Poetry, Prose, and Longing:

The Memoirs of Honor Moore*


Elizabeth Benedict

One day in 1969, 23-year-old Honor Moore found herself in the East Village offices of an underground newspaper called Rat, where she discovered a book of poetry and the voice of a poet. Sonia Sanchez’s “fierce lyrics startled me with their directness and intimacy,” she writes in the introduction to the anthology Poems from the Women’s Movement. Moore had just left the Yale Drama School and moved to New York City, to an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, where she was inspired by the list of writers who had lived there posted in the lobby — and she could afford the $250 a month rent only because of the inheritance she had come into at twenty-one. Before long, she abandoned her “college sonnets,” and began “writing poems out of my anger and 23-year-old unhappiness,” hoping to find “the audacity and certitude” she found in Sylvia Plath’s work.

In consciousness raising groups, she learned that her own experience had legitimacy as material and that there was commonality in women’s stories of motherhood, rape, abortion, and yearnings to be more than “girlfriend to genius” and the wife of a prominent man. In time, when her boyfriend “ranted and raved about the irrelevance of anything I might write,” she heard echoes of the other women’s boyfriends and husbands who expressed similar sentiments. A new slogan was coming to define the moment: The personal is political. “In those rooms,” she writes, “it seemed completely true.”

Moore became an activist, a poet, and an editor of significant anthologies about the Women’s Movement, and along the way she dis-covered her gift for biography and memoir. She has managed to be in the right places at the right times, to have chosen the right family, and taken good notes. Her two memoirs, The Bishop’s Daughter (2008) and Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (2020) are deeply personal investigations and careful histories of the late twentieth century’s social movements that document the fraying of “the intricate social architecture that had held the world of the rich more or less in place since the Civil War.” Her prose, with its exhilarating directness and intimacy, is not afraid of the language of enchantment and not afraid of express-ing a lifetime of longing for parents she never got enough of as a child, sharing the stage with eight younger siblings. The stories she tells of her own development and of the public and private lives of her mother and father are riveting without being salacious, and they hold our sympathy even while we understand that the family’s immense inherited wealth made their lives and their life choices quite different from most of ours. Paul Moore and Jenny McKean Moore were ambitious, unconventional figures devoted to doing good in the world while raising nine children, living well on Paul’s inheritance, and keeping a stash of secrets from each other and their children.

I think it was John O’Hara who said we can never know the truth about anyone else’s marriage, but that didn’t stop a daughter of this one, the eldest of nine, from trying. Honor spent about a dozen years researching and writing these two volumes. She began her excavation of her Boston Brahmin family, which included a founder of Radcliffe College, with The White Blackbird (1996), a biography of her mother’s mother, painter and sculptor Margarett Sargent, a distant relative of John Singer Sargent. Ancestors on her father’s side were illustrious in other realms—New York industrialists who created and acquired the Nabisco, U.S. Steel, and Bankers Trust fortunes. Scion of these assets, Paul Moore shunned commerce, attended seminary after Yale and the Marines, and became an Episcopal priest.

Paul and Jenny married in 1944 and, inspired by the “socially alive work” of Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker, they were moved to fight discrimination well before the Civil Rights Movement. Paul’s first posting, from 1949 to 1957, was in an inner-city parish in Jersey City, where they lived a modified version of “voluntary poverty.” In their case, it meant putting their furniture and monogrammed towels in storage when they moved to the rundown parish house, so that visitors from the church would feel comfortable there. Together they invigorated the community and made deep connections to parishioners. Twenty years later, a man who had been a boy at the time, paid Jenny a visit. “Before you came,” he told her, “we had very little hope. You started a chain of things…. You were the first white people we didn’t hate. There was love and care for a long time.”

Those unexpectedly idyllic years became the subject of Jenny’s first and only book, a well-received memoir, The People on Second Street (1969). Paul’s next post was dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, where he introduced parishioners in this conservative stronghold to inner city activism. In 1964, he was made suffragan (associate) bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, preached at the National Cathedral, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. As his activism and prominence grew, Jenny came into her own, writing the memoir and becoming friends with members of the city’s liberal intelligentsia. They lived in tony Cleve-land Park, on a friendly street with other prosperous writers, journalists and activists. Jenny had been friends with Ben Bradlee as a teenager, and in Washington she got to know Roger Wilkins, the columnist Mary McGrory, and Eugene McCarthy. She volunteered on his campaign and was with him and his wife at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated. By this time, Honor explains, for her mother “and many Americans, the terrain of moral thinking [had] significantly changed.”

Beneath the couple’s idealism, high spirits, and regular visits to lavish family properties, there lurked infidelity — his — and decades of festering disappointments and disagreements that they must have shared with their psychiatrists. Jenny had a temper and fought often with Honor, occasionally slapping her, introducing a thrum of distrust into their relationship that took years to repair. To her husband’s dismay, Jenny insisted on having nine children, all planned and two years apart, while Paul wanted to stop at half that many. Publicly, Paul climbed the clerical ladder to its pinnacle. In 1970, he moved with his family from Washing-ton to New York City to assist the Episcopal Bishop in preparation for his own appointment as Bishop in 1972. He preached at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, continued his activism, and garnered press attention when he opined on the issues of the day. Privately, he indulged in decades of infidelity with men. On Jenny’s side of the secrecy ledger: in 1969, late in their long marriage, she was confronted with his desire for men as she witnessed a revealing public moment between him and another man—but never said anything to him. She confided in her sister and two friends and no doubt re-examined years of their unhappy sex life, which she had blamed on herself. She said nothing but took decisive action that eventually led to their separation, telling him at first that she wanted to sleep apart, a rejection Paul did not understand until an encounter with Honor near the end of his life, thirty years later.

