February 04, 1980 12:00 PM

When it comes to words, the Cheevers are achievers. John, the family patriarch, who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize, is one of America’s most brilliant fiction writers. Mother Mary is a poet and teacher. Benjamin, 31, the eldest son, is not yet quite in the same literary league—but is an editor at Reader’s Digest. Younger son Fred, 22, hasn’t been heard from to date, but no one doubts he will be after he graduates from Stanford in history this June. Now the Cheevers’ only daughter, Susan, 36, has published her first novel, Looking for Work. It fetched a $20,000 advance, plus another $25,000 from Warner Bros, to option the film rights ($75,000 if it actually becomes a movie). More important, says Susan, “Dad loves it.”

The plot parallels Susan’s life, recounting the marriage and divorce of Salley Potter and Jason Gardens, a gifted editor. In 1967 Susan married Robert Cowley, Malcolm’s son and now an editor at Random House, and divorced him eight years later. Nonetheless Cheever insists her book is not a roman à clef. “My family was worried,” she admits. “I borrowed from my life like a bandit. But Salley is not me. She is a spinoff—calm, less complicated.”

As a child growing up in New York City, Susan was unimpressed by her father’s literary fame: “It seemed less attractive because I lived with it.” When she was 8 the family moved into a small house on the Vanderlip estate in Scarborough, a New York suburb. Susan attended public and private schools, enduring a “miserable childhood reading and eating cookies.” At the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry she was an overweight, angry wallflower: “All the girls were blond, blue-eyed and athletic. There was a dead zone around me at mixers.”

Life improved at Pembroke College where Susan slimmed down and began dating. “I changed after one guy told me, ‘You’re too sloppy and sentimental.’ ” After graduation she taught at a private secondary school in Carbondale, Colo., for a year and a half until she returned to New York and moved in with Cowley, an editor at Horizon magazine. At 24, she married him and concentrated on being supportive. “I was marrying his potential,” Susan laughs. “I wanted to be the inspiration for his book. I had always thought that with my energy and his brains and credentials, we could have the world.”

Cowley never finished his book, however, and after Susan landed a reporting job on the Tarrytown Daily News, she discovered that she loved her work more than her husband. They broke up and, at 31, she took an apprentice writer’s job at News week where she eventually became life-style editor. “I had been a dumpy housewife, then suddenly I was an executive woman. I loved it.”

Four years ago Susan met New Yorker writer Calvin “Tad” Tomkins. He left his second wife for Susan and in the summer of 1978 she took a vacation from Newsweek and they went off to France to write their respective books. His Off the Wall is a biography of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, dedicated to Susan; Looking for Work is dedicated to TomKins. They lived in a rented summer house near Cannes. “My book took over,” says Susan, who finished it in a breathless eight weeks. “I was depressed at first, then slowly I became happy. I went from being a journalist to being a novelist.”

Resettled in a New York one-bedroom apartment, Susan is polishing her second novel while Tomkins, 54, is writing in Vermont. She jogs two miles a day, skis and plays tennis. Calvin often cooks because Susan is impatient with food (“I eat it before I can cook it”) and is usually on some kind of diet.

Having become involved twice with men who have children from previous marriages (Cowley had two, Tomkins has three), Susan is mildly concerned about not having her own. “Part of me wants to; part of me doesn’t,” she says. “I hope it is revealed to me while I can still do something about it.” She worries that if she had children her writing might suffer. “Working is like a husband to me,” she figures. “It is a big part of my life. When I am not involved with my characters, I get antsy and hysterical.”

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