This is an early draft except from a chapter from my next book, Character Is Story: The Life and Films of Frank Perry. For the last seven years I’ve been working on the official biography of filmmaker Frank Perry. Having exclusive access to Frank’s archives it’s been my goal to produce not only the first biography of Frank Perry but also a work that is definitive.
This excerpt gets into Frank and Eleanor’s desire to make The Swimmer and a film version of the novel, Candy. And this section will also hint at some of the tensions underneath the surface inside of Frank and Eleanor’s marital relationship. Specifically, this except covers just a couple months during mid-1964.
Any errors/typos have been corrected during my subsequent and numerous re-writes that I’ve done thus far to this material to correct information errors / add-in new information, etc. All footnotes and references have been omitted for the sake of brevity.
When Eleanor Perry read John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer in the July 18th, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, she had, what she would later deem, was a vision. While Frank and Terry Southern were busy prepping Candy all throughout the Spring and early-Summer of 1964, this vision for Eleanor was, as she would suggest to a journalist later on in 1976, a moment where she had the ability “to see what no else around them can see.” With Frank and Terry planning to launch a nation-wide talent search to find the perfect 18-year-old girl to play the young, optimistic, and promiscuous “Candy Christian,” Eleanor became transfixed by John Cheever’s “Ned Merrill,” or as he is referred to in the literary lions’ Greek-paragon odyssey, “Neddy.” 45-years-old, a New England W.A.S.P., in John Cheever’s influential suburban short story Ned Merrill is adrift in the throes of a metaphysical crisis in the Bullet Park section of Fairfield County, Connecticut. In Cheever’s parable, he decides one hazy, hung-over Summer Sunday afternoon to swim home by way of an archipelago of swimming pools belonging to his friends, enemies, even ex-lovers―his journey ending in a tragic denouement.
It is no surprise that Eleanor Perry was enthralled with John Cheever’s story, which the “Ovid in Ossining” was always quick to admit to anyone was one of the most challenging stories that he had ever written. It “took a rather long time,” for Cheever to write The Swimmer; where most of his short stories were written in two or three days, the story of Ned Merrill was something the writer labored over for two months.
Eleanor had been reading Cheever in The New Yorker for over a decade, as the secretly bi-sexual author had been America’s premier short fiction draw in the last decade, only to be eclipsed shortly thereafter by John Updike with the country moving into the mid-1960s. The Swimmer would become known as Cheever’s greatest story. The story of Ned Merrill had come to fruition out of the writer’s resistance to his adoration of mythology. As a boy, John Cheever had been “brought up in Southern Massachusetts when it was thought that mythology was a subject that we should all grasp.” For Cheever, mythology was not only part of his education, it was also a means for him with which he could “parse the world.” Cheever should be read as a mythographer. His stories about “affluent exurbia,” and the concomitant of confinement inside a post-World War II suburban existence, invented a luxuriant American mythology during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, the writer refuted critical interpretations of his work, especially when it came to The Swimmer, because he felt that interpretation resigned the writer’s work to its mythological center. Cheever always urged critics to take his stories at face value only, that they were best when not analyzed. To interpret any of his stories was for one to truly not like or appreciate the power of literature. To examine them past their surface phenomenon meant that his work had perhaps failed.
By 1963, John Cheever had grown quite bemused. He had completed several new short stories over the last year after the publishing of his first novel, The Wapshot Scandal, and according to Blake Bailey, one of his biographers, the writer had began, “kicking around Narcissus” as a way to decide on what he might write next. However, it wasn’t only Narcissus and his fall into self-love that Cheever was purely thinking of when he first started considering Ned Merrill. He’d also been thinking about his secret relationship with Ned Rorem, a younger man, composer, who he’d first met at Yadoo, the artist’s colony in upstate New York over the Fall the prior year. Rorem, who was also an aspiring writer, and one who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize later in 1976, had met Cheever shortly after arriving at the colony with a broken ankle which was under-girded by a plaster cast. Rorem, even though he was approaching the age of 40 at the time, was still a “wistful, aging boy,” to Cheever. “[He] seems, in halflights, to represent the pure impetuousness of youth, the first flush of manhood,” wrote Cheever in his journal. “He intends to be compared to a summer’s day, particularly its last hours and yet I think he is none of this.”
