BOOKS/Jim Cullen

Molly Ivins Reconstructed

Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith have delivered a fine biography of our late friend in Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (Public Affairs). Mary Tyler Ivins, as she was christened, grew up in privilege in the elite River Oaks section of Houston — the same neighborhood that harbored George W. Bush. In the view of Minutaglio and Smith, Molly reinvented herself as the quintessential liberal “Good Ol’ Gal” Texas journalist, in large part in reaction to her overbearing conservative father, who was an executive with Tenneco Inc., a Houston-based oil company. Molly attended Smith College, so she could speak East Coast elite as well as French and perhaps find herself a husband, as her parents wished. She apparently planned to marry Hank Holland Jr., a brilliant young friend of the family, until he died in a motorcycle wreck when she was 19. After that, friends said, Molly was never the same. She fell into journalism during an internship at the Houston Chronicle and went on to get a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

At the Texas Book Festival Oct. 31, Minutaglio noted that women journalists in the mid-1960s were still largely confined to the “women’s pages,” but Ivins emerged with the determination to speak truth to power. That didn’t work out so well during her first full-time job, with the Minneapolis Tribune but The Texas Observer was a much better match. She showed up for her job interview in Austin in 1970 with a six-pack of beer, which impressed founding editor Ronnie Dugger.

For the next six years, backed up by co-editor Kaye Northcott, the Texas Legislature was Molly’s oyster and she was free to develop her voice in a style that Minutaglio and Smith call “Texas Mark Twain.” She was often the only woman in a roomful of chauvinist men and she gave as good as she got. She matched legendary Texas pol Bob Bullock drink for drink in bull sessions back when he was a Democrat. But unlike her experience at the Tribune, where she was expected to diligently report all sides of a story in the pursuit of objectivity, at the Observer her hallmark was “informed subjectivity,” which meant that she did not feel a commitment to give equal weight to someone who was obviously lying. “There is no such thing as objectivity,” she once said. “I actually think it is pernicious as a goal.”

At the Observer she could write anything but she was read by a relative few, so in 1976 she accepted a job offer at the New York Times, where she could be read by everybody who counted but she was circumscribed by the legendarily straight-laced copy desk that was infamous for bleaching the color out of copy. She escaped back to Texas in 1982 when the Dallas Times Herald offered her a column, where she became popular needling Dallas establishment figures until the Times Herald management found it politick to transfer her to the Austin bureau to needle state politicians, which was less likely to cost the newspaper advertisers. She stayed at the Herald until it folded in 1991, then returned briefly to the Observer during one of its periodic crises before signing on in 1992 with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which was locked in a war with the hated Dallas Morning News over the “Mid Cities” between the metropoli. From the Startlegram her column became syndicated to more than 300 newspapers and she wrote three best-selling books before Startlegram execs realized that they could dump her six-figure salary and health insurance costs and just pick up the column — which they did, in 2001, as she was finishing her first round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. But she kept going, wrote a fourth best-seller and kept up a punishing, if well-paid, schedule of speeches around the country — although she appeared at monthly fundraisers for the ACLU gratis and helped secure the Observer’s finances.

A Rebel Life exposes the alcoholism that Molly battled most of her adult life. Lord knows, she had reasons to drink, from her parents, to the tragic end of her first real love, to her attempts to handle becoming a national celebrity. I was never a close-enough friend to get one of her late-night drunken phone calls — if anything I was one of those bothersome fringesters who stayed too long at her celebrated Final Friday parties and kept her up talking (and drinking) past midnight — but as our mutual friend, Glenn Smith, pointed out at, “What’s under-nourished in the book is the sense of the joy that was every bit as present as the pain, as it is in all lives fully lived. This may not be the fault of the authors. The happy times are referred to and described in A Rebel Life. But ecstasies and celebrations are a lot like dreams, damned engaging while you’re in them, hard to remember and render convincingly in the morning. Few readers will be intoxicated by plain, simple reference to Molly’s world-embracing laugh or descriptions of all-night bacchanals, though many will shed tears at some of her soul-wrenching journal entries. I suppose there’s a clue to the birth of tragedy in this.”

Molly fought breast cancer for seven years and she kept writing her column and making speeches in the face of hate mail and death threats for years past the time we had any right to expect her to keep fighting. She was sustained by letters from people around the country who thanked her for letting them know they were not alone during the dark years. She dictated columns in the last few months before she died in January 2007 at age 62 with a book on Bush’s war on the Bill of Rights in rough draft.

Minutaglio, a former Dallas News writer who now teaches journalism at the University of Texas, also wrote First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family (1999); he draws parallels to Ivins’ rebellion against her father and Dubya’s attempts to distance himself from his family’s heritage. Co-author Michael Smith worked for Ivins as a researcher.

After A Rebel Life came out, the Houston Chronicle’s Claudia Feldman noted that an editor asked her if anybody still cared about Molly Ivins. Online comments at newspapers reviewing her biography show that she still generates hate mail as well as admiration.

So read her best-sellers for the laughs and A Rebel Life for the sighs. And don’t forget her final book, Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights, written with longtime collaborator Lou Dubose. He finished Bill of Wrongs after her death and the book was published in October 2007 but languished.

(We also have a limited number of the March 1, 2007, issue of The Progressive Populist commemorating Molly. Call 1-800-205-7067 to order a copy for $4 — or get one free with a two-year subscription or two-year renewal to The Progressive Populist — while supplies last. And like I said earlier, supplies are limited.)

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009

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