About a year ago, I wrote a review of The Bishop’s Daughter, Honor Moore’s memoir of her father, the late Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore. The review never ran, but the recent release of that book in paperback prompted me to return to the review, and I still think it contains some points worth making. So here it is; read on:
In the strongest sense, literature has no ethnicity, of course. Beloved is not African American, even if its author is; Studs Lonergan is not Irish-American, even if its author is. Art, that’s what they are. But for the sake of shorthand, and to describe our acquired tastes, we do use ethnic language for literature (and so Portnoy’s Complaint is obviously Jewish, to take a familiar example). By those arbitrary standards, The Bishop’s Daughter, Honor Moore’s memoir of her father, the late Episcopal bishop Paul Moore, is a distinguished contribution to the very small genre we might call WASP confessional. Other writers have delivered the juicy, clam-baked goods, dishing on the sex and drugs and general dissolution hidden behind the brownstone walls, but the most notable of these works have usually been fictional, if just barely: from Edith Wharton to John Cheever, from Evan Connell to Louis Auchincloss, all can be told if no real names are used. In The Bishop’s Daughter, Moore quite plainly has decided that the old rules aren’t just old—they’re dead.
The book is thus instructive as an example of how meaningless ethnic literary categories are becoming, if they ever mattered all. Having decided there’s nothing to be said for her tribe’s traditional discretion, Moore can thus yank her bisexual father, who died in 2003, quite rudely from the posthumous closet and write of her mother’s descent into mental illness, of her own abortion, of lesbian affairs, and of straight affairs too numerous to keep straight. Much of the book’s compelling scent is the strong whiff of transgression. It’s the odor of dirty sex coming off those sheets of paper. Who writes like this about her dead father’s sodomite tendencies? Who besmirches the church this way? Certainly not a Radcliffe alumna descended of a founder of Bankers Trust! Thank God few of her father’s St. Paul’s classmates are alive to see this. Moores just don’t do this.
That was, in any case, one way to read the message of several anguished letters that Honor Moore’s siblings wrote to The New Yorker after the magazine published an excerpt from The Bishop’s Daughter in March 2008. But what they actually spoke of was common, not aristocratic, decency. “With moving elegiac sentiments, my sister Honor Moore has outed my recently deceased father, Bishop Paul Moore, against his clearly and often stated will,” Paul Moore III wrote. “Many of her siblings were astonished when she decided to do so. Our family resembles many others in that we presume a natural confidentiality as we share our struggles in life.” Osborn Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek and a neighbor of Paul Moore’s in Stonington, Conn., added his two, acerbic cents: “Writing about what she learned growing up as a daughter of Bishop Paul Moore, Jr.—and later about his secret life—Honor Moore seems to have forgotten the Fifth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.”
I for the most part agree with Honor’s younger siblings and with Mr. Elliott: it’s a bad thing to write a book like this. Not because it libels the dead, who in this case is quite guilty and therefore not libeled in any case. And not because it violates class protocol. Rather, there has to be a very good reason to to go against the wishes of those friends and other family who would rather not see their beloved exhumed for the purpose of Amazon rankings. And Moore’s defense, straight from the canons of romanticism, does not cut it: “I came to understand that my own sexual development was inextricably tied up with my father’s complicated erotic life, and…I thought that story important for me to understand. [B]ecause I was a writer, understanding meant telling.” “So you have to write this for your integrity?” Moore is asked. “Yes,” Moore answers.
Nonsense, I answer. And I say that as a writer, one with the same good notices and poor sales as Honor Moore. Our integrity cannot require us to hang Daddy’s dirty laundry in public, nor to ignore the feelings of our siblings. (As another eldest sibling in a large family, I am particularly galled by Moore’s sororal irresponsibility.)
Meanwhile, however, the book is very good. The language is lovely, showing Bishop Moore vividly in all the stations of his cross: as the prep school boy slowly coming to Jesus, the worker priest serving the poor yet conflicted about his own family’s wealth (and about his lust for men), the sad, widowed father of nine children, the nationally famous left-wing bishop of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, and the elder pastor, outed to his family and hoping for some portion of their compassion. And not only is the book beautifully written—a published poet, Moore will surely be remembered for this exercise in prose—and anthropologically interesting, taking us inside that world where possessions are rarely bought but always had, where every friend and lover has a summer home, and where practically the only Jew to be seen is “Arnold Weinstein,” a Portnoy-figure who honors the much younger Honor by making love on her “in daring, experimental ways.” The book is also theologically profound, making a powerful case that Paul Moore’s progressive episcopate depended on his homosexual urges. He was an enlightened clergyman because, not in spite of, what he believed was his sin-darkened heart.
