Mary Cheever, a Central Figure in a Literary Family, Dies at 95
By WILLIAM YARDLEY APRIL 9, 2014
Mary and John Cheever at home in Ossining, N.Y., in 1979.
Credit Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
Mary Cheever, a central figure in a family of prominent American writers whose most notable member was her husband, John, with whom she had a relationship as complex as those he wrote about in his prizewinning short stories and novels, died on Monday at the home they had shared in Ossining, N.Y. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her son Benjamin.
John Cheever wrote about throughout their often tumultuous four-decade marriage. Long after her husband died in 1982, Mrs. Cheever continued to live in the rambling Dutch colonial on Cedar Lane that they bought in 1961.
It was the family home of their three children, two of whom, Benjamin and Susan, grew up to become writers themselves. It was also at the center of the complicated suburban world that
They stayed married even as John Cheever became an alcoholic and had affairs with men and women — and often wrote about it all, sometimes indirectly in his fiction, sometimes directly in his journals and letters. In 1975, Mary Cheever drove him home from a treatment center on the day he stopped drinking permanently. In the last year of his life, she cared for him as he was dying of cancer.
Mary and John Cheever both loved words. She taught writing for a time; wrote a history of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.; and in 1980 published a book, “The Need for Chocolate & Other Poems.”
The Cheevers met on an elevator in Manhattan when Mrs. Cheever was just out of Sarah Lawrence College and Mr. Cheever was scraping by as a writer. “He was wearing an overcoat that was too big for him,” Benjamin Cheever said. “She thought, ‘This is somebody that needs to be taken care of.’ ”
|Bell and Watson|
She was born Mary Winternitz on May 4, 1918, and grew up in New Haven. Her father, Dr. Milton Winternitz, was the dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Her mother, Dr. Helen Watson, was the daughter of Thomas A. Watson, who worked with Alexander Graham Bell, died when Mary was young.
|Dean Winternitz, Mary’s Father|
Mary’s father later married Pauline Whitney, a wealthy socialite, and Mary was often unhappy in her new blended family. She and a brother were enrolled in the International School of Geneva when she was in her late teens.
In addition to her son Benjamin and her daughter, Susan, Mrs. Cheever is survived by another son, Federico, a law professor at the University of Denver; seven grandchildren; and her brother, William Winternitz.
Mrs. Cheever had been somewhat skeptical of her husband’s writing talent early on, though in time she recognized his skill. Still, Benjamin said, “She was never reverential, not even at the very end.”