03.03.09

Cheever on Cheever

A definitive new biography of John Cheever restores the literary reputation of a 20th-century master. His daughter Susan Cheever reads between the lines and recalls his life and art.

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My father died almost 30 years ago, and I miss him every day. He was just 70, and his first grandchild, my daughter, was only two months old. His death was a medical mistake; a doctor who operated on his kidney found a malignancy and didn’t tell anyone, and six months later when my father couldn’t walk, it turned out the cancer had gone to his bones. Reading Cheever: A Life (Knopf), Blake Bailey’s marvelous biography of my father published this month, is a strange, exhilarating and painful experience. Seeing your own story in someone else’s book is always disorienting; it’s like suddenly noticing at a party that someone else is wearing your favorite red dress and that, worse luck, she looks better in it than you do.

Yes, my father was a difficult, alcoholic, closeted gay man who was sometimes mean to his family. What seems to have been lost with time is his extraordinary humor.

Blake interviewed me many times over the years during which he wrote, and my brothers, mother, and I are all quoted often and accurately in his pages. When we spoke, I often hectored him about the necessity of separating my father’s art and my father’s life. I am not the little girl in The Sorrows of Gin; my father is not the troubled man in The Angel of the Bridge. No conflation, I would insist, although indeed both stories and many others are based on things that actually happened.

My favorite part of my father’s life was the last decade. As a sober man he became the father of my dreams. He was miraculously loving, and considerate and also doing the best writing of his career. But my favorite part of the biography is the beginning, both in Bailey’s deconstruction of my father’s background, the combination of distinction and disaster that has always been the Cheever story, and his summing up of the man my father was: reticent and candid, lonely and gregarious. I love reading about my father walking his own father down to the railroad station in the morning and meeting him again at night, about the two men swimming off the Massachusetts coast and my grandmother after dinner calling to have lemon sherbet delivered by bicycle for dessert. Bailey ends this section with a quote from my brother Fred, “if the problems he died with were, in fact the same ones he left Quincy with at 17, then they followed him through more twists and flips than anyone could have expected.”

A lot of what has been written about my father stresses his dark side. Yes, he was a difficult, alcoholic, closeted gay man who was sometimes mean to his family. What seems to have been lost with time is his extraordinary humor. History rewards reverent earnestness, while the jokes and pratfalls and wit are often lost in translation. Darkness survives; lightness is ephemeral. Who remembers that the New Yorker was once a humor magazine with writers like Thurber and E.B. White and inspired wackadoodles and pranksters like St. Clair McKelway? McKelway liked to brag about a friend who had to sell a litter of black Labradors who were actually spotted—their mother had committed an indiscretion—but whom he had dyed black. The dogs were fine until they went in the water.

Bailey is the exception to this rule—he’s a funny man himself and his book shimmers with the wit that surrounded my father. It’s a great story as Bailey tells it: a story of ups and downs, damnation and redemption, destruction and transcendent creation. My father was one of the funniest men I have ever known; it was common, in conversation with him for people to be crippled by laughter, literally unable to speak. Sometimes they had to leave the room to compose themselves. This is part of his legacy. In my family, when I’m with my children or my brothers, laughter often becomes so extreme that it looks to strangers like a medical emergency. My son, once he gets laughing, will slide to the floor, shaking and turning red. My daughter has an intense barking laugh that sounds like a coyote chasing a unicorn. She was voted “most likely to need a Heimlich maneuver if you tell her a joke” when she graduated from law school.

My father was also dedicated to books and travel in a way that made them glamorous. Anytime he and my mother scraped enough money together we all went on fabulous trips. We lived in Italy and went en famille to Spain, Curacao, Romania, and Russia and of course to Boston where we always stayed at the Ritz—the hotel that was happy to have us with our retrievers, dyed and undyed. My father never made much money—he was a writer—but he loved to spend it. When I was in college and at home for the weekend and my junker of a car wouldn’t start, my father called the local VW place and had them deliver a new one in time for us to all go out for lunch.

