November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

In the wood-paneled dining room of an old stone-and-clapboard house in Ossining, N.Y., John Cheever’s widow and middle child sit expectantly by the hearth, as if waiting for the writer’s footsteps on the stairs. Though it has been six years since the Pulitzer-prize-winning author died of cancer in an upstairs bedroom, his silent presence prevails. The old Olivetti Cheever used to tap out his wry, melancholy stories of suburban life is still on a desk, and his portrait hangs in the living room. “If John were here, he would have dominated this gathering,” remarks his widow, Mary. Her son Ben says, “He loved people and life, and he would have done anything to live longer. Once, he said to the doctor, ‘Couldn’t you just take a leg and leave the rest?’ You know, he wouldn’t have liked being dead. He was very clear about that.”

Unfortunately, Cheever was less clear about what should happen to his letters, diaries and uncollected short stories after he was gone. Mary, 70, and their three children, Susan, 45, Ben, 40, and Frederico, 31, inherited a rich written record of Cheever’s complex, troubled life. After much soul-searching, they have decided to handle this legacy with a candor that astonishes those close to them and may soon astonish an unwary public even more. “The Cheevers are pretty thick-skinned about family stuff,” admits Ben’s wife, Janet Maslin, a New York Times film critic. “I can’t imagine revealing all this.”

The first public airing of “all this” came in Susan Cheever’s 1984 memoir, Home Before Dark, in which she wrote about her father’s alcoholism and bisexuality. Yet that book seems almost discreet in the face of the latest Cheever outpouring: The Letters of John Cheever, edited by Ben. Arriving in stores this week, this compilation of about 500 poignant, witty, extraordinarily personal and revelatory letters includes love notes to his longtime mistress, actress Hope Lange, and to assorted male lovers. The book is a harbinger of revelations to come. Cheever’s journals, which the family have sold to Alfred A. Knopf for $1 million and will have a hand in editing, are scheduled to appear in 1991 and are said to be even more soul-baring than his correspondence. For the moment, however, the just-published letters are quite enough to rekindle the literary controversy about a writer’s right to privacy—dead or alive.

The correspondence shows that Cheever deeply loved his wife early on, fretted constantly about money and felt a healthy rivalry with other authors. “While all my friends are describing orgasms, I still dwell on the beauty of the evening star,” he wrote in 1968 in reference to Philip Roth and John Updike. But Cheever was hardly shy about bold sexual language in his billets-doux to various men, most of whose names have been deleted. “When I was 21, Walker Evans [the famed documentary photographer] invited me to spend the night at his apartment. I said yes…. He had an enormous c—that showed only the most fleeting signs of life. I was ravening,” wrote Cheever, whose lust for men caused him increasing anguish. “I have thought for a year that such a love must be perverse, cruel and introverted,” he wrote to a male protégé in 1978, “but I can find no trace of this in my love for you.”

His son Ben also finds no trace of perversity in his own decision to put such intimacies on public view. “I asked myself: Was it that I was afraid of Daddy when he was alive and now I am exploiting his writing for myself?” he says. “I believe the opposite may be true—that he is using me to do what he can’t—to get his essence out to the world.” Ben—who received a fairly modest $75,000 advance for the book—quit his job as a senior editor at Reader’s Digest last December to devote himself full-time to the project. While he admits his father didn’t consider his letters important enough to publish, Ben says he is convinced that, on a deeper level, “my father was committed to a kind of public exposure. A private man would not have written Falconer.” In that 1977 novel, the protagonist—like Cheever—wrestles with homosexuality, a troubled marriage and the knowledge that his own father didn’t want him to be born.

Then Ben adds two quite different rationales for leaving the sexual explicitness in his father’s letters. “There is no love without carnality,” he argues. “And I had an implied contract with my readers. You don’t leave something out because it is impolite. Had I done so, I would have imposed my priggishness on his life.”

Ben believes his father “had his first homosexual experience with his own brother as a teenager. His journals imply that.” He rejects the popular theory that Cheever’s early drinking was caused by homosexual anxiety. “Bull—,” Ben says. “He was bisexual all his life and I think he enjoyed it all his life. He liked good-looking younger men. They’d come in and out of the house or he’d meet them in New York.” Cheever’s recorded behavior, however, suggests greater ambivalence. He championed monogamy in his stories, but carried on an affair with Hope Lange for more than a decade. Though privately bisexual, he would rail against “faggots” to his family. A sometimes mean drunk, “Daddy could reject me, usually for being effeminate,” says Ben. “I had a high voice as a child, and I was a terrible athlete. At 13 or 14, I liked bubble baths and he hated that. ‘Who do you think you are, a screen actress?’ he would scream.”

