How Cheever reacted when Harold Ross cut off an ending
His idea of the best possible editor
High jinks at the writer’s workshop
Here is John Cheever speaking to the Paris review in 1969, just after Bullet Park was published. For some reason he didn’t leave the country, as he normally likes to do after publishing a book.
Here is the page (actually to be found also on page 129 in The PARIS REVIEW Interviews Writers at Work Edited by George Plimpton Introduction by Francine du Plessix Gray 5th Series Penguin paperback 1981):
Or read it here:
It was a sad story.
Everyone keeps saying that about my stories, “Oh, they’re so sad.” My agent, Candida Donadio, called me about a new story and said, “Oh, what a beautiful story, it’s so sad.” I said, “All right, so I’m a sad man.” The sad thing about “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” is the woman standing looking at the bomb shelter in the end of the story and then being sent away by a maid. Did you know that The New Yorker tried to take that out? They thought the story was much more effective without my ending. When I went in to look at page proofs, I thought there was a page missing. I asked where the end of the story was. Some girl said, “Mr. Shawn thinks it’s better this way.” I went into a very deep slow burn, took the train home, drank a lot of gin, and got one of the editors on the telephone. I was by then loud, abusive, and obscene. He was entertaining Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty. He kept asking if he couldn’t take this call in another place. Anyhow, I returned to New York in the morning. They had reset the whole magazine—poems, newsbreaks, cartoons—and replaced the scene.
It’s the classic story about what The New Yorker is rumored to do—”remove the last paragraph and you’ve got a typical New Yorker ending.” What is your definition of a good editor?
My definition of a good editor is a man I think charming, who sends me large checks, praises my work, my physical beauty, and my sexual prowess, and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.
You wish. Probably possible in the old days, but now? We will have to ask a New Yorker writer. Possibly it suited Cheever, with the implied subservience, because the writer was a somewhat ornery charge, especially in his drunken later years:
In 1974, John Cheever accepted a teaching position at Boston University, the better to distance himself from his family and drink in peace. One of the first things he did on arrival was order stationery: “John Cheever/71 Bay State Road/Boston, Massachusetts 02215.” This enabled him to write despondent letters about how much he despised his new lodgings, and never mind the “sinister” part of town where he found himself, Kenmore Square (“part student, part slum”), whose most prominent feature was a school for embalming, or so he rarely failed to point out. At his (peremptory and belated) request, an apartment had been found for him in a handsome bow-front brownstone on a leafy street near campus, though it was hardly ideal for a 62-year-old alcoholic with a bad heart: Not only was it four flights up, but the interior was bleak and Cheever was disinclined to personalize it. “[There] is no point in listing the contents of these two rooms,” he wrote a friend shortly after his arrival. “It is much too decorous and efficient although there is dirty clothing on all the chairs.” His main attitude was one of bewilderment: He’d worked hard all his life—attained the pinnacle of his profession!—only to be banished by his family to two furnished rooms in Boston, where he expected to “end up penniless and naked,” what with the predations of the Plymouth Rock Laundry.
His relations with the university began with delinquencies on both sides and went downhill from there. As a last-minute replacement for Jean Stafford (who was allegedly drinking even more than Cheever), the obscure Ivan Gold had been hired to teach the other workshop section; consequently, most students had requested Cheever, whose classes were swamped. He repeatedly asked that the situation be remedied, but found the administration “quite mysterious” at best: The head of the English Department wasn’t returning his calls (he finally met the man by accident, standing at an adjoining urinal), while the head of the writing program, George Starbuck, seemed alarmed at the very sight of him. “I did not rise to the occasion of John’s troubles,” Starbuck later admitted, “did not effectively love or help him, floundered stupidly between catering to him… and pursuing some coherent plan of stern-but-supportive intervention.” And yet his wariness was at least somewhat understandable, since Cheever—quite apart from his disastrous alcoholism—had given signs of being very high-maintenance indeed. First he’d demanded that Starbuck find him suitable lodgings, then he’d let it be known that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he’d taught the previous year) had “provided” him with a graduate student who served as a kind of secretary-cum- mistress- cum-nurse, and he expected BU to do the same. As Starbuck recalled, “There was (carefully) plenty of twinkle in his voice as he urged this. Pixie mischief. But he did urge it, and tell me he needed just that to keep him on an even keel.” Starbuck, however, balked at “playing procurer” even for so distinguished a colleague, whose invidious comparisons between Iowa and Boston usually ended with: “… and every night [in Iowa] there was someone to suck my cock!”
