Mary Cheever, author and John Cheever’s muse, dies
NEW YORK (AP) — Mary Cheever, an accomplished author and poet best known as the enduring spouse and widow of John Cheever, has died, surviving by decades a husband who used their lonely, but lasting, marriage as an inspiration for some of his most memorable stories. She was 95.
She had been battling pneumonia and died Monday night at her colonial-style manor in suburban Ossining, her daughter Susan Cheever said.
The home served as a well-publicized backdrop to John Cheever’s facade as the gentleman scribe of “The Swimmer” and “The Five-Forty-Eight.” Time magazine wrote in 1964, “John Cheever, almost alone in the field of modern fiction, is one who celebrates the glories and delights of monogamy.”
As numerous books about the author later revealed, however, John Cheever was the least contented of men, an alcoholic who carried on desperate affairs with men and woman, including the actress Hope Lange. Yet the Cheevers remained married, long after they stopped sleeping in the same bed or speaking on a daily basis. Mary nursed him when he was gravely ill with cancer and was at his bedside when he died in 1982.
“What’s important is what he wrote, not what he did,” she would later say of her marriage.
Mary Cheever was a teacher, fiction editor of Westchester Magazine, author of “The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough” and writer of “The Need for Chocolate and Other Poems,” which included the poem “Gorgon” and its note of “life-denying husbandry.”
John Cheever would declare, with uncertain sincerity, that “The Need for Chocolate” was a “triumph for her as a poet, a neighbor, a mother, wife.”
In the 1991 memoir “Treetops,” Susan Cheever described Mary as “a talented poet, artist and writer,” but also “one of a lost generation of women, women who were isolated between the historic changes of the Depression and World War II and the frantic pace of our society’s changing values in the last thirty years.”
Born in New Haven, Conn., in 1918, Mary Winternitz came from an accomplished and imposing family. Her father, Dr. Milton Winternitz, was the dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Her mother, Dr. Helen Watson, was the daughter of Thomas Watson, to whom Alexander Graham Bell called out during the first telephone conversation.
Mary would remember an isolated childhood — her parents often away, her siblings older and at boarding school.
“I was very much alone and got in the habit of being alone, and I like being alone,” she recalled in Blake Bailey’s prize-winning 2009 biography, “Cheever: A Life.”
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, the dark-eyed Mary was artistic and attractive and John Cheever was immediately taken when they met in 1939 at a Fifth Avenue office building. Cheever soon moved in with her and they married in 1941, the then-struggling author promising his bride, in a letter shortly before their wedding, a “wonderful and beautiful life.”
Following the settings of Cheever’s stories, they lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, then moved to the suburbs in the 1950s, when the author devised his imaginary Shady Hill. They had three children, two of whom — Susan and Benjamin — became writers. The third, Federico, is an attorney who teaches at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver.
John Cheever was celebrated for writing about domestic life, but his characters more often found joy in escape. Many stories were based on his family, less than happily. In “The Season of Divorce,” he tells of a talented, bored housewife who misses her former life of the mind. The husband in “The Ocean” believes his wife mad, possibly murderous, and slips off to the English countryside, where he falls “into a sweet sleep.”
Blake Bailey would describe the wife in “The Ocean” as perhaps Cheever’s “most cruelly deliberate caricature of Mary Cheever.” Mary later remarked that she feared arguing with her husband, because her words would end up in his fiction.
After his death, Mary approved — to some criticism — the publication of his highly personal and explicit journals. She also was involved with a nasty legal struggle between the Cheevers and the publisher Academy Chicago.
Mary had signed a contract in 1987 for the release of some uncollected stories by her late husband, only to change her mind after Academy Chicago asked to include a wide range of material, including some juvenilia. The Cheevers and the publisher fought for years, before 12 judges in New York and Chicago, until the contract was invalidated and a smaller collection released.