Molly Ivins

A Rebel Life

By Bill Minutaglio

and W. Michael Smith

Public Affairs. 335 pp., $26.95

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Reviewed by Norman J. Glickman


Molly Ivins was bigger than life: 6 feet tall, with red hair, and a smile that, a friend said, "could light up East Texas." She had a strong, sassy and progressive political voice. Ivins wrote with humor and fire that sustained liberals in the Lone Star State and the rest of the country for nearly four decades. Whoever coined the expression

speaking truth to power

must have had Ivins in mind.

Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith have vividly captured Ivins' life - the bright and funny sides as well as the sad and dark - in Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life. People who read her columns or heard her on TV or NPR will find this a fascinating read. Those who didn't know her work will be driven to her books.

Ivins was a pack rat, and we are all lucky for that. She saved letters, manuscripts and diaries, and Minutaglio and Smith mined them to present a comprehensive picture of this complicated woman, from her privileged beginnings through her storied career defending underdogs, to her 2007 death of breast cancer.

The Molly Ivins that Americans came to know, with her Texas twang, her "y'all's" and broad humor, was not the same Ivins who began life as the daughter of the very conservative oil company president James "General Jim" Ivins. She grew up in the wealthiest neighborhood of Houston, was educated at a fancy prep school, learned French, and was sent East in the early 1960s to Smith and Columbia to expand her knowledge and cement her upbringing. (Her momma wanted her to bring home a husband, preferably a Yalie. She didn't.)

Ivins became a journalist, landing her first job at the Minneapolis Tribune. She covered crime and other cub reporter beats, but also wrote stories about poverty and antiwar activities in the late '60s.

Her writing style and bravado brought problems early in her career. She clashed with editors, first at the Tribune and later at the New York Times, where legendary editor Abe Rosenthal famously fired her for refusing to be harnessed by the paper's dry writing rules. She filed a story about a "chicken plucking and slaughter festival" in New Mexico, calling it a "gang pluck." Rosenthal accused her of trying to inspire readers to think dirty thoughts. "Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal," she replied. She was soon gone from the Gray Lady's payroll.

She found her voice and fame when she became coeditor of the Texas Observer in 1970. There, she followed ethically challenged political yahoos and exposed their hanky-panky. She saw politics as the "finest form of free entertainment." Ivins called it "better than the zoo, better than the circus." She wrote editorials as well as investigative pieces. She got scoops by hounding politicians through the gilded halls of "the Lege," outdrinking them in local saloons, putting up with large amounts of bad male behavior.

Beginning in 1982, she wrote for the Dallas Times-Herald and, later, in syndication for 300 newspapers around the country. Her fame soared: She was nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes and won several other prestigious awards. She was a regular on TV and radio. In many ways, she cleared a path for Maureen Dowd and other female political reporters who followed.

She had heroes and mentors, like John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted comedian and First Amendment advocate. After Faulk's death, she carried on his crusade for the ACLU and other defenders of human rights.

Another hero was Willie Morris, a former Observer editor, Harper's editor, and author of North Toward Home. A third was the unforgettable Gov. Ann Richards, another bigtime Texas woman, who died a few months before Ivins. She worked closely for many years with Kaye Northcott (her coeditor at the Observer) and Lou DuBose, her coauthor of Shrub, Bushwhacked and the posthumously published Bill of Wrongs. All three books were, of course, about George W. Bush, the last focusing on what Ivins saw as his shredding of the Constitution.

She drank and smoked too much, not only in her search of stories, but also with friends, among them Richards. Minutaglio and Smith describe boozy parties in the Texas Hill Country near Austin hosted by Richards and others. Molly was a regular at these dos as well as countless other events where alcohol took over her life.

For many years, Ivins hosted monthly Friday night soirees in her South Austin home, where often 100 friends and hangers-on came to "read bad poetry" (as she described it) and overconsume Jim Beam.

Ivins fought valiantly to stop drinking and smoking. She tried Alcoholics Anonymous and other avenues; there were "interventions" by friends. Little worked, until near the very end of her life. She was sober for nearly two years when she passed away.

There really were two Mollys, as the authors show. The Private Molly kept her drinking problems, drug use and depression to herself. She tried medicines, exercise, diet and therapy. She wrote in her diary in 1983, "Tuesday was beyond belief.. . . An entire day of suicidal depression." Few knew of the depth of her problems because the Public Molly was an image of good cheer, a pack of Marlboros and a drink in hand. The Private Molly was depressed and down.

She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 1999. She went public with this news through her columns. She suffered through a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation over nearly nine years. During this difficult time, she continued to speak for the ACLU and other progressive groups and to write her column.

The Public Molly never lost her sense of humor. I had dinner with her about three months before she died. As we parted, she looked at my extremely receded hairline, and said, "Sweet Pea, y'all have better tits and more hair than I do."

She never gave up, traveling, writing, and speaking until she could do no more. In her last column, three weeks before her death, she wrote about the Iraq War: "We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell.. . . We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it, now!' "

Minutaglio and Smith have painted a broad and deep picture of this national treasure. They have captured her public and private essences perfectly.

Norman J. Glickman (normglickman@rutgers.edu) is university professor of public policy at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and lecturer in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania.