a cross that read “Jeanne Eagles (her family name)—Died October 3, 1929.” Several years later, Clifton Webb was performing in Kansas City and wanted to pay his respects. “I called Jeanne’s mother and she took me out to the grave,” he wrote. “I saw the birth name on it and I said ‘Julia, Jeanne would turn in her grave if she saw her name spelled that way—she’d spit in your eye.’”
In October 1930, a year after Jeanne’s death, Clifton starred in another revue, Three’s a Crowd, opposite Libby Holman, who became a lifelong friend. This was followed by Flying Colors (1932) and As Thousands Cheer (1933.)
In 1932, a young showgirl named Dea Lloyd made headlines with her claim to be Jeanne Eagels’ daughter. Jeanne’s family told reporters that the girl who called herself “Julie Eagels” had visited Clifford and Mabelle Webb in Chicago, claiming she was the daughter of Beatrice Lillie. She then changed her mind, and told them she was Jeanne’s daughter.
“You must very fond of Julia then,” Mabelle Webb commented, referring to Jeanne’s mother.
“Who is Julia?” the girl replied blankly.
Back in Kansas City, Jeanne’s relatives denied that any steps had been taken legally against “Julie Eagels.” They regarded the girl as “an imposter, unworthy of serious consideration.” Dea Lloyd soon vanished from the spotlight, emerging a couple of years later to announce she was expecting twins.
In 1939, Webb played ‘Ernest’ in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Then in 1941, he starred as Charles Condomine in the original Broadway production of Blithe Spirit, the classic supernatural comedy by his friend, Noel Coward. His final stage role was in another of Coward’s plays, Present Laughter (1947.)
After seeing Webb’s performance in Blithe Spirit, director Otto Preminger offered him the part of Waldo Lydecker, a sinister radio columnist, in his next film, Laura. Darryl F. Zanuck – head of Twentieth Century-Fox – disapproved of the choice, considering Webb too effeminate. Preminger insisted that he be cast, and upon its release in 1945, Laura was hailed as a classic of film noir, and Zanuck signed Webb to Fox.
In 1946, Clifton starred in another film noir, Henry Hathaway’s Dark Corner; and in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. In Sitting Pretty (1948), Webb played what would become his most popular screen character, the eccentric babysitter, Mr Belvedere.
During filming of Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), Clifton Webb and director Elliott Nugent were discussing a piece of music his eponymous character was to play in a scene. When he finishes, the listener asks, “Beethoven?” Webb then replies, “No, Belvedere.” Clifton suggested to Nugent and musical director Alfred Newman that he could use a concerto he’d written as a tribute to Jeanne Eagels many years ago. After running through the piece, both men were impressed enough to use it in the film.
In another family comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), Webb played the husband of Myrna Loy, and father to their large brood. In 1953, he appeared in the original Titanic, followed by Jean Negulsco’s Three Coins in the Fountain and Woman’s World in 1954.
Filmed in England, The Man Who Never Was (1956) was based on the true story of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ (the elaborate plan to trick the Axis powers about the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II), and saw Webb playing the part of Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu.
In 1960, Mabelle Webb died aged ninety-one. Clifton never recovered from the loss of his adored mother, and after his final screen appearance as a priest in Satan Never Sleeps (1962), he retreated from the limelight. On October 13, 1966, seventy-six year-old Clifton Webb died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home. He was buried alongside his mother at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.