Archival Collections
Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Constance Webb papers, 1918-2005 bulk 1939-2002 

Creator: 
Webb, Constance,
Phys. Desc: 
9.3 linear feet (14 boxes: 9 document boxes 3 record cartons 1 halfsized document box)
Call Number: 
MS#1478
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Online information

Biographical Note

Writer, actress, and model Constance Webb (1918-2005) was the second wife of C. L. R. James (1901-1989). Webb, the fifth of six children, was born and raised in Fresno, California. Her parents, Minerva Susan Reynolds Webb, and, George Detwyler Webb, were originally from Atlanta, Georgia. Webb joined the Socialist Party as a teenager; married and divorced two men, Norman Henderson, Jr. and Edward Keller, by the time she was twenty-five; and made her living initially as a model and an actress. She attended Fresno State College briefly, but never graduated from college. Webb met C. L. R. James in 1939 after he spoke at an event in Los Angeles and shortly thereafter they began corresponding. Webb's side of the correspondence has not survived, but many of James' letters have. The bulk of those surviving letters are at the Schomburg Center in New York. In the mid-1940s, after her second divorce, Webb left California for New York City. She took a room in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, began modeling for the Harry Conover Agency, continued an affair with Jack Gilford that had begun in California, and contacted James. James introduced Webb to Richard Wright and his wife, Ellen, Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison. Webb accompanied James when he attended the meetings of various Socialist organizations including the Johnson-Forest Tendency or Johnsonites, a small group for which James wrote under the byline "J. R. Johnson" and Raya Dunayevskaya, as "Freddie Forest". Webb began writing, too, a vocation that would outlast her acting and modeling careers. Her article"What Next for Richard Wright?" was published in Phylon in 1949. In 1946 she printed privately, and distributed"A hitherto unpublished manuscript by Richard Wright being a continuation of Black Boy." Webb and James married in 1946. Webb and James' marriage lasted in fits and starts for nearly seven years. In 1949 C. L. R. James, Jr."Nobbie", their only child was born. They were separated forcibly in 1952, by James' arrest and detention on Ellis Island. In 1953, facing deportation, C. L. R. James left the United States, his home for 15 years, for England; Webb remained in New York with Nobbie. Through their parenting of Nobbie--Robert as an adult--Webb and James renewed their correspondence. From the early 1950s through the early 1970s, Webb worked as an executive secretary or administrative assistant in a variety of businesses, first in New York and then in Los Angeles where she moved in 1970. During the 1950s Webb wrote for Correspondence, the Johnsonite newspaper, and accepted free lance projects. After a brief sabbatical from secretarial work, Webb's first book, Richard Wright: A Biography, was published in 1968. By the end of the nineteen-fifties Webb was married to Edward W. Pearlstien (1928-2001), her fourth and last husband. Edward, a writer and a teacher, taught history at the Fieldston School, New York University and Hunter College. They remained married for over thirty years, a union that ended only with his death. Webb and Pearlstien worked together in their later years at Editorial Consultants, Inc., which they had founded along with Annette Welles in 1971. Editorial Consultants produced, primarily, reports, manuals and brochures for professional organizations. From 1973 until her retirement in 1987 Webb also worked as a technical writer for the Bechtel Power Corporation in San Francisco, California. In 1985 Webb, concerned about James' deteriorating health, wrote to his assistant, Anna Grimshaw, an anthropologist and recent graduate of Cambridge University, with advice on his care. This letter was the beginning of a two-decades-long relationship sustained through correspondence and their collaboration on several C. L. R. James-related projects. Webb also kept in contact with a variety of other C. L. R. James scholars and Richard Wright scholars. In retirement Webb took on a series of writing projects. She transcribed and edited, with Anna Grimshaw, two collections of C. L. R. James letters: Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939-1948 (1996) and The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults, which was published posthumously (2006). She published a memoir of the first half of her life, Not Without Love: Memoirs (2003) and wrote several extensive drafts of a novel. The novel was left unfinished when Webb died in 2005.

Scope and Contents

The Constance Webb Papers include correspondence, photographs, and drafts of writings by Webb, who was the author of the first biography of Richard Wright and the second wife of C. L. R. James. Webb edited two books of letters by C.L.R. James and materials related to those books can be found here. A few letters written by C.L.R. James and a smattering of material related to his work can also be found in this collection. The Constance Webb Papers include correspondence, photographs, and drafts of writings by Webb. Webb edited two books of letters by C.L.R. James and materials related to those books can be found here. A few letters written by C.L.R. James and a smattering of material related to his work can also be found in this collection.