Clifton was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck
on Nov. 19, 1889, at 355 N. Mississippi St.,
Indianapolis. The street, which no longer exists,
was then in the heart of the city, near the
railroad yards, where his father worked. He died
Oct. 13, 1966, at his home in Beverly Hills,
Calif., at age 76.
He appeared in
more than 25 movies was nominated for three
- best supporting actor in
"Laura" (1944), losing to Barry
Fitzgerald in "Going My Way"
- best supporting actor in
"The Razor's Edge" (1946),
losing to Harold Russell in "The
Best Years of Our Lives"
- best actor in
"Sitting Pretty" (1948), losing
to Laurence Oliver in "Hamlet."
His parents were
Jacob "Jake" Grant Hollenbeck
(1867-1939), an assistant passenger traffic
manager for the Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. who
died the day after he retired, and Mable
"Mabelle" A. Parmelee (1869-1960), the
daughter of railroad conductor David H. and Grace
Clifton lived with his mother until her
death. They were inseparable, attending
premieres, parties and other social events
together. He once described his mother as
"not a bit like Whistler's."
As her childhood
Mabelle had theatrical ambitions of her own.
Thwarted, she transferred them to her young son.
The two never spoke of Clifton's father, whom
Mabelle left when her beloved "little
Webb," as she called him for the rest of her
life, was 3. She always dismissed questions about
Clifton's father with: "We never speak of
him. He didn't care for the theater."
Ever the stage
mother, Mabelle sent Clifton to dancing school
once they had moved to New York. At age 7 he
attracted the attention of Malcolm Douglas of the
Children's Theater. In 1900, Mabelle, her widowed
mother Grace, and Clifton were living with Green
Raum Jr., a 36-year-old copper foundry worker, at
101 77th St. (Ten years later they'd all
moved to 214 W. 83rd St. but things evidently
weren't going so well for Mabelle -- there was
also a separate entry for Green at the Alexander
Cummings Hotel on Reed Street.) It
was in 1900 that Clifton made his theatrical
debut: as Cholly in "The Brownies" at
Carnegie Hall. Next he played the title
role in "Oliver Twist," followed by
"The Master of Carlton Hall." He also
began studying singing and painting and gave his
first one-man art show at age 14.
Singing became his career, first
in grand opera, then in operetta. After studying
with Victor Maurel, 17-year-old Clifton made his
operatic debut in "Mignon" at the
Boston's Back Bay Opera House in 1911.
Appearances with the Aborn Opera Company ranged
from "Madam Butterfly" to "Hansel
and Gretel." In 1913, he switched to
operetta, appearing as Bisco in "The Purple
Road" at New York's Liberty Theater.
His ability as a dancer attracted
such attention in appearances at the Winter
Garden and other leading Broadway theaters that
Bonnie Glass invited him to team up with her. He
accepted, earning $250 a week during his first
dance engagement. His other partners included
Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters and Mae Murray.
And it was Clifton who introduced Irving Berlin's
classic song "Easter Parade" on the
many other young men, Clifton registered for the
World War I draft. When asked if there is any
reason he should not serve, he indicated on his
card, at left, that his mother was dependent on
In the 1920s and '30s, he played
dramatic roles in London, on Broadway, and in a
few silent movies. And by 1930,
Clifton and his mother were living at 205 W. 57th
It was on the
heels of "As Thousands Cheer," a play
in which he did such impersonations as Mahatma
Gandhi and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., that Hollywood
summoned in 1936. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put him on
a $3,000-a-week salary to star in a movie about a
dancer; he stayed 18 months without ever making
the picture because of production problems.
Clifton returned to Broadway where he played the
role of a cantankerous wheelchair patient in
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" for a year
and a half. Next came Noel Coward's "Blithe
Spirit," which toured from Seattle to
Toronto -- and then 20th Century-Fox came calling
in 1942, asking him to appear in Otto Preminger's
"Laura" as the acerbic Waldo Lydecker.
