‘The patriarchy and power: an insult to me, to women’

 Susanna Moore: In the Cut  is a transgressive cult classic. Photograph: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
It may be half a century since the In the Cut author was abused by two men, but male power continues to extend its grip

There are many titles the American novelist Susanna Moore could have chosen for her memoir; a memoir that tracks the years until she was 30, during the 1960s and 70s, most of that spent in Los Angeles. She could, for instance, have called it: My Time Reading Film Scripts for Warren Beatty. Or, My Affair With Jack Nicholson. Or, Me and All My Very Famous Hollywood Friends. Or even, The Man Who Raped Me and Many Other Aspiring Actresses; or, My First Husband Beat Me Unconscious When I Told Him I Was Leaving Him.

Moore chooses none of these titles, although all of them refer to actual events in her startling memoir. She calls it instead Miss Aluminum. Miss Aluminum refers to a costume she was required to wear for a boat trade show in New York, where the Aluminum Association was promoting the use of the material in nautical manufacturing. Her costume composed of a lot of silver sequins, and a cardboard trident wrapped with tinfoil and sprayed with glitter.

The costume may not have been understated, but her artfully constructed memoir is. The stories Moore has to tell are all delivered with the same calm serenity, which makes for some devastating reading, about which more anon.

Susanna Moore is speaking to me by phone from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where her daughter lives. She is now 74, and the author of several novels. Her most well-known one is In The Cut, which was made into a movie by Jane Campion. 

Before she was a novelist, she worked as a model and a movie extra. There are photographs of Moore as a young woman interspersed among the pages of Miss Aluminum: her high cheekbones and dark hair are striking, and her face is full of character.

We talk about beauty for a while. Does she think beauty is empowerment, I ask. Would her life have turned out differently if she was not the beautiful woman she was? 

Susanna Moore: Before she was a novelist, she worked as a model and a movie extra.
Susanna Moore: Before she was a novelist, she worked as a model and a movie extra.

“Of course it made a difference,” she says. “If I hadn’t been pretty, I wouldn’t have been asked to be a model; I wouldn’t have been asked to be in a movie; I wouldn’t have gone to California. Of course it is empowering in one sense, but it is not sufficient. It is not enough, it’s not what makes a person in the end. It shapes the person and it can harm a girl often, because of how she is treated because of her beauty. 

“It’s very difficult for people to accept that a woman – or a man – can be good looking and intelligent. You can be one or the other, but if you are attractive, there is a tendency to diminish the side that is intelligent, because it’s not considered to be possible, and I find I do it with men. So in that way, beauty is not empowering. It is diminishing and harmful.” 

Moore grew up in Hawaii, traumatised by the death of her mother, who died when she was only in her mid-30s. There followed a “terrible stepmother and a negligent father and I left home very young”. To escape, she went first as a teenager to live with her grandmother in Philadelphia, and then to California, where she sustained a successful modelling career.

By 20, she was married, to a man named as Bill. She had actively sought out marriage as further escape, and as a place of shelter. When she was 21, the fashion designer Oleg Cassini invited her to model his new collection in New York, on the Johnny Carson Show. He was then 55.

“A lot of people don’t know who he is now, but he was famous; very famous at the time. He was Mrs [Jackie] Kennedy’s designer, and he had a long affair with Grace Kelly,” she says.

I would have been destroyed if I had gone to the police or the hotel manager. Now, of course, I would behave differently

After the television appearance, Cassini took Moore and a female fashion designer for dinner, and then to a night club. They went back to the hotel where they were staying. Moore took a bath, and went to bed. There was a knock on her door. It was Cassini, who came into her room and raped her; an event which she describes with distressing dispassion. She did not tell anyone at the time what had happened. 

Was she able to admit that what Cassini did to her was rape?

“I wouldn’t have thought of it as rape; as an attack I suppose,” she says now. “The thing about it is that I just blamed myself. I did think at the time: why did I let him in, why did I not fight him off better and then the fact that I accepted a job from him two months later added to the impulse not to think about it too deeply. Because I couldn’t bear to think about it, and I also never told anyone.”

