Chasing Cheever

John Cheever

John Cheever

Churches make great claims about famous people who sat in their pews. Scour East Coast Episcopal churches and you’ll find all sorts of plaques: “John Hancock Worshipped Here” or “Washington Irving’s Pew” or “Oprah Appeared on the Secretary’s Television.” We’re proud of our history and the era when anybody who was anybody or anybody who wanted to be anybody was an Episcopalian. Plus we have a great affinity for bronze plaques.

Everyone knows that George Washington slept in nearly every house from the Mid-Atlantic to New England. No word if he slept in any pews of our churches during particularly uninspiring sermons.

At my own parish, All Saints’, Briarcliff Manor, we’ve had a few brushes with royalty. Brooke Astor lived across the street for many years in her Holly Hill estate and worshipped at All Saints’ for a number of years. At some point she got mad at one of my predecessors and left to attend another nearby Episcopal church. Or at least that’s one theory. It may have had to do with the incorporation of the modern language rite or her dislike for female priests. I’m not sure — but by the time I came to All Saints’ that ship had sailed.

The other famous parishioner was the writer John Cheever. He’s been in the news recently because of a new comprehensive biography by Blake Bailey titled Cheever: A Life. One of our parishioners, Bob Minzesheimer, who also happens to be the book reviewer for USA Today, forwarded me some quotes from Bailey’s book.

Cheever was confirmed at All Saints’ in 1955 and the church “met his basic requirements: it used the Cranmer prayer book and was less than ten minutes away, and (as Susan Cheever pointed out) its altar was ‘sufficiently simple so that it [didn’t] remind him of a gift shop.’ Also the eight 0’clock service was sermon-free so he could have twenty-three minutes of relative peace each week.'”

Cheever apparently didn’t have much love for the church’s long-time rector, Bill Arnold. According to the book, Cheever “once told his son Ben that it didn’t matter if the minister was a jackass — though there were times, plainly, when it did. ‘I will not go to church,’ Cheever recorded one Good Friday, ‘because Bill will insist upon giving a sermon and I will not have the latitude or intelligence to overlook its repetitiousness, grammatical errors and stupidity.'” Ouch!

Finally, Bailey says of Cheever’s faith, “Not one to proselytize, her rarely mentioned his faith except at odd moments when visited by the same happiness that had moved him to become a communicant in the first place: ‘There has to be someone you thank for the party.'”

Not a bad sentiment. Though I may have to consider screening any writers and/or essayists out of my parish. Myself excluded of course.


4 Comments on “Chasing Cheever”

  1. Tim,
    Haha, you remember what E.B. White said about true friends and good writers. Nice to see Cheever here. Just wanted to let you know that the Episcopal Cafe will soon run a piece I did on him, with material from the journals as well (including tidbits on his life at All Saints’ and Trinity and reflections on his spiritual life). I will be out of the country for the next few weeks and so may or may not be able to forward it to you or anyone else at All Saints’, but maybe keep an eye out on See you at Easter!

  2. Father Tim says:

    Excellent! Thanks, Jean — we’ll look forward to it. I understand that he referred to “Mrs. F.” in his journals (Catherine Figart) though I’ve never seen this.

  3. It was “Miss F,” of course! Happy trails…;-)

  4. Father Tim says:

    Criminy! Of course it was!

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