There are points when the recitation of Hollywood names (Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Joel Schumacher, Jack Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Didion herself) begins to lose its glamour and feel like… just a list. But then Moore will deliver some divinely human glimpse of a starry acquaintance, or an elegantly devastating scene of her mother, and the spell of her voice is back as strong as ever. Miss Aluminium ends before she really becomes a writer, but with her poised for that part of her life to begin; its ravishing execution is testament to how fine a writer she became.
Wending as it does through some wonderful passages, the detached quality of Miss Aluminium is curious. Moore’s sketches of famous friends cut to the quick – Nichols is tiringly brilliant; Beatty is restless and ravenous; Roman Polanski (this 20-something starlet was “too old to interest him”) makes a contest of everything. Where we might expect that same gaze to turn inwards, though, it holds back, as if Moore is concerned that examining her choices too intently might mire the book in solipsism. Maybe a certain aloof mystique is all part of the appeal, but one can’t help feeling that she forfeits her chance to make Miss Aluminium a classic of the form.
Perhaps the most memorable passages in the book, however, are her accounts of the nights she spent with Connie Wald – the consummate Beverly Hills hostess – who would invite over the masterminds and stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age for dinner parties ending in pineapple upside-down cake and chartreuse. Among Wald’s regular guests? Both Audrey Hepburn and Joan Didion. (If you recognise Moore, it may well be from her appearance in Griffin Dunne’s Netflix documentary about Didion, The Centre Will Not Hold, in which Moore describes Didion’s habit of nursing an ice-cold Coca Cola and salted almonds as soon as she woke up.)
Moore deploys a disarming repertoire of sideswipes, gallows humour and raised eyebrows, whether writing about trivia or tragedy. Seated next to James Stewart at a party, she doesn’t recognise him at first because he’s not wearing his wig. Describing a friend’s luxurious flat, she says, “The carpets were white fur, perhaps polar bear.” After meeting a married film producer, she reveals that “Mr Netter spent the night in my room, I presume engaging in sex”. When he leaves the next morning she jokes sadly: “Just leave the money on the table.”
Names are not so much dropped as tossed carelessly into the story — name-dropping, after all, requires a much higher regard for celebrity than Moore seems to possess. Though she drifts easily through a starry milieu, her life is far from charmed. A simmering undercurrent of violence — physical, sexual, psychological — runs throughout. At 21, Moore is raped in her hotel room by the designer Oleg Cassini, couturier to Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly. She does not tell the police, knowing she would never be believed over her wealthy, powerful attacker, and blames herself.
She was also an observer, which serves her well here. The book bursts with brilliantly gossipy titbits, recounted with wry understatement, from James Stewart’s use of a toupee to the story spread by the mistress of Alfred Bloomingdale – he of the department store – that he “liked to sit in a custom-made high chair in baby clothes and a bib while she threw cold pablum [baby porridge] at him”... From the outside, Moore’s life seemed gilded with its merry-go-round of parties, lovers, designer clothes and dizzyingly famous friends. In Miss Aluminium, her tales of the Hollywood high life certainly provide giggles and glitz, though the darkness is never far from the surface. The real story is the ripple effect of grief, a woman’s self-invention and the awful deeds of powerful men.
The surfaces are glitzy, but the dark shadow of Moore’s mother looms large, and details about her electric shock therapy and suicide attempts slowly seep out. The book ends in the mid-1970s, somewhat abruptly, with Moore as a mother, separated from Sylbert, and not yet a novelist. She has found her footing, though, and you long for another 100 pages, to see this bright beauty in the driving seat of her own life at long last.
Susanna married Dick Sylbert, who rose to be vice president of Paramount Pictures. She brilliantly captures the sleazy glamour of Hollywood in the 1970s, partying with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Roman Polanski, but the marriage didn’t last.
At 30, with an adored young daughter, she realised that she could cope on her own. ‘I would find a place to live,’ she writes. ‘And a real job ... It would be all right.’ She is now a successful thriller writer.
There are times, reading Miss Aluminium, when you are aghast at the choices she makes, but you always understand why she acted as she did. This is a totally gripping and tremendously entertaining memoir.
“In the Cut” received a barrage of feminist criticism 25 years ago for Moore’s creation of a theoretically smart antiheroine seemingly determined to make risky sexual choices with no interest in self-analysis. With the power dynamics of such transactions now under intense discussion, there can be little doubt that this memoir is Moore’s own provocative entry into the conversation. Through the #MeToo lens, her measured, superficially judgment-free recounting of her time in the middle of All That can be read as a personal statement of empowerment: She came, she saw, she took notes, and she left to become a novelist and a miss-no-detail student of female autonomy.