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Honor Moore's Family Portraits 

Illuminated Manuscripts

Honor Moore opens the door of her Upper West Side apartment to reveal a room full of books, art, and luggage. She’s just returned from a busy summer that included mentoring at Saratoga’s New York State Writers Institute and a writing retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s already taught two classes at the New School. Soon she’ll be heading to Hudson to join former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand and other distinguished writers at Hudson ArtsWalk Literary (see Fall Literary Events page).

Barefoot, comfortably dressed in an off-the shoulder gray shirt and striped scarf, she sets sandwiches on china plates and sits down to talk about writing and family.

Moore’s acclaimed memoir The Bishop’s Daughter (W. W. Norton and Co, 2008) introduces the Right Reverend Paul Moore Jr. with a burst of ecclesiastical grandeur, as he enters the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Easter: “The massive doors swing open, an ethereal shaft of sunlight floods the dark, the roar of the city breaks the gigantic quiet, and there at the far end of the aisle, in a blaze of morning light, stands the tall figure of a man. My flesh-and-blood father, the bishop.”

The Bishop’s Daughter is a miracle of shifting perspectives, combining a skillful biography of an exemplary public life, an intimate view of a complex father-daughter relationship, and a glimpse of a private life shrouded in secrecy.

Born to a fabulously wealthy blueblood family, Paul Moore was a decorated war hero at Guadalcanal, graduated from Yale, and became a nationally known activist clergyman who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was Bishop of the Diocese of New York from 1972 to 1989. He was 6’ 5”, handsome, twice married, and fathered nine children with first wife Jenny McKean Moore. After his death, Honor, the eldest, received a phone call from a man her father had named in his will, and learned that they’d been lovers for many years.

There had been hints of affairs in both marriages, and occasional glints of attraction to men, but gay and bisexual clergymen of Bishop Moore’s generation remained in the closet. Although late in his life he helped open church doors to ordaining gay men and women, he never permitted himself the same openness.

His daughter, who came of age during the feminist and countercultural revolutions of the ’60s, was far more forthright about her affairs with both women and men. And she felt that her father deserved to be seen in all his complexities. “He always wanted me to write about him,” Moore says, leaning back in an overstuffed chair. “When he donated his papers to the Episcopal Church archive, he said, ‘There’s one of my children who’ll be very interested in these, my daughter Honor.’”

The bishop had reason to suspect his literary daughter might someday turn her lens on him. Moore’s 1974 play “Mourning Pictures” is about a young poet whose mother is dying of cancer. Many specifics are taken directly from life—Maggie is one of nine children; her father a liberal clergyman; her mother the age at which Jenny Moore died. The first of Moore’s three poetry collections is titled Memoir (Chicory Blue Press, 1988), and her nonfiction debut The White Blackbird (Norton, 1996) is a biography of her maternal grandmother, painter Margarett Sargent.

“For me, it’s not about the content,” Moore says. “I use autobiography to make what I make. We all write autobiography to some degree. The question is how much it seems documentary, or not.”

The White Blackbird is a biography with elements of memoir, and The Bishop’s Daughter is a memoir with elements of biography,” she explains, adding that the latter book was “very controversial within my family.” Indeed. When an excerpt appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, three of Moore’s siblings signed a letter to the editor objecting to its publication.

“I was blindsided,” Moore says. “It was extremely painful and very unexpected.” Her siblings all knew she was working on the book, and though one of her brothers had voiced his concerns in correspondence, she felt she had answered them. “I didn’t tell anyone else’s stories. I was scrupulous about that,” she avers. Moreover, the revelations of their father’s secret life “were discreet. It’s not a gossipy book.” Glowingly reviewed, it was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and New York Times Editor’s Choice.

The controversy caused “a major traumatic break” in the family. Moore maintains close relationships with two of her siblings, contacting the others only by e-mail. But writing The Bishop’s Daughter improved her often-tempestuous relationship with her father, “both through the act of writing, and recovering my love for him at the end of his life. I could not have written the book if that had not happened. He’s a comforting presence in my life. I feel very complete with him.”

She balks at the notion that writing memoir has a kinship with therapy, calling the process “metabolic, not therapeutic. You are making one thing out of another thing. It can have spiritual and personal effects, but I hate the word ‘therapeutic.’ I can’t stand this Oprahizing of everything.”

Moore goes to fetch some of her early books from the top of a closet, padding barefoot up a folding ladder (“Some texture for your interview,” she quips as her head disappears inside). She may be a celebrated woman of letters, but she’s also a kick in the pants, unafraid to let her eccentric flag fly. When the phone rings in midconversation, she fields a call from an electric company marketing rep. As the phone call stretches on and on, Moore’s yeses become more impatient, accompanied by eye-rolling and bites of ham sandwich. After awhile she leans over and says sotto voce, “Do you have another question?” as the telemarketer continues to spiel. This is real life, she seems to be saying, in all its ridiculous textures and dizzying swoops from the intellectual realm to the purely mundane.

Was her father disappointed that none of his nine children followed him into the religious life? “He was a pretty hard act to follow,” says Moore. “But he would say being a poet is a ministry. It was part of my father’s theology—a sacrament could be you and I having sandwiches, or him giving communion in the South during the Civil Rights movement.”

Moore’s current projects include a new poetry collection—a recent poem was selected for Best American Poetry 2012—and a memoir about her mother, to be published by Norton. Their relationship was close but embattled. Jenny McKean Moore was cool, slender, elegant; Honor was a wild card, whose looks and creative temperament recalled Jenny’s own mother, the talented, doomed Margarett Sargent.

Despite their differences, Jenny bequeathed her deathbed writings to her oldest daughter. (She’d published a memoir, The People on Second Street, to great acclaim in 1968.) Moore skimmed through the fragments, then “essentially set them aside for 35 years.”

“I thought I’d already told her story,” she says. But “Mourning Pictures” was written shortly after Jenny’s death at age 50, when Honor was 27. “Now I’m 66, and I’m looking at 50 very differently. At 27, I didn’t know what I might end up doing as a woman: Would I have children, get married? What would I do?”

Moore has no children, and is currently single. “I’m partnered with my art,” she says in self-mocking tones, then adds, “Once you decide as a woman that you’re not getting married for all the conventional reasons, you’re not having children, and you get to be 66—” She shrugs. “I don’t need to be with someone just to be with someone. I need to be with someone who will enhance my life. Because I have a great life.”

Honor Moore vividly remembers her mother, whose nine children were evenly spaced over nearly two decades, reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. “It changed her life. But she died before she had a chance to live that second act.” She pauses, glancing at the dining table-turned-writing desk that takes pride of place in her living room. “She wanted to be an independent woman, a literary woman and a writer. And I’ve done those things. It amazes me.”


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