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Cheever: A Life. By Blake Bailey. 784 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35. ()

Many of our family stories are set in the lovely 18th-century house about 35 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley where my parents moved in 1961. My mother, who is 90, still lives there. It was my father’s dream house. He couldn’t sleep for weeks after we moved because he was convinced a freak flood or a fire would take it away from him. He loved the orchard and the elegant rooms and the view of lawns and ponds, and he wittily presided over the many guests there—he invited almost everyone he met to visit. You never knew who would be there: Brooke Astor used to drop by for tea or Ralph Ellison would come out from New York or Robert Penn Warren and his wife would drive over from Connecticut. Warren, a large man who was an inspired mimic, did an imitation of FDR canoodling with his little dog Fala which made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt no matter how many times I saw it. My parents gave glorious parties in that house, parties where guests sat out on a broad grassy terrace under a black-walnut tree in bright colored canvas butterfly chairs. There was always a shaker of martinis and an assortment of hopeful dogs clustered around the dish of nuts.

John Updike liked to tell me a story about picking my father up one day in Boston to go to the symphony, only to find that my father had no clothes on and had locked himself out of his apartment. Updike, a very tall man, loaned my father, a very short man, his sport jacket that came down to my father’s knees and looked (as Updike explained) like a tweed dress with elbow patches. The two of them, a literary Laurel and Hardy, set out into Kenmore Square looking for clothes or a locksmith, whichever came first.

In the hot Hudson Valley summers, we all loved to go swimming, but my father, even when he was flush, refused to build a swimming pool. He liked the ritual of using other people’s pools, pools far more elegant than anything we might have built. He was a social outlaw, a joker, the man who could pierce your pretensions in a way that made you guffaw, and I think he felt that having his own pool would endanger that. There were two lovely pools where we were welcome without even a call—the Swopes’s, set high on a hill with waterfalls cascading into blue water and the damp smell of summer in the bathhouses, and the Vanderlips’s lined in marble and set into a grove of beech trees at the end of a great lawn. We would pile into a car and soon enough be slicing through the cold water.

My mother’s family was unusually distinguished—her father was the dean of Yale Medical School—and her grandfather helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone. My father’s family is something else. You are a Cheever, my father would tell his children with a buoyancy in his voice which suggested both seriousness and mockery. We Cheevers were descended from Charlemagne and, even better from the man who had brought the books from England to the Plymouth Bay Colony, Ezekiel Cheever. The Cheever coat of arms, however, was dominated by a goat, and our ancestors had been goatherds—the name came from the Norman word Chevre. My father loved to brag about Ezekiel Cheever who arrived on a distinguished small boat in the 1630s. “The trash came over on the Mayflower,” my father would say. But he also named a dog after Ezekiel and used the name for an incarcerated murderer in his novel Falconer.

The Cheever history always had a dark side. Even as Ezekiel Cheever was kicked out of the colony for sneezing in church (he was probably laughing) before he returned to start the Boston Latin School. In my family there were always problems with authority, problems sometimes followed by triumphs. My father, kicked out of prep school, wrote a brilliant, witty story about being kicked out of prep school which was published before he was 18 and launched his career.

So when this writer named Blake Bailey proposed that he write a serious, big-deal biography of my father, the book the man deserved, I had mixed feelings. As a family, we got lucky. Blake is probably one of the few successful living writers who could understand the value of the wit that infused almost everything my father did. As for the rest of us, are we all forever to be imprisoned by the jokes of the past? Will the wit of our fathers set our children’s on edge? Are we doomed to repeat the pranks and pratfalls history? Well, I hope so.

Susan Cheever is the author of American Bloomsbury, My Name is Bill, Note Found in a Bottle, As Good as I Could Be, Home Before Dark, and Treetops. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a director of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author’s Guild. Cheever teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars and at the New School.