Still, father and son were close. “I find it very difficult to discover in every sense where he left off and I began as a person,” says Ben. “We’d wear each other’s clothes and he’d make passes at my girlfriends. Because Daddy and I were so intertwined, I don’t know whether not being a homosexual is something I’ve learned or something I am.”

Cheever confessed his bisexuality to his son 12 days before he died. “I’d suspected as much,” responded Ben, who says that he had figured out the situation years earlier, when one of his dad’s male friends came on to him. “Mom always knew, too,” Ben says. “She once told me that when he was on the telephone with a man, he was always holding the phone with one hand and rubbing his behind with the other.”

Dealing with such memories has not been easy for Ben, who has fathered two sons of his own: Joshua, 15, the product of a first marriage to a high school sweetheart, and John Moses, 2, his child by Maslin. “I’ve thought: ‘Was it possible Daddy looked at me as physically desirable?’ I just don’t know. Part of me thinks, ‘Oh, how terrible.’ Part of me thinks, ‘How neat.’ ”

Mary Cheever gave Ben her permission to publish the letters in part because she felt the book would help her son work out his grief. Nevertheless, when he is out of the room, she confesses: “I would have preferred to let the letters sleep for 20 years so I wouldn’t be around. They showed me the sexual act took place more than I thought it did. I had known to an extent that he had emotional attachments—or disturbances or whatever you call them—with men as well as women, though he never told me. But they affected me. If John was infatuated with someone, he would wonder why he was married to me, and he could be very brutal. He would get drunk and accuse me of having affairs with men, which I wasn’t.” On one occasion Cheever falsely accused her of having a lesbian relationship with a student at Briarcliff College, where she was teaching in the 1960s. “She was my protégée, and I invited her to live with us for a while because she was having family trouble,” explains Mary. “John was horrible to her. He told me if I didn’t tell her to go away, he would rape her. Once, he came down the stairs stark naked. I think he was trying to horrify us and force her to go.”

At other moments Cheever would talk of divorce and flaunt his indiscretions. “He would get all dressed up and go into the city to meet Hope Lange. I had a pretty good idea where he was going. Yet he always came home to dinner. Do you call that great passion?” she asks. Then she adds with a smile, “Once, he grabbed my hand at the dinner table and said, ‘I suppose it’s possible to love two women.’ I guess I must have cooked a good dinner that night.”

When pressed, Mary admits, “Sure, my pride was hurt.” Even so, she rarely fought John. “I was a middle child and I’m not a fighter. Besides, John was always battling himself.”

She may be a habitual nonfighter, but last June, having been sued by the publisher Academy Chicago, Mary countersued to stop publication of a book of Cheever’s uncollected short stories. She had previously signed a contract with the press. In her lawsuit she charged that they had misrepresented the project. “I thought it was going to be a tiny book with a scholarly introduction,” says Mary. “The next thing I knew they had every story they could lay their hands on [68] and were planning a big printing. John never wanted many of those stories republished. They were inferior early stories that he sold to magazines to make a living. I didn’t want to put out stuff like this and say it’s great Cheever.”

The owners of Academy Chicago, Jordan and Anita Miller, scoff at this. “If she wanted to protect her husband’s reputation, she would not allow homosexual, pornographic love letters to be published,” says Anita. Adds Jordan: “The Cheevers are selling off his legacy bit by bit. They are not protecting him, they are exploiting him. These are venal people motivated by money. Once they saw all the stories, they decided they could get big money from a big publisher.” Academy Chicago paid only $1,500 as an advance for the material but guaranteed royalties that would have netted Mary a respectable sum.

This month an Illinois state judge refused to allow Academy Chicago to publish the book the Millers had put together but upheld the publisher’s contract and directed Mary Cheever to furnish them with a selection of stories “of the size of a ‘stereotypical’ John Cheever work.” The legal wrangle cost Academy about $250,000 and the Cheever family more than $300,000. Before the suit, Mary says, “I was not in need of more money—now I will be.”

Still, she has won the right to select the stories she feels John would not mind seeing in print. Whether he would like to see his most intimate correspondence displayed in the bookstores of America, no one will ever know. “He used to urge me to throw his letters away. I was an obedient son, but in this case I didn’t listen,” says Ben. Instead, some deeper sense of the family legacy has led the son to ignore his father’s eminently Cheeverian advice: “Saving a letter is like trying to preserve a kiss.”

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