Born in 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts, John Cheever grew up with only his mother and older brother, Fred, after his bankrupted father abandoned the family. At seventeen, he was expelled from high school for smoking. He wrote a short story called “Expelled” about the experience, which he sold to the New Republic, then moved to Boston, where he lived with his brother and wrote. Eventually he moved to New York City, where he lived on next to nothing while he worked on his stories. He published a short story in the New Yorker when he was twenty-three, the first of his 121 appearances in the magazine. In 1938, Cheever joined the army and fought in World War II, but he continued writing and publishing stories. He published his first collection, The Way Some People Live, in 1943.
In 1941, Cheever married Mary Winternitz, with whom he had three children, Susan, Benjamin, and Frederico. Both Susan and Ben Cheever eventually became writers themselves. After Benjamin was born, Cheever and his family moved from the Upper East Side of New York City to the suburb of Westchester County, New York, where Cheever was immersed in a landscape that he would incorporate into much of his writing. It was here that Cheever began struggling with excessive drinking, a problem that would plague him for many years to come and all but destroy his life. Not surprisingly, alcohol figures prominently in almost all of his fiction.
Cheever wrote and published stories and novels steadily throughout his life, and his deep, razor-sharp focus on life in suburban America led critic John Leonard to dub him “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” Cheever published his second story collection, The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, in 1953, followed by The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (1959); Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961); and The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964). His novels and novellas include The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), which won the National Book Award, The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), Falconer (1977), and Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982). In 1978, The Stories of John Cheever, a monumental collection of Cheever’s work, won the Pulitzer Prize.
“The Swimmer” appeared in the collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow and is considered to be one of Cheever’s best short stories. In 1968, director Frank Perry adapted the story for a film starring Burt Lancaster, which brought the already-famous Cheever even greater renown. Cheever wrote and published the story when alcohol had begun to take over his life. In the years that followed, he destroyed many personal and professional relationships and stopped writing almost completely. Although he taught at both Boston University and the University of Iowa during this time, he was barely functioning. He was suicidal, made drunken scenes in public, and became intolerable to live with. In 1975, he checked himself into a rehab clinic and later stayed sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 1982, Cheever died from cancer in Ossining, New York. He was seventy.