With that role came his first Oscar nomination.
And so satisfied was the studio that it signed
him to a five-year contract.
Despite having been a leading man
in such Broadway musicals as "She's My
Baby" with Beatrice Lillie, and
"Treasure Girl" with Gertrude Lawrence, Hollywood used Clifton as a nonmusical
character actor, playing waspish, elitist roles.
His only musical film role was as the nonsinging
John Philip Sousa in "Stars and Stripes
Stardom came in 1948 when he dumped a
bowl of oatmeal over young Raymond C. Hair Jr.'s
head. The film was "Sitting Pretty" in
which 55-year-old Clifton played Lynn Belvedere,
a babysitter who was as formidable as he was
unlikely. Of that performance, Bosley Crowther of
the New York Times wrote: "Yet
there slyly protrudes through his arrogance a
flickering spoof of pomposity and a tentative
benevolence toward humanity, of which he
generously agrees to be one. A student of the
fine shades of kidding will find a lot to admire
in Mr. Webb."
that success in three sequels -- "Mr.
Belvedere Goes to College," "Mr.
Belvedere Rings the Bell" and "For
Heaven's Sake"-- and a series of similarly
light-hearted comedies that resulted in 1950 in
his selection by the country's motion-pictures
exhibitors as one of the year's top 10
His priggish Mr.
Belvedere series was supposedly not far removed
from his real-life persona. Clifton was known for
his impeccable diction and his elegant taste for
clothes. He was credited with having introduced
into the American man's wardrobe such items as
the white messcoat dinner jacket, the
double-breasted vest and the red carnation
boutonniere. He also
admitted in an interview later in life that he
was the inspiration for Mr. Peabody on "The
Rocky & Bullwinkle Show."
enjoyed the fame and money that came to him in
midlife. The lifelong bachelor and his mother,
who served as secretary and manager of the
Webb Dance Studio where he conducted private
classes, settled into their Beverly Hills home in
1947. Their home, at 1005 N.
Rexford Drive, was built in 1921 by
silent-screen director Arthur Rosson and went to
his wife, Lucille, when they divorced. She
married director Victor Fleming and leased the
house to such tenants as actress Marlene Dietrich
and operatic soprano Grace Moore. The Flemings
sold the house in 1943 to actors Gene and
Kathleen Lockhart (daughter June of
"Lassie" and "Lost in Space"
fame). The Webbs, who were frequent guests,
persuaded the Lockharts into selling it to them.
At this Hollywood outing are Lauren
Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Laurence
Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Bennett --
with Clifton and Mabelle at right.
and Mabelle probably had no idea at the
time this photo was taken that they were
sitting just a few feet from a Parmelee
cousin -- Humphrey DeForest Bogart!
was the son of Belmont
DeForest and Maud (Humphrey)
- Maud was
the daughter of John Perkins
and Frances (Churchill)
- John was
the son of Harvey and
Elizabeth Rogers (Perkins)
- Harvey was
the son of Jonathan and
Rachael (Dowd) Humphrey;
was the daughter of John and
Elizabeth (Norton) Dowd;
was the daughter of Ebenezer
and Elizabeth (Baldwin)
was the daughter of Nathaniel
and Elizabeth (Parmelee)
was the daughter of Isaac,
granddaughter of John Jr.,
great-granddaughter of John
Clifton's effeminate mannerisms off and
on screen flaunted his homosexuality, but a
scrupulous private life kept him free of any
scandal during a closeted era. And he was honest
about it. When one belligerent director asked if
he was a homosexual, the actor quickly replied,
yet, he was a popular family man on the screen,
in such films as "Cheaper by the Dozen"
and "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker."
His other notable successes were "The
Razor's Edge," "Three Coins in the
on a Dolphin," and
"Holiday for Lovers."
