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Missing Molly

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An OutSmart contributor reflects on the late, great pundit and equality champion Molly Ivins, who died a year ago this month. WEB SPECIAL

By Bradley David Williams

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Molly, sitting behind her weapon of choice.

When I heard about the death of Molly Ivins on January 31 of last year, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage to Austin for this journalistic legend’s funeral. I had just seen Molly at Ann Richards’ fabulous memorial in September, and she looked, as she might have said herself, “like death eatin’ on a cracker.” As the result of her third heroic bout with breast cancer, the 62-year-old columnist and humorist was thin, frail, her skin dull and translucent. She wore black slacks and sweater and a simple black funeral hat on top of her bald head. She was clearly fatigued, but serene in demeanor.

I had been walking up the stairs off of the Erwin Center floor, where the VIPs and Ann’s family and friends had sat, and there stood Ivins, all six feet of her, halfway up the steps looking for somebody.

“Molly, I’m Brad Williams. I used to work for Ann and we have met many times, but I always have to re-introduce myself,” I told her with a laugh. “I’m such a huge fan, and I wanted to tell you how much I loved the cover story on you in Austin Women magazine.“

The large-format, free glossy had published, in its September issue, an amazing photo of her—a close-up portrait of Ivins beaming her bright smile, with her trademark glasses and obviously lots of professional make-up. Defiantly sporting a shiny, hairless dome, she looked stunning. Even though she resembled one of the Cone-heads of Saturday Night Live, it was a glorious photo for an extensive profile that actually did justice to her remarkable life.

“Thank you,” she said softly and with a sweet smile.

“I think it’s so cool that you choose not to wear wigs and prosthetics,” I said. “Just like Linda Ellerbee… Do you know her?”

Idiot! Of course Molly Ivins knew Linda Ellerbee.

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Molly Ivins

Ivins obviously wasn’t up for chit-chat, but she was so gracious, and she did feel well enough to attend the gathering of Ann’s friends and former staff after the memorial at Threadgill’s, the Riverside Drive satellite of the landmark Lamar Blvd. restaurant/honky-tonk where Janis Joplin got her start. She didn’t have the energy to talk much over lunch and departed fairly early. After she left, I was sitting at the table where she had been eating with Austin’s hip, liberal state representative, Elliott Naishtat, and others.

“I’m paying for Molly’s,“ Naishtat announced when the check came.

“Elliott, the journalist in me can’t resist asking what Molly ordered for lunch,” I said.

“Veggie plate.”

Ah, she was trying to eat healthily in this place known for chicken fried steak.

I didn’t want to bother her, but I sure wish now that I had tried to have more of an extensive conversation with her that day. It would be the last time I would ever see her.

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Remembered by the Texas Observer.

While I regret not having made the effort to know her better, at least I will always be able to tell people that I knew Molly Ivins personally. She was a regular at the annual Governor’s press corps Christmas party at the Governor’s Mansion when I was working for Ann as a young minion in the press office. I was so in awe of this one-of-a-kind literary giant—she earned the ultimate Pop Culture Icon status in my book when she was portrayed by Katy native Renee Zellwegger in a sketch on Saturday Night Live —but I must not have made much of an impression, because, as I told her, I always had to re-introduce myself whenever I ran into her. She was a woman in a hurry, always on a deadline.

One of the eulogists at her funeral recalled her manner of abruptly ending phone conversations —“’Okay.’ Click! No ‘good-bye,‘ ‘nice chatting,‘ or anything.” I think this must be an old-school journalism thing. My friend Liz Carpenter, who is now 86 and covered Eleanor Roosevelt and her successors in the White House before becoming press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, never says “good-bye” when ending a phone conversation. Click! Maybe it has something to do with journalists often having to call back to clarify something or to get another quote. Any sort of good-bye might be premature closure.

Before I go any further, let me make clear that Molly Ivins was not a lesbian. Interestingly, this was the first question I was asked by a friend when she died. I wasn’t entirely positive of the answer, and certainly many people assumed she was a lesbian, on account of her being a lifelong bachelorette and staunch feminist. But the Los Angeles Times, in its lengthy obituary, said she had described herself as “a left-wing, aging-Bohemian journalist, who never made a shrewd career move, never dressed for success, never got married, and isn’t even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting.”

