Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life | By Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith | PublicAffairs | 360 pages, $26.95
On July 6, 1964, Henry Holland, the brilliant and eccentric scion of a wealthy Texas family, was driving his motorcycle down a country road when a dog ran into his path. Holland swerved, his bike slammed into a roadside guard rail, and he was killed instantly.
Holland’s death might have been lost to history—a meaningless tragedy among so many others—except for the fact that it would go on to produce, in a roundabout way, one of the most famous journalists in America. Holland was the boyfriend, and quite possibly the fiancé, and either way the soul mate, of a Smith College sophomore named Mary Ivins. Molly, for short. And his loss, suggest the authors of the new biography Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, turned the future columnist away from the path for which she’d been groomed—a privileged existence among the Texas elite—and toward the one for which she’d be known.
The turnabout wasn’t merely a matter of Holland’s death, of course. She had shown a flair for writing at an early age, and despite a penchant for reading that would make her seem withdrawn (her family nicknamed her “The Mole”), she aspired to celebrity. Throughout her teenage years, she carried a note, addressed to her future self, folded in her wallet: If she hadn’t become famous by the age of twenty-five, she pledged, she would commit suicide.
Still, had a dog not crossed her boyfriend’s path that day in 1964, Ivins would likely have become Molly Holland—and we, in turn, would likely have been deprived of Molly Ivins, the Molly Ivins—the reporter who skewered politics and politicians in Austin and Washington and places in between; the columnist who combined her Texas roots and patrician education to brilliant (and devastating) effect; the advocate who fought relentlessly for civil liberties; the celebrity who, upon her death, was eulogized by everyone from President Bush to Maya Angelou; the writer who was compared, as a stylist, to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, François Rabelais, Lenny Bruce, and the prophet Jeremiah; the charismatic character—six feet tall, with a mega-watt smile and a shock of red hair—who swore with abandon, drank with even more, puttered around barefoot, laughed more loudly than was proper, and had a dog named Shit.
Ivins was “an extraordinarily fastidious self-chronicler,” the biographers Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith note, and their book benefits not only from fresh interviews of Ivins’s relatives, colleagues, and many, many friends, but also from the information contained within the thousands of personal documents she donated to the public archives at the University of Texas at Austin—among them phone logs, travel itineraries, reporters’ notebooks, memos to and from editors, Broadway tickets, grocery lists, medical records, grade-school report cards, and intimately personal letters. The gift in this case was a nod toward generosity and transparency by a woman who valued both, but also, the authors speculate, a reflection of her desire to demonstrate that “in real life she was far more complex than the public persona familiar to millions of readers.”
If so, they have carried out her wish, and in meticulous detail. Minutaglio and Smith trace Ivins’s childhood in River Oaks, the ostentatiously wealthy Houston enclave where she grew up; her education at Smith, where she developed both her confidence as a communicator and her fondness for strong cocktails; and her summer spent in Paris, during which she perfected her French and became enamored of John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Charles De Gaulle. An internship at the Houston Chronicle, followed by a year at Columbia’s J-School, led to a short stint at the Minneapolis Tribune and a long one at the progressive Texas Observer.
It was at the latter, covering the Austin Statehouse, where she fully developed the writing voice—rollicking, wry—for which she’d be celebrated. The Observer, the authors note, gave Ivins “free rein not just to address issues that barely dented the pages of the mainstream papers—the out-sized issues of poverty, racism, systemic corruption—but to do it with a chiding, confiding derision that two-stepped back and forth between a mocking condemnation and a can-you-believe-it kind of wonderment.” And she embraced the freedom. Confronted with the swaggering, booze-fueled theatricality that was the Texas political scene of the early 1970s, Ivins found irreverence. The kind that would lead her, later on, to dub George W. Bush as “Shrub”—and to render such pronouncements as “Ronald Reagan is so dumb that if you put his brains in a bee, it would fly backwards.”