Living Out Loud
Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life
by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith
New York: PublicAffairs, 2009, 368 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Laura Flanders
In this era of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul, a book about the late, great, lefty columnist Molly Ivins refreshes the parts that hurt. Piercer of puffery, Ivins forever shrank George W. Bush down to one weenie word: “shrub.” Where is she when we need her? As I wrote in The Nation ( January 31, 2007) soon after her death,
The first time I saw Ivins stride on to a stage (in Boulder, I believe in the mid-1990s) I felt reassured. Here was Ivins; enormously tall, clear, adamant, absolutely undaunted... Like Dorothy’s dog, she drew back the fancy-looking drapery of intimidation and spin to reveal the shriveled up wicked wizards. She cut the despots down to a size that the rest of us could bear to grapple with them.
A Rebel Life doesn’t reduce one bit the dull weight of her absence.
Ivins was born in California and raised in the yacht-club set of oil-intoxicated Houston. A teenager in the 1950s, she strove to please her stay-at-home mom and her would-be commodore dad by graduating from Smith College and attending the Columbia School of Journalism, an institution dedicated to producing job-oriented, “objective” (some would say “neutered”) journalists. Having survived with her spirit intact, Ivins served stifling stints at “respectable” newspapers—the Minneapolis Tribune, the New York Times—but it was in Texas, as a reporter at the independent Texas Observer and later as a columnist, that she let loose and found her place as the nation’s most widely read—and most raucously righteous—progressive-populist.
The question at the heart of A Rebel Life, say authors Bill Minutaglio and Michael Smith, is how someone so clearly “groomed for the gilded life” came to reinvent herself. To find the answer, they track Ivins’s troubles with her father; her run-ins with authorities (primarily, editors); her struggles with romance and drink. What emerges is a very personal portrait of this very public figure—possibly too personal. After all, in many ways, it wasn’t Ivins who reinvented herself; it was her profession. A Rebel Life only hints at the amount of effort it took simply to work and live out loud and liberal in a dying field: the drying-up turf of twentieth-century print journalism.
Ivins was, as one source tells the authors, one of the last “non-tv celebrities.” She didn’t pontificate on television or radio much, nor did she blog or tweet. She rose to fame as a writer. Her mentors were newspapermen (all literally men, according to A Rebel Life) who believed that stories were best told from back alleys, barbershops, boiler rooms, and barstools—which is to say, from the bottom up.
She caught the tail-end of the age of competitive publishing. In the Houston of her youth, two papers were bitter rivals. While at Smith, Ivins interned at the Houston Chronicle, where, among other tasks, she ran errands for Zarko Franks, “a Runyonesque rooster,” as Minutaglio and Smith put it, with a deep disdain for sterile prose and overbearing editors. Meanwhile, over at the Houston Press, gumshoe reporter Sigman Byrd was “out-Breslin[ing] Jimmy Breslin [of the New York Daily News] in terms of celebrating working-class heroes.” Early on, Ivins soaked up a sense of style and sass along with a now-radical respect for writing that wins readers by making politics and public affairs exciting and fun; of interest, in other words, to the public.
After graduating from Columbia in 1967, Ivins took a job in another multipaper town. The same family that owned the Minneapolis Star owned the Minneapolis Tribune, where Ivins worked. The Tribune came out in the morning and the Star in the afternoon, but they functioned separately, and both competed with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As Minutaglio and Smith write, she arrived in town “at time when parts of the city were restive and protests were breaking out—what the newspaper discreetly called “disturbances.” Ivins struck up a romance with a local tenant organizer and sold her editors on a series about social-movement leaders, Young Radicals, which she was forced to balance with a series on Young Conservatives. Ivins won her first awards but also generated heat from readers who objected to her sympathetic treatment of pacifists and civil-rights defenders. The local police adopted a small black female pig, which they named Molly, as a mascot. Ivins signed onto a staff letter accusing the paper of sexual discrimination. She irked her bosses.
In 1970 she left the Trib for the more hospitable Texas Observer, an independent biweekly magazine, where her beat included the state legislature in Austin. “Whee, here we go, the lege is back in session. And many a village is missing its idiot,” she wrote. As Observer publisher Ronnie Dugger eulogized her in the Guardian (February 2, 2007), “Ivins started laughing … she was set loose as a free person and a free journalist.”
She wasn’t quite free of the notion that the newspaper establishment might yet be persuaded to see her as an asset, however. When the Gray Lady herself called in 1976, Ivins was tempted back East. She’d written op-eds and features for the New York Times and the Washington Post before, mostly covering the South and Texas oddities. The Times, concerned that its style was too staid for its era, decided it was sorely in need of a dose of Ivins-vinegar. Like Charlie Brown running at Lucy’s ever-tempting ball, Ivins moved to Manhattan and tried to fit in. She trod the city beat and the crime beat; she even, as a punishment, agreed to cover all the Rocky Mountain states herself, as chief of the Times’s Denver bureau. (Ivins always claimed she was given the title of “chief” because she was the only one there.) The beginning of the end came when editor Abe Rosenthal took issue with her description of a chicken-slaughtering festival as a “gang pluck,” accusing her of trying to slip a lewd joke into her copy. “Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal,” Ivins claimed that she replied. Soon after, she headed back to Texas, this time to become a columnist at the Dallas Times-Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In 2001 her column went into independent syndication.
