Jim Cullen

Molly Never 'Sanded Down'

When we started planning The Progressive Populist in 1995, Molly Ivins was one of the pillars upon which we built our little journal. Since then, when we have polled our readers, she consistently ranks with fellow Texan Jim Hightower as our most popular columnists.

Molly was sui generis, as they say in Lubbock: a good ol' gal with a ready smile and a hearty laugh, a big-boned, 6-foot-tall, red-headed liberal-libertarian-populist who once observed that "if you didn't have a hyphen in your definition, you clearly had not thought about it." Born Mary Tyler Ivins, she grew up with conservative parents in Houston and traced her liberalism to the civil rights movement. "Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything," she wrote. She lampooned conservatives in the target-rich environment of Texas, but she didn't hesitate to criticize errant liberals. However, she was careful about her targets. "I only aim at the powerful," she noted. "When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar."

She won a national constituency with her folksy and humorous writing that reflected her research in the beer joints and roadhouses of Texas more than her education at elite Smith College in Massachusetts -- though her education showed in the quality and consistency of her thinking.

After working for newspapers in Houston and Minneapolis, she was co-editor of The Texas Observer from 1970 to 1976, during the waning days of the "Gay Place" era depicted in Billy Lee Brammer's classic 1961 novel. After six years of guerrilla journalism in and around Austin, she was ready for the Big Times. The New York Times in the 1970s was the pinnacle of American journalism. But it turned out the Big Times wasn't ready for Molly. At the newspaper of record, she ran up against banks of copy editors whose jobs were to prevent colorful language from getting into the Gray Lady's news columns.

Former Timesman Adam Clymer once said that Times editors were concerned that their writing was dull. "They had a theory that they could hire some great writer from some place or other, and then just polish them, just sand them down a little, and they'd be fine at the Times. Molly was one of the most spectacular failures of that theory. I mean, Molly doesn't sand down."

Neither side was willing to admit that they had made a mistake until 1980, when Molly, who was then the Rocky Mountains correspondent, filed a story on a community chicken slaughter in New Mexico. She called it a "gang pluck," which seemed to her to be a funny play on words. Copy editors intercepted that term before it reached print, but Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal found out. Angered at what he saw as a sexually suggestive pun, he summoned Ivins back to New York, chewed her out and assigned her to cover City Hall, "where she covered routine matters with little flair," as the Times recalled in her obit.

"Naturally, I was miserable, at five times my previous salary," she wrote. "The New York Times is a great newspaper: it is also No Fun."

When the Dallas Times Herald, then in a newspaper war with the crosstown rival Morning News, offered to make her a columnist, she moved to Big D in 1982, although she considered it the kind of town "that would have rooted for Goliath to beat David." But she had fun. "I spent three years in Dallas and laughed hysterically the entire time," she told Salon.com in 2000. She was the most beloved and most hated columnist in town. Eventually she was paroled to write her column from Austin.

Her career took a hiccup in December 1991, when the Times Herald was bought and burked by the hated Morning News, even as her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? flew off the shelves. "It was a ridiculous point in my life where I was broke, unemployed and on the New York Times bestseller list," she noted. "It was a really confusing period." So she returned to the Observer, volunteering to step in as guest editor.

I was associate editor of the Observer at the time, and her stint was limited to one issue, before sharp editors with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which then had ambition, scooped her up. My main duty during her guest editorship with the Observer was to stay out of her way, but the association, however brief, gave me entree to the notorious monthly parties she would throw at her home in Travis Heights, across the river from downtown.

These "Final Fridays" resembled a garrison of hard-core liberals defending the legacy of Ann Richards as George W. Bush led the Republicans in the sacking of the statehouse. Each guest was expected to bring a covered dish and/or six pack and/or talent for the mid-evening floor show. I recited some doggerel of my own composition at one of the floor shows; Molly took me aside afterward and to this day I'm not sure if she thanked me for sharing the poem or simply advised me that I was welcome at her parties but didn't need to worry about writing any more poetry. Whatever she meant, it was done with her customary grace. (And yes, I'm pretty sure she called me "Sweetheart.")

From then on, she appeared satisfied with my occasional chorus work. I would hang on for the bull sessions as the crowd thinned out, to listen to the tales spun by Molly and some of the other raconteurs who recalled the old political fights, such as the epic battles of Ralph Yarborough and Allan Shivers in the 1950s or the legislative bazaars of the 1960s and '70s, or her stories from the Times.

Molly was reluctant to stop hosting the parties, but battling cancer made some demands on her attention. How she kept writing her column twice weekly, as well as her speaking engagements and rafting down any river she could find through seven years and three rounds of chemotherapy, the rest of us can only wonder.

We had Molly for several years more than we had any right to expect. We wanted to believe, after every round of chemo, that this time she had it whipped. She was "tough as a metal boot," her brother, Andy, told the Houston Chronicle Jan. 26 when Molly was hospitalized for what was to be the last time. But the cancer had come back with a vengeance and had spread throughout her body. She died at home, with her friends and family.

We can thank her many dedicated friends, and particularly her assistant and "chief of stuff," Betsy Moon, for enabling Molly's obsessions.

Molly Ivins is irreplaceable. We'll never forget her. But we must go on.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.