How I Remember Molly

By Kay Mills, JAWS member

Molly Ivins

The first time I met Molly Ivins was in Houston back before half of you were born. A college friend of mine was working for one of the newspapers there (and they had two then, by golly) and so several of us got together and swilled down more bottles of Lone Star beer than I care to remember.

Anyway, Molly said that night that she had named her dog Shit so she could go out in her backyard and swear and only be calling the dog. The New York Times, as only the Times would do, said in its obituary when she died January 31 at 62, that she had a dog whose name was an expletive. (Bl–ping obfuscation was one of the qualities that drove Molly nuts about her days at the Great Gray Lady. Talk about square pegs in round holes!) Our own Betsy Wade remembered that during a Times strike when Molly was the Rocky Mountain correspondent, “I would call her weekly from Guild headquarters and we would laugh and tell jokes. She just hated not working and said she would go out into the mountains and shout obscenities to listen to the echoes. It was wonderful to be able to count on having a big name like her as a psychic presence on the picket line.”

Molly Ivins skewered politicians, especially Texas politicians, especially The Shrub (Dubya, to her) with an unmatched style. Nobody had a right to be that smart, that engaged, that devastatingly barbed. On top of that, she also cared deeply about freedom of the press and often waived her lecture fees for groups that shared her concern, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. She had promised her good friend John Henry Faulk, who had been blacklisted in the days of Senator Joe McCarthy, that she would keep up his First Amendment fight when he died. And she did.

So thanks to the grace of my friend Saralee Tiede – with whom I had worked at The Daily Collegian at Penn State – anytime I would go to Austin where she had moved, we would get together and laugh and carry on with Molly. And Molly came to JAWS at Teton Village in Jackson Hole in 1992 and wowed everybody. There’s a picture I’d love to find in my hopelessly jumbled files that was in the newsletter and showed the audience – especially Eileen Shanahan – doubled over in laughter over something Molly said. She had an incredibly serious side, too, and she said that the press failed to uncover and pursue aggressively many of the central stories of the 1980 – this was the Reagan era, remember – in part because “there’s a terrible tendency to quote people with titles and they all lie.”

This isn’t about what Molly wrote. You can read that online. And you should definitely check out the Austin Statesman of February 1. Rather, this is about the incredibly funny person Molly Ivins was, and generous even to a relative stranger. Perhaps the truth is that Molly didn’t know any strangers.

Normally when I went to Austin to do a story or book research, I stayed with Saralee. But at one point she was working in Houston and suggested I contact Molly. Of course, no problem. Stay with me. She even had a “guest wing” on her remodeled home. So I would go off to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library each day and come back at night and tell her what I found in my quest for information about the establishment of the Head Start program for poor children. Molly was genuinely interested. She thought I was a model guest in that I got up quietly before she woke up, made my breakfast, cleaned up, departed and came back at the end of the day and told her tales from the 1960s.

My visit occurred a week before the 1996 presidential election. Molly had just gotten back from time with the Clinton campaign. So as we sipped our drinks and watched the evening news, Molly would give her running commentary. You may recall that Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes were at issue even then – way before Monica Lewinsky appeared. Some of Molly’s commentary therefore was quite ribald.

What you may not know about Molly was that she had studied in Paris for a year after majoring in history at Smith and earning a master’s in journalism at Columbia. Paris had rubbed off on her and she was a damn fine cook. One night she created a “Poulet Roti Grand-Maman” with garlic that was the most moist and tasty chicken I had ever had. It was a Patricia Wells recipe, she confided, and I now have that Wells cookbook and the dish has become one of my specialties. I may rename it “poulet roti a la Molly.”

When I complimented Molly on her well-equipped kitchen, she confessed that she and several friends were members of Williams-Sonoma Anonymous. “Every time the catalog comes in,” she said, “we call each other up to keep ourselves from buying everything in sight.”

While I was in Austin that time, a slew of the tapes from Lyndon Johnson’s White House era had just been released. So one night Molly and I went over to the home of Liz Carpenter, who had been Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, and listened to some of the tapes. Now this may not count on your radar as big-time entertainment, but it was one of the funniest evenings I have ever had. Liz could match Molly in wit, and she was giving commentary on the context for the tapes. One I recall had Lyndon giving a major speech and then calling Lady Bird, who was out of town, for her critique. It was probably one of the few times that LBJ was at a loss for words as Bird, with her twang, told him, yes, she thought it was a good speech but he could have done X, Y and Z much better. Another tape had Johnson trying to get a vote for a tax bill to support the Vietnam war from Indiana Senator Vance Hartke. Hartke was a hack but a Democratic hack and usually a reliable vote. He balked because he wanted protection for makers of musical instruments in his state. Johnson exploded that he was trying to finance a war and all Hartke was worried about was his damn band. Well, you had to be there, but it was quite an evening.

As I end this remembrance, I must steer away from the saccharine, which Molly would have hated. She lived life to the fullest. She was a hoot and a half and I’m glad our paths crossed. And so, one last story, about Halloween.

In Austin, Halloween is one big deal. Molly decided we should be in the parade, which was actually a stroll down 12th Street. Problem was it was about 6 p.m. and we didn’t have costumes. No problem. The red tide was killing fish along the coast then, and Molly decided that’s what we would be. We put on red shirts and tied some wooden fish Molly had gotten in Mexico around our necks.

Of course, we needed to wear signs to tell people that we were the Red Tide. But when you were with this six-foot redhead who knew everyone in Austin, it didn’t matter. You just went along with the red tide.