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.”
Her Observer days solidified both Ivins’s opposition to journalistic detachment as a value and a possibility (“There is no such thing as objectivity,” she would say; in fact, “I actually think it is pernicious as a goal”), and, relatedly, her progressive politics. It also set the stage for the one-foot-in, one-foot-out relationship she would have, throughout her career, with Establishment Journalism: She worked at The New York Times, but was never really part of it. She was nominated for a Pulitzer, but never won. Friends visiting her Austin home were amused to find that many of the awards she did win had been put to use as coasters, trivets, and serving trays.
In fact, an enduring quality of Ivins’s life was, as the book’s title makes clear, rebellion itself. A good many of her quirky Mollyisms were not truly quirks at all, the authors suggest, but minor mutinies that gradually coalesced into personal idiosyncrasies. Her parents named her Mary? She’d go by Molly. Her mother wanted her to become a Lady of Society? She swore, and smoked, and drank, and took up with fellow swearers and smokers and drinkers. Her father wanted her to become a good Republican? She cavorted with leftist radicals during a time when being a leftist radical actually meant something, and went on, sure enough, to become the most famous liberal columnist in the country. Her fans were eager for her to hurry up and finish her next book? She printed—and wore—a t-shirt emblazoned: DON’T ASK ABOUT THE BOOK.
A Rebel Life could easily have reduced Ivins’s life to a kind of ongoing dialectic: public persona versus private person, expectations versus here’s where you can put your expectations. It could have also devolved into a simple study of the journalist’s body of work. But thankfully, the authors resist reductive aesthetics in favor of something both more challenging and more rewarding: empathy. They provide a portrait of their subject that is loving in the most literal sense, one that treats her simply as a person, with the attendant freight of ego and insecurity, strength and frailty.
And since biography is one of the few contexts in which that modern scourge—voyeurism—is an asset rather than a weakness, A Rebel Life’s candor is immensely valuable, if sometimes also uncomfortable in its intimacy. The book shares, in searing detail, Ivins’s many brushes with tragedy. In addition to Holland’s death, there was the alcoholism (“I have wasted so much time getting drunk,” she wrote in a note to herself. “I have wasted so much time hating myself for it the next day”), there were the bouts of depression, the loss of friends to illness and accident, the breast cancer that would weaken her for years before taking her life, the suicide of a nephew she loved as a son, the relationship with her domineering father that ranged from tense to turbulent to, the authors suggest, traumatic.