The decor of the restaurant Honor Moore has selected for our meeting near her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side is tasteful, understated, warm—adjectives that readily apply to the author herself. “By nature I'm a discreet person,” says Moore, but in her new book, The Bishop's Daughter (Norton), a memoir of her father, the late Episcopal bishop Paul Moore, she explores a highly personal topic—her father's hidden homosexual life—and the often painful impact on her and others close to him that resulted from his bisexuality.
A playwright and poet whose most recent volume of verse is Red Shoes (Norton, 2005), Moore, 62, has covered sensitive family territory before, in The White Blackbird (Viking, 1995), a biography of her maternal grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent. Sargent abandoned her art in early middle age, undone by the effort to maintain the facade of respectability as a high society wife and mother of four children. Alcoholism, affairs (with both sexes) and lengthy stays in mental hospitals marked her declining years. Moore, a background presence in The White Blackbird, sought to draw lessons for her own writing career from her grandmother's tragic example.
In The Bishop's Daughter, Moore shares center stage with her subject. Intensely personal, this complex family saga is compelling in the contrast between Paul's public career as a charismatic religious leader active in such progressive causes as the civil rights movement and his conflicted private life.
Educated at St. Paul's and Yale, a combat hero in World War II, Paul found his calling as an Episcopal minister. After serving a poor parish in Newark, N.J., he became dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Indianapolis and later suffragan bishop of Washington, D.C.; in 1972, he was appointed the bishop of the diocese of New York, from which he retired in 1989.
In 1944, Paul married Jenny McKean, Sargent's second daughter. Together they produced nine children, starting with Honor. In the summer of 1969, Jenny told her oldest daughter, “I am having some problems with my marriage,” but didn't specify the underlying cause of these problems. At the time of Jenny's death from cancer at age 51 in 1973, the couple were trying hard to save their marriage. Paul remarried less than two years later.
Meanwhile, Moore came of age in the 1960s, attended Radcliffe, had a play produced, wrote poetry and became a creative writing teacher. (She currently teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.) She experienced her own ups and downs in a series of relationships, first with men and later with women. When she learned from a family friend in whom her mother had confided that Paul had had homosexual affairs, she became upset with her father. Having spent years in analysis, Moore persuaded him to enter into joint therapy with her, which was interrupted by a family crisis leading to her alcoholic stepmother's death.
Moore decided to write about Paul for the magazine the American Scholar, when he became sick with cancer in his 80s. “I tried a memoir about my father twice before, but I abandoned it because I had no story. I was too angry, too unresolved,” she says. Ann Fadiman, editor of the American Scholar, suggested she do a piece in the form of a journal, which was published in the fall after Paul's death in 2003 as “My Father's Ship.”
This article caught the attention of Jill Bialosky, who would later become Moore's editor at Norton. “I was so struck by the beautiful writing,” says Bialosky, who's excited by the book's prospects. Moore, already well-known in poetry circles as a great reader, is lined up for several appearances on the East Coast. An excerpt ran in the March 3 issue of the New Yorker.
The Bishop's Daughter can be considered a kind of detective story, full of dramatic emotional surprises, in which Moore pieces together the secret side of her father's life. One of the more poignant sections chronicles her getting to know a longtime male lover of her father's in the years after his death. “I came to see who my father was in his terms,” says Moore. “He saw himself as a normal person who had a conflict and did the best he could with it.”
Moore's quest to understand her larger-than-life father closes with a moving image as attendants carry his coffin down the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine after his funeral service. “I fly down the final steps... and I touch the wood, alone there I touch the coffin, at the same time seeing myself in black, a woman bending toward a coffin, her hand reaching.”