I did a terrible thing when I was 19. I broke into William Shakespeare’s house. Well, I didn’t exactly break in. It was more like letting myself in — through an open ground-floor window at the back of the house.
I had gone a long way to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, to get a peek inside the master playwright’s digs, and I just couldn’t take “no” for an answer from the unarmed guard outside the door who sternly announced that I had missed the final tour of the day by 10 minutes.
I had a choice. Head back to the tardy “motor coach” in which I had arrived, sullenly. Or tiptoe the floorboards across which Shakespeare had scampered as a boy, risking at best a scolding and at worst a few days in Her Majesty’s prison. I wish I could say it was a close call, but it wasn’t.
“What are you in for, yank?”
“Sneaking into Shakespeare’s house.”
I could live with that.
I had plum forgotten my youthful misdeed until earlier this week when I read that short-story-master John Cheever’s home is for sale in Ossining, N.Y. It’s an 18th Century, three-bedroom stone cottage on five and a half acres, according to its listing. The asking price is $525,000, which seems ridiculously inexpensive, even with all the work it purportedly needs.
This is where Cheever — “the Chekhov of the suburbs” — wrote “The Falconer.” It’s where he banged away on an Underwood Champion at his Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, including my favorite, “Goodbye My Brother.” It’s where he wrote the boozy classic, “The Swimmer,” which was turned into a film starring Burt Lancaster. Inside is the office where Cheever must have sat up at night, circling far too many scotches around the bottom of a rock glass, dreaming up characters for The Wapshot Chronicle.
Who wouldn’t want to drink that all in?
Cheever expressed profound lament for days gone by in his writing. In his preface to the award-winning collection he wrote, “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain-smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”
We are a generation from there today at least, and it’s the loss of Cheever and his contemporaries that brings melancholy now. Those tweedy, gin-soaked authors who reeked of sophistication and Pall Malls seem as far gone as the great American novel itself. Can anyone imagine what Cheever, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Raymond Carver would say or think of a BuzzFeed?
Cheever’s house shouldn’t go for a pedestrian sum like $525,000. It should go for millions. It should become a museum or a writer’s workshop. Isn’t the air, like that in Shakespeare’s house, worth twice that sum at least? Or have we reached a point where the Cheevers of this world no longer demand a premium?
I’d love to step inside Cheever’s house just once before it’s sold and remodeled. I’m certainly not going to slip in a back window, and I’m too proud to go through the prospective buyer charade with a Realtor. But if anyone who reads this ends up buying the place, I’d really appreciate an invitation. Just one last nostril full of a world that’s all but been erased.