For the first month or two, Cheever was able to function as a teacher. Precisely because he drank before classes (vodka, mostly, since it was relatively odorless), he remained fairly alert and often held forth in an engaging way. His remarks tended to be incisive and sometimes led to worthwhile tangents about his own writing and what seemed to work for him. He found his students “responsive and contentious”—if not especially talented—and made a point of learning their names quickly and finding out what sort of books they liked (Gravity’s Rainbow was the rage, and Cheever also professed to like it—or rather, he liked it better than Vonnegut’s work, which was almost always the other favorite). He assigned “drills,” though these were received with even less enthusiasm than at Iowa. As an exercise in “describing the indescribable,” one of his students—a semi-famous novelist’s son, who fancied himself experimental—read an endless list of synonyms for death from Roget’s Thesaurus. A long silence followed. “It’s a found object,” the young man explained. Cheever threw back his head and studied the ceiling: “From now on,” he said at length (“sounding like Alfred Hitchcock after a pint of gin,” one student observed), “all found objects shall be designated F.O.’s.”
Not surprisingly, Cheever couldn’t be bothered to read his students’ work outside of class, as he seemed to think it was more than sufficient having to listen to it. Asked about a large manuscript on his coffee table—a novel, it so happened, by the semi-famous novelist’s son—Cheever closed his eyes and shook his head; when, however, he returned the manuscript (exactly one week after the epigone had given it to him), he declared it “perfect”: “Submit it to a New York publisher and they’ll publish it right away!” (“I never got it published,” the author reported 30 years later.) All graduate students, in fact, were required to get two professors to read and sign off on their thesis work, and whenever they managed to run Cheever to ground and ask for his signature, he was always happy to give it. “Oh yes very good,” he’d mutter, when they asked if he liked the work in question.
Whatever remained of Cheever’s willpower was entirely reserved for showing up; outside the classroom, he barely functioned at all. His most constant companion was a graduate student named Laurens Schwartz, whom Cheever had recommended for a full scholarship. Schwartz endeavored to return the favor. Since Cheever “had a tendency to walk out of his apartment nude,” Schwartz would meet him several mornings a week to make sure he was properly dressed. Dirty clothes were strewn about the rooms; the butcher-block table in the kitchen was covered with empty bottles and rotting fruit (brought by Cheever’s wife). Trembling from head to toe, unable to speak, Cheever would walk with Schwartz to a seedy hotel bar on the way to campus, where a rock-faced waitress in a miniskirt would wordlessly bring her only customer a double vodka on the rocks. As Schwartz recalled, “Cheever was like one of those toy birds who peck at a water glass: He’d lower his head, sip, come up, and repeat. Maybe halfway through he’d finally be able to pick up the glass.” He’d also tentatively attempt speech, and after a few garbled phrases would begin to make some kind of sense, whereupon he’d become tearful, as if his own words were unbearable to hear. His life was such a mess: He had no clean clothes, the proprietor of the Plymouth Rock Laundry was a bandit, and for the last 17 days he’d subsisted entirely on oranges and hamburgers. On it went. Meanwhile he tried to light a cigarette, the matches falling one after the other from twitching fingers; Schwartz, snatching the embers out of Cheever’s lap, once counted 30 matches to light a single cigarette. Over and over Schwartz implored the decrepit man to see a doctor, but Cheever seemed more interested in maundering about his woes than in doing much about them. “It was like taking care of a child,” said Schwartz, echoing his various predecessors.
Word traveled fast that Cheever was an all but hopeless drunk. The eminent Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray—creator of the Thematic Apperception Test, as well as a notable Melville enthusiast—had thrown a welcoming party for Cheever, a mistake neither he nor any of his guests was likely to repeat. On arrival Cheever shoved an armchair into the middle of the living room, where he drooped slack-jawed for the rest of the evening, cigarettes turning to ash in his fingers and crumbling to the carpet. Michael Janeway had found Cheever’s condition “heartbreaking”: As a boy he’d received a kindly, encouraging letter from Cheever, who was friends with his mother, Elizabeth. Now a 34-year-old editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Janeway had arranged to meet Cheever at the Ritz Grill with the magazine’s editor in chief, Robert Manning, another of Cheever’s old acquaintances. Any hope of soliciting a story dissipated over the course of lunch, as their guest emptied multiple mini-carafes of martinis amid a sodden monologue on his ruined marriage and the like. As Janeway recalled, “The message was (his and mine), ‘You don’t want to get too close.’”
