It takes a strong woman to play a strong woman.
by Rich Arenschieldt • Photo by Harry Langdon
EXPANDED WEB VERSION
Holland Taylor may not be a Hollywood household name, but this Emmy Award-winning actor is one you have seen for 40 years. Her career includes roles in soap operas, sitcoms, film, and theater. This strawberry blonde with amazing cheekbones dons a white mane to portray Texas’ most famous governor, Ann Richards, May 14–16 at Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House.
Audiences today know Taylor through her portrayal of Evelyn Harper, the overbearing mom on the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Taylor now resides in California, but makes a welcome side trip to Texas for Money, Marbles, and Chalk, a show that takes its title from a phrase coined by LBJ to denote his wholehearted support of various politicians and legislation.
Conversing with Taylor, it’s evident that she possesses that unique vocal polish found in East Coast natives. But as a result of her exhaustive research for Marbles, Taylor has developed an intense love for the Lone Star State. “I’m originally from Philadelphia,” she says, “which I thought was the friendliest city in the world…until I arrived in Austin. I have been there numerous times and have interviewed more than 60 people, many of whom were Ann’s closest friends and advisors.”
Given Taylor’s personal and theatrical pedigree, many would find it unusual for her to portray such an emblematic bit of Texas history. Being a theatrical soloist is not Taylor’s preferred performance medium. “I love being a member in a cast of actors—that’s always been my passion. However, when I came to know and love Ann Richards, that changed for me.”
Like most Americans, this actress was aware of the governor’s career, if only from a distance. A chance meeting gave Taylor an opportunity to become acquainted with Richards, albeit briefly. “I had a friend that was hosting a luncheon in New York, where Richards had an office, and I found out that Ann was going to attend. I thought, ‘Oh God, please don’t seat me at the same table with her—I will have absolutely nothing to say!’ As you can imagine, we ended up next to each other. Somehow I made it through the event, and we enjoyed each other’s company very much. I never saw her again after that, but after meeting her, I thought her persona would inhabit my life for years to come.”
Richards’ death in 2006, just a decade after leaving the governor’s mansion, shocked Taylor. “When Ann died, everyone was blindsided and I was mourning for months. I realized I was not just grieving personally, but was also distraught for the nation. We needed Ann to be here. Her life was cut terribly short.”
When someone dies, artists often respond by converting emotion into something tangible. Painters create portraits, musicians compose music, and actors act. Taylor was no exception. “With all that emotional energy swirling around in my head, I felt compelled to accomplish something. Since I’m an actor and a writer, I thought, ‘Damn it! Was there ever a person more suited for the stage than Ann Richards?’ At that point the creation of Money, Marbles, and Chalk began.”
It is important to view Richards’ political ascendancy in the proper historical context. The political landscape in Texas during the mid-1970s was overwhelmingly male and extremely conservative. “At that time, Texas had always been a macho Republican state,” Taylor says.
The furor over the Equal Rights Amendment had split the country, and, according to Taylor, “Ann was a woman in politics when the women’s movement still made people very uncomfortable. Many thought her political aspirations were unrealistic. She, however, felt very sincerely and deeply that she could achieve her political dreams.”
Richards was first elected as Travis County Commissioner for two terms, and then became Texas State Treasurer, running unopposed in her second term. As treasurer, she made more non-tax revenue for the state than all of her predecessors combined, and in each victory she defeated a male incumbent.
“One of the good ol’ boys Richards left in the dust was her 1990 gubernatorial opponent Clayton Williams,” Taylor says. “He started out as this big Texas businessman. Then he opened his mouth and people realized how little he actually knew. His comments—the most famous of which was one regarding sexual assault (that women should ‘lie back and enjoy it’)—essentially delivered the election to Richards.”
Taylor’s research for the show reads like an anthology of women in Texas politics. “Several of the people I interviewed were intimates of Ann—individuals who knew her well,” Taylor says. “I spoke with about 60 people—family, friends, colleagues, and a variety of others.” Key players from Ann’s personal and professional life were available and willing to assist Taylor with the project.
One of those was Jane Hickey, who managed Richards’ first political campaign, a bid for County Commissioner. “She and Ann knew each other in the mid-’70s when they worked together on the Texas Women’s Caucus, a group dedicated to empowering women in Texas politics,” Taylor says. “Hickey was several years younger than Ann, but because of her tremendous intellect, quickly became Ann’s counsel and mentor. Also in that group was Mary Beth Rogers, a close friend who ran Ann’s gubernatorial campaign and was her chief of staff.”
