Susanna Moore: 'Jack Nicholson used to call me Miss Discreet'

The In the Cut author on telling her incredible life story in a new memoir that reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s golden age

Susanna Moore is the author of seven novels, among them the 1995 thriller In the Cut, which was made into a film by Jane Campion. Born in 1945, she grew up in Hawaii and now lives in New York. In her new memoir, Miss Aluminium, she tells the story of how she escaped an unhappy childhood, working first as an assistant in the New York department store Bergdorf Goodman and then as a model, before winding up in Hollywood. There she was a script reader for Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson – and met her second husband, Richard Sylbert, the Oscar-winning production designer of such films as Chinatown and The Graduate

Where have you been spending the lockdown? 
I’m in Martha’s Vineyard, with my daughter and grandchildren. I have this strange, non-contagious form of TB, which I got in India from mould, so I’m high risk. I spent the first nine weeks not once in the presence of another human being, but I grew to like it: the tranquillity and the silence. 

Why did you wait so long to write a memoir? 
I was always reluctant. I was fearful of the accusation of name-dropping. This is the first time I’ve ever written about Jack [Nicholson] or even acknowledged our relationship. He always used to tease me and call me Miss Discreet. 

Does the young Susanna feel like you or does she seem like a different person? 
That’s a good question. Some reviews have suggested that I used the #MeToo movement to go public. But that’s absolutely not true. I had never talked about or even told anyone about the Oleg Cassini rape before [she was assaulted by the designer, a favourite of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, while modelling for him], partly because I blamed myself. Since then, I’ve changed, and the culture and the system have changed. But there were still aspects of writing the book that were humiliating and certainly embarrassing. I kept asking myself: why did I do that? What was I thinking? Above all, in the case of Oleg Cassini, why did I go on working for him afterwards? 

There are two older women in the book who befriend you. One, in Honolulu, is Ale Kaiser. The other is Connie Wald, an LA society hostess. What gifts did they give you, beyond the obvious material things? 
Mrs Kaiser gave me something that wasn’t tangible, which was that she included me in her glamorous, sophisticated world – and this meant that later, when I met Connie, I could go to dinner with Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn and take it in my stride. Her gift was exposure to a world that wasn’t provincial. It would have been better [when I moved to New York] if she’d sent me $100 a week rather than a dozen pairs of custom-made alligator court shoes [Kaiser used to send Moore crateloads of her castoffs: Balenciaga, Dior, Mainbocher] because there were moments when I didn’t have money for food. But I understood the difference between giving someone money and giving them clothes. 

But as you make clear in the book, clothes matter, don’t they?
Yes, they’re important. They’re protection and disguise. One thing about writing is that you can’t make up a metaphor beforehand - that comes afterwards. It was only much later that I realised that the bit in the book at Bergdorfs, where I refuse to take off Mrs Kaiser’s clothes in front of Miss Morris [the store’s house designer, who wanted Moore to model for her] because of the garments beneath [her underwear was brown with age], was really about something else. I didn’t want anyone to see the me who allowed my mother to die; who was not good enough to keep her alive [Moore’s mother, who suffered from depression, died when she was 12]. 

Moore at the Hotel Las Brisas, Acapulco, 1967.
Moore at the Hotel Las Brisas, Acapulco, 1967. Photograph: Photo taken by William Claxton, courtesy of Susanna Moore

Was your beauty a blessing or a curse? 
I knew even as a teenager that it was both and I consciously decided not to think about it too much, nor even to look in the mirror often. I did not refer to it, I did not count on it. Richard Avedon [the fashion photographer] once said to me when I was perhaps 50: “You had no idea, did you?” The complicated part is that all of us, myself included, don’t believe that you can be good looking and smart. The other day there was a doctor on MSNBC who was very handsome, and I thought: hmm, you probably didn’t go to a very good medical school. Then I caught myself. “How dare you do that,” I said, “when you’ve been conscious of that happening to you.”

Was it frustrating, not being taken seriously? 
I write about being at Elaine’s [the New York restaurant], a gathering place for all these smart men [William Styron, Kenneth Tynan, Neil Simon]; me listening and listening. No one ever asked me what I thought of Nixon’s speech on Vietnam or whether I thought that Dominick Dunne really was writing like Trollope. I learned to keep my mouth shut. Only later did I become defiant, outspoken, rebellious, even wild. 

Your portraits of Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson are fond but comical, too. Which people from that time do you still see? 
I haven’t seen Warren in years. Jack is very reclusive now. He’s 83. No one sees him. Joan [Didion, with whom Moore lived for a time] I see often. But I meant the book to be funny in places, like when Joan comes down in her sunglasses, drinks a Coke and opens a tin of almonds [her usual breakfast]. When Warren asked to see my legs [in her interview to be his script reader], it didn’t offend me. I thought it was funny. They were men who sometimes behaved badly and selfishly, without too much thought – but also, wonderfully. 

Do you still have any of Mrs Kaiser’s clothes?
Yes, quite a few things. I have a beautiful camel hair coat by Norman Norell that I wear all the time. It has those three-quarter sleeves with which women wore long gloves scrunched at the wrist. So chic! Though it’s a little chilly unless you have the gloves.

• Miss Aluminium is published by Weidenfeld (£9.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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