As for John Updike, he too was estranged from a wife named Mary and living in Back Bay about a mile from Cheever. The similarities ended there. They’d met by accident in September, outside Brooks Brothers, where Cheever had invited Updike to join him while he blithely purchased two pairs of tasseled loafers, though the tassels gave him very slight pause. (He subsequently told Schwartz that he’d “trained” Updike never to inquire about prices when shopping for clothes.) That done, the two adjourned to the Kon-Tiki bar at the Park Plaza, where Cheever instructed the waiter with great urgency to bring him doubles (“as if a drink that was merely single might in its weakness poison him”). Saying good-bye on Commonwealth, Updike paused to watch his “wobbly” elder colleague walking away under the elms: “I felt badly,” he remembered, “because it was as though a natural resource was being wasted. Although the covetousness in me, and stony heart, kind of rejoiced to see one less writer to compete with.” Cheever likewise noted the “conspicuous ego clash” between the two and yet remained galled (as ever) by Updike’s failure to cultivate warmer relations. “Updike never calls me,” he complained. “We bump into each other and it’s like old times, but he never calls me!” Updike did, in fact, call him—but at measured intervals. Before a night at Symphony Hall, Updike had helped the drunken, naked Cheever get into his clothes, and another time he took him to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an old Garbo film, which proved to be sold-out; dining instead at the Cafe Budapest, Updike was startled afterward when Cheever bolted out of the car in Roxbury to buy cigarettes “at a dark and heavily grated corner emporium.”
Later, reading Falconer, Updike seemed to recognize the novel’s first sentences as the same ones he’d spotted on a sheet of paper stuck in Cheever’s typewriter—always the same dusty sheet, unaltered. Whether Cheever made any further progress in Boston is unlikely. A visitor from nearby Bradford College, James Valhouli, had read parts of Cheever’s Boston journal (later destroyed) and found them “incoherent,” while Laurens Schwartz observed that Cheever could hardly type: “He used his forefingers, punching out each letter at one-second intervals…. He wrote two lines and suddenly faded out.” The reason he made that one attempt in Schwartz’s presence—drunk, late at night—was because he intended to rewrite one of the young man’s stories (“I’m going to get it published for you”), having mentioned that he’d rewritten other students’ stories and even parts of Updike. This, of course, was the pathetic braggadocio of a man who hadn’t done a first-rate piece of work (as he saw it) since his novel Bullet Park six years before, and had begun to suspect his career and perhaps his life was over. When his agent, Candida Donadio, sent him a copy of the acclaimed new novel by Joseph Heller, Something Happened, Cheever read a few pages and threw it out the window. Because he liked it.
Read on here at vice.com
The other famous person in the BU writing program was the poet Anne Sexton, whom Cheever found “aggressive” and mostly avoided. The two had met at a faculty dinner hosted by the dean, where both engaged in a kind of caustic banter meant to shock their less illustrious colleagues and perhaps each other. Ivan Gold remembered sensing a “visceral distaste” between the two, while the poet John Malcolm Brinnin and Starbuck tried to distract the dean and his wife at the other end of the table: “Did they overhear that?” the two men worried with each new explosion of naughtiness from Cheever and Sexton. Whatever their incompatibility otherwise, Sexton somewhat endeared herself to Cheever by spiking his coffee with vodka at tedious faculty meetings.
Sexton killed herself on October 4, 1974, and Cheever “never quite got over this.” Despite the fact that Sexton had been suicidal for most of her adult life, nobody really expected it: Her friend Brinnin was under the impression that she’d “never been so happy,” while Ivan Gold had found her “sardonic, nervous, full of a crazed energy.” For his part, Cheever seemed to regard the tragedy as emblematic of the whole ghastly situation—aspects of which included the apathetic, feckless administration of a “fourth-rate” university near an embalming school in an utterly, utterly dismal part of Boston. Cheever boycotted the memorial service, threatening to resign on the spot and go home.
