Cheever's Demons: A Conversation With Blake Bailey

In the life of fiction master John Cheever, biographer Blake Bailey finds a haunting tale of mid-century homosexual self-loathing.

BY Charlotte Abbott

March 24 2009 12:00 AM ET

CHEEVER A LIFE BY BLAKE BAILEY COVER XLARGE | ADVOCATE.COM

So you forgive Cheever his erotic relationship with his
brother in his teens?

I absolutely forgive him his relationship with his brother.
Cheever had one of the most desolate childhoods imaginable.
Neither parent showed him any tenderness. He had only one good
friend, Fax Ogden. By the time Fred reentered his life, Cheever
was in a desperate state. They were poor, their father was an
alcoholic, their mother was preoccupied by her gift shop, and
Fred was a mentor and parent figure. Cheever strongly suggests
their relationship was carnal. But what might have occurred
while they were living together, in the privacy of their shower
or bed, doesn't bother me.

How much do you think Cheever's family ancestry going
back to the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony contributed
to the pressure he felt to deny his homosexuality, get married,
and start a family?

The Cheever name had cachet and he was certainly protective of
his importance. But he knew it was essentially fraudulent. He
knew his family was raffish and disgraced, and in his heart, he
wholly rejected them. He may also have been frightened that
homosexuality ran in his family. Tom Smallwood (a pseudonym),
with whom Cheever had a healthier gay relationship around the
same time as he knew Max, told me that Cheever had mentioned
that his grandfather Aaron, who died of alcoholism and opium
addiction, struck him as homosexual and that it frightened
him.

To what extent did Cheever assume his plummy accent to
conceal his homosexuality?

When Cheever gets married, there's all this intense
self-examination in his journal, along the lines of "Am I
up to this, can I pull this off?" His wife's family, who
was quite well-to-do, showed him one avenue of
self-concealment. Polly Whitney, the wife of Cheever's
father-in-law, showed him what an accent can do.

In the book, you show how the virulent homophobia of the
McCarthy era stoked Cheever's fear that being gay would hold
him back in the pursuit of fame, riches, and love. To what
extent do you think Cheever's life is emblematic of
mid-century homosexual self-loathing?

It's very emblematic. One day he sees Gore Vidal on TV, and
starts to think that gay people may no longer be forced into a
life of bitterness and rancor, and then the feds clamp down on
[Cheever's acquaintance] Newton Arvin, who goes from being one
of the most respected scholars in the world to a pariah in a
psychiatric hospital who is being treated as less than
human.

Personally, I find it a bit harrowing to go back to that
period, even just for the time it takes to read a book about
it.

When I interviewed [playwright and Cheever contemporary] Arthur
Laurents, he tried to tell me about living in that era, and he
just kept saying, "you have no idea what it was
like." Right after Newton Arvin was locked up, Cheever
[who had been married for 20 years at this point] had his
liaison with Calvin Kentfield. There was such a burden of
self-loathing from that episode of September 1960 that he spent
the better part of a year trying to drink himself away from the
memory that it had happened.

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