She definitely deserved “honorary lesbian” status, however, with her fierce support of the GLBT community. I remember attending a campaign fundraiser in the early ’90s for Glen Maxey, who had become Texas’ first openly gay state representative and was running for re-election. The event was a roast of Maxey at a small venue in Austin—historic Saengerunde Hall, adjacent to Scholz Garden, the legendary political watering hole. Ivins showing up to lend the gathering a dose of star power was a very big deal. She could easily have begged off attending such a minor political event, but she obviously wanted to be there for Glen. I remember that it happened to be the night that David Duke, the white-supremacist-turned-politician, was in a runoff to be the Republican candidate for Louisiana governor. Ivins kept going next door to Scholz’s to check on the election results, and finally, with much relief, returned to announce that Duke had been defeated.

Her outspokenness on gay issues was no doubt rooted in her commitment to fighting racism. “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything,” she wrote of her political evolution.

She was so much associated with Austin that many people didn’t know she had grown up in Houston in the exclusive River Oaks, attending the best private schools. Her father, a corporate lawyer, was a conservative Republican. Her mother, a Smith College psychology graduate and self-defined “liberal Republican,” was described by her famous daughter as being “as shrewd as she was ditzy…a combination of Sigmund Freud and Gracie Allen.”

Ivins followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, attending Smith, the prestigious women’s school situated in the New England lesbian mecca of Northampton, Massachusetts. She spent a year studying in Paris and came back fluent in French, even reading French novels in their original language. After an obligatory, dues-paying stint at the Houston Chronicle, she moved to Austin and became editor of the legendary die-hard liberal rag, The Texas Observer. Until her death, she repeatedly came to the financial rescue of the ever-struggling publication, and she also made a point of visiting a different ACLU chapter around the country every year, waiving her usual speaking fee.

She was infamously fired as the Denver-based Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times after colorfully describing a community chicken-killing festival as a “gang pluck.” Then it was on to the late, great Dallas Times Herald (“the liberal paper”), and later the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her twice-weekly syndicated column, which exposed the absurd goings-on of the Texas legislature—“The Lege,” as she dubbed it—with an outrageous hilarity that made her popular even with some conservatives, was appearing in 400 newspapers around the country at the time of her death. For most of her working life, she was based in Austin, living in a cozy Travis Heights home, where she often held a Friday night literary salon, even after becoming ill.

The election of her old friend Ann Richards as Texas governor in 1990 helped Ivins’ career, but the peak of her visibility as a national literary figure and commentator occurred after George W. Bush became fodder for her sharp pen as governor and later president. With the title of her first book about him, she coined the nickname “Shrub” for the hapless chief executive from Texas.

Not even technically a native Texan—she was born in Monterey, California, where her father was stationed in the military—Ivins became the face and voice of Texas. The irony that she was so far to the left in such an increasingly right-wing state made her an adored champion for devoted readers all over the country, some of whom were Texas expats in other states, starved for Ivins’ unique yet homespun Texas humor.

As has already been noted, Ivins got famous. Very famous. To become that famous as a journalist is almost unheard of. She became a frequent talking head on cable political shows and was even recruited to do commentary on CBS’s venerable 60 Minutes. That gig didn’t last long, however. She didn’t “test” as well as expected, and no matter how entertaining her on-air liberal Texas shtick, she was clearly better on paper than on the boob tube.

In what must have been a gratifying career milestone, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain, photographer Richard Avedon, and Madeleine Albright. Learning of the honor, she said, had left her “whomperjawed.”

Having been privy to Austin political gossip for 20 years, I was shocked at what I learned at Ivins’ funeral. Almost all of the dozen or so speakers at the historic Methodist church adjacent to the Capitol talked about what a drinker she was. Her brother recalled her showing up at his University of Texas frat parties, even though the brothers went against everything she stood for. If there was free beer, Ivins was there.

David Richards, Ann’s ex and formerly a respected Austin civil rights attorney, was the next-to-last speaker and described a phone call from Ivins a few years ago. “David, will you organize a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon if I’m still alive in a year?” she asked earnestly. She had been part of a group of left-leaning Austin politicos, including Ann and David Richards, that rode the rapids on numerous journeys over the years to the Big Bend swath of the Rio Grande, and on other rivers here and yon. David ended his remarks saying that while Ivins was just barely able to get through the Grand Canyon trip, she crossed the finish line with the invigorating spirit that says, “Yes, we did it! Let’s have a beer!”

