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    The Happiest Marriage in Classic Hollywood

    By Jan Wahl–

    Do you have an actor or actress whom you just don’t turn off whenever you catch them on screen? From Monroe to Depp, Garbo to Gosling, we all have these celluloid dreams that draw us in. I go nuts for Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn, and also Robert Mitchum. On the female side, give me Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Roz Russell, Gloria Grahame, and Susan Hayward (the only woman friend the late Ross Hunter said he would temporarily turn straight to be with). OK, they are all dead.  That’s showbiz. Alive? Hugh Jackman comes to mind, along with many others I have mentioned in this column over the years.

    One from classic Hollywood whom I never miss didn’t become a major Hollywood player until his fifties. His first sound movie was 1944’s Laura, and his bitchy, snide character of critic Waldo Lydecker had me at hello. His beloved mother Maybelle had him on the stage at age five, and he eventually became a huge dancing and acting star, with his name in lights. He was great, intimate pals with Cole Porter, Libby Holman, Noel Coward, and Tallulah Bankhead. He was nominated for three Oscars (for The Razor’s Edge, Laura, and Sitting Pretty) but should have won for playing a heterosexual of sorts in Three Coins in the Fountain.

    His name was Clifton Webb.

    Cliff Webb

    At a time of virile, often macho leading men, there was snobbish, effete, sophisticated Webb. He relished the millions he made as one of Hollywood’s top stars, living a long and glamorous life with Maybelle in their fabulous Beverly Hills mansion. They gave incredible parties and went nightclubbing. He shared the mansion with Maybelle until she died in her nineties. Webb was so inconsolable after her death that he became a recluse. His best friend Noel Coward said at the time, ‘It mut be devastating to be an orphan in your seventies.”

    He lived the life of a discreet gay man, something everyone knew and nobody cared. He couldn’t have been more popular on or off stage. The one difference is that he only would be seen and photographed with Maybelle, never another man. He bought her clothes and amazing jewels, He always made sure she was ready for her closeup at parties, nightclubs, and elegant restaurants. As Joan Crawford told everyone: “Maybelle and Clifton had the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”

    At long last, there is a biography of Webb often using his own words. It is Sitting Pretty; The Life and Times of Clifton Webb, by Webb and David L. Smith, with an introduction by Robert Wagner. Wagner was a costar with Webb and, yes, I believe they had a most private affair. Webb’s acerbic arrogance and flip wisecracks appear everywhere. He turns name dropping into social sport. I wish the book even went deeper, but I’m glad it is here at all. 

    If you don’t know Webb, begin with Laura. See it again; it is that wonderful. Move on to The Razor’s Edge, which provides a chance to see both Webb and Tyrone Power in heat. I truly love Three Coins in the Fountain; it’s corny but oh so continental, having been filmed in the Eternal City itself. When Dorothy McGuire fell in love with Webb in the film, I felt the sting of unrequited love. All of us gals who have fallen deeply for our gay men friends have felt it. But I still love Clifton Webb, and always will.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian and film critic on various broadcast outlets. She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Off the Wahl
    Published on April 4, 2024