In his daughter’s telling, Paul Moore appears to have been that rare creature, a genuine male bisexual. As a bachelor Paul Moore had courted more than one woman, and Honor, using her parents’ letters, reconstructs for us the winding road that led to Jenny McKean’s triumph over the competition. Then, beginning at least in seminary, already married, Paul Moore was having gay relationships. He continued having gay sex throughout his marriage. But when he and Jenny separated in 1970, probably because she knew about his affairs, they agreed to see other people…and soon, Honor later discovered, he was “dating no fewer than five women.” After Jenny’s death from cancer in 1973, a grieving Moore connected with at least one old female love but soon was re-married to a new love, Brenda Eagle. He seems truly, if inexplicably, besotted with his second wife, a falling-down drunk who wastes none of her small capacity for kindness on her stepchildren; but the marriage does not, at least, seem like a cynical arrangement meant to maintain a public persona. Meanwhile, Moore keeps his long-term male lover, abandons him when Brenda finds out, then goes back to him after Brenda’s death. He also goes back to women, taking at least one lover shortly before his death. (He told me about her when I interviewed him in 2002.) Long after he was out of the public eye, when he had no reputation to uphold, and when his children all knew about his gay past and present, he continued to love and make love to both men and women.
Honor Moore is very sensitive to the nuances of her father’s complicated sexuality, and she never tries to fix his erotic life to any theoretical matrix (his sexuality is never “on a continuum,” for example). She lets the facts speak for themselves, and saves her interpretation for the relationship between those sexual facts and his ministry. First, Honor notes, the overriding desire in Paul Moore’s life was not sexual but pastoral. He wanted to serve God in a very specific way: not as a theologian or church educator or deacon or choir director, but as an Episcopal priest of the traditional parish kind. That meant, in his estimation, having a wife, not just or even mainly for appearance’s sake, but rather because he would need a helpmeet in serving God. “Eventually,” Honor writes, “he found himself in love with my mother, his misgivings about her and his other desires subordinate to his quest for a partner in the life he was becoming more and more determined to pursue, a life in the church.” Attracted to both men and women, he chose to settle down with a woman, and as a young bride that woman helped him feed the poor and shelter the destitute in their parsonage in Jersey City; their joint ministry became a model in the church for engaged social action.
Honor seems to believe that the will does have some sway over the libido. Not only does her father choose women, but after a rocky time with men she loves only women for a long time, then returns to men. In this view, it is plausible that the bishop chose his double life in part because of the kinship it would give him with the suffering. Moore’s first great causes were justice for the Negro and for the poor man, and he was as far as can be from either. He did, however, have his own burden—homosexual love—and it’s one that gave him a sense of otherness, of what it was to be the Invisible Man.
“As my father lived his sexuality with men, it certainly was ‘something else,’” Honor writes, “something that moved beneath the surface of the life he lived with his wives, with his children, with parishioners and colleagues; something that moved between the interstices of language in the charged realm of desire, of imagination, of relationship with the unseen, informing his theology and compassion.” What’s more, if he “had disclosed that existence to his wives and children, he would have had to give up one life or the other….” This is not the time-worn drama of the tragic closet-case. Rather, Honor is arguing that her father’s refusal to choose between two worlds, even in old age, when gay rights were a fact of the world, and even at great cost to honest relations with his family, was the crucible in which his special Christian charity was forged.
That’s not to say that Paul always saw his bisexuality as a blessing. He was a man of his time, ashamed of his same-sex attraction, and he could be blunt about what he saw as a terrible failure. He did not valorize gay love as some sort of manly, Platonic ideal; to the contrary, he saw it as inferior to what a man shared with a woman. “It was an addiction,” he once told Honor. By contrast, “I loved your mother, and I love Brenda.” And at a time, the late 1960s, when other preachers, like the philandering William Sloane Coffin, were preaching a “situation ethics” that might allow for extramarital sex, Moore was slow to give up the belief that “all sexual activity outside marriage was per se sinful,” as he wrote in his memoir.
But of course that unflagging sense of rectitude contributed to Moore’s suffering, and therefore may have made him an even finer pastor. In 1969, Jim Stoll, the first openly gay Unitarian minister, once compared the plight of homosexuals to the plight of blacks in America. “[T]here are many different groups of ‘Niggers’ in this country,” he wrote. “Mexican Americans, poor people, women, and yes, homosexuals.” Moore would never have preached in such off-color language, but he would have been in intuitive agreement with Stoll. “But what of the suffering?” Honor writes. “It was my father’s sacrifice and his gift. It was, as he had once told Andrew Verver”—his longtime lover—“what kept his ministry alive, what made his faith necessary.”
What made his faith necessary. The late twentieth century was not a good time for liberal religion, and certainly not for mainline Protestantism. The old establishment churches, the Congregationalists and the Episcopalians, hemorrhaged membership. People like Paul Moore were losing faith all around him; Honor is quite typical in having rejected the church of her patrician ancestors, the church of her dad. But Paul Moore remained a believer; his faith did not waver. Was it being bisexual that made his faith not only possible but necessary? Without it, would he have been just a rich old white man with a sentimental side and a soft sport for high-church ritual? Did the poor and benighted whom he served have his “addiction” to thank—for his willingness to lead them into the light, for his table where he fed them?
When Paul Moore told his eldest daughter, “It’s come out that I’ve had gay affairs,” he followed up quickly that “it is not public, and…you are NOT going to write a short story about it.” Honor was disoriented, and one of her first thoughts was, “Doesn’t he know I don’t write fiction?” She sure doesn’t. This is an exercise in confessional, the kind her father knew only in a liturgical context. We cannot know how her father would have felt about this fine exercise in non-fiction, and we can only wonder if her siblings will ever forgive her. But for those interested in what makes even some flawed men great, what makes them give their lives over to an ideal that leads them to serve others, this book offers a fresh, provocative answer.