The Perrys saw the The Swimmer as a story about fading youth, and they both, along with John Cheever saw Ned Merrill’s cross-country swimming journey as a “return to the womb” scenario. Eleanor would say later that Cheever’s story was a work of fiction that reminded her of John O’Hara’s novel, Appointment in Samarra. Ned Merrill wasn’t only be inspired by Cheever’s infatuation with Ned Rorem (Merrill has Cheever’s lover’s first name, after all) though, but also by Cheever himself; the author had refused adulthood in equal measure. Cheever at mid-age like Ned Merrill was one who “still flung himself into icy pools with vigorous abandon, got drunk whenever he felt like it and was always poised to fall in love or escape.” And at 51-years-old, Cheever also had a reputation for stealing swims in the pools of his neighbors; he would saunter pool-to-pool-to-pool in his neighborhood in the same manner as Ned Merrill, and on many occasions after having too much to drink, even naked.
Still, the idea of writing around the Narcissus myth, or at least, having the tale serve as the locus for his story though was something that was irritating to Cheever. “I would not like to do The Swimmer as Narcissus. The possibility of a man’s becoming infatuated with his own image is there, dramatized by a certain odor of abnormality, but this is like picking out an unsoured apple for celebration when the orchard is full of fine specimens. I’ve done it before; I would like to do better. Swimming is a pleasure, a gulping-in of the summer afternoon, high spirits. It is natural and fitting that a man should in some way love himself. So it is natural and fitting that the roof leaks, but it is hardly universal.” Cheever could hardly avoid Narcissus, though. After all, The Swimmer starts with: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” Sunday being a precarious day for exploring existential crises in the Cheever milieu. Which is because, as Lynne Waldeland points out, Sunday has an “indeterminate nature. It is no longer part of the weekend with its social rituals, nor is it part of the week with its routines.” Sunday is also a day for rebirth, and it allows for an adventure of self-discovery and existential survey as Merrill treks from house-to-house on his way home―The Swimmer is a story, like that of Narcissus, that is about the recovery of a man’s soul.
“It was a terrible experience, writing that story,” Cheever noted years later, discussing how he had first sketched out Narcissus in Bullet Park over 150-pages before whittling his manuscript down to become the story as it is known today. Merrill swims with an exuberance now across 15 pools in a single afternoon, versus the 45 that Cheever had originally planned on having Neddy swim through in what might have equated itself as a novel with pragmatic complications. The whole experience of writing the story led to Cheever becoming muted once he’d finished it and submitted it to The New Yorker. He was crushed with the story’s metaphysical disambiguation. The Swimmer saw him “growing cold and quiet,” as his alter-ego ventured through the summer as a pilgrim only to find his environs morphing to Fall and then, “turning to winter.” The story became about “an old man nearing the end of his journey.”
Appearing in The New Yorker, the story was hailed as a masterpiece of short fiction nearly the day it was published. Critic Michael Chabon called The Swimmer: “a masterpiece of mystery,” mentioning its “mythic echoes” while others praised Cheever’s “technical” mastery as a storyteller and the story’s ambiguity; critics admired how Neddy Merrill’s tale was a piece of either magical realism or a delusion of grandeur.
Like many New Yorker readers, Eleanor Perry was dazzled by The Swimmer. She found Cheever’s story: “so sexual, so beautiful that it moved [me] completely. I read The Swimmer […] and then rushed into Frank and got him to read it. I saw it as a movie right away, but no one else did, especially Frank.” She saw The Swimmer as: “an odyssey of modern man. It’s an honest attempt to portray a troubled man, in the contemporary upper-middle-class milieu.” Frank loved the Cheever story as well; he saw it’s mythological undercurrent right from the start. However, if Frank did indeed express any reservations about the story to Eleanor it came out his understandable concerns about such a philosophical premise; he had thought that “it would be too difficult to adapt.” After all, the Cheever story, as it would soon be one of the most widely-anthologized pieces of short fiction all time, had a extremely distressed placing; how do you put the story’s emotional, mythic torque up on the screen and make it as transcendent as the story itself? “I thought Eleanor was crazy,” Frank told Joanna Stang of the Los Angeles Times in Westport, Connecticut during the late-Summer of 1966, at the end of principal photography on The Swimmer. “But she was persistent. We went solely on the strength of her vision, her hunch” for the film. Eleanor’s persistence, toughness was her most cherished and admirable qualifies, Frank had been fond of telling friends–it led to him referring to his wife as “Nails,” even though she found inappropriate, but only when they were in public.
All the skepticism that Frank had for The Swimmer, the source material being turned into a film, went away immediately after Eleanor gave Frank her seven page outline, and three months later, her first draft of the screenplay. Reading it over, he too became transfixed with the possibilities of the Cheever property; as her screenplay for The Swimmer bordered on genius; it gave anyone who read it the instant ability to “see her vision too” for the film up on the big screen.
