John Cheever was born in 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts to a family that struggled financially. He moved to New York City in his early 20s to become a writer. He soon began selling stories to The New Yorker, but he continued to live a life of poverty until he married the well-to-do Mary Winternitz. The couple started a family—they had three children together—and moved to the suburbs of New York. Cheever loved Westchester County, the suburban setting that would become the backdrop to his entire collection of writing.
Cheever became an alcoholic in married life. He grew increasingly estranged from his wife and increasingly dependent on alcohol. He also began sexual encounters with men, including the photographer Walker Evans and writer Calvin Kentfield, and his shame about his secret homosexuality was channeled into homophobia and drinking. Then, in 1975, Mary drove him to the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Centre in New York. He left only a month later and never drank again. He resumed writing his novel, Falconer, and republished his short stories in 1978 as The Stories of John Cheever, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Book award. In total, Cheever published five novels and 121 short stories.
In 1981, Cheever was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By then, he had entered into a relationship with a younger writer, Max Zimmer. In the months before he died, Zimmer, who was impoverished and recently divorced, moved into Cheever's house. Mary, John, and Max lived there together. In those final months, finally sober, Cheever was better able to come to terms with his homosexuality than ever, even coming out to his son, Ben, over the phone.
Six weeks before his death, Cheever was awarded the National Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died of cancer in 1982 in his family home.