The governor’s lifelong friendship with Claire Korioth had a profound impact on Richards’ public policy. “Claire and Ann knew each other as young mothers, and were great friends,” Taylor says. This friendship had far-reaching impact for Texas, and later for the nation, in ways that no one could have imagined at the time. “Claire’s husband Tony was a member of the Texas House of Representatives during a tremendous battle regarding electoral districts,” Taylor says. At that time, redistricting laws prevented certain districts from electing minorities into public office.
Claire and Tony were both very active in defeating this legislation. Those legislative efforts eventually allowed Barbara Jordan to be successfully elected to the Texas Senate and subsequently to Congress. There, Jordan’s historic pronouncements during Nixon’s impeachment proceedings against “the diminution of the Constitution” permanently embedded her voice into America’s political rhetoric.
Though Richards was the chief executive of one the nation’s most conservative states, her personal legacy, as evidenced by her staffing decisions and appointments, was unabashedly progressive. “Ann continually sought diversity within her staff—she wanted every kind of person around her,” Taylor says. “She thought that government should mirror its population. In so doing, she essentially changed the face of Texas in a permanent way. I discovered that Ann had a lot of people on her staff who were openly gay—something she didn’t give a hoot about. She was all-embracing and wanted the best person for each job.”
Richards’ commitment to diversity came at a price, especially when facing re-election. Her policies of inclusivity and openness were distorted by her opponent George Bush and his campaign manager Karl Rove. Rove orchestrated Bush’s victory, and according to some scholars, resorted to a smear campaign against Richards to achieve it. “There’s a famous incident regarding polling that was done during the campaign,” Taylor says. “Republican pollsters asked voters questions designed to implant inflammatory and prejuducial opinions among the public. A question like ‘Does it make you uncomfortable to know that so many gays and lesbians are on Ann Richards’ staff?’ served its purpose just by being asked.”
Taylor says one of the most egregious activities of the campaign took place during Sunday morning church services in rural communities. Bush campaign workers would place flyers under car windshield wipers that showed a black man and a white man, naked from the waist up, kissing. The flyer’s caption read, ‘This is what Ann Richards wants for your children.’ Of course, none of this could be traced back to anyone.
“The campaign was among the most vitriolic in history, and had a devastating impact on Ann,” Taylor says. “I read a letter that she had written, confessing, ‘I’m not sure that I can take this negativity any more—I don’t want to become the person this campaign is making me.’ Sadly, some who had voted for Ann in her first term—notably Republican women alienated by Clayton Williams—switched back to the GOP, supporting Bush.”
While Marbles focuses largely on Richards as governor, Taylor also incorporates other parts of Ann’s life into the show. “Following her tenure as governor, Ann had a fabulous time. Out of public office, she was making money and having fun, both of which she richly deserved. Ann divided her time between two cities she loved, Austin and New York, where she worked as a consultant.
“As you can imagine, Ann was in great demand as a speaker, and much of that she did for free,” Taylor says. “The secret to her success was that, regardless of how relaxed her delivery may have appeared,she never ‘winged’ anything. Working with the same speechwriter she had while governor, Suzanne Coleman, Ann’s words were always carefully crafted. She prepared intensely for each speech.”
In addition to the governor’s political and professional accomplishments, many will remember her for the lustrous head of silver hair she possessed—something Taylor has taken extreme care to replicate. “I have the greatest wigmaker in the world, Paul Huntley,” Taylor says. “He has been designing wigs for 30 years. Every great wig you’ve seen on the Broadway stage is probably his. A short wig is very difficult to construct. A white wig is impossible. In creating Ann’s wig, he’s accomplished both.”
Taylor has distilled an enormous amount of public and private information into her one-woman show. “Since Ann is so well known, I felt that I had to be faithful to her—I had to represent her and act quite a lot like her. I want to carry the audience along through the theatrical aspects of her life. The setting, the look, and the interpretation will be impressionistic of her.”
“This is a sketch of Ann,” Taylor says. “With such a legendary figure, I had to do more than a historical narrative. The purpose of the work is to capture her persona and provide some insight into how she became the legend that she is. The reason Ann Richards appeals to so many people is this: at the bottom of her soul, she was fair. She had the ability to actually see people. She took them in and absorbed what they had to say.”
Money, Marbles, and Chalk! plays May 14–16 at Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St. For tickets/info: www.thegrand.com or 409/763-7173. For more on Holland Taylor (including a great montage of her roles), visit www.hollandtaylor.com. Taylor is interviewed about Money, Marbles, and Chalk! and can be heard practicing her Texas twang on National Public Radio (www.npr.org, then search for “Holland Taylor”).
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.