Social order

Talking class with Ben Cheever 

When The New York Times wanted to explore the upper class’ lack of class here in what was once known as Cheever Country (and is, The Times observed, beginning to feel more like Kennedy Country), the newspaper turned to a man who had grown up at the center of it all – writer Benjamin H. Cheever, one of John Cheever’s three children.

It’s hard to think of a more fitting observer. Both father and son have explored the disparity between class (as in socioeconomic) and class (as in character with style) in such works as John Cheever’s stories “The Swimmer” and “O Youth and Beauty” and Ben’s novel “The Good Nanny.”

“(My father) was very interested in hypocrisy, the whited sepulcher.”

John Cheever’s fascination with the chasm that often exists between our assets and our aspirations stemmed from his and America’s ambivalence about money.

“My father had in his mind an aristocracy of merit that was related to the aristocracy,” Cheever says. “He thought there was such a thing. He liked it when a person had both. But people are very credulous about money. They think if you have money, you don’t have problems. My father sometimes seemed to have money and sometimes had none.”

The United States, Cheever says, “is a revolutionary culture. We don’t have an aristocracy. We don’t want to be elitist.”

And yet, in his nonfiction book “Selling Ben Cheever,” Cheever says “one of the things I thought about was how important (socioeconomic) class was.”

A kid from Westchester who runs into trouble in New York City, he adds, is likely to receive different and better treatment from the police than, say, one from the Bronx.

“It’s status as an expression of wealth.”

That kind of class is easier to pin down than its more psychological companion. Cheever defines classiness as “generosity of spirit, taking time for yourself and others.”

Such class is under assault in the age of the Internet.

“Part of the trouble with the time we live in is that people feel they have to draw attention to themselves. I’m old enough to remember a time when that was not classy. …People feel if they’re not valued by a larger public, they’re not valuable. Because we live in an ‘electronic cocoon,’ it’s easy to be lonely. We assuage ourselves with imagining friendships with famous people. I’ve met a lot of famous people. You can be pretty sure you’re not going to be friends with them.”

Ostentatious display is different from genuine showmanship, he says. The former is not classy. The latter certainly can be. Cheever recalls attending an event at the Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville honoring Robert Redford. (Cheever’s wife – Janet Maslin, a former film critic for The Times and now one of its book critics – is president of the Burns’ board of directors.) There was Redford, every inch the golden boy movie star, lighting up the room.

“He was friendly, interested, open and upbeat,” Cheever says.

These days, the canine-loving Cheever – he and Maslin, who make their home in Pleasantville, have two dogs and two sons – is occupied with a different kind of class, as in obedience, for a nonfiction book about service dogs and the people who train them. Another great love is running, which he captured in his book “Strides: Running Through History With an Unlikely Athlete.”

“Part of the reason I adore running is that you go out and run as fast as you can, and there’s no question about it. …Writing is not so clear. You can write brilliantly, but no one publishes it.”

True class transcends such worries.

“What you really admire is someone who can escape his identity. He’s not trapped by it. He can give up the good seat and go down with the Titanic.”

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