But home to what? Over Thanksgiving his family tried to rouse him out of his funk with some hearty persiflage at the dinner table, an occasion to which Cheever was decidedly unable to rise. “Susie said that I put on a rather bad show,” he wrote a friend afterward, “and I shall try to do better at Christmas.” This was not to be. Returning to Cedar Lane a month later, Cheever appeared to be on the verge of death—an impression he soon confirmed by coughing uncontrollably and turning blue. This was the usual heart trouble, and once again he went to Phelps Memorial hospital and stayed a few days to dry out. Perhaps to underline the gravity of his predicament, a young priest visited his “extraordinarily bleak” room. Cheever, wearing pajamas, bemusedly knelt on the linoleum floor and received Holy Communion, then said, “Thank you, Father,” and watched the man depart.
Back home he demanded a drink, and when his family protested, he asked if he might take a valium instead; given the go-ahead, he swallowed three and poured himself a drink. During the Christmas feast, a hush fell over the table as he tried to eat peas: Time after time, suspensefully, the trembling fork ascended, only to spill its savory burden at the crucial moment. At last, a spoon was suggested. “I regret to tell you,” said Cheever (putting the fork aside), “that you have a father who is dying.” A look went around the table, and Federico said: “We have a father with a taste for melodrama.” This eased the tension somewhat, though it was precisely the sort of thing Cheever was apt to find “unfeeling.” On New Year’s Day he became enraged when his family advised him to eat lentils “in order to ensure an income”: Crashing upstairs to his room, Cheever yanked the cover off his bed and fell over backward, unconscious.
Though he’d almost died over the holidays, Cheever returned to Boston for the spring semester and the situation duly deteriorated. Sadly he reported to friends that the place was “straight asshole” and his students had become “sluggish.” He’d persuaded Updike to visit his combined classes for a two-hour Q&A session that Cheever abruptly terminated after less than an hour (evidently startling Updike), because his overawed students had proved unresponsive. “You had an opportunity to ask John Updike questions,” he subsequently told them in a seething voice, “and nobody said a damn thing.” After that, he seemed to give up. He went through the motions, more or less, but didn’t bother to disguise his drunkenness or do much in the way of teaching. He also kept a rather flexible schedule. “Should we go looking for him?” his worried students murmured one day when he was 15 minutes late for class. An expedition was forming when they spotted their teacher shuffling past the door. “Mr. Cheever?” they called. “Mr. Cheever?” An elegant voice floated down the hall: “Ye-esss…?” “We sort of talked him back into the room,” one student recalled. “He returned with this big grin and went around the table kissing all the women and shaking hands with the men.” That was a relatively good day. More and more, Cheever seemed utterly unprepared and would either read one of his own stories or just sit there looking depressed until his students gradually drifted away. One youth expressed his contempt by removing his shirt and climbing on top of the circled desks, stalking around the room while Cheever gazed at him in quiet puzzlement.
His last month in Boston was a free fall. An old friend named Raphael Rudnik—who’d heard of Cheever’s distress and had an intuition that he was about to kill himself—tried to cheer him up with a visit, but found him “unreachable.” The only thing Cheever wanted to think or talk about was drinking. When Rudnik tried to get him to eat, Cheever said, “If I eat, can we go out to drink?” Rudnik pointed out that he was already on the verge of passing out. “Yes,” said Cheever, “but you’re not.” Perhaps the last social engagement (formal) that Cheever kept was a dinner with Sally Swope at her father’s house on Louisburg Square. He arrived an hour late in pouring rain, slipped on the steps, and cracked his head on a newel post; a maid bandaged the gaping wound, and Cheever tardily joined the others at table. From that point on, he tended to decline invitations and discourage visitors. Meanwhile, if indeed he was dying, then he supposed he might as well indulge the rest of his appetites, too. Buying a “cock magazine” struck him as “a blow for common sense” (though he couldn’t quite decide how to dispose of the thing), and he also brought at least one male prostitute back to his apartment, “hurry[ing] him out the door” once their business was concluded.
