In addition to being a runner, I’m also a stage manager. I got my Equity card in 1994 on a production of A. R. Gurney’s “A Cheever Evening”, a play that adapted several short stories by John Cheever.
As is so often the case when I do a show, I get obsessed with everything to do with its subject. For this one, I devoured all of Cheever’s work, starting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Stories of John Cheever”:
Now, you may be asking what the connection is between John Cheever and this blog? Well, his old house is a perfect 1.8 miles from mine, and the “John Cheever” is my go-to short run. I run there, peer at the house through the trees at the top of the driveway and run home. I also like to tap this battered mailbox to mark the official halfway point of my run.
Now, I won’t pretend I moved to Ossining because of John Cheever, but it is a nice little bit of synergy in my life.
Located at 197 Cedar Lane, the house was originally built in 1795. Renovated in the 1920s by architect Eric Gugler (who apparently redesigned the Oval Office for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s), Cheever purchased it in 1961. At the time, he wrote:
The closing; and so I have at last bought a house. Coming home on the train, Mary speaks of the complexity of our lives … and it does seem rich and vast, like the history of China. We move books. To Holy Communion, where I first express my gratitude for safe travels, luck with money, love, and children. I pray that our life in the new house will be peaceful and full. I pray to be absolved of my foolishness and to be returned to the liveliness, the acuteness of feeling, that seems to be my best approach to things.
Cheever wrote some of his most famous works in that house – the short story “The Swimmer” (which became a film starring Burt Lancaster in 1968) and “The Wapshot Scandal,” a novel, just to name a very few.
By the mid-1960s, he was arguably one of the most famous living American writers. In 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as “The Ovid of Ossining”, and later that year was also dubbed “The Chekhov of the Suburbs” by the New York Times Book Review.
Born in Massachusetts in 1912, Cheever spent much of his adult life in New York, moving to Westchester in the early 1950s. He rented his first house here, a small cottage in Beechwood, the old Frank Vanderlip estate in Scarborough, moving to the Ossining house from there.
He was an active member of the community – Wikipedia says that he was even a volunteer fireman for the Briarcliff Manor Fire Department. A neighbor of mine remembers seeing him walking along Cedar Lane to eat lunch at the old Highland Diner (now DD’s Diner) on North Highland Avenue where he was a regular. Several other friends of mine were given autographed books by Cheever himself just because they crossed his path in different ways.
In the 1970s, Cheever taught writing to inmates at Sing Sing, using that experience as a springboard to write “Falconer,” a novel that came out in 1977 to great fanfare. (Rumor has it that some inmates were annoyed by that, though, feeling he only volunteered to teach them in order to use their life stories in his own work.)
In 1979 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Cheever was a complicated man — a depressive and an alcoholic who struggled with his bisexuality. Yet he still managed to write regularly and productively. His daughter Susan wrote about this in-depth in her memoir “Home Before Dark,” which is definitely worth reading if you have any interest at all in Cheever.
Fittingly, the Reading Room at the Ossining Public Library is named after him. Read Library Trustee Bob Minzesheimer’s thumbnail bio of Cheever here.
John Cheever passed away in 1982, and his widow Mary remained in the Cedar Lane house until her death in 2014. A poet, essayist, and historian in her own right, she is perhaps best known for her excellent local history of our area called “The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough.” (You can find it in the Ossining library or buy it here.)
Last summer, just after Mary Cheever passed away at the age of 95, the house came on the market.
I couldn’t help myself, I HAD to go see it.
It was an amazing time capsule both of Mary Cheever’s widowhood and, just a little bit, of John Cheever’s life. At the time, the house was still completely furnished — everything comfortably worn, looking like it had been purchased new in 1961 and never replaced. Magazines were stacked on side tables, books filled the built-in bookcases, and I could imagine John Cheever padding into the room in his slippers to take one off the shelf, a glass of scotch tinkling in the other hand. An old manual typewriter sat uncovered on a small wooden table near a window, as if Cheever was just taking a short break before sitting down to write some more.
A double height porch covers the front of the house, the second story of which is screened in and would be a lovely place to sleep on a hot summer night. But the general layout is strange and old, with very low ceilings, small windows with shutters, and fireplaces throughout. But the house and grounds lend themselves to entertaining, and the Cheevers were said to give great parties. Susan Cheever describes them as “the kind of party that Jay Gatsby should have had. Every writer imaginable was at the house, including Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow and John Updike. I still remember Ralph Ellison playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the alto recorder.”
Oh yeah, I can see all that and then some!
At some point, the Cheevers built an attached writing studio – sadly, it is not at all in keeping with the rustic Dutch Colonial feel, looking more like a mindless 1980s liberal arts college building plunked up against an elegant, historical structure.
The house sits on several acres of land that was once so very carefully landscaped, it is said, that the shrubs bloomed red, white and blue by July 4.
I think the property will require a great deal of love and money to bring it back to its former glory. Now owned by the bank, the asking price has dropped to a bargain basement one of $340K. Check out the listing and slideshow here. (Thanks Valerie Cascione!)
As far as I know, the house is not listed on the National Historical Register, which means there’s a very real chance this building will be bulldozed by the next owner. But shouldn’t it be saved so that the legacy of one America’s great writers can be preserved for future generations? Imagine the John Cheever Artist’s Retreat right here in Ossining!
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