A New Cheever Chronicle—by John's Daughter, Susan—Reveals His Tormented Life
11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
Several years ago, reflecting on posterity, John Cheever asked his daughter, Susan, to read some of his private journals, which were scattered randomly around the family home in Ossining, N.Y. She refused. "I didn't want to know his secrets," says Susan, now 41, whose shattering new memoir of Cheever, Home Before Dark (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95), has sparked a literary controversy about the propriety of a daughter revealing her father's private life. When Susan did read the journals, after her father's death in 1982, she discovered that he had exaggerated his blue-blood origins, that he was consumed far more than the family realized by alcoholism and that he was a repressed homosexual who late in life had a passionate affair with a young man.
Yet for Susan, perhaps the most startling revelation was not that her father had betrayed her image of him, but that she had betrayed his fantasies about her. "My father didn't love me the way I wanted him to," she explains, relaxing under a willow tree at the Ossining homestead. On the neat lawn, Susan's own daughter, Sarah, 2½, runs about in a blue sailor dress, while a gardener trims the hedges. In Cheever's journals, which Susan draws on extensively for Home Before Dark (see excerpt, page 48), he describes the daughter he wishes he had—a lithe blonde, who dazzles Boston society at the June cotillion and then marries a Vanderbilt. "He imagined taking me to the racetrack at Saratoga and having everyone crane their necks and murmur to each other, asking who that stunning young girl with John might be," Susan writes. "[In reality] I was dumpy, plagued by acne, slumped over...my lank brown hair always in my eyes."
But Susan says she didn't write the book as a revenge against the father who had disappointed her. She didn't even look at Cheever's journals, which are contained in 30-odd loose-leaf notebooks, until she had written half of Home Before Dark. "I thought I had to mention them because they were important to my father. I just wanted a few quotes," she says. When she read them and discovered both the anguish of Cheever's life and his bisexuality, she considered abandoning the project. Then she learned that several other authors were already writing about Cheever. "I realized that these things weren't going to stay a secret. I thought, it's better for me, who really loved him, to reveal them," she says.
The Cheever family has mixed responses to Home Before Dark. "I love my sister and I hope she is successful. But this is her vision of Daddy, not mine," says Ben Cheever, 36, an editor at Reader's Digest. "In the best possible world, I wish the book had not been written." Cheever's widow, Mary, 66, seems embarrassed by the attention, but supports her daughter: "I think it's a wonderful book, even if it has some gossip in it." Even Susan sometimes questions the appropriateness of having written the book. "I revealed things about a man who was extremely private, and I have doubts about doing it," she admits.
Still, Susan believes that her father's journals should be published someday, though she says she is not interested in editing them. A graduate of Brown University and author of three novels (The Cage was the best received), she is now writing a nonfiction book about doctors who treat cancer patients. Susan works out of a small Manhattan office near the West Side apartment she shares with Sarah and husband Calvin Tomkins, a writer for the New Yorker. "Home Before Dark represents the sum total of my knowledge. Now I need to do another fiction book so I can learn something," says Susan, now sitting in her mother's butter-yellow dining room in Ossining, where the family had gathered a few weeks after Cheever's funeral. That day, baby Sarah started to cry, and Mary Cheever picked the little girl up and danced her around the room. " 'Bonnie Charlie's gone away, oh my heart will break in two,' she sang softly."
Such scenes of warmth and emotion are the central threads of Home Before Dark. "I set out to write a book that would make people love my father and be sad that he was dead," observes Susan, wiping carrot cake off her daughter's face. "I think my book does that. If Sarah wrote about me the way I've written about Daddy, I'd be thrilled."