Cheever's Demons: A Conversation With Blake Bailey

By Charlotte Abbott

Originally published on Advocate.com March 24 2009 12:00 AM ET

Lionized as one of
America's greatest writers and a suburban gentleman during
his lifetime, John Cheever is also remembered as a legendary
drunk and bitterly repressed bisexual, thanks in part to his
daughter Susan Cheever's memoir
Home Before Dark

. That paradox, and the ways that Cheever's fiction and
journals magnified and reflected it, is at the core of Blake
Bailey's gossipy and penetrating portrait. As Bailey tells it,
Cheever was driven to escape his childhood as the son of
financially strapped alcoholics. Yet as an adult in the postwar
suburbs of Boston, his roiling homosexual desires always
threatened his carefully cultivated blue-blood facade, driving
him to drink, to heterosexual posturing, and
to furtive gay affairs that eviscerated his marriage
to wife Mary Cheever. Yet it's a tribute to Bailey's
insights and storytelling ability that, despite the
book's running to nearly 700 pages, the tragedy of
Cheever's life (which ended in 1982) often makes for
sublime and memorable reading.

Advocate.com: Your biography adds some unflattering new details to our
already dark portrait of Cheever -- revealing his sexual
relationship with his brother, and how he became a sexual
predator later in life. Did those aspects of his character
shock you
?Blake Bailey:

The only thing that shocked me was the Max Zimmer episode.
That's the only one you can bring the word
"predatory" to bear on. It was a logical culmination
of Cheever's tragic arc -- after a lifetime of repression,
he quits drinking, and can't drown his sexual impulses
anymore. At age 65, he knows that time is short, and that he
owes it to himself to experience his nature. Susan
Cheever's book and Scott Donaldson's biography cast
this as a redemptive story, about how Cheever comes to terms
with his homosexuality and has an affair with a younger man.
But Zimmer told me that he was enraged that their version had
become the public story. Of course, what he regards as the real
story needs to be mediated.

Mediated how?

By taking other points of view into account, like Cheever's
journal. In the journal, you see Cheever rationalizing about
helping this man from Utah, trying to get him
a literary career in the East, but on some level he
knows he's exploiting him. Cheever's marriage is totally empty
at this point, and he's going to do what he has to do to get
some satisfaction and keep it. And if that means dropping hints
that he's going to stop helping Zimmer, then he does
it.

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.

BLAKE BAILEY X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The good artist who is a bad person can make for a memorable
biography. But how did you cope with your close proximity to
Cheever's demons while writing the book?

This was a man with a daily, an hourly burden of shame, who
drank a lot, which makes you behave badly -- and that gets to
be repetitive across a whole adult lifetime. But I'm not
like some biographers who detest their subjects. That's partly
because I had his 4,300-page journals -- and to know all is to
forgive all. Cheever was not without scruples. That was what he
struggled with. And his kids still love him 20 years on -- so
he can't be all bad if his kids still love him.

Things also got a little sunnier when Cheever got sober, and
the changing times made it a little easier for him to express
his homosexuality in the '70s.

Yes, but Cheever was quite capable of being of two, four, or
nine minds on a subject. Allan Gurganus was the first truly
liberated gay man that Cheever was attracted to, and Cheever
described himself as admiring Allan's clear-eyed frankness
about his sexual identity. But at the same time, anything that
struck Cheever as effeminate brought on his sense of loathing.
As Allan said about Cheever, he wanted someone who was
masculine who sort of happened to be gay. Manliness was very
important to Cheever, because effeminacy caused a visceral
revulsion in him. He'd been effeminate as a child and young
man, and he'd willfully diminished that side of
himself.

Could anything have saved Cheever from all these
agonies?

No. That struggle was the strongest motor of his art. If
there's a theme in his work, it's that we all have terrible
things to hide. Add to that the backdrop of the suburbs, where
there's a terrible urgency to seem happy and successful. If you
express feelings of failure or alienation, people feel
threatened and want to reject you. If Cheever had resolved his
issues in some psychiatric sense, we would be the poorer for
it.

So you're saying that in the end, his life was worth all the
pain?

[
Laughs

] Great artists always have some catalyzing wound. Was his
artistry worth living Cheever's life? You'd have to ask him
that. But it is nice that, toward the end of his life, he
wrote, in effect, "I can't believe I've beaten
myself up about this for so many years." And that, despite
the ravages of cancer, he was getting his rocks off every
day.