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A Cacaphony of Cheevers

December 02, 1990|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — It seemed like such a good idea, Franklin Dennis thought at the time. The time was June, 1987.

Dennis, a publicist for small publishing houses--including Academy Chicago--and a major fan of the late John Cheever, would gather up Cheever's uncollected stories, stories that had appeared in the New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Collier's and other magazines but had never been published in book form.

Little did Dennis suspect that his brainstorm would turn into a lawsuit--and that 3 1/2 years later, the lawsuit would make its way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Dennis, owner of a company here called Book Pro-Motions, had been an admirer of Cheever for about 20 years, "ever since I read the words 'the healing sound of rain' in the story 'Artemia, the Honest Well Digger.' "

For a time, the Cheever family also thought Dennis' plan was a lovely idea. Mary W. Cheever, executor of her late husband's estate, accepted Dennis' proposal to have Academy Chicago, a small literary publisher, publish "The Uncollected Stories of John Cheever." Mary Cheever would be listed as author; Dennis as editor. They would split the $1500 advance--an average figure, it turns out, by the standards of many small publishing houses.

At Academy Chicago, co-owners Anita and Jordan Miller were ecstatic. By the end of 1987, Dennis and the Millers had uncovered 68 uncollected stories by Cheever. Dennis sent a list of the titles to Ben Cheever, the writer's oldest son.

Two weeks into the new year, Ben Cheever invited Dennis to meet him and his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel. Wylie will not discuss the matter, but Dennis says Wylie urged Academy Chicago to bow out and announced he could get a six-figure advance for the Cheever project from almost any publisher in New York.

Soon thereafter, Academy Chicago was contacted by Martin Garbus, a prominent New York attorney who handles many literary matters, and in this case, was representing Mrs. Cheever. Garbus was contending that Dennis had misrepresented himself to Mrs. Cheever, and that because "basically the original contract was fraudulent," the agreement was void.

In an interview, Garbus said Dennis had never told Mrs. Cheever that he worked for Academy Chicago, from which he obtains a $400-per-month retainer as New York-based publicist. In a letter to the Millers, Garbus wrote, "Mr. Dennis and Academy are totally incapable of performing, and, indeed, have not performed their obligations pursuant to any such agreement."

A legal seesaw has ensued, with the Cheever family suing the Millers in a New York court, and the Millers suing the Cheevers in Illinois. The New York judge ruled in favor the Cheevers, and temporarily stopped publication of the book pending the outcome of the contract dispute trial in Chicago.

In Chicago, Judge Roger Kiley found no fraud, but did maintain that Dennis had not told the Cheevers that Academy Chicago intended to publish all of Cheever's uncollected stories. He ordered Mrs. Cheever to deliver "no less" than 10 to 15 stories, what he called the size of a "stereotypical" Cheever book. Later, he added a requirement of 140 pages, and granted Mrs. Cheever's request to publish the bulk of the stories elsewhere.

"For us consumers of high-quality literary works," Kiley wrote, "we ask you both to step aside of your deeply felt differences and think of us and do the work."

The Cheevers and the Millers fought over widths of margins, numbers of words, headnotes, introductions and spacing between lines. The Millers took their case to an Illinois appellate court, which issued a split decision.

The Millers have spent about $325,000 in legal fees to date; the Cheevers considerably more.

"We almost went bankrupt, because we were in the Cheever business and not in the publishing business," Anita Miller said.

The Millers had a less-than-10% chance of having their case accepted by the Illinois Supreme Court. They filed anyway. The case was accepted, and is expected to be heard this spring.

Whatever the outcome, damage has been done to both sides--and probably to the Cheever story project, in whatever form, as well. Anita Miller calls this "a ridiculous case." In an interview with Chicago magazine, Ben Cheever called the prolonged literary contretemps "tragic, tragic in the sense that war is tragic."

Martin Garbus, the Cheevers' lawyer, said the case should have been settled. "We tried," Garbus said. "The other side will tell you they tried."

Anita Miller said that Academy Chicago has stuck with the case "because we're too stubborn to back off." Besides, she added, "If we gave up, it would almost have been an admission that we did something wrong. And we didn't."

In New York, Franklin Dennis said he feels battered. "I certainly wish that this had not taken this very unfortunate and almost tragic course," Dennis said. "It's really very sad, the whole thing."

Still, Franklin said, "I'm very pleased that I thought of the idea" of collecting Cheever's stories.

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