The next phase of the separation: together they decided to see people outside the marriage, and in 1971, after suffering a severe depression and spending two months in a New York psychiatric hospital, Jenny made a firm break and insisted on moving back to Washington with her five younger children—and insisted that Paul buy a house close to where they had lived before. He was not happy about the separation or becoming a part-time father who would visit on weekends. The press release he wrote that the Diocese put out about why the Bishop’s wife was, well, leaving town was another carefully constructed façade. Even Paul did not know the truth.

The upheavals in the Moore family mirrored those in the rest of the country in the 1970s. The sexual revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement had fractured “the social architecture” that had kept women and men in their prescribed roles since the beginning of time. Though Jenny had trouble talking frankly to her husband, she made overtures of intimacy to her feminist daughter as they shared the radical ideas and publications of the day—

Sexual Politics, The Golden Notebook, and early issues of Ms. “[Doris] Lessing used the phrase ‘Free Women,’” Honor writes. “And so, my mother and I began to stumble toward new terms of engagement – as free women.” Shortly after confiding in Honor that she was “having some problems in her marriage,” Jenny admitted that she had a lover, which Honor assumed, incorrectly, she was doing on the sly.

“Once that fall,” Honor writes in The Bishop’s Daughter, “my mother surprised me by asking when oral sex had come ‘into vogue.’ I had no idea what to say.” Nor did she know what to say when, over lunch around this time, Jenny admitted to her, “‘I didn’t have an orgasm until I was forty, and when I did, Paul said, ‘Jenny, what’s the matter?’” In Our Revolution, Honor writes, “This … was nakedness I did not want to see, my father fumbling and insensitive as a lover, my mother new to pleasure in her forties.” Secrets, lies, and sometimes entirely too much information.

Back in Washington on her own, Jenny took writing classes, reveled in being an “I” not a “we,” and though she felt what Honor calls a “significant chill from some of their old friends, women who disapproved of her ‘abandoning’ her husband,” Jenny had a new attitude:“Having always cared too much what ‘people’ thought,” she wrote, “I really don’t give a shit what ‘they’ say about this.” But sassy wasn’t the only note she struck: “My life alone—and relationship with Poppy [Paul] are reconstructed in a way I never dreamed possible—albeit somewhat Jamesian and I feel an inner joy and clarity.” And long-simmering tensions between Jenny and Honor faded as they bonded over the possibilities that feminism — and their new intimacy — promised. In March 1973, that bright promise vanished when Jenny was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Honor was twenty-seven and the youngest child, Patience, was ten. “Would I ever see my ten-year-old daughter with breasts?” Jenny wrote. “Could anyone else love her as I did?” Jenny bequeathed her cartons of writing to Honor, including an unfinished memoir, with instructions to do with them as she saw fit. It took Honor forty years, and becoming an established writer herself, to open the boxes and examine what was in them. Our Revolution is the story of that investigation and those discoveries, told with Moore’s signature directness and intimacy, her guard down, and her insights as acute as her longing.

*    *    *

There are many layers to the Moore family’s secrets, to who knew what and when and how. In a therapy session with her father near the end of his life, Honor told him that Jenny had known his secret, which she knew because of conversations with the women in whom Jenny had confided. In the same session, in response to a question from the therapist, Paul said of his wife, “We didn’t have a very good time in the sack, but we had a great partnership, and all you children.” If the truth about a couple’s marriage is impossible to know, the truth about their sex life is even more of a mystery.

After investigating the matter from every angle and scouring the cartons of Jenny’s writing for any shred of enlightenment — nothing turned up — Honor concludes that it was Jenny’s love and regard for Paul that kept her from confronting him. She wanted, her daughter believes, to spare him the shame he would have felt at being exposed, and she calls her mother “heroic” for never sharing what she knew with their children. It is easy for me to imagine a mother believing, in 1969 or 1970, that reveal-ing this information to nine children — or even the older ones — would have led to chaos. It was shocking enough when all of them learned as adults about their father’s bisexuality twenty years after Jenny died, from their stepmother, who had just discovered it herself. But why didn’t or couldn’t Jenny talk to her husband? Was it only wanting to protect him from shame? Might it have been her own shame, at having taken on so much of the blame for their not having “a very good time in the sack”? Might she have been hurt beyond words at feeling she had never been fully, unambiguously desired? Might she have been so enraged to have been betrayed for so long that she resorted to tit for tat — You never told me so I will never tell you? Or maybe it was simpler: The revelation gave her an easier exit from a marriage she had wanted to leave. She could now navigate a way out with less guilt — and after living in a marriage based on a false premise, she may have felt there was nothing to say. Or she may have felt that merely talking about it would lead too easily to ending the marriage — and there were all those children and their father she didn’t want to hurt. Could it have been all of the above? Or just a few? We’ll never know the truth just as we’ll never know the whole truth about our parents’ marriages, and sometimes even our own.

Living as we do now deep in the age of the memoir, when we’re not constrained in what we can write and when so much of that heavy social architecture has fallen away from our day-to-day lives, some of the Moore family’s secrets may be powerful reminders of what all that concealment cost and of how far we’ve come. But these are not memoirs with messages. They are a testament to the author’s courage in opening all those boxes and bringing these complicated, remarkable people to life.

*Review of Honor Moore, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (Norton, 2020). Other books by Honor Moore discussed in this review:
The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir (Norton, 2008)
The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter (Norton, 1996). Audiobook read by Stockard Channing (2020)
Poems from the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore (The Library of America, 2009)