A daughter's book touches a father's life
Boston — At 16 Susan Cheever swore she would never become a writer. Two decades later she had published her first novel. When she was 39 and her father, writer John Cheever, was seriously ill, she insisted she would never write about him. Today, two years after his death, Susan Cheever is addressing book clubs and giving interviews to promote her biography of him, ''Home Before Dark.''
''When I started this it was going to be a slim memoir, and it was so personal I almost didn't want (to publish it).... Now it's selling a lot of copies and there is a fuss over it,'' Miss Cheever says quietly during an interview here.
''Home Before Dark'' is a compassionate and clear-eyed biographical portrait of her talented but troubled father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ''The Wapshot Chronicle,'' ''The Wapshot Scandal,'' ''Bullet Park,'' ''Falconer,'' and more than 100 short stories. But the book's revelations, including frank references to Mr. Cheever's battles with alcoholism, homosexuality, and a turbulent marriage, are stirring up a literary controversy within publishing circles and in newspapers.
''I wrote (the biography) so it wouldn't seem like a revelation, which is why the controversy seems a little arcane to me,'' she says. ''I think if you've actually read the book you don't say, 'Wow, hot controversy.' I wrote it in such a way that the reader would go 'Oh, of course.' ''
At the time of his death, Mr. Cheever was one of the most decorated literary figures in America, perceived by journalists and the public as an aristocrat who led a relatively serene and creative life. But to those who knew him well, including his daughter Susan, such was not the case. ''Home Before Dark'' is an attempt to reveal more of the private John Cheever.
Relying on her own memories as well as her father's unpublished letters and journals - more than 30 volumes that Mr. Cheever kept during his lifetime - Miss Cheever has written a family reminiscence that is eliciting both praise and criticism from those who knew her father and from neighbors in Ossining, N.Y., where he spent the last years of his life. Some observers have questioned the timing of the biography, others the appropriateness of exposing private journal entries. Still others say she is simply mining that literary genre of memoirs written by children of famous authors.
''I think people who haven't read my book, just the excerpt in the (New York) Times book section, are bothered by the idea that they were wrong about my father,'' she says. But as Miss Cheever explained to a Boston audience, ''My father's alcoholism and bisexuality weren't going to be kept secret.'' His journals, she believes, should eventually be published in their entirety. ''I think he thought that too, or else he would have burned them like he burned everything else.''
The real reason for her book, however, stemmed from her written attempt to come to terms with her father. As a published writer in her own right - she has three novels to her credit - Miss Cheever says the biography began when ''I started just writing about him and his illness, and I kept on writing and kept on writing.'' She had her first child along the way and kept intending to return to the novel she was beginning. ''But I would put a piece of paper in the typewriter and it would come out about Daddy. And I'd say, 'Just one more day.' The days became weeks and the weeks became months. It took a long time to admit I was doing a book about him.''
She says she only intended to do a slim memoir, not a full-blown biography, and that her foray into the journals and the letters ''sort of happened.'' As she explains it, ''In a lot of instances, people pushed me into writing the book that I now wrote. It sounds like I'm this totally passive creature, but I think the best things that happen to you come to you because you're open to them, rather than go after them. That's how this book happened.''
A small, almost delicate woman, with smooth brown hair and a quiet manner punctuated by a ready smile, Miss Cheever bears a striking resemblance to her father. It's a comparison she says she doesn't see. Although she admits that her own decision to become a novelist and writer was undoubtedly delayed because of her father's literary success, she insists that neither she nor any family member was intimidated by him. Her mother, Mary Cheever, she notes, remains a strong woman in her own right. As for her own writing, Miss Cheever says, ''We're so different. I'm really interested in women and he really wasn't.'' One of the chief wellsprings of her father's creativity, she says, was his feelings about his older brother - a ''most powerful and complicated attachment,'' she writes in her book.
Despite her discovery and subsequent revelation of several incidents about her father that would be difficult for any family to face, Miss Cheever says her own family has been ''very supportive.'' Even the reaction from The New Yorker, the magazine where Mr. Cheever worked for 47 years and where Miss Cheever's husband, the writer Calvin Tomkins, now works and about which Miss Cheever details some of its financial secrets, has been ''very good,'' she says. ''I think my father made a tremendous impact on people. I'm finding that out more and more.''
Although Miss Cheever willingly incorporated any and all changes into her book that her mother and two younger brothers, Ben and Fred, suggested, she says her family encouraged her in writing the biography. ''I think because it gave us the opportunity to talk about him,'' she says. It's a topic she does not shy away from now.
''The house was just magic,'' she says, smiling. ''Sometimes it was bad magic , but you wanted to be there.'' Her father she describes as ''a man of spontaneity and mystery.'' And their home, she says, ''always seemed like the center of the world,'' where family members felt ''not only special, but that one's understanding of the world was the right one.''
Recalling a time when, as an editor at Newsweek magazine, she felt ''depressed by the lack of spiritual values in the New York journalism community ,'' Miss Cheever says she was able to return home and rediscover ''a place of spiritual values. I think we all share and shared certain assumptions about the world. One of them being that spiritual values are absolutely crucial and the other that being useful to society comes first.... To be in a household where these things are very much in the air ... was very invigorating.''
Although her father ''didn't always feel compelled to go to church on Sundays ,'' Miss Cheever says, ''certainly his faith was outstanding and he had a transcendent vision.'' About the physical and emotional problems that plagued him, particularly in his later years, she says quietly, ''Well, he was always struggling, but (he was) not always unhappy. I think what happened was that he achieved everything he thought he wanted to achieve, and simultaneously his alchoholism caught up with him. But in a sense, at the end of his life, he was really enjoying himself ... for the first time in his life.
Then, as if to answer the unspoken question, Miss Cheever says, ''I don't think that part of his talent was his unhappiness. I mean, had he been a happier man I think he would have done more and perhaps better work. I think that (his alcoholism and depression) destroyed his talent. I don't think that was the source of his talent.''