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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Maura Moynihan

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-20

Maura Moynihan has a new avatar.

"Yes, I absolutely believe in reincarnation," the daughter of one of New York's most revered public figures, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said, bowing ever so slightly, closing her eyes, and joining her hands in the steepled, age-old form of paying obeisance to another person or to one's own good fortune.

"My life has been a journey through many avatars," Ms. Moynihan said.

Among her avatars were as a singer whose career was launched by Andy Warhol, and whose face was featured on the coveted cover of his magazine, "Interview"; as an international consultant who lived in Nepal for four years to help refugees, and helped start Radio Free Asia; as a gadfly at Harvard University, her alma mater; as a graduate student at The New School; as an impressionist and impresario; as a Catholic who became a Hindu and then adopted Buddhism; and as an unrelenting advocate for the rights of Tibetans.

Now, with the publication in a few days of "Covergirl: Confessions of a Flawed Hedonist" (Regan Books/HarperCollins), Ms. Moynihan adds another avatar: novelist.

"I started writing when I was five years old. I wanted to be a poet," Ms. Moynihan said. "I've never stopped writing."

While "Covergirl" is her first novel, it is her second book of fiction. Her collection of short stories, "Yoga Hotel," also published by her friend Judith Regan, hit the best seller list of The Washington Post. Ms. Moynihan's touching portrayal of an assortment of American and Indian characters seized by the vagaries and vicissitudes of the mystic East, prompted John Kenneth Galbraith to characterize her literary effort as possessing "a penetrating, delightful, and beautifully engraved intelligence."

Any author would have been flattered to receive an encomium from the great economist, and, of course, Ms. Moynihan was thrilled. She had a special reason to be pleased with Galbraith's words: not only had he been an ambassador of the United States to India like her father, Galbraith had also been a neighbor over long years in Cambridge, Mass., when Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught at Harvard and first gained fame as one of America's pre-eminent social scientists.

Indeed, there couldn't be too many New York women who can say that John Kenneth Galbraith and John Fitzgerald Kennedy indulged them when they were toddlers, and that Daniel Patrick Moynihan loved them as only a father could.

"I was so fortunate to have known those giants of our age," Ms. Moynihan said. "I had a magical childhood. I look back at those times with nostalgia."

There was no greater giant for her than her father, who died on March 26, 2003, two years after he retired from the Senate, where he'd served for four terms representing New York.

"I miss him dearly, and I am so gratified that the people of New York love him and remember him with so much affection," Ms. Moynihan said. "I realize that I am always going to be my parents' daughter - but my father and mother [Elizabeth Brennan Moynihan] always encouraged me to live my own life. They gave me humanist values. In our household, racial epithets of any kind not only constituted bad manners, they were sinful.

"It was my father's destiny to help people, and I think it has been mine, too. He often quoted an old Jewish saying, 'He who saves one life, saves the whole world,'" she said.

Ms. Moynihan is gathering his wisdom in a book. It will be illustrated with pictures from her extensive family album that records Moynihan's life arc from his birth in Oklahoma, to his days as a shoe-shine boy in a poor New York neighborhood, to his heralded tenure as an academician who studied and wrote about poverty, to his service in four presidential administrations, to his decision not to seek re-election in 2000 (Moynihan's seat is now occupied by Hillary Rodham Clinton).

If public service animated the senator, it was his deep horror of genocide that elicited his humanitarianism and led him to mobilize others - including his daughter - in a continuing campaign for global freedom.

"I remember one occasion in Washington, after I'd had a particularly long day at the Holocaust Museum - where I worked for two years - and I was depressed at man's inhumanity to man, about state sponsored genocide during the Nazi years. My father looked at me in that gentle way, and said, 'But, dear, do you think that it was ever any better?'" Ms. Moynihan said.

On another occasion, Moynihan said to his daughter: "If one can't prevent genocide, you can at least not ignore it. We still have to keep up the fight, don't we? Without peace there is nothing."

Maura Moynihan's own fight against genocide has been focused on Tibet, the so-called autonomous region one-third the land mass of China that Mao Zedong's communists occupied in 1949.

"Ever since I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, my life has intersected with Tibetans, and never let go," Ms. Moynihan said. "I long ago got out of the business of judging people - except Chairman Mao. The Tibetans would always say that the Chinese would never come and occupy their land. But look at what happened."

Her meeting in 1989 with the Dalai Lama - the exiled leader of Tibet who fled the capital of Lhasa by foot in March 1959, and settled in the hilly Indian community of Dharamsala - was fateful in more ways than one.
She became a Buddhist after that meeting.

Earlier, since the age of 15 - when Ms. Moynihan had lived in India during her father's ambassadorship - she had been a Hindu, influenced not only by the humanistic tenets of that millennia-old monotheistic religion but also by the exhortation of Hindu friends to sustain her life-long practice of being a strict vegetarian, and a practitioner of yoga.

"These have been interesting years - not quite as glamorous as the lives of some of my friends, but years that gave me opportunities to get out and do something for people less fortunate than me," Ms. Moynihan said.

"But these last three years have been my Tsunami years - I lost my father, I lost a brother [John McCloskey Moynihan], I lost my father-in-law, I lost friends - it sometimes seemed that I was always headed for a funeral," she said. "Life can be messy, random, unpredictable, filled with vanities and insecurities.

"But there's a new avatar now. And a new avatar always means a time of renewal and hope," Ms. Moynihan said

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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