The Dark Moments of His Life Rival—and Perhaps Inspire—john Cheever's Stories
04/23/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
He looks the very model of an aging Hudson River squire, dressed with studied casualness in a muted tweed jacket, khaki slacks, open-collared Brooks Bros, shirt and Bean loafers, his gray hair conservatively barbered and neatly combed. On the floor of author John Cheever's 1799 Dutch house, three golden retrievers doze in the warmth of an open fire; in the kitchen his wife, a poet and onetime instructor in English composition at Briarcliff College, prepares roast duck.
The scene is both tranquil and deceptive. The house, for all its antiquity, is located in Ossining, a gritty enclave in New York's Westchester County that is dominated by Sing Sing penitentiary. This is an unchic address, not to be confused with the upriver estates of the gentry or the affluent bedroom communities to the south and east, a region Cheever has written about so often and so accurately that it is sometimes called "Cheever Country." Although he is a staunch Episcopalian who goes to 7:30 a.m. Communion on Sunday, his wife, Mary, is Jewish, and their marriage has been a stormy 38-year voyage, constantly threatened by divorce. Cheever's face is etched with lines from decades of heavy drinking.
Yet his inquisitive eyes light up and the house crackles with boyish enthusiasm when the conversation turns to his latest book, The Stories of John Cheever, a fat Decameron of the lost souls of Cheever Country. It has been on the best-seller lists for 17 weeks. "I'm delighted," he says. "I've come to think of my readers as extraordinarily friendly and accommodating men and women." Already Cheever's collection has won the National Book Critics Circle prize, and it is a strong contender for the National Book Award for fiction, which will be announced this week. (He won it in 1958 for his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle.)
Instead of whiskey, the traditional tonic of his profession, the tumbler in Cheever's hand contains dark tea nowadays, and he distastefully yet methodically counts leftover cigarette butts in his ashtray, a requirement of Smokenders. Cheever joined because "there is something humiliating about getting off the plane in a place like Sofia and thinking, 'Oh, my God, are they going to have my brand?' " Once tormented by phobias, Cheever required a slug of Scotch from the bottle in the glove compartment before he dared drive across a bridge. He was the despair of his publishers' PR men, an author who disappeared for six weeks after the publication of a book and refused interviews upon returning. When his first novel was finished, he fled to Rome for a full year. Today such quirks have vanished. At 66, John Cheever is a resurrected man.
"Five years ago I was washing down Thorazine with Scotch," he says candidly. "I felt suicidal; my life and my career were over. I wanted to end it." Always a hard drinker, Cheever sank into alcoholism after a near-fatal heart attack in 1972. He swore off temporarily but relapsed while teaching at Boston University. Novelist John Updike, an old friend, saw him at his alcoholic nadir and sadly remarked, "I keep thinking the John Cheever I know is in there someplace." Finally, with the support of his family, Cheever faced the facts of his behavior ("such a loss of dignity") and agreed to enter Smithers, an exclusive Manhattan clinic for alcoholism. "If you can have it cured," he says, five years later, "I am cured." When released after 32 days, he promptly sat down and, in less than a year, wrote his much-acclaimed fourth novel, Falconer, a gothic tale of life in a prison very much like Sing Sing. Cheever knew his subject well: He once taught a writing course to the convicts.
"I don't know where the blackness in my life comes from," Cheever says. "There is a great deal of sadness, of melancholy. I have no idea where it originates." Part of it may stem from Cheever's seafaring Yankee ancestry, and his grandfather, who, Cheever was told, committed suicide. John was born in Quincy, Mass., the son of a businessman bankrupted by the crash of '29. His father was often away, and he and his older brother, Fred (also an alcoholic, who died in 1976), were raised by their English mother. She supported the family with a small gift shop, a source of embarrassment to Cheever. He was close to his maternal grandmother "partly because she called my mother a cretin, which is an easy way to endear yourself to a child" and remembers that she insisted French be spoken at meals. "I don't recall her French was all that good."
Between the ages of 9 and 11, he had several homosexual experiences, Cheever once admitted in an interview with his oldest child, Susan, then a Newsweek editor. He acknowledged the possibility of falling in love with a man—a theme he explored in Falconer—but added, "I would think twice about giving up the robustness and merriment I have known in the heterosexual world."
From his youth, Cheever had a priestlike obsession with writing. When, at 16, he was asked to leave Thayer Academy, a proper New England prep school, he used the experience in his first published story, Expelled. The following year it was bought by Malcolm Cowley, an editor of the New Republic. (Thirty-eight years later Susan Cheever married Robert Cowley, Malcolm's son. They were divorced in 1975.) "It was fortunate I was kicked out of Thayer," says Cheever. "Because of the expulsion, there was no chance of going to Harvard. But I was given an honorary degree from Harvard last year. It was much less expensive."