It never occurred to her to report what had happened. “He was an icon. How would I have succeeded? I would have been humiliated, I am sure. I would have been destroyed if I had gone to the police or the hotel manager. Now, of course, I would behave differently.”

When the #MeToo movement evolved, she began to think about what had happened to her in that New York hotel room. 

“It made me think how different it would be now for me in exposing him; not letting him go on to do it to other women, which apparently he did.” With the publication of her book, Moore was horrified to receive correspondence from other women, who told her Cassini had similarly sexually abused them. Like her, they too had kept silent. “I did nothing and they did nothing.” (He is now dead.)

In Los Angeles, Moore became friends with a woman called Connie Wald, who invited her to the dinners she frequently hosted. The first time she went, the other guests were Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. It was through Wald that Moore met pretty much all the Hollywood stars of the time. Through these contacts, she read film scripts for Warren Beatty, had an affair with Jack Nicholson, discussed literature with Joan Didion and photography with Richard Avedon. 

“Those dinners were so nice. It gave a kind of substance to what otherwise could have been a very superficial life,” she says. “I don’t think anyone in Hollywood gives those kind of dinner parties any more. Most actors don’t even live in Hollywood any more.”

I wish I had been encouraged to understand that I was a person worth holding dear, and a person of worth

One regular dinner guest at the Wald house was Audrey Hepburn. One evening, Hepburn sought out Moore to give her a piece of “life-changing” advice. Then Hepburn got distracted. Moore waited days for the moment to arise again. Hepburn’s advice turned out to be: always wear the same colour shoes as your tights. It was not the wisdom Moore had been seeking.

Looking back now, what advice would have benefited her best at that time in her life?

“I wish I had been encouraged to understand that I was a person worth holding dear, and a person of worth,” she confesses. 

It’s all the more poignant to read this knowing what happened when Moore was 21 and told her husband she wanted a divorce. His response was to beat her unconscious. Her injuries were so severe that the police asked her if she wanted to charge him with attempted murder. She writes about all this, and the fact she pressed no charges at all. Some weeks later, she was granted an uncontested divorce: in front of the judge, her lawyer asked her to remove her sunglasses, which revealed her still-disfigured face. 

There are many anecdotes about many famous actors in the memoir, so obviously the copy had to be cleared in advance by lawyers. Those actors who are still alive, like Jack Nicholson, were sent a copy at manuscript stage, so they could ask for changes. (He did not ask for any.) So the process was surprisingly smooth for all but one person named in the memoir – her ex-husband. The lawyers wanted her to remove his surname. It turns out this Bill person is now a very successful, and very wealthy man, who married again. 

I had to ask myself, was I seeking vengeance. Do I want that stress in my life, and I thought: no. I did not want that. I took out his last name

“The lawyer said he could cause me harm: if his children don’t know or his wife doesn’t know, that he almost beat his first wife to death. There could be articles in the paper. The reason they wanted me to take his name off is that he is powerful and on corporate boards. The lawyers worried that he would be dropped from corporate boards, and want to sue. I thought that was so insulting to me – to women. Anyway, that is the patriarchy and power. They also told me: he has the means to sue you. He is really wealthy, and he would have the capability of doing it.”

Moore decided she did not want the stress of this scenario possibly playing out. She took the surname out, although there is a photograph of him in the book, and his first name is indeed Bill. (There is no mention of him at all in her Wikipedia entry.) “I had to ask myself, was I seeking vengeance. Do I want that stress in my life, and I thought: no. I did not want that. I took out his last name,” she says.

“But afterwards, someone said to me – speaking of the #MeToo movement – do you think you are the only person he has ever beaten up? And why are you protecting him? I thought that was startling. I had not thought of that.”

Readers of this memoir will be entertained, enraged and saddened simultaneously. It may be half a century since Moore was abused twice over by two different men, but it seems that male power can extend a grip over decades. To be fearful of publicly naming your own ex-husband in 2020 for almost beating you to death cannot be called progress. Yet who can blame Moore for making that choice? Miss Aluminum will make you uncomfortable, as it should. And who knows? Maybe Bill will read it too. 

Miss Aluminum by Susanna Moore is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.