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Cheever's Demons: A
Conversation With Blake Bailey

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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