In the midst of the Depression, Cheever moved to New York City. He rented a $3 room and, fortified by a diet of buttermilk and stale bread, turned out lofty prose for The New Yorker and Story magazines. To supplement his meager income, he summarized novels for MGM—five a week for $25, "enough to take a girl to hear Benny Goodman." Sometimes, when the cash was low ("I've been broke a lot of the time, and it didn't bother me terribly"), he retreated to Yaddo, that unique haven for artists and writers in Saratoga, N.Y., where room and board are free. One afternoon, riding in a Fifth Avenue office building elevator, Cheever was smitten by a comely secretary, Mary Winternitz. She was a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence, the daughter of the formidable dean of Yale Medical School. "We went together for a couple of years before we got married," says Cheever. "Nobody got married in those years, then there was a period where everybody got married, then nobody got married again."
As his reputation and bankroll grew, Cheever and Mary moved to a staid Upper East Side apartment building, much like those featured in his early short stories. It rankles Cheever, however, when critics call his fiction autobiographical. "The confusion is tragic," he laments. "Living in New York you know at least 50 apartment houses and 50 or more elevator men. The image you use in fiction is a composite of so much. It involves absolutely dissimilar situations—a woman putting her cigarette out can wear a ring I saw 25 years ago in Sardi's."
When their second child, Ben, was three, the Cheevers quit the city for suburban serenity, a fragile veneer he artfully shatters in many stories. After living in the guest house on the Vanderlip estate at Scarborough-on-Hudson for 10 years, the Cheevers finally settled in Ossining "because of the house." With the exception of their younger son, Fred, 22, a senior majoring in history at Stanford, the whole family writes. Mary, who now teaches an adult education class, is a published poet; Ben, 30, is an editor at Reader's Digest; and Susan, 35, has just completed her first novel, Looking for Work. "If we are going to get into it, we might as well be winners," says the proud patriarch. Although Cheever just gave his grandson, Joshua, a tape recorder for his sixth birthday, he refuses to take credit for the family's literary bent. "It is good fortune," he says. "Their merits come independently."
Three times in his life Cheever has consulted psychiatrists for marital advice. "We quarrel all the time," says the seemingly amiable author, while Mary smiles in the background. "Over what? Whether the sun will shine. But if I had a complacent marriage, I wouldn't know what it's like being a lonely man." Appropriately, his fiction often dissects the intricacy of familial bonding. "I don't write that divorce is liberation," says Cheever. "I have a sense of the importance and beauty of a wife. And, as my daughter says, 'After all, Dad, who in the world would live with you for 40 years?' " Observes Susan: "Both are very strong, smart, independent. Their lives don't revolve around one another. They are together because they don't need each other."
Although the churchgoing Cheever wrestles with his belief in God, he has no qualms of faith when it comes to the Boston Red Sox. He travels to Yankee Stadium five times a season to watch them play. A true fanatic, he recently broke down watching reruns of last year's playoff defeat by the Yankees. He and some cronies sat before a neighbor's TV and, as he describes it, "Tears were streaming down everybody's cheeks. It was like a great tragedy." Afternoons he bikes, fishes and swims with locals who have only a vague idea of what he does for a living. Cheever guards his anonymity because public exposure makes it hard to get back to work—"There is a world of difference between talking and writing." Yet he thinks novelist J. D. Salinger's reclusiveness is extreme: "If I have trouble I go to Bulgaria, where nobody ever heard of me." Always the Christian fatalist, he does not fear death and remembers the scene around his hospital bed after his heart attack with wry humor: "I was supposed to die. Everyone came into the room to say goodbye. I said, 'Well, one of the nice things about dying is that I won't get the New York Times after my son-in-law has read it.' My friends were upset. They said, 'Stop joking.' "
Cheever reads more than 60 novels a year, many by fledgling authors, because "you get to be my age and you're supposed to sit on literary committees." He is too gracious to turn away those who make demands on him. "Someone could hit him over the head with an ax and he'd remark, 'Oh, it's just a flesh wound,' " says Susan of her dad. As a patron of young writers, he has been a director of Yaddo for 30 years. He believes that "American literature is in an outstandingly robust condition with an absence of the competitive venom that you used to find 40 years ago among Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald." His literary cronies include Updike, Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren. According to Susan, he is "in awe" of no one—"only Chekhov, that crowd."
Having just completed his first TV script, The Shady Hill Kidnapping, for PBS, Cheever is now back at his attic desk spending five hours each morning on a new "long book" which he refuses to discuss. "It may be superstition, but almost none of us will talk about a book in progress because the sense is that it will somehow diminish your drive or it is just bad luck," he explains. If, for some reason, the book falls short, he says, "I will ask the children, 'Would you tell me if it is good or else just throw it away.' I've known distinguished writers to grow old and write rotten books and get reverence. You want merit, not reverence."