Would there have been more room for Ivins in the establishment press had she not come up just as the wheels were coming off the competitive daily? The Houston Post printed its final edition in 1995, its assets acquired by the media conglomerate Hearst, publishers of the rival Houston Chronicle. Meanwhile, the owners of the Minneapolis Tribune and the Star merged the two in 1982, then sold them in 1988 to the massive McClatchy Group, which went on buy Knight Ridder, owner of the rival Pioneer Press. Finally, McClatchy sold the Star-Tribune to a New York-based private equity and leveraged-buyout firm, which immediately put the nation’s fifteenth largest paper into bankruptcy, citing slumping ad sales and a need to “restructure” debts and labor costs.
Ivins succumbed to breast cancer virtually on the eve of the much ballyhooed “death of newspapers.” Print journalism lost some 40,000 jobs between fall 2008 and 2009. From sites of public dispute, public debate, and public interest, newspapers were refashioning themselves throughout the 1980s and 1990s as profit centers, driven less by readers than by advertising revenues. The rise of monopolistic corporations and of homogenous, milquetoast media went hand in hand. In the conglomerated media world, readers (especially low-income readers) weren’t half as important as advertisers; and almost nothing was important enough to risk offending people, especially powerful people.
Ivins didn’t choose a “rebel life”; she was stranded with one when her profession packed up and headed off in search of cash and conformity. There was simply no place left for a shit-kicking stylist with a consciousness of class and a good cause—no place but independent commentary and (before the crash of publishing) books. Ivins excelled at both.
At least, that’s one reading of the Molly Ivins story. A Rebel Life offers others. Examining Ivins’s addictions to drink and cigarettes, her sass, and her unresolved issues with her father, the authors trace the legacy of her upbringing across her career. They are able to draw upon her personal archives: Ivins saved every note, letter, jotting, and journal, and at the height of her career, started giving it all to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Making her private records public was fitting for a journalist who so vigorously demanded transparency from other public figures, but it was also more than that, claims an unnamed friend: “She wanted all of this to be seen… it was her way of showing that in real life she was far more complex than the public persona familiar to millions of readers.”
So we learn how, influenced by a few progressives—a teacher at her tony private school, a school friend’s liberal parents—Ivins gravitated across the tracks, while her father climbed aboard the fast train. “General Jim,” as he was known, directed the multibillion-dollar oil and gas firm, Tenneco. The differences between him and his daughter were so stark and intense that “she was going to be anything he wasn’t,” Ivins’s brother, Andy, tells her biographers.
Did Ivins lose her chance at marriage and a settled life when Henry “Hank” Holland Jr., a family friend, died in a motorcycle accident in 1964? Ivins once described him as the “love of my life.” Her letters to her next-most-significant love, Jack Cann, a Minnesota political activist—make for painful reading:
Jack, having you or anyone I care about yell at me makes me sick. I mean that it makes me feel physically ill…. One other thing my loving family left me with…my mother used to tell me, bitterly, viciously, “You are an ugly girl…a very ugly little girl.” I believed her and still do. In a sense I consider myself unlovable.
Perhaps it’s unfeminist to squirm at this stuff. If, as she writes here, she disliked fights, the number of battles she took on is all the more impressive. The “personalia” may also shed light on the paucity of obvious lovers in Ivins’s circle. Was she a lesbian? (Oh, how many of us would have loved that!) All I know from this book is she laughed off rumors of a liaison with Texas Governor Ann Richards. Living a closeted live would have presented quite a conflict with the rest of her live-large style.
But, note to pack rats: there is such a thing as too much ephemera. The pile-on of the personal, in the absence of political context, makes interpreting A Rebel Life problematic. Why for example, accept a male co-worker’s word that gender had nothing to do with Ivins’s troubles at the Times? Women had just brought a landmark class-action discrimination suit against the paper and won, yet Minutaglio and Smith quote none of them. Was Ivins’s problem simply that, super self-confident, she didn’t spend enough time “playing politics,” as Minutaglio and Smith imply? What exactly would “playing politics” have looked like? (After all, it’s not partisanship in itself to which advertisers object. Fox News, headed by the Republican operative Roger Ailes, has plenty of advertising. But, as Ad Age once put it, “The problem with being associated as liberal is that [liberals] wouldn’t be going in a direction that advertisers are really interested in.” [see www.fair.org/index.php?page=2595] )
One can only imagine what Ivins would be doing today. Had she started an online newspaper, I’d have subscribed. As for keeping Obama honest in 140 characters or fewer? Ivins was a master of the stinger-tweet before Twitter ever existed.
Ultimately, you’re setting yourself up for failure by writing book with the name “Molly Ivins” on the cover if you’re not Molly Ivins. Like a text about ice cream, chocolate, or sex, A Rebel Life leaves you ravenous for the real thing. Barring that, the field remains open for a truly great biography. Women? Get out your pens.
Laura Flanders is the host and founder of GRITtv, a daily commentary and culture show on Free Speech TV and online at GRITtv.org. She is the author of Bushwomen; Tales of a Cynical Species (2004) and Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (2007). Remaking of American Culture (2010).