Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (PublicAffairs Books, 2009) is the story of an exceptionally privileged daughter of corporate power who somehow stretched beyond the constraints of journalism to become a beloved icon of progressive ideals. Armed with a devastatingly precise wit, Ivins embraced her passionate subjectivity and fought like hell – for civil liberties, for all those who suffer the consequences of a corrupt and oligarchic public life, for liberals who needed laughter with their morning outrage. She unleashed a voice that mooned scoundrels who seek public office so they can pimp government to the desires of private lucre. Ultimately, the story of Molly Ivins is the tale of a life lived tall and big-grinned, driven by moral purpose and the good times, but not without a share of the sadness that makes a life full.
The authors of Rebel Life – Bill Minutaglio a University of Texas Journalism professor, and W. Michael Smith, a journalist who had worked as Ivins’s assistant and researcher for six years – are writing about someone they knew, a treacherous task that could easily have produced the biographical equivalent of a wake -- Molly We Hardly Knew Ye. In general, biography tends to succeed only as a clearly defined project, bordered by a good reason for nosing around in somebody else’s life. Here the authors have produced something that works because they hewed to a worthy purpose. “This book is an attempt to outline Molly Ivins’s roots and show the path that led to her singular American presence.” In other words, how does the daughter of a Houston oil executive, raised in 1950s River Oaks, attending private schools that denied entrance to George W. Bush -- graduating from Smith College with summers abroad in France – end up famous for ribald populism and cornpone one-liners, lurching left like a woman with no toes? Where did such unique skills come from? What was the cost, personally and professionally, of becoming Molly? Minutaglio and Smith focus on private flaws and struggles only insofar as such details bring insight to her long strange public trip. The result is biography that stays the course without becoming a hatchet job or a Nobel Prize nomination. “I always got the impression that she was doing exactly what she wanted to be doing,” observed one contemporary. The story here is how she managed to do that.
One of the great strengths of this book is context. A reader encounters not just Molly, but Molly in her historical moments, being shaped into the force she later became. The first notable context is oil privilege in mid-century Houston, a smooth and ugly culture of reaction with boundless opportunity for the children of hard-driving executives like her father, Jim Ivins. 6’6’’ with thick white hair, “General Jim” was an accomplished and apparently ruthless corporate lawyer who rose to become President of Tenneco. Obsessed with competition and achievement, he loved sailing faster and pricier boats, bossing the world and swirling martinis at country club functions. Young Molly moved in elite neighborhoods and social networks that just barely charred the outside of all the bloody meat in an ambitious and aggressive industry town. This was the Houston that bankrolled the Bush political dynasty. From an early age, Molly Ivins understood where power comes from, who has it, what gets done to keep it.
Another important context effectively captured is the world of journalism, complete with its own mythos, romance, and assorted curmudgeonly mentors. Rebel Life demonstrates how this world contained forces Ivins was both attracted and resistant to, giving her a stage for her own considerable ambitions, yet operating with conventions she could barely abide, and only for short cooperative bursts in between bouts of professional conflict. Her struggles to conform professionally yet still use her gifts, at the Minneapolis Tribune and later the New York Times, seem like extensions of teenaged dinner table arguments with her father. This aspect of her story provides important insight into the looming and perhaps necessary setbacks of a formula restrained career for anyone who brings a big personality and big opinions to the table.
A final crucial context the book develops is a panoramic view of early 1970s Austin, the ultimate time and place where liberals and populists were hanging out with hippies, in redneck bars for the music and Scholz’s Beer Garden for the conversation, cross-breeding a Lone Star progressivism that would produce the likes of Jim Hightower and Ann Richards. Molly showed up for a job interview at the Texas Observer with a six pack and soon became co-editor, her main beat the Texas Legislature. With offices in the upstairs of a house where Dave Richards (Ann’s husband) had his law practice, the Observer was generally short of money but never lacking the nerve to cover Texas politics with an alternative lens of investigation and invective. Ivins found her voice, finally allowed to move on her objections to objectivity: “I don’t believe in the stuff myself – I’ve seen the truth murdered too many times in the name of objectivity – but I’m open to the argument that what we really need is a better definition of objectivity.” She was six feet in height, with striking red hair, bottomless cartons of Marlboros and the ability to drink most men into oblivion, all attributes useful in covering the Texas State House. Molly was on her way.