Around this time he sat next to a bum in the park and asked for a “pull” from the man’s bottle, and soon he began hoping he’d be hit by a car while walking in traffic. When his student Rick Siggelkow stopped for a visit, Cheever insisted on giving the (much taller) young man a pair of dark, lightweight Brooks Brothers suits: “Now you have two suits to use for a summer funeral,” he remarked. (Siggelkow mused that this was a “very Cheever” thing to say: “Everything was always evocative of something else. In other words, he didn’t just give me two suits, he gave me ‘two suits to use for a summer funeral,’ and the way he said it you could see yourself standing at that funeral wearing those suits.”) While the two were drinking, Cheever began to cough and gasp for breath, finally asking Siggelkow to call for an ambulance—then, quite adamantly, changing his mind. “You really have to go,” he said, closing his eyes and sitting rigidly back in his chair, “or something’s going to happen we’re both going to regret.” Siggelkow protested, but Cheever demanded he leave immediately, and when the student glanced up from the bottom of the stairs, Cheever was looking down at him with a forced, cordial, miserable smile (this a matter of “New England breeding,” Siggelkow figured).
At the insistence of his older brother, Fred—who lived in nearby Plymouth and called each morning to make sure John was still alive—Cheever resigned his teaching position in late March, though not before calling the department head a “delinquent asshole.” His bitterness was general, and when a man came by his apartment to collect the telephone, Cheever ripped it out of the wall and threw it at him. Toward his students, however, he was nothing but apologetic: Speaking with averted eyes, he allowed that he’d been treated shabbily by the university, but his problems ran deeper and he simply couldn’t go on. For the remaining six weeks of the semester, he told them, Updike would take his classes and the students would be far better off.
Free at last, Cheever spent his final days on Bay State Road in the usual manner. The Sunday before his departure, he gave Ivan Gold a call: “I’m faring rather poorly,” he announced, asking whether he might borrow a bottle of gin. Gold happened to have an almost untouched fifth of Gordon’s on hand and was even willing to throw in a bottle of Noilly Prat: He and Cheever had not been close, and Gold saw this as a belated chance to “talk with a master.” But when Cheever arrived (the two lived only a few brownstones apart, which was doubtless part of Cheever’s rationale in choosing a donor), he gave no sign of wishing to stay. Gold’s three-year-old son thought Cheever looked like a monkey and said so repeatedly (Gold explained he was actually saying marquis), and Cheever regarded the boy and the two convivial cocktails in Gold’s hands with equal dismay. “I scrubbed the plan and ushered him out,” Gold remembered. “From the window I watched him scurry with the loot back to his dark sanctuary.”
When Fred failed to reach John on the telephone (unaware of its sudden removal), he became concerned and rushed to Bay State Road, where he found his brother naked and incoherent. He got him dressed and drove him home to Ossining. The next day, Fred wrote his son a circumspect account of the episode, noting that he was “in deep concern” about John: “He is such an extraordinary person, not only very knowledgeable and bright, but kind and loving, [and] it would hurt many, many people if anything were to happen to him.” Such was Fred’s haste in rescuing his brother that he didn’t bother to retrieve any manuscripts, or, for that matter, John’s false teeth and Academy of Arts and Letters badge, which were eventually found in the bedroom dresser.
“I must have been quite drunk and mad,” Cheever wrote a few weeks later, as he realized he remembered nothing of the drive back to Ossining (during which he’d drunk a bottle of scotch and then urinated into the empty bottle), or even his subsequent hospitalization at Phelps, where he was found to be suffering from a degree of brain damage in addition to a failing heart. Given one more chance to choose between life and death, Cheever seemed on the whole to prefer living—defiant of the expectation that he should go on fulfilling the “Orphic myth.” Where he differed with his wife and doctors was in how, exactly, to proceed with his recovery. His psychiatrist had arranged for him to be admitted to the Smithers Rehabilitation Unit on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which involved an “intensive” 28-day in-patient treatment program. Balking at the prospect of incarceration, Cheever phoned his daughter and insisted she find out whether the program was affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, as he refused to get mixed up with a “bunch of Christers.” Susan did so, and someone at Smithers denied the connection—falsely, but in accord with AA’s principle of anonymity. Cheever would later concede that the lie had saved his life, but at the time he was decidedly ambivalent and even tried to jump out of the car when Mary drove him to Smithers on April 9.
