Pleasantville’s Ben Cheever on the new, scathing biography of his father, literary giant John Cheever.
Father and son in the early ’60s in the library of their Ossining home.
“My God, the suburbs!” my father wrote. “They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity, and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.”
But then the apartment on East 59th Street seemed to shrink, and another child—me—was crammed into my sister’s tiny bedroom. “Better schools, cheaper housing, fresh air,” my father mused, and, in 1951, we moved to Westchester. He spent the rest of his life here spinning tales so tangled in their platinum settings that affluent bedroom communities in Rockland—and even California—are often referred to as Cheever Country.
The term is now shorthand for smug affluence, but my father’s stories are far more nuanced. The characters are driven by immortal longings that no amount of Scotts Turf Builder could possibly assuage—which is all as clear as a glass of chilled gin in Blake Bailey’s superb new biography, Cheever: A Life (Knopf). The book’s so thorough that I cribbed the quotes for this essay from its pages, and so accurate that I plan to use it as the Ur family reference from now on.
John Cheever could be haughty. Drunk, he affected a Brahmin accent so thick that when my son recently saw his grandfather on a YouTubed Dick Cavett Show, he wagged his head in disbelief: “He sounds like an Englishman.” He was also damnably likeable and mocked his own pretensions with gleeful savagery. When my mother asked him to “wipe that false smile off your face,” he said, “The only thing false about this smile is the teeth.” Despite the prizes he’d won and cover stories in Time and Newsweek, you felt in his company that you were the only other person in the world. He took coffee to his barber, Gino, and Dom of Dom’s Friendly Service in Croton was delighted when Cheever brought a car in for repairs.
As his eldest son, I assumed that my father and I were especially close. “You and I have always operated on a basis of absolute candor,” he liked to say. I knew, for instance, that a touch of lavender might throw him into a rage. He once walked in on me in a bubble bath. “Who do you think you are?” he roared. “Some kind of starlet?” Doubtless it was immature for a 12-year-old to enjoy bubbles so much, but that was not—as he feared—a demonstration of homosexuality. When starlets crossed my mind, I didn’t imagine being one, I imagined—well, this is a family magazine—I imagined buying them roses.
I was therefore shocked to learn that my distinguished forebear had an active homosexual life. Exactly how active I’ll never know. I live in Westchester and have had workmen come to the house and tell me, “I was a friend of your father’s. I mean, we were good friends.”
And if you don’t think I enjoy the pity I can excite talking about his deception, his alcoholism, and sometimes gratuitous cruelty, then you don’t know your man. Along with the literary pedigree, Pop has handed me the sort of wretched childhood guaranteed to excite sympathy.
The author last summer in Manhattan
But Blake Bailey’s triumph is not a catalog of failings. Any envious hack could do that. Like all great writers, Bailey’s a magician. He’s brought his subject back from the grave. And I, for one, still relish the old man’s company. Life with Father could be dreadful, but it was rarely banal. He lived a thrilling interactive myth that owed much more to Bullfinch than to the social register.
Like many outsized characters, my father had built his persona from scratch. The patriarch who passed himself off as a country squire was, in fact, the son of a bankrupt. He’d very nearly starved to death as a young man living on milk and raisins in the not-yet-gentrified Greenwich Village. Having spent most of my own life in Westchester, I know how many of the aristocrats among us are recent inventions, men and women who started out as the brilliant oddball in Minsk or Minnesota.
The trickle of talent that included John Reed, Aaron Copland, Walker Evans, and my father has grown into a veritable torrent. The county today is almost marshy with artists of many disciplines. My own darling wife, Janet Maslin Cheever, is deeply involved in Pleasantville’s Burns Film Center, which has drawn Hollywood’s giants, many of whom live around here. The program often demonstrates, as did my father’s stories, the quicksilver nature of achievement. Director Robert Celestino, a Yonkers man, once bet all the money he’d raised for a film on a single turn at the roulette table in Atlantic City. He won and made the film Mr. Vincent (1979).
And yes, a woman did stab herself to death not too long ago, near a railroad station off of Route 684—which inspired quite a good short story by Roxana Robinson, who then lived in nearby Katonah, where she used to meet Poet Laureate Billy Collins for coffee.
It is nice out here: “better schools, cheaper housing, fresh air.” Certainly we have our quotient of dull time-servers, but don’t be fooled. The woman in the house next door may blow her head off with a shotgun. Or else compose a symphony.
Benjamin Hale Cheever is the author of four novels (The Plagiarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death, The Good Nanny) and two works of nonfiction (Selling Ben Cheever, Strides) as well as the editor of The Letters of John Cheever. He lives in Pleasantville with his wife, Janet Maslin Cheever, film and literary critic for the New York Times.