A life less ordinary

The chances must be that you’ve never heard of Lorna Moon, but if ever there was a Scottish writer whose story - and writing - deserve to be rescued from the dusty annals of the history books and the margins of academe, it is hers. Like all the best tales, the story of Moon’s life has an epic improbability.

Born in the Buchan village of Strichen in 1886 she would bear three children by three different men in three countries spanning an ocean before high-tailing it to Hollywood. There she would write scenarios, screenplays and fiction while becoming deeply, and strangely, involved with one of the greatest players in cinema history before dying, aged just 43, from Tuberculosis in a New Mexico sanatorium.

That summary of a life lived at breakneck speed, replete with great happiness and gut-wrenching misery, scarcely does justice to Moon’s adventures, however.

Strichen, notes Glenda Norquay in her introduction to Moon’s collected works, "is a striking example of a planned Buchan village. Even today its streets run in symmetrical lines and neat intersections. It speaks of regulation, order and surveillance. And yet, on Mormond Hill above Strichen, the outline of a huge white horse is laid out in stone. This contrast between romantic hill, extreme landscape and the tidy streets of Strichen stands as a metaphor of the oppositions shaping the life and the writing of the extraordinary Lorna Moon".

Moon’s life story, she continues, challenges "our expectations for a woman in rural Scotland in the early 20th century". And how.

Moon was actually born Nora Low and grew up the daughter of a labourer who regularly travelled the world in search of work, including to Canada, America and South Africa. Her mother ran a temperance hotel. Those circumstances made for a difficult childhood for a naturally inventive, artistic and tempestuous child.

By the time she was 19 it would appear that she was desperate to find any escape possible. A Yorkshire watchmaker named Will Hebditch was seduced by the 19-year-old Nora while he was staying at her mother’s hotel. When she announced she was pregnant he was forced to marry her, and they lived in Yorkshire until Hebditch decided to move the family to Alberta in Canada to pursue his ambition of becoming a farmer.

Nora, however, had not intended to swap the isolation of north-east Scotland for the vast emptiness of the Canadian prairie. After a year in Canada she encountered another Englishman named Walter Moon. The two quickly fell in love and moved to Winnipeg, leaving Hebditch and the baby behind. Since they could not marry legally, Nora Hebditch became Lorna Moon - taking her new Christian name from her favourite childhood book, Lorna Doone.

In 1913, she found a job on the Winnipeg Telegraph and also appeared in a number of plays at the local theatre. The moment, however, that set her already eventful life on a new course came when she reviewed Cecil B de Mille’s adaptation of JM Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton. Moon, as she now was, took exception to the liberties that de Mille had taken for the film, entitled Male and Female, and fired off a letter to him highlighting the film’s shortcomings.

De Mille, intrigued as ever by a headstrong, confident and feisty woman, replied that if she felt she could do better she should get to Hollywood fast. Within weeks, she had left Walter Moon and her young child behind and set off for the Hollywood hills.

Perhaps the best fictionalised account of the silent movie era, William Boyd’s 1988 novel The New Confessions captured the glamour and excitement in European cinema at the time. Across the Atlantic, in the new Hollywood studios the movie business was no less exciting, buzzing with new ideas. Moon quickly became a part of this scene and set to work penning sequences for silent films featuring stars such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. Arguably her greatest success came with Mr Wu which she wrote for Lon Chaney.

Having invented an entirely new life story - she claimed to be the daughter of a clan chief and a war widow - the most complicated of Moon’s romantic entanglements was yet to come. She encountered the writer and director William de Mille (Cecil’s brother) at a studio party and embarked upon a brief but passionate affair in 1921. Again she became pregnant. Only this time, because of William’s own romantic affairs and standing in Hollywood, there could be no easy way of avoiding scandal.

Risking her life - she was suffering again from the TB she had originally contracted as a child in Strichen - to have the child, she gave birth in a sanatorium. As soon as the baby was delivered, he was taken from her, "accidentally discovered" in the back of a friend’s car and then adopted by Cecil, rather than William, de Mille.

Moon remained in the sanatorium for a further two years, writing the short stories based upon her childhood that would be published in Century magazine and published as Dorways in Drumorty.

A mixture of acute social observation, satire and melodrama, the stories were not popular in Strichen - where the library refused to stock a copy. As her son Richard wryly points out, it is not hard to imagine the discomfort felt by the villagers in finding "a mysterious Scottish writer living far away in Hollywood publishing fiction in which her former neighbours found their own private habits, base deeds, noble acts and farcical pretences sharply drawn for all to see. Their surprise is our good fortune".

She returned to Hollywood to enter what she, like so many writers before and since, considered the "brothel" of being a screenwriter. Nonetheless, though prevented from seeing her son Richard, her financial needs were looked after by the de Milles.

Her return was comparatively short-lived, however. In 1927, while working on Greta Garbo’s interpretation of Anna Karenina, she was again stricken with TB and forced to repair to a sanatorium. There she began work on a novel, Dark Star, which was published in 1929, months before her death. It became a best-seller.

She died on May 1 in Albuquerque, and her last lover, Everett Marcy, took her ashes home so they could be scattered on Mormon Hill above Strichen.

Her collected writings, now available together for the first time, combine the pleasure of rediscovering a forgotten talent with the poignant echo of "what might have been" had she lived longer. Like the best Hollywood movies, to adapt Oscar Wilde’s epigram about cigarettes, they leave you satisfied yet wanting more.

The Collected Works of Lorna Moon is published by Black and White Publishing, priced 9.99.