All things considered, he was in remarkably good fettle on arrival: He seemed fairly lucid, and his vital signs were normal. After his typewriter was turned upside down to check for contraband, he was given the abbreviated Shipley IQ test (scoring, as ever, in the high-average range) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. It was the screening interview that gave counselors pause: Cheever’s memory was “apparently poor,” they noted, since he denied ever having blackouts, DTs, or any psychiatric treatment (aside from “some marriage counseling” five years before), though his medical records plainly contradicted him on all these points, and never mind the patient’s claim that “all his trouble began [my italics] with the suicide of a close friend [Sexton!] last year.” Despite such “minimization,” he seemed otherwise cooperative, relating well (if reservedly) with staff and patients alike. “A bummer; not really bad, but not good,” he wrote in his journal that second day. “At breakfast I am asked not to sit at a particular table. We do not play musical chairs around here, says an authoritative woman of perhaps forty, a little heavy.” But he hadn’t much time to dwell on his social progress. Between meals (“meat and rice and Jell-O”), he was shunted from lectures to group sessions to individual meetings with one humorless staffer or another, and such free time as he enjoyed was supposed to be spent poring over the wisdom of AA founders “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob.” As he wrote a friend, “The indoctrination here is stern, evangelical, protestant and tireless.”
The main objective of such a program is to break down the alcoholic’s denial, and Cheever proved a difficult patient precisely because he seemed so tractable, at least for a while. Asked about his appetite (he loathed the food), he’d answer, “Fine.” Sleeping all right? “Fine.” Are you an alcoholic? “Yes.” But in fact he found it almost impossible to believe that he had much in common with the other “dismal” patients, the milieu being nothing if not democratic. “I share a bedroom and a bath with four other men,” he wrote. “1. is an unsuccessful con man. 2. an unsuccessful German delicatessen owner. 3. an unemployable sailor with a troll’s face and faded tatoos [sic], and 4. a leading dancer from American Ballet.”
For the most part, Cheever’s demeanor was detached and vaguely ironical. One doctor, becoming emotional during a lecture, noticed the quick look of amusement on Cheever’s face. Which is not to say his judgments were always dismissive or that he was anything less than attentive; rather, he was keeping his own counsel and doing his best to stay out of harm’s way, since he found Smithers a brutal place where vulnerability was apt to be punished. “During group analysis a young man talks about his bisexuality and is declared by everyone in the group but me as a phoney,” he observed in his journal. “I perhaps should have said that if it is phoney to have anxieties about bisexuality I must declare myself a phoney.” Years later, Cheever was still complaining that the staff had been “pitiless” about the young man’s bisexuality, even to the point of hounding him out of the program. That the director of Smithers, LeClaire Bissell, was herself an open lesbian would suggest he’d willfully missed the point—namely, that one shouldn’t use sexual issues, one way or the other, as an excuse to drink. “The director,” he noted, “toward whom I have some complicated vibrations, says that a healthy person can adjust to acceptable social norms. The banality of a TV show, certainly acceptable, is what makes me want to drink.” That was the kind of attitude (the world is to blame in all its deadening banality, especially given one’s higher sensibility—etc.) that provoked the staff into insisting, after a week or so, that Cheever stop writing so much in his journal and start concentrating on the Twelve Steps. Resignedly he wrote his brother Fred, “They don’t want me to work and it seems best to play along with this and everything else.”
So Cheever played along, or so he might have thought, but it only got worse. He was heckled mercilessly for his affectations. For example, he’d long cultivated a tendency to pause with a kind of strained look, as if groping for words, gathering strength, before coming out with some mellifluous pronouncement; observing this, one counselor noted that he seemed “on the verge of belching” and was “very impressed with self.” As for his literary reputation (“he insists [his novels] have been very successful”), only a handful of people at Smithers knew Cheever from any other drunk, and nobody really cared in any case. Sensing as much—though naturally wishing to be identified with his achievement—Cheever “almost surreptitiously” presented an autographed book to his personal counselor, Ruth Maxwell, who promptly returned to the subject of his drinking. At length Cheever responded as if he were forced to chat with some tiresome guest at a dinner party—as if he were bored to death with the same old subject but willing to go along as a matter of politeness. “I’m really all right but I can’t say so here because only the hopeless lush claims to be all right,” he wrote a friend. “That’s a point of view I’m discouraged from taking because I’ve ruined my life with false light-heartedness.” This was irony, of course, and yet even Cheever’s friends had often wondered at his constant, nervous “outward tremor of laughter” (as Shirley Hazzard put it), sometimes at very odd moments; as for the people at Smithers, they were openly startled by it. “Why are you laughing?” they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children.
