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A Deceptively Good Life : JEAN STAFFORD A Biography by David Roberts (Little, Brown: $24.95; 442 pp.; 0-316-74998-2)

August 14, 1988|Susan Cheever | Cheever's best-known book is "Home Before Dark," a memoir about her father. Her fifth novel will be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. and

"One of the great hardships of my childhood--and there were many, as many I suppose as have ever plagued a living creature--was that I could never find a decent place to read," Jean Stafford wrote in a short story titled "A Reading Problem." "If I tried to read at home in the living room, I was constantly pestered by someone saying, 'For goodness sake, Emily, move where it's light. You're going to ruin your eyes and no two ways about it,' or, 'You ought to be outdoors with the other youngsters getting roses in your cheeks.' Of course I knew how to reply to all these kill-joy injunctions; to the first I said, 'They're my eyes,' and to the second, 'Getting some brains in my head is more important than getting any so-called roses in my cheeks.' "

Stafford had a reading problem, and a writing problem, all her life, and she invariably responded to them in the same way; with a cheeky assertion of her own rights and a conviction in the importance of her talent and intelligence. It would be hard to write a boring biography of this fabulous, gutsy woman, and as the first account of her life, David Robert's book is conscientious, carefully researched and long overdue.

Wildly beautiful, razor sharp, and with enough energy to light a small city--she wrote at least two unpublished novels just to warm up!--Stafford produced a critically successful best seller, "Boston Adventure," before she was 30, became one of the stars at The New Yorker under Harold Ross and Katharine White, where she wrote wonderful journalism and fine, witty short stories, and won the Pulitzer for those stories in 1970. Along the way, she drank a lot, struggled with alcoholism and anxiety, had a wonderful time and married three of the most interesting men around: the poet Robert Lowell; the handsome and wealthy Life editor Oliver Jensen, who gave her a financial and emotional security she needed for about five minutes; and her flamboyant New Yorker colleague A. J. Liebling.

Born July 1, 1915, in Covina, Calif., to an alcoholic father who was convinced he was a great, unrecognized literary talent and a long-suffering mother who supported the family most of the time, Stafford wanted to be a writer from the day she learned the alphabet. After a miserable childhood in California and Colorado, she joined a fast crowd at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spent a year studying and traveling in Europe (where she caught gonorrhea and perhaps syphilis during a one-night stand with an American baseball player), and finally burst like fireworks on the Northeastern literary scene.

The explosion began at the 1937 Boulder, Colo., Writer's Conference where, as chief assistant, she met writers and editors like John Crowe Ransom, Howard Mumford Jones and Whit Burnett. The conference's main attraction was Ford Maddox Ford, whose No. 1 groupie, a 20-year-old Harvard dropout named Robert Lowell, was instantly smitten by the pretty Westerner with the well-turned prose. During the next year while she taught at Stephens College, Stafford published her first short story, embarked on a novel and kept both Lowell and her other boyfriend, Robert Hightower, on the line with long ambivalent letters.

A few days before Christmas in 1939 when Lowell was driving her back to an apartment in Concord, Mass., where she had told Hightower she was hiding from Lowell, he took a wrong turn and crashed the car into a wall. Stafford's nose was crushed and her skull fractured. She lost some of her remarkable looks and began the round of sickness and hospitals that punctuated her life. As a woman, Stafford took her lumps. She married Lowell in 1940.

He hit her, expected her to unquestioningly support his great

literary genius by taking menial jobs and ended by cheating on her with a friend in her own house. Nevertheless, the marriage held together until after "Boston Adventure" came out in 1944. "Jean made a great mistake in becoming a success before her husband did," Roberts quotes Wilfred Sheed, whose father Frank Sheed employed Lowell in his publishing house. "Knowing Lowell's vanity (awesome) and his satanic verbal cleverness, I can imagine he made Jean pay for this a bit."

Stafford's second novel, "The Mountain Lion," was based on her intense relationship to her brother, Dick, who had been killed in France in 1944. It set her lean, slightly loony prose style and won her more recognition.

"If she ever got fat, she thought, or if she ever said anything fat, she would lock herself in a bathroom and stay there until she died," thinks the young protagonist Molly Fawcett. "Often she thought how comfortably you could live in a bathroom. You could put a piece of beaver board on top of the tub and use it as a bed. In the daytime, you could have a cretonne spread on it so that it would look like a divan. You could use the you-know-what as a chair and the lavatory as a table. You wouldn't have to have anything else but some canned corn and marshmallows. . . ."

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