“Molly was a pack rat,” said Minutaglio during a telephone interview from his home in Austin. “She kept everything she could think of.”
When they went through her personal belongings at the Dolph Brisco Center for American History in Austin, Minutaglio and Smith, Ivins’ research assistant for many years, found, among other items, report cards, letters from summer camp when she was a girl, all her reporter’s notebooks, a pair of high heeled shoes, notes to herself on the back of paper napkins, a denim work shirt, parking tickets she had never paid and a piece of paper that she had tucked into her wallet that said she was going to be famous by the time she was 25 or she would commit suicide.
“One of her amazing attributes,” said Minutaglio, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin, “was the sense of knowing not to ever throw anything away. When you become an important person like Molly did, it’s great for a biography.”
Minutaglio, the author of several books, including “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty” and “The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales,” says he has a tendency “to write more about a person’s upbringing than their modern day reality. I spend too many chapters on how they grew up, where they grew up and where they went to school and college. I think you can learn a lot about how people evolved.”
Originally, Minutaglio and Smith thought the book would take about 10 months to write. However, when the two authors arrived at the center to begin their research, they faced a stack of hundreds of “banker boxes” – the kind with string ties at the end.
They also spent a lot of time talking to Ivins’ friends and family.
“Molly’s brother and sister were extremely helpful,” Minutaglio said. “They provided a lot of history and feedback that helped to put her in context as a young woman – sort of the pre-famous Molly Ivins.”
What started out as a 10-month project turned into a year. And then, a year turned into about a year and a half.
“Molly’s life turned out to be a lot more complicated and rich than we originally thought,” Minutaglio mused.
At the time of her death from cancer in January of 2007, Ivins’ columns were syndicated in over 300 newspapers in America, including the News-Telegram. She was the author of several runaway best sellers, including “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” She was a much sought after speaker and a political commentator for numerous news organizations.
Mary Tyler Ivins was born in 1944, the second child of Jim and Margaret Ivins. Jim was a tough, no-nonsense attorney who would eventually become the president of oil giant Tenneco. Margaret was a graduate of Smith College, but chose to stay at home and raise her family in the posh River Oaks neighborhood of Houston.
Ivins was always a voracious reader, earning her the nickname of “Mole,” which eventually morphed into Molly.
According to the book, Ivins attended St. John’s, “the finest private high school in Texas.” The family belonged to the Yacht Club and the prestigious River Oaks Country Club. George W. Bush grew up a few streets over, but failed to gain admission to St. John’s and attended Kinkaid, the “other gilded prep school in Houston.”
After graduating from St. John’s in 1962, Ivins attended Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., but soon transferred to her mother’s alma mater, Smith. After studying in Paris her junior year, she graduated with a degree in history in 1966 and then received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York in 1967.
With a pedigree and education like Ivins’, she could have been expected to become a member of society’s elite, marrying her high school sweetheart, raising a family and doing charity work.
“Her friends and family talked to us about how different her life might have been if she didn’t have the will and muscle to resist the path her parents set out for her,” Minutaglio said with a laugh. “She would have been a walking hand grenade in the Junior League.”
So, what set her on the populist path?
Although Ivins wrote many times about someone she lost in VietNam, Minutaglio believes the turning point for Ivins came when her fiancé Hank Holland was killed in a horrific motorcycle accident on July 6, 1964, near Washington, D.C.
Holland, “the love of my life,” as Ivins described him later in life, was the big brother of Ann Holland, Ivins’ childhood friend. Holland’s father was recruited by the CIA from the powerful Houston law firm Baker Botts. The young Holland was being groomed for bigger things. He lived in Mexico City, Columbia and Venezuela. He attended Yale University. He spoke seven languages and worked as a disc jockey at a Spanish radio station in New Haven. He drove a Ducati, a fast, expensive Italian-made motorcycle.
According to the book, Holland and Ivins planned to spend time together overseas. She was going to study in Paris, and he was going to Munich.
“He and Molly really saw themselves as, and for different reasons, products of a very superior gene pool and deserving of each other. It was like ‘we deserve to be together because we are of a superior strain, and only we can recognize that in one another,’” says Holland’s sister. “Accomplishment was very important to them. …”
After Holland’s tragic death, “One thing became clear to Ann Holland and other close friends: Molly Ivins was never the same person after Holland flew over the handlebars of his Ducati on a back road in Washington.”
Minutaglio says that after Holland’s death, “[Ivins] was especially disgusted with the expectations, and maybe that’s why she mocked her upbringing and Texas even more – and smoked more cigarettes, drank more, and insisted on telling people she was going to do something, that she was going to work, have a job.”