When Mabelle died
in 1960, Clifton began a mourning that lasted
until his own death. Playwright and friend Coward
noted in a letter: "Poor Clifton ... is
still, after two months, wailing and sobbing over
Mabelles death. As she was well over 90,
gaga, and driving him mad for years, this seems
excessive and overindulgent." The most
famous remark to go the rounds of Cliftons
friends was Cowards final, acerbic one to
him: "It must be tough to be orphaned at
71!" Clifton, who told friends that
hed seen his mother's presence in the
house, held frequent seances in attempts to
Clifton made one
more movie, "Satan Never Sleeps," the
year after her death, about the time his health
had begun to fail. He played a Catholic priest in
the violent melodrama; the movie was not
in "Laura" (1944)
in "Titanic" (1953)
on a Dolphin" (1957)
Five months after surgery for an
abdominal aneurysm in Houston, Clifton died of a
heart attack at his Beverly Hills home. With him
at the end was Helen Matthews, his secretary for
20 years. His obituary appeared on Page One of
the Los Angeles Times.
His funeral at All
Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills was
attended by about 150 mourners, according to The
Times. Among them were Katherine Hepburn,
Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, Rosalind Russell,
Raymond Massey and Janet Gaynor. Joining Matthews
in a section of the church generally reserved for
family members were Bacall, Gaynor and Ruth
Producer Sam Engel
eulogized Clifton as both a "bon
vivant" and a rigidly self-disciplined man
who "gained a healthy respect for hard work
included Robert Wagner, Richard Zanuck, William
Baker, Roger Eden, Leonard Gershe and Frank
McCarthy. Honorary pallbearers were Coward,
Samuel Goldwyn, Alfred Lum, Daryl F. Zanuck,
Spyrous Skouras and George Cukor.
He was entombed in
the Abbey of the Psalms at Hollywood Memorial
Park Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery) on
Santa Monica Boulevard -- next to his mother.
being laid to rest, Clifton reportedly does not
rest peacefully. His ghost -- and those of
Virginia Rappe, Rudolph Valentino and the Lady in
Black are said to haunt the cemetery. Some
visitors to the mausoleum report hearing
whispers, seeing strange lights, feeling cold
drafts and smelling cologne near his tomb. A
semitransparent figure of Clifton in a suit and
an aura in the shape of his body have been
reported by some, while others say they've heard
the sound of whistling or his voice.
Before the Webbs' home was
demolished in the 1990s, subsequent owners said
Clifton haunted the property. Several days before
he died, Clifton had warned: "Im not
leaving this house even at death."
1967, the house was purchased by Los Angeles
Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber and her
TV producer husband Douglas Cramer. Several
times, while enjoying drinks by the pool, the two
caught sight of a swaying figure in the master
bedroom. "It was a dark, transparent shadow
the size and shape of Clifton," Cramer said.
"I never saw it up close, as Joyce did. I
only saw it through a window when I was outside.
I didnt see clothes or details, but he
always resembled Clifton and he seemed to be
Cramer also said he saw shadows
in the hallway the size and shape of Mabelle.
Their dogs reacted to cold spots in that hallway
-- where Clifton was said to pace outside his
mothers bedroom. "They would not go
near the cold spots in the hallway without
barking enormously and often urinating on the
spot," Cramer said. A cold presence was said
to have attacked a maid on several occasions. On
a hunch, Haber brought home one of Clifton's
movies: When the dogs saw his image on the
screen, all three began howling.
Haber also held a seance with
some of Clifton's friends, including playwright
Garson Kanin, actress Ruth Gordon, producer Dick
Zanuck. "The seance convinced them all that
Clifton was in the house," Cramer said.
"And the medium, Sybil Leek, did become
Clifton in mood and spirit and intent and
most particularly in language and dialect. She
told things that only they knew about Clifton,
things that Sybil could never have known."
When asked why he stayed, he replied:
"Because Im afraid Ill be
After the seance, neither Clifton
nor Mabelle were seen in the house again. Even
the dogs stopped barking in the hallway. The
Cramers divorced and sold the house in the '70s.
The house was demolished in the 1990s.