Anyone who met them always came away saying, “They’re the ideal couple!”
Donald Beck and Geoffrey Webb met in Monterey, Calif., in May 1992, at a religious conference.
“I would always go to Los Angeles to see Geoffrey,” says Beck, “and he had never been to Palm Springs. He finally came down on a day when it was 120 degrees, but when I want somebody, I want them. There’s no choice. By Thanksgiving that year, he had moved here.”
Beck, now 86, was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio.
“My real parents were Czechoslovakian. The family had come over in the late 1800s. I was what was known as a ‘change-of-life baby.’ The next older, my sister, was 16 when I was born. When my parents died, one of my older brothers became my legal guardian. I was about 5 when my mother died, and I have one strong memory about her. In those days, the dead were in the coffin at home, and I remember being raised up to see her. I remember a maroon veil with gold fringe.
“My brother and his wife had wanted children, and I became their child. They adopted me, and I totally think of them as my parents. They’re who I know as Mom and Dad. They were very loving—I could do no wrong. They gave me the confidence I have to this day.”
Beck attended Youngstown State University, and because he carried a “B” average, he was not subject to the draft during the Korean War. “Then I got into a fraternity,” he remembers, laughing, “and my grades dropped.
“I got drafted into the Army for two years, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, but I never did get to Korea. I volunteered to type reports, and they sent me to personnel school.
“When I got out of the service, I thought about living in Youngstown, but I decided to move to Los Angeles and go to beauty school. I used to brush my mom’s hair all the time. I had chipped teeth from opening bobby pins! She always went to a beauty shop in a woman’s home, and I’d watch her getting her hair done. By my last year of high school, I was cutting the hair of all my female relatives.
“I won first prize in a contest that was being judged by the Pagano brothers, who had a well-known salon. When they asked where I was going to go after school, I said, ‘With you!’ At that time, they had a salon at the racquet club in Cheviot Hills (in L.A.), and I was there for seven years.”
Beck came to Palm Springs in 1980 to escape what he describes as “too much of everything” in Los Angeles: “too much drugs, traffic and smog.” He spent three months looking for the right place, traveling around the country in a van. “When a friend who lived in Palm Springs had lost his partner and wanted some company, I came down. A friend of his needed somebody to house-sit, and I ended up living there for two years.”
Geoffrey Webb, from Keyworth in Nottinghamshire, England, was the youngest of 11 children, and was a performer from a young age. At 17, he joined a touring ballet company and danced his way through Europe for six years. He performed with London’s Festival Ballet Company and at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Beck describes him as a “triple threat performer, excelling in dance, song and acting.” Webb came to America in a British musical, stayed and appeared in major stage shows, and then portrayed the butler in the soap opera One Life to Live. He appeared in the Palm Springs Follies for nine years, and became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Beck’s career in the desert as a stylist includes his role as wigmaster for the Follies. “Geoffrey was already in the Follies, and I crashed an opening party. Their hairdresser had just quit, so I took the job,” he said. “I started out doing 30 wigs, and at the end of eight years, I was doing about 156. I would alternately bring them home to wash and dried them hanging on trees in the backyard. It was a sight! When I left, they needed two people to do the job.”
Beck and Webb married in 2008. “It was when (Gavin) Newsom first allowed gay marriage in California,” recalls Beck. “We had fought for these rights, so I thought we might as well take advantage of them. … Geoffrey and I were together for 27 years.”
Webb was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and Beck believes the symptoms had been there for at least 10 years before he was diagnosed. Webb died in November, and Beck was not only his spouse, but also his full-time caregiver and best friend. I was lucky enough to attend the memorial service held in Webb’s honor, where Beck talked about their time together. His admiration for Webb’s talent and his sense of loss were palpable to all.
Webb was a poet, among his other pursuits, and Beck shared some of Webb’s poetic words: “Time passes. Time stands still. The time, oh where did it go?” Beck was poignant in talking about that which you give away, that which you cannot keep, and having that which you can never lose.
Beck’s tender care-giving for his beloved partner stood as an example to all who know them.
“I became facilitator of a group of caregivers for those with Parkinson’s,” says Beck, “and learned all the symptoms to be aware of: colorblindness, loss of sense of smell and swallowing ability, and ultimately dementia.” Beck and Webb were regular attendees at SongShine, where Webb’s voice was prized, and at the Dementia-Friendly Café, which I help organize; that is where I met them. Webb would often spontaneously stand and sing for the gathered group, in a sweet, clear sound that lifted everyone, and always with a special glint in his eye.
“There are so many wonderful memories,” says Beck. “We traveled a lot together, and it was so much fun to share the companionship and our impressions of favorite places like Venice, and Mo’orea (an island near Tahiti), where there’s a great story about a tarantula.”
At the memorial to his beloved partner, Beck quoted the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
“I can’t beat myself up, or be angry or aggravated at his loss,” says Beck. “I just wanted him to be around as long as possible.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.