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#BornThisDay: Writer, John Cheever

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May 28, 1912 – John Cheever:

“Our country is the best country in the world. We are swimming in prosperity and our President is the best President in the world. We have larger apples and better cotton and faster and more beautiful machines. This makes us the greatest country in the world. Unemployment is a myth. Dissatisfaction is a fable. In preparatory school America is beautiful. It is the gem of the ocean and it is too bad. It is bad because people believe it all. Because they become indifferent. Because they marry and reproduce and vote and they know nothing.”

It is one of my favorite American short stories, dripping with martinis and angst. Written during the era of Mad Men, Cheever’s The Swimmer begins on a summer day in an upper-class neighborhood of suburban NYC. Middle-aged Ned appears in the backyard of his friends, whom he has not seen in quite some time. Before they can even welcome him, Ned jumps into their swimming pool with much vim and vitality. Ned learns that with the addition of the recent swimming pool in another neighbor’s backyard, he can literally swim from swimming pool to swimming pool, back to his home which is several miles away. He names the route “Lucinda’s River” in honor of his wife. He makes this journey despite some obstacles along the way. At each swimming pool, Ned stops and chats with his neighbors. Each stop reveals pieces of Ned’s life so far, until he finally reaches his own pool. The story is both realistic and surreal, and beautifully written.

Cheever has been dubbed the “Checkhov Of The Suburbs”. Whenever I was traveling in the late 1970s, when I was rather fancy-free, I carried around a paperback volume of The Stories Of John Cheever, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

My Aunt Sharon gave a subscription to The New Yorker for Christmas when I was 11-years-old. Improbably, I read it cover to cover each week. At first I was mostly interested in the cartoons and the film and theatre reviews. I still am. But, by the time I was in my mid-teens, I was going for the fiction too. Cheever was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and that is where I first read him. In fact, he is considered the very definition of “The New Yorker writer”.

Cheever’s world is marked by a spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. He made note of the manners and morals of the middle-class with an ironic sense of humor that helped balance his bleak view. He left this world in 1982. After his death, his discovered letters and journals revealed that he had been actively bisexual. Cheever had a long marriage and produced three children, but he also had affairs with many, many men.

Cheever suffered from many demons, chiefly a debilitating addiction to alcohol. Two years after his death from cancer, his daughter Susan wrote a memoir, Home Before Dark, where she explores her father’s guilt-inducing bisexuality. She reveals that at the end of his life, when he had finally stopped drinking, he found love with “Rip”, a former student whose real name is Max Zimmer. Zimmer moved in with Cheever and his wife Mary, driving the esteemed writer to his cancer treatments and chopping wood for the fireplace. Zimmer even served as a pall bearer at Cheever’s funeral and sat with the family during the service. While Zimmer was living in Cheever’s household, however, Cheever was so determined to give the appearance of being a totally straight male that he took Zimmer and other lovers out to the woods to have sex. Near the end of his cancer treatments, Cheever still had a robust libido (when I was having chemotherapy, I could hardly walk, much less get it up). Before Mary Cheever’s death, she wrote that she knew what was going on all along.

Cheever’s son Benjamin later edited a volume of Cheever’s letters. He wrote in the introduction about how difficult it had been learning the extent of his father’s gay activities, even though Cheever had come out to Benjamin two weeks before his passing. And, then he coolly thanks the composer Ned Rorem for revealing:

“That for my father, orgasm was always accompanied by a vision of sunshine, or flowers.”

In 1990, Cheever’s journals, at four million words, were auctioned off by his family, and pieces were published in The New Yorker and were gathered in a single thick volume. The journals contain some of the best writing. But, they are filled with pain, loneliness, secrecy, and shame. Cheever turned self-loathing into high art. Yet, his fiction has startling glimmers of optimism, a sense of always swimming forward. His attitude towards his gayness shows in his writing. His early works are marked by ambivalence or stereotypes, but his later stories give into recognition and even redemption.

A beautiful writer herself, Susan Cheever has noted that she was astonished to learn just how much gay activity there had been in her father’s life. Among his many conquests were photographer Walker Evans, writer Allan Gurganus and an assortment of hustlers.

In his journals, Cheever describes his distaste for gay men, whom he regarded as effeminate, even obscene:

“It is one thing to tear off a merry piece behind the barn with the goatherd but one wouldn’t, once your lump is blown, want to take it any further.”

Cheever wrote hundreds of short stories and five novels during his 50-year career. The New Yorker published 121 of those stories. He won that Pulitzer prize, two National Book Critics Circle awards, and the National Medal for Literature.

Season Four of Seinfeld (1989-1998) has one of the series best episodes, The Cheever Letters: Kramer’s cigar burns down a cabin and one of the surviving artifacts is a tin box with love letters between George Costanza’s fiancée Susan’s father and Cheever. One missive reads: “Dear Henry, last night with you was bliss. I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple. I don’t know how I shall ever get back to work. I love you madly, John. P.S, Loved the cabin.”

When confronted, Susan’s father yells out: “Yes! Yes, he was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known and I loved him deeply, in a way you could never understand”.

Lancaster in “The Swimmer” (1968), Columbia Pictures via YouTube

There is an especially well-done and unlikely 1968 film adaptation of The Swimmer. It features Burt Lancaster looking especially yummy in period swim trunks. The film was directed by Frank Perry, with small roles filled by Kim HunterCornelia Otis SkinnerJanice RuleMarge Champion and Joan Rivers, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch. Check it out. Make note of a very young Rivers in the trailer. She had to have been proud of this credit, I know I would be.

“I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never been, and longed to be where I couldn’t be.”

 


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