Bullied at every turn for his “false light-heartedness” and “grandiosity,” Cheever retreated into a vast, fraudulent humility. “Oh but of course you’re right,” he’d mutter (in so many words) when challenged. Nobody was fooled or amused. Carol Kitman, a staff psychologist, remarked that Cheever reminded her of Uriah Heep: “He is a classic denier who moves in and out of focus,” she wrote in her progress notes. “He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time…. Press him to deal with his own humanity.” Told he was just like John Berryman, Cheever (“humbly”) replied, “But he was a brilliant poet and an estimable scholar, and I’m neither.” Yes, said the counselor, but he was also a phony and a drunk, and now he’s dead; is that what you want? Cheever affected to take this sort of thing in stride, though in fact it was a ghastly humiliation. “Non posso, cara,” he’d weepily tell his daughter during his daily call from a communal pay phone. “Non posso stare qui.” He sounded so defeated that Susan worried he wouldn’t last another day, and began parking her car outside the Newsweek building so she could leave work immediately and rush him to the gentler Silver Hill in Connecticut, where she’d made a reservation just in case. “Fifteen patients have fled since I joined the fun,” Cheever reported to a friend on April 21. “It’s quite sad in this part of Siberia.”
But Cheever stayed put and gradually began to make progress. A more tolerant attitude toward his fellow patients seemed to help. At first he’d been appalled by the “human garbage” he had to share quarters with: They stole from each other; they refused to clean their pubic hair out of the bathtub. Unable to dissemble his distaste, Cheever himself became roundly disliked; when it was his turn to wait on tables, he was so anxious over potential hazing that he spilled a dish of peas into a woman’s lap. Confronted in group sessions for being aloof and snobbish, Cheever finally broke down and assured the others that he was taking things “very seriously” indeed. By the time his family came for a Sunday visit, Cheever appeared to be almost at peace with his environment. “Alcoholism seems to be an infirmity of the lower classes,” Mary observed, peering around the dining room, but Cheever’s own gaze was humorous and fond. “I always liked running with a crowd of whom my mother disapproved,” he later remarked, “and Smithers did that.” Around the middle of his stay, “a lame black who knits and crochets” moved into his room and proved every bit as disaffected as Cheever had been two weeks ago: “He says that if he were strong enough to carry his suitcase down the stairs he would leave. I’ve offered to take his suitcase down but he doesn’t answer.”
Toward the end, it was the prospect of leaving that sometimes worried Cheever. “I call Mary from time to time and she is full of complaints,” he wrote William Maxwell. “The bank can’t add, the dogs (4) are muddy, the lawns are dry, Susie has followed a worthless man to Chicago, and by innuendo her husband is in a dryout mansion on east 93rd.” In his journal he wrote a more somber account of the conversation (Mary had been “very bad-tempered,” mainly because his lost bank statements—abandoned in Boston—had led to a $2,000 overdraft): “This sort of thing provokes my drinking,” he concluded. “It makes me afraid to return.” The staff at Smithers was also somewhat afraid on his behalf. When Mary failed to appear for a scheduled conference, one of the counselors gave her a call; with glacial politeness she explained that they couldn’t tell her anything about her husband she didn’t already know after some 35 years of marriage—but not to worry, as she had no intention of leaving him (“he’s an old man who needs to be taken care of”). “She seems to operate in a very passive aggressive way,” the counselor noted, “and to have given up on her husband who is now just somebody she’ll have to care for until he dies.” Informed of her position, Cheever seemed unsurprised if a little self-pitying, remarking that he’d always been the more “giving” partner in the marriage.
When Cheever was released on May 7, his prognosis was “guarded” (“Consensus is that p[atien]t is so wrapped up in self that there is no room for anything else”). Ruth Maxwell had laughed out loud when Cheever suddenly announced that he’d never drink again, but Dr. Robert de Veer was convinced Cheever had actually accepted the fact that he was an alcoholic and therefore had no excuse—be it a bad marriage or a banal TV show—for drinking, ever. One of Cheever’s students in Boston had been particularly skeptical that such a drunken man could ever get sober, and one day he received a postcard from his old teacher with a terse message:
That’s from the mysterious Vice, a site whose name is somewhat misleading, but perhaps not.