I can’t imagine that David Richards was any less stunned than I was when the last speaker, a female friend of Ivins’, announced that Ivins had wanted everyone to know that she died sober. Apparently she had tried unsuccessfully a number of times to quit, but at the time of her death she had 16 months of sobriety. It was later reported that Ann Richards had begged Ivins to quit drinking. Not especially religious, Ivins called her “higher power”—the self-interpreted divine force called upon in Alcoholics Anonymous—by the name of Fred. (Her dog, several eulogists mentioned, was named Shit.)

I had a number of encounters with Ivins over the years, but my favorite memory of her is a phone conversation we had in the summer of 2001. It wasn’t long before 9/11, and I was slightly manic and about to take off for an extended adventure in Hawaii. Just before my departure, one of Ann’s best friends, Austin politico and feminist Pat Cole, died from lung cancer after a lifetime of countless cigarettes. I went to Austin for the memorial, where Ann gave the most amazing eulogy I expect to ever hear, and the day before the service I rang up Ivins on a lark. She had known Pat forever and said she might make it to the memorial.

When I didn’t see her there, I called her up again to give her a recap. I mentioned the odd appearance by Carol Keeton-McClellan-Rylander-Strayhorn, the short and stout state comptroller, former Austin mayor, the 2006 gubernatorial candidate as an independent with the corn-pone slogan “One Tough Grandma,” and surely the record-holder for politician with the most last name and party changes. Strayhorn is now best known as the mother of Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush. Liz Carpenter once wrote hilariously of Strayhorn switching to the Republican party only after getting skinny eating Lean Cuisine TV dinners while mayor.

I described to Ivins how I had been talking to Ann before Cole’s memorial when Strayhorn arrived. Upon seeing her, Ann had given a surprised laugh, drawling, “Carol…” in that theatrical way that Ann said things, eliciting laughs without even having to say anything funny. “I loved Pat Cole!” Strayhorn had cooed back.

But the punch line to this story came at the very beginning of the call.

“Guess who had the nerve to show her face at Pat Cole’s memorial?“ I said. “Carol Keeton-McClellan-Rylander-Strayhorn!”

Cackling with delight, Molly screamed, “That cow?!” That’s how I will always remember Molly. Crazy, irreverent, hilarious, and always true to her populist convictions. And she even said “good-bye” when we hung up.

Bradley David Williams now lives, writes, and blogs in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Missing Molly
An OutSmart contributor reflects on the late, great pundit and equality champion Molly Ivins, who died a year ago this month. WEB SPECIAL

When I heard about the death of Molly Ivins on January 31 of last year, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage to Austin for this journalistic legend’s funeral. I had just seen Molly at Ann Richards’ fabulous memorial in September, and she looked, as she might have said herself, “like death eatin’ on a cracker.” As the result of her third heroic bout with breast cancer, the 62-year-old columnist and humorist was thin, frail, her skin dull and translucent. She wore black slacks and sweater and a simple black funeral hat on top of her bald head. She was clearly fatigued, but serene in demeanor.

I had been walking up the stairs off of the Erwin Center floor, where the VIPs and Ann’s family and friends had sat, and there stood Ivins, all six feet of her, halfway up the steps looking for somebody.

“Molly, I’m Brad Williams. I used to work for Ann and we have met many times, but I always have to re-introduce myself,” I told her with a laugh. “I’m such a huge fan, and I wanted to tell you how much I loved the cover story on you in Austin Women magazine.“

The large-format, free glossy had published, in its September issue, an amazing photo of her—a close-up portrait of Ivins beaming her bright smile, with her trademark glasses and obviously lots of professional make-up. Defiantly sporting a shiny, hairless dome, she looked stunning. Even though she resembled one of the Cone-heads of Saturday Night Live, it was a glorious photo for an extensive profile that actually did justice to her remarkable life.

“Thank you,” she said softly and with a sweet smile.

“I think it’s so cool that you choose not to wear wigs and prosthetics,” I said. “Just like Linda Ellerbee… Do you know her?”

Idiot! Of course Molly Ivins knew Linda Ellerbee.

Ivins obviously wasn’t up for chit-chat, but she was so gracious, and she did feel well enough to attend the gathering of Ann’s friends and former staff after the memorial at Threadgill’s, the Riverside Drive satellite of the landmark Lamar Blvd. restaurant/honky-tonk where Janis Joplin got her start. She didn’t have the energy to talk much over lunch and departed fairly early. After she left, I was sitting at the table where she had been eating with Austin’s hip, liberal state representative, Elliott Naishtat, and others.

