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The Real Life Parallels of The Graduate


Author Charles Webb wrote his first novel, The Graduate, in his final year of college. “People ask whether The Graduate was autobiographical. It was,” said Webb. “There are parallels between Fred and me, and Ben and Elaine — the young lovers in the book are battling convention, and the parents in the book have a lot in common with our parents. But the details are changed.”

“We met at college,” he continued. “I’d seen one of her drawings before we met, and thought, ‘I have to meet this person.’ Our first date was in a graveyard. I fancied myself as a connoisseur of gravestones. We were like the Addams family. We soon formed a mutual protection society.”

Webb’s future wife — who later changed her name to Fred — recalled, “We met for the first time at a Halloween party. We were both on the sidelines, and right away we gravitated towards each other. Charles had seen one of my drawings before we met. It was called ‘Two Nuns in the Cold.’ I had a secret way of finding out whether I was interested in someone. I’d ask them, ‘Have you ever heard of Ring Lardner?’ — who I thought was the funniest writer I’d ever read. Charles was the only one who ever had. I loved him totally at that point.”

The college sweethearts were married in 1962, one year after Webb
graduated from Williams College. They had to wait a year to get married
because Fred’s family sent her to live with an aunt in California in an
effort to break up the relationship. “I came from suburban California,”
said Webb. “My father was a heart specialist who died of a heart
attack. Her parents were prep school teachers and she grew up in a
small town. Neither of us felt very ‘at home’ at home. Despite that, we
married in the chapel of the school where her parents taught. Our
wedding bowed to the forces of convention — like Elaine and

Webb began the novel in part to express some of
the angst he felt toward his family, and also to win the favor of his
mother. “She was always reading books, so I thought I’d see if I could
write one,” he said. “I was always looking for crumbs of approval from
her. But it didn’t work, she was a very disapproving person.”

the novel was published in 1963, Webb brought it home for his family to
read. “My father had no idea what to expect when he read The Graduate,”
said Webb. “He just went very quiet.” Fred recalled, “His father was
furious. I remember Charles was home for the summer, and his dad came
in and threw the novel on the table, and said, ‘This is crap.’ It hurt
Charles’s feelings terribly. Both families highly disapproved of the
book, because it was so spot-on about the conspicuous consumption, the
elitism, the snobbery. Charles really made a statement with it.”

“My father’s attitude towards The Graduate
was illustrative of the way he was,” Webb said. “When the book came
out, he was appalled that I could have brought such shame on the
family. Then, when the film was a hit, he kept going, ‘That’s my boy!’
It’s interesting that both sets of parents were turned off by the book,
yet when it became a money-making movie, that was another story.”

Webb and his mother-in-law were never sexually involved. She couldn’t
stand him, and regarded him as a very unsuitable candidate to marry her
daughter. However, Webb suspects that an incident where he was passing
her bedroom door and glimpsed her stepping naked out of the shower
might have been the catalyst that inspired her character. “I don’t know
if my mother enjoyed being compared to Mrs. Robinson, or whether she
was horrified,” said Fred. “I never asked her. I was very disaffected
from my family.”

Charles Webb said that the
semi-autobiographical aspects of his novel were never a problem in his
marriage. “To be honest, Fred’s never worried about the Mrs. Robinson
thing,” he said. “The thing that bothered her most is that the
character of Elaine is wimpy and conventional. That chafed. There’s not
been a lot that is conventional about our relationship.”

“I’ve never felt quite comfortable about money,” Webb admitted. “I got $20,000 for The Graduate,
and I signed the copyright over to the Anti-Defamation League. I
declined an inheritance from my father. In the 1960s, I gave a house
away in Massachusetts. It felt like a burden, so I donated it to a bird
charity. Fred and I have never argued about money. We’re in agreement
on the basic issues.”

His wife concurred. “After our wedding,
we sold the presents back to the guests,” she said. “We were living in
a kind of a shack by then. It was hilarious — the cupidity with which
they bought it back! We were so thrilled to be rid of it all!” For
Webb, “It didn’t feel like such a big deal at the time. There was no
great principle involved. We just felt more comfortable living a fairly
basic lifestyle.”

According to Charles Webb, the best things in life are free. “My life would have been no different if I hadn’t written The Graduate, but I can’t even speculate what it would have been like if I hadn’t met Fred.”

Catch the DVD enhanced version of The Graduate on Thursday, April 10. For a complete schedule of showtimes, click here.

Carolyn Lumsden, “No Plastics for Graduate Author,” Boston Globe, 8/25/88
Richard Leiby, “The Dropout,” Washington Post, 12/20/92
Adrian Turpin, “How We Met,” The Independent, 4/8/01
John Preston, “Post Graduate Fiction,” Sunday Telegraph, 5/27/07

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