What made the first draft of the script for the film so incredible, wasn’t only in how Eleanor had managed to translate the Cheever story’s metaphysical overtones with a fervent lucidity, the script’s true strength lay in how it also magnified and expanded on Merrill’s journey itself. Eleanor had saw the Cheever story as ripe with opportunities to “expand and flesh out what is already there without being repetitious.” Her first draft screenplay, added in dialogue and action to “dramatize what is now only described by Cheever or in interior monologue or thoughts.” She saw how Merrill’s journey should be captured on film in real time or an “elapsed real time.” The time it takes Merrill to traverse across the county and swim all 15 pools in the Cheever story would be “exactly the duration of the film―an hour and a half.” The frenetic pacing that she had given to Ned’s trip in her first draft screenplay delineated the character’s metaphysical crisis; her script gave Ned an urgency to get home or “back to the womb” with a hyper-rhythm. It had been of the utmost importance to her that Merrill’s journey not ebb and flow, but move at a dizzying speed, even with the addition of extra scenes.
The fact that the first draft for The Swimmer turned out as a great as it did might’ve even surprised Eleanor Perry. As when she had first written to John Cheever to inquire about the rights for the story back in July, she wrote him with a great trepidation. Their chances of procuring the movie rights for the story from a superstar writer such as John Cheever―who had just recently appeared on the cover of Time―seemed implausible. But, if Eleanor Perry had any insecurities at the time that she first read The Swimmer, they were also a result of her clamoring, living with the ghost of the failure of Ladybug, Ladybug, and that old Hollywood saying: “You’re only as good as your last picture.” After all, the critics had particularly disliked The Perrys’ second film. It’s true that her confidence had been shaken by the experience of Ladybug; after all, there were now a bevy of rejected film treatments and drafts of various screenplays now piling up on her desk in her office inside The Perrys’ New York apartment. And regardless of whether she ever vocally-expressed her hurt to her husband at the time or not, Frank’s desire to make Candy at United Artists as their next film and not something that she had written for them was also shattering. But when Eleanor wrote John Cheever from Los Angeles, and the author quickly responded to her query, informing her that he too would soon be coming to Hollywood himself and that they should meet poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, any lack of confidence immediately disappeared.
Meeting with John Cheever would be a welcomed-distraction for both Frank and Eleanor. After all, they’d been stuck in Los Angeles for the better part of 1964. Being away from New York for such a length of time was starting to take it toll on the both of them. Los Angeles had never been a city that Eleanor Perry particularly liked; she had never been fond of Hollywood or the artifice of its residents and had taken to calling Hollywood “Lotusland.” Frank felt at home in Los Angeles, however; he’d spent a portion of his adolescence out on the West Coast. “I just love California. I think there are more intelligent people per square mile than anywhere,” Frank told the L.A. Press while promoting Play It As It Lays in 1972. The prolonged stays in Los Angeles would introduce an ennui into their marriage. Even if Eleanor did enjoy the Hollywood dinner party on occasion, the L.A. nightlife was something she never could tolerate. Eleanor would spend much of her time out in Los Angeles self-isolating in their Beverly Hills Hotel suite, reading and writing; whereas Frank, forever a bon vivant, was never able to refuse an invitation. Spending days working with Southern on the script for Candy at United Artists, meant his nights could be spent hobnobbing with Hollywood friends. All through late-Summer 1964, Frank’s legendary over-indulgence, which he’d earned a reputation for years earlier while serving overseas in the Army during the Korean War, now was resulting in lugubriousness as he indulged in nights of chain-smoking, over-eating, and over-drinking. It would take its toll on him during The Perrys stays in California. As going out on the town night-after-night on a toot by himself or with Terry Southern not far behind not only caused Eleanor to worry about the sustainability of his current health due to his weight, but his zest for the L.A. nightlife would also lead to Eleanor beginning to resent him; frustration would lead to her lashing out when he’d come back to their suite in the wee hours of the morning. Regardless of whether he stumbled into their bedroom or still had some acumen following a night’s festivities, if she spoke to him or attempted to initiate intimacy as they lay in bed, the unpleasant demeanor and barbarous tone with which Frank would respond to anything before rolling over and blacking out, would lead to her suffering extreme feelings of being unwanted, undesired by her husband and collaborator. As all throughout their stay, Eleanor would struggle with the fact that Frank was not only abandoning her and their collaborative team for the Candy film project, but that he, given his recent antics, might also be thinking about abandoning their marriage too.