Her close connection to Holland was a mystery to her closest friends.
“Kate Northcutt – on the short list of people who really knew Molly across several decades and who was her co-editor at The Texas Observer – came up to us and said, ‘I didn’t know all of that about Molly. You think you know someone at a fairly deep level, but there were things she had kept to herself for whatever reason,’” Minutaglio said.
The summer of Holland’s death, Ivins returned to Houston and landed an internship at the Houston Chronicle, the first of three she spent with the paper.
After getting her master’s from Columbia University, Ivins’ first job as a journalist was with the Minneapolis Tribune, an experience that ended badly, both professionally and personally, and sent Ivins back to Texas for a stint with The Texas Observer, where the maverick that became Molly Ivins was fully realized.
She shared editorial duties with Northcutt, who would become a close personal friend.
According to the book, Ivins made friends in Austin, “especially in the hallways of the pink-granite capitol.” She moved easily among the likes of Bob Bullock, Ann Richards and other political power hitters. The original maverick, attorney John Henry Faulk, was one of her most important mentors.
“Early on, it was clear that the lush-life turf was going to be covered by Ivins, not the teetotaler, nonsmoking Northcutt,” Minutaglio writes. “Ivins was the one who had the carton of Marlboros and the ability to drink almost anyone under the table.”
As her circle of friends spread, so did her influence.
“I was working in the Austin bureau of The Dallas Morning News,” Minutaglio said. “I worked down the hall from Molly. You could tell when the politicians made the rounds. They came to see Molly and were very concerned about what she was writing.”
Molly would eventually spend time at The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. However, it was for her columns, that she became famous. But that fame didn’t come without a price.
Ivins drank heavily. She battled the demons of alcoholism for years, just like she battled the all-boys club in Texas government and the cancer that eventually took her life.
Minutaglio and Smith decided early on that they would address the issue, but decided to use Ivins’ writings to detail the battle.
“We were very well aware that Molly had a drinking problem,” Minutaglio said. “In many ways, we didn’t want to put this in. The decision we made was that we would try to do it in her own words. Molly could have destroyed all that – done away with it, but she chose to donate it. Anyone can go to the center and ask for the Molly Ivins archives and find what we found.”
One of the more moving accounts came after her father had left her mother for another woman. It reads:
On June 22, I had several beers and then went to the liquor store, where I lost my dog … Because I was drunk, I did not notice she was not in the back of the car, and because I was drunk, it took me three hours to notice her absence.
The night before I got drunk and passed out in the bathtub. When I woke up, I got into bed [writing indecipherable] and almost ruined my new mattress. A few days before, in Idaho, where I got drunk every night, I passed out in the tub reading. I ruined a fine new history of The Times.
Two nights ago, I got drunk and made a fool of myself by calling Sam Kinch and babbling forever.
Alcohol is a drug. It is destroying my brain and my life. I have said horrible things to people when drunk. I have [been] rude, thoughtless, hurtful. I bore people. But mostly I just make an ass out of myself. It is time to get professional help.
On a camping trip to The Big Bend, I had been so hard and dominating and horrible … that Ann Richards told her husband she couldn’t stand me.
I am fat from drinking. I have let wonderful dinners burn up from drinking. I have jeopardized my job from drinking and failed in my responsibilities as a journalist.
I have wasted so much time by getting drunk. I have wasted so much time hating myself for it the next day. I have broken and burned things because of alcohol.
The opinions of countless people of me have been lowered or worse because of my behavior when I drink …
Fame wasn’t all bad for Ivins. Minutaglio and Smith found thousands of letters from her fans.
Many of the letters began, “Dear Molly: Please forgive me for addressing you as Molly, but I feel that I know you,” according to Minutaglio.
One of Ivins’ best qualities is that she was a “really, really good listener,” Minutaglio said. “She really enjoyed being around people and listening to them.”
Ivins had a wide circle of friends. In fact, when he finished the book, Minutaglio said he told his wife that he was a little depressed because “I could never have as many friends as Molly.”
Hundreds of those friends lined up at Scholz Garten in Austin for a book signing this fall.
“Molly’s spirit was absolutely there,” Minutaglio remembers. “It was jammed packed with Molly’s friends. We signed books for about four hours. I’ve written other books, but I’ve never had that kind of response at a book signing.”
As for the photo of a mischievous Ivins boasting a 1,000-watt smile on the front cover of their book, Minutaglio says, “That’s the mug The Dallas Times-Herald used. It was from the era of ‘Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?’ I think she’s saying, ‘I can say whatever I feel like saying.’”
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