As readers of Moore’s fiction know, she is a brilliant storyteller and sentence-maker. “My Old Sweetheart” and “The Whiteness of Bones,” novels inspired by her youth in Hawaii, her mother’s sudden death and her coming of age in New York have been among my favorites since I read them in the early 1980s. Her 1995 erotic thriller “In the Cut” created a well-deserved sensation.
The latest addition to her oeuvre reminded me of everything I ever loved about her as a writer and now, as happens with certain memoirs, I feel like she is my friend — a very elegant, accomplished grande dame sort of friend, to be sure, one who might loan you a pair of blue velvet Pucci bell-bottoms or a copy of “The Great War and Modern Memory” on your way out the door after tea. (Definitely not “The Alexandria Quartet,” which I was delighted to hear called “shockingly bad.”)
Moore’s voice on the page is sometimes reminiscent of one of her mentors, Joan Didion, in its spellbinding rhythms and effortless transition between the physical and the intellectual. Here, for example, is her description of designer attire she was given by a wealthy friend over 50 years ago: “When I now wear these same clothes, a little stained in the armpits and with the occasional moth hole, I wonder how I have held onto them for so long, despite having lost or forsaken so many other things, not all of them tangible.”
Her anecdotes range from breezy to chilling. On one end, you have her ludicrous two-day reign as Miss Aluminum (a modeling job for the Aluminum Association to help promote their products) and her early confusion about sexual pleasure. “I had been more influenced than I realized by my prurient reading of such books as Peyton Place,” she writes, “drawing from them the inaccurate notion that orgasm was tantamount to a seizure of great intensity.” She may still have been a little confused about things years later when she had her less-than-steamy extramarital affair with Nicholson.
On the dark side, she was not much more than 20 when she says she was raped in a hotel room by her then-employer, the designer Oleg Cassini, a Harvey Weinstein prototype. Though she doesn’t mention the #Metoo movement, it may have emboldened her to share this story, about which she has remained silent until now. After the incident, Cassini went on to help her get a role as one of 10 “Slaygirls,” bodyguards to Dean Martin’s character in a ridiculous film for which he was the costume designer. To protect herself from Cassini over the months of shooting in Acapulco, she became the “girlfriend” of the associate producer, a man with liver spots, a wife and grown children. But Moore too was married, and eventually her husband showed up unannounced in her cottage at the Hotel Las Brisas. He beat her so badly that even months later the judge took one look at her face and awarded her an instant, no-waiting-period divorce.
Stories like these are grounded in her unflappable narrative tone and her conviction, shared on the last page of the book, assessing her prospects at age 30, that “it would be all right.” Given the luminous literary career she had not yet even begun at that age, it seems to be so.
Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”
By Susanna Moore
Farrar Straus Giroux. 288 pp. $27