A most interesting aspect of Rebel Life is the recurring theme of male influence on this Second Wave feminist. From her early life, besides General Jim there was Hank Holland, a family friend Ivins described as the “love of her life.” Untamed and fiercely individualistic, confident and harsh in his colossal opinions, Holland was nearly as tall as her father, striding purposefully through life with beauty, talent and achievement. Almost on cue with college graduation, this Nietzschean superman splattered himself in a motorcycle wreck. Although the book touches on other serious relationships, interested suitors and lovers, Ivins never married. Yet she found other men to sharpen and train her instincts and passions. The two most formative and remarkable were Bob Bullock, a Texas politico who managed to turn the offices of Comptroller and Lt. Governor into power centers with absolutely no equal, and John Henry Faulk, who had fought the McCarthy blacklist and ultimately won. For Ivins, Bullock was a one man seminar on the ways and means of power in Texas; during long whiskey-drenched afternoon tutorials, he explained to her just exactly where the leverage was applied in backroom deals to turn money and influence into regulatory corruption. Faulk inspired her commitment to civil liberties, and also more or less trained the onstage character that would become the centerpiece of Molly, Inc. Along the way she rode with rogues and rascals like Charlie Wilson, matching them beer for beer and shot for shot, filing her stories and honing her style, never missing a deadline.
Not surprisingly, since the lubricant of her professional and personal life was booze, alcoholism is another major thread woven into the fabric of her story. It is a further strength of this biography that the authors incorporate this decades-long struggle into the book without really darkening it. Although Ivins clearly knew she drank too much, even listing her regrets related to alcohol abuse, Minutaglio and Smith do not dwell on lost weekends or creepy Cheeverish self-loathing. Instead, they show a generally happy and busy woman who never quite manages to quit drinking and never destroys her life. Nor do the authors deny that alcohol also played a huge role in the narrative arc of a life that was phenomenally successful on her own terms.
As for weaknesses, only one thing bothers me, and only because of its absence. Although there is some sense from the authors that the way she lived affected both her health and her work, there is no engagement with a more interesting question about the public Molly – how did the way she worked affect her overall output and accomplishment? At a certain point in her life, Molly became a ubiquitous media presence, non-fiction but always in character. On the front of her first book she had her feet kicked up in cowboy boots; in television appearances, she could dazzle you with one-liners that seemed like Annie Oakley hitting a target blindfolded while riding a horse backwards. Not that I didn’t appreciate her gift and the bludgeoning insight she often conveyed, like when she said that Pat Buchanan’s culture war speech at the 1992 GOP convention “probably sounded better in the original German.” But becoming a character always comes at a price. Perhaps she ended up somewhere other than where she could have been as a writer, more edgy than Will Rogers but less literary than Twain. I was curious whether the costs of this trajectory bothered her, and I did not find it here.
In the final sense, and to the authors’ credit since it was their stated intent, this is most powerfully the story of where Molly Ivins came from. The last part of the book is what the life of Molly, Inc. was really like once she became a singular constellation of blazing success. I cannot say that this part of the book is weaker; I am aware that this part of the story is just less interesting to me since the demands of celebrity aren’t very interesting to me. I admire that she managed it so well, particularly when breast cancer and heart disease began to grind her into submission in a way that nothing else ever did. Like many successful and famous personalities, Molly flew in the eye of a storm she conjured herself, a vortex of passion and obligation, with a private life arranged and compartmentalized to accommodate the working life of Molly, Inc. It is not unusual for celebrities to live this way. What is so impressive and engaging about the story of Molly Ivins is how she established her own orbit and then shined in it.
Besides the pleasure of reading about someone I loved but never met, I’m happy that this book recognizes Molly Ivins in the iconoclastic tradition of W.C. Brann, one of my own heroes. Brann, a newspaperman who lived in 19th century Waco, Texas, surrounded by Baptists that he refused to quit investigating and criticizing in print, ultimately died from a gunfight with a reader in the streets of the city. He once said that the main problem with Baptists was that they weren’t held under long enough. That sounds like something Molly could have said. Hell, Brann’s demise sounds like a way she would have loved to die. It was surely a most interesting life.