From the Poetry Center Archive: John Cheever reads “The Swimmer”
On Thursday night, 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center will present “John Cheever at 100,” a centennial celebration of the great fiction writer with readings and remembrances by Susan Cheever (his daughter), Blake Bailey (his biographer), Allan Gurganus (a former student) and Michael Chabon (one of his biggest fans).
The evening will also feature some audio excerpts from Cheever’s two appearances here at 92Y (in 1964 and 1977), but today, in anticipation, we’d like to share a recording of Cheever reading one of his most famous stories, “The Swimmer” at 92Y on December 19, 1977.
“The story was made into a film some of you may have seen,” Cheever remarked before he began to read. “It still runs on late-night television. I know because people always call me and say, ‘Hey, you’re in the movies!’ It’s usually about half past 11… . Here again the story has had an international success, and the various interpretations have always interested me. It’s very popular in Russia, for example, where there are almost no swimming pools and where almost nobody swims.”
Burt Lancaster starred in the adaptation, which was shot in May of 1966. “Though an acrobat, a boxer, and a horseman,” Bailey reports in his biography, “Lancaster could scarcely swim a stroke and had been working since April with the UCLA swimming coach.” Cheever himself makes a brief cameo at a poolside cocktail party. Unhappy with the original cut, the producer delayed the film’s release until 1968. After attending the premiere, Cheever wrote to a friend: “It is not a great picture, but it is faithful to the story, and at the end, when he returns to the empty house, grown men weep.” And he thought Lancaster was terrific—“both young and old, masterful and tearful … lithe and haggard.”
Bailey says that Cheever had been nervous about meeting Lancaster that first day on set, but “after shooting was finished that morning, the actor put on a bathrobe and had a poolside lunch with Cheever…after which Cheever (evidently over the worst of his shyness) ‘jumped beararse’ into the water.”
In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments which the Poetry Center has presented across the decades, this blog has begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. To purchase tickets to “John Cheever at 100,” please click here. And for access to other recordings from the Poetry Center archive, please click here.