John Cheever: “The Swimmer”

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“The story was made into a film some of you may have seen,” Cheever remarked before he began to read one of his most famous stories, “The Swimmer” at 92Y in 1977. “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,” Blake 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.”