“I’m paying for Molly’s,“ Naishtat announced when the check came.

“Elliott, the journalist in me can’t resist asking what Molly ordered for lunch,” I said.

“Veggie plate.”

Ah, she was trying to eat healthily in this place known for chicken fried steak.

I didn’t want to bother her, but I sure wish now that I had tried to have more of an extensive conversation with her that day. It would be the last time I would ever see her.

While I regret not having made the effort to know her better, at least I will always be able to tell people that I knew Molly Ivins personally. She was a regular at the annual Governor’s press corps Christmas party at the Governor’s Mansion when I was working for Ann as a young minion in the press office. I was so in awe of this one-of-a-kind literary giant—she earned the ultimate Pop Culture Icon status in my book when she was portrayed by Katy native Renee Zellwegger in a sketch on Saturday Night Live —but I must not have made much of an impression, because, as I told her, I always had to re-introduce myself whenever I ran into her. She was a woman in a hurry, always on a deadline.

One of the eulogists at her funeral recalled her manner of abruptly ending phone conversations —“’Okay.’ Click! No ‘good-bye,‘ ‘nice chatting,‘ or anything.” I think this must be an old-school journalism thing. My friend Liz Carpenter, who is now 86 and covered Eleanor Roosevelt and her successors in the White House before becoming press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, never says “good-bye” when ending a phone conversation. Click! Maybe it has something to do with journalists often having to call back to clarify something or to get another quote. Any sort of good-bye might be premature closure.

Before I go any further, let me make clear that Molly Ivins was not a lesbian. Interestingly, this was the first question I was asked by a friend when she died. I wasn’t entirely positive of the answer, and certainly many people assumed she was a lesbian, on account of her being a lifelong bachelorette and staunch feminist. But the Los Angeles Times, in its lengthy obituary, said she had described herself as “a left-wing, aging-Bohemian journalist, who never made a shrewd career move, never dressed for success, never got married, and isn’t even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting.”

She definitely deserved “honorary lesbian” status, however, with her fierce support of the GLBT community. I remember attending a campaign fundraiser in the early ’90s for Glen Maxey, who had become Texas’ first openly gay state representative and was running for re-election. The event was a roast of Maxey at a small venue in Austin—historic Saengerunde Hall, adjacent to Scholz Garden, the legendary political watering hole. Ivins showing up to lend the gathering a dose of star power was a very big deal. She could easily have begged off attending such a minor political event, but she obviously wanted to be there for Glen. I remember that it happened to be the night that David Duke, the white-supremacist-turned-politician, was in a runoff to be the Republican candidate for Louisiana governor. Ivins kept going next door to Scholz’s to check on the election results, and finally, with much relief, returned to announce that Duke had been defeated.

Her outspokenness on gay issues was no doubt rooted in her commitment to fighting racism. “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything,” she wrote of her political evolution.

She was so much associated with Austin that many people didn’t know she had grown up in Houston in the exclusive River Oaks, attending the best private schools. Her father, a corporate lawyer, was a conservative Republican. Her mother, a Smith College psychology graduate and self-defined “liberal Republican,” was described by her famous daughter as being “as shrewd as she was ditzy…a combination of Sigmund Freud and Gracie Allen.”

Ivins followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, attending Smith, the prestigious women’s school situated in the New England lesbian mecca of Northampton, Massachusetts. She spent a year studying in Paris and came back fluent in French, even reading French novels in their original language. After an obligatory, dues-paying stint at the Houston Chronicle, she moved to Austin and became editor of the legendary die-hard liberal rag, The Texas Observer. Until her death, she repeatedly came to the financial rescue of the ever-struggling publication, and she also made a point of visiting a different ACLU chapter around the country every year, waiving her usual speaking fee.

She was infamously fired as the Denver-based Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times after colorfully describing a community chicken-killing festival as a “gang pluck.” Then it was on to the late, great Dallas Times Herald (“the liberal paper”), and later the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her twice-weekly syndicated column, which exposed the absurd goings-on of the Texas legislature—“The Lege,” as she dubbed it—with an outrageous hilarity that made her popular even with some conservatives, was appearing in 400 newspapers around the country at the time of her death. For most of her working life, she was based in Austin, living in a cozy Travis Heights home, where she often held a Friday night literary salon, even after becoming ill.

