The Complete Cheever
Author's Biographer Peels Back the Layers of a Life

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

The land of John Cheever lies in the suburbs of another time. It's a world of well-scrubbed children skipping on manicured lawns. The men in their Brooks Brothers suits catch commuter trains and make appearances at cocktail parties with their perfumed women. They swim outdoors in the sweet summertime. They swat at tennis balls.

Cheever's literary reputation was based on his short stories -- "The Enormous Radio," "The Summer Farmer," "The Swimmer" -- set in the suburban enclaves of the Eastern Seaboard in the 1950s. But Cheever's personal life -- like his stories -- had peculiar traps and hidden pain. There was infidelity, heartbreak, alcoholism, a roiling and constant sexual identity crisis, and a profound feeling of insecurity.

"Cheever's comfort zone was his imagination, this alternative universe where his fiction came from," says Blake Bailey, author of the just-published biography "Cheever: A Life," who will give a reading tonight at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington. "When the morning was over, when he had finished his writing, he had to enter the real world. And that was frightening to him. He lived with the terror that he thought his children would discover his sexual life. He felt like an impostor. He despised himself. And it was assuaged only by the next drink."

In the decade after Cheever's death in 1982, an avalanche of words came tumbling out: a memoir by his daughter, Susan ("Home Before Dark"), a biography by Scott Donaldson that upset his children, and the publication of a portion of Cheever's own journals and letters that opened anew the writer's bisexuality, dark moods and battles with the bottle.

The acclaimed writer's work stood to be overwhelmed by the publicized demons.

In time, John Cheever's three children came to desire another biographical look at their father. They contacted Bailey, who struck them as uniquely qualified: He had written a biography of Richard Yates, another American writer who came out of the 1950s swimming in a sea of gin and brilliance.

* * *

Born in 1912 in Quincy, Mass., John Cheever was already up against the odds. "He really came from this ruined family," Bailey says, noting the heavy drinking by Cheever's father, Frederick. Cheever's brother also was scarred by battles with the bottle.

By the mid-1930s, Cheever began breaking into respected magazines such as Collier's, the New Republic and, eventually, the New Yorker. His first short story collection, "The Way Some People Live," was published in 1943. His style was clean and elegant; his characters lit by life and tormented by slights and misfortune, their geographical terrain the "safety" of the suburbs. His writing sensibility was gentler than Hemingway's, less romantic than Fitzgerald's. Some critics saw the influence of Chekhov.

But his torment was always near.

"The paranoia he lived with daily was titanic," says Bailey. "He personally disliked homosexuals. Well, he hated effeminate gay men. He thought they were revolting."

Cheever could gulp hard liquor until the late evening and beyond when the mood hit him. There were blackouts and days of the week he totally forgot.

Susan was his only daughter, and he referred to her third husband, Warren Hinckle, as a "wretched buffoon." It did not stop Cheever from drinking with the wretched buffoon.

There were other writers of Cheever's era -- Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth -- who wrestled with the political and social issues of the time. They paid attention to the headlines. Cheever remained anchored in a particularly hermetic version of suburbia.

He published a novel, "The Wapshot Chronicle," in 1957 to stellar reviews, and it would go on to win the National Book Award. When another short story collection, "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," appeared the next year, many would proclaim it contained some of Cheever's finest stories: "The Five-Forty-Eight," "The Sorrows of Gin," "The Country Husband," and "O Youth and Beauty!"

Cheever seemed to fall from fashion in the '60s and early '70s. Some of his work was out of print. But in 1978 came publication of "The Stories of John Cheever," a big compilation of his short stories. The literary world seemed to discover him anew. The reviews were profoundly good. Literary prizes followed, among them the Pulitzer.

Federico Cheever, known as Fred, says he was so very proud of the day in the mid-1970s when his father quit the bottle for good. "Isn't there sometimes both promise and despair in the battle for redemption?" the son says in an interview. "And isn't that really what it's all about?"

In 1982, Cheever journeyed to Carnegie Hall to receive the National Medal for Literature. He had been undergoing cancer treatments and looked wan, even ravaged. Many would recall a lovely line he delivered: "A page of good prose remains invincible."

* * *

The '50s have never really faded from American consciousness.

Todd Haynes's 2002 film, "Far From Heaven," was set in the 1950s and told of a suburban couple leading an apparently happy and sublime life. But the husband is bisexual. "That movie is so Cheeveresque!" says Bailey. The cable television show "Mad Men," while set in the '60s, also feels Cheeveresque, particularly in its portrayal of the domestic life of its ad agency employees.

And last year came "Revolutionary Road," the film version of Richard Yates's 1961 novel. Bailey's biography of Yates, "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates," was published in 2003.

The "Revolutionary Road" filmmakers invited Bailey to the set during filming. "Met Leo and Kate and the whole thing," he says of DiCaprio and Winslet, stars of the movie. "I think people are fascinated by the 1950s. When you see something that has such a plausible facade -- the Brooks Brothers suits and all that -- you want to know what's behind the facade."

Bailey has now written two biographies of 1950s-era writers who suffered mightily under the claws of their personal demons. "People say, 'You're stuck on these depressing white alcoholic writers,' " says Bailey. "Well, what interests me is the disparity between outer and inner lives. With Cheever, you had a man who was essentially gay at a time when the opprobrium directed at such men was titanic."

The biographer, who is 45, was born in Oklahoma City. He made his way to Tulane for undergraduate studies. He became a teacher, teaching gifted junior high students. He and his wife, Mary Brinkmeyer, live in Norfolk with their 4-year-old daughter, Amelia.

Bailey's journey from junior-high teacher to biographer took time. His first book was "The Sixties." "Even though it was a coffee table book, I like to think it was well written," he says. He also wrote for Spy magazine. "I wasn't totally without writerly credentials." It was his 8,000-word article on Yates for the Dictionary of Literary Biography that got him interested in doing a book.

Yates had an enigmatic writing career. He bounced between odd jobs and teaching stints. At one point he wrote speeches for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. But Yates's personal problems overwhelmed him; there were divorces and money woes. His books went out of print. He died practically forgotten. In 1999 the writer Stewart O'Nan wrote a piece about Yates in the Boston Review, titled "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the Great Writer of the Age of Anxiety Disappeared From Print."

Bailey came across the article. "What attracted me to both Yates and Cheever was their fiction," he says. "Yates's work knocked me out. It was astounding to me he had been forgotten."

Bailey's Yates biography was reviewed winningly in the New York Times by Janet Maslin. Maslin is married to Ben Cheever. The Cheever children -- Susan, Ben and Federico -- desperately wanted another biography of their father and decided if they found the right writer, they'd help.

The family hadn't cooperated with the Donaldson biography. "Now, in Donaldson's defense, he didn't have the rights to quote from my father's letters or journals the way Blake did," says Ben Cheever. "Still, we felt that Donaldson didn't understand our father. He talked about him in a way that was both simplistic and crude."

By contrast, he says, "I came to admire Blake's life of Richard Yates. Yates was ultimately a hero because of his devotion to his writing."

Both Susan and Ben are writers. Susan has written novels and memoirs; her most recent memoir is "Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction," a title that might get tongues wagging in her father's suburbia. In addition to his novels, Ben has edited a collection of his father's letters. Fred Cheever chose a different path. He is a professor of environmental law at the University of Denver.

When the Cheever children approached Bailey, they held out an enticing carrot: complete access to their father's voluminous journals and letters -- a first for any researcher. Bailey was interested, but wary of the phrase "authorized biography," fearing readers might think he had compromised critical muscle for access. So he asked each of the children to sign a document giving him final authorial voice. "Still, anxiety was pretty constant," says Bailey. "They were allowed to vet my manuscript for factual accuracy. [But] they couldn't say something like, 'Our father really wasn't a mean drunk.' "

The appearance of the Bailey biography coincides with publication of a two-volume edition of Cheever's work, "Complete Novels" and "Collected Stories and Other Writings," published by the Library of America and also edited by Bailey.

Bailey says that "the cat's pretty much out of the bag where Cheever's sexual life is concerned," so he was able to concentrate in the biography on the man as artist.

"I don't think anyone reading the book will say, 'This was written to please the Cheevers,' " says Ben Cheever. "Actually, when I first got the book, my feelings were hurt. I play a minor role and not always a flattering role. But Fred and Susan also love the book. I thought to myself, 'What a miracle!' "

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