The election of her old friend Ann Richards as Texas governor in 1990 helped Ivins’ career, but the peak of her visibility as a national literary figure and commentator occurred after George W. Bush became fodder for her sharp pen as governor and later president. With the title of her first book about him, she coined the nickname “Shrub” for the hapless chief executive from Texas.

Not even technically a native Texan—she was born in Monterey, California, where her father was stationed in the military—Ivins became the face and voice of Texas. The irony that she was so far to the left in such an increasingly right-wing state made her an adored champion for devoted readers all over the country, some of whom were Texas expats in other states, starved for Ivins’ unique yet homespun Texas humor.

As has already been noted, Ivins got famous. Very famous. To become that famous as a journalist is almost unheard of. She became a frequent talking head on cable political shows and was even recruited to do commentary on CBS’s venerable 60 Minutes. That gig didn’t last long, however. She didn’t “test” as well as expected, and no matter how entertaining her on-air liberal Texas shtick, she was clearly better on paper than on the boob tube.

In what must have been a gratifying career milestone, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain, photographer Richard Avedon, and Madeleine Albright. Learning of the honor, she said, had left her “whomperjawed.”

Having been privy to Austin political gossip for 20 years, I was shocked at what I learned at Ivins’ funeral. Almost all of the dozen or so speakers at the historic Methodist church adjacent to the Capitol talked about what a drinker she was. Her brother recalled her showing up at his University of Texas frat parties, even though the brothers went against everything she stood for. If there was free beer, Ivins was there.

David Richards, Ann’s ex and formerly a respected Austin civil rights attorney, was the next-to-last speaker and described a phone call from Ivins a few years ago. “David, will you organize a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon if I’m still alive in a year?” she asked earnestly. She had been part of a group of left-leaning Austin politicos, including Ann and David Richards, that rode the rapids on numerous journeys over the years to the Big Bend swath of the Rio Grande, and on other rivers here and yon. David ended his remarks saying that while Ivins was just barely able to get through the Grand Canyon trip, she crossed the finish line with the invigorating spirit that says, “Yes, we did it! Let’s have a beer!”

I can’t imagine that David Richards was any less stunned than I was when the last speaker, a female friend of Ivins’, announced that Ivins had wanted everyone to know that she died sober. Apparently she had tried unsuccessfully a number of times to quit, but at the time of her death she had 16 months of sobriety. It was later reported that Ann Richards had begged Ivins to quit drinking. Not especially religious, Ivins called her “higher power”—the self-interpreted divine force called upon in Alcoholics Anonymous—by the name of Fred. (Her dog, several eulogists mentioned, was named Shit.)

I had a number of encounters with Ivins over the years, but my favorite memory of her is a phone conversation we had in the summer of 2001. It wasn’t long before 9/11, and I was slightly manic and about to take off for an extended adventure in Hawaii. Just before my departure, one of Ann’s best friends, Austin politico and feminist Pat Cole, died from lung cancer after a lifetime of countless cigarettes. I went to Austin for the memorial, where Ann gave the most amazing eulogy I expect to ever hear, and the day before the service I rang up Ivins on a lark. She had known Pat forever and said she might make it to the memorial.

When I didn’t see her there, I called her up again to give her a recap. I mentioned the odd appearance by Carol Keeton-McClellan-Rylander-Strayhorn, the short and stout state comptroller, former Austin mayor, the 2006 gubernatorial candidate as an independent with the corn-pone slogan “One Tough Grandma,” and surely the record-holder for politician with the most last name and party changes. Strayhorn is now best known as the mother of Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush. Liz Carpenter once wrote hilariously of Strayhorn switching to the Republican party only after getting skinny eating Lean Cuisine TV dinners while mayor.

I described to Ivins how I had been talking to Ann before Cole’s memorial when Strayhorn arrived. Upon seeing her, Ann had given a surprised laugh, drawling, “Carol…” in that theatrical way that Ann said things, eliciting laughs without even having to say anything funny. “I loved Pat Cole!” Strayhorn had cooed back.

But the punch line to this story came at the very beginning of the call.

“Guess who had the nerve to show her face at Pat Cole’s memorial?“ I said. “Carol Keeton-McClellan-Rylander-Strayhorn!”

Cackling with delight, Molly screamed, “That cow?!” That’s how I will always remember Molly. Crazy, irreverent, hilarious, and always true to her populist convictions. And she even said “good-bye” when we hung up.

Bradley David Williams now lives, writes, and blogs in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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