Hi, Sweet Pea


It never seemed quite right to call her Mary Tyler Ivins. Molly just fit her. A woman from privilege, but certainly not of it.

I’ve known my brother longer. And a cousin. And a friend from first grade who just underwent surgery for throat and larynx cancer that chemo and radiation didn’t stop. But that’s about it.

Molly and I go back 45 years.

We went to different schools together in Houston. High school journalism brought us together. Although we took our roles seriously, Molly always did it with more humor.

Our friendship grew as we crossed paths again and again.

We were newbie summer reporting interns at the Chronk, as we affectionately called the Houston Chronicle, under the tutelage of fine editors like Don Pickles and characters like Zarko Franks, Stan Redding, and Billy Porterfield. We badgered our bosses to allow us, in addition to our daily reporting duties, to take on a major jointly reported series on poverty in Houston—ultimately published as one long piece that told a different story than the daily grist the civic-boosting local papers generally served up.

Wanting to address the big issues, elucidated with personal little stories and marked with humor, was then and remained one of Molly’s hallmarks.

Molly was at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism when I was finishing up at Columbia College and about to head to the j-school the next year. Our year included football, philosophy, partisanship, anti-war (Vietnam) activities, bar-hopping, and, most important to me, her big, friendly shoulder for me to cry on when my father unexpectedly died en route to my graduation. I still treasure a note she wrote me then.

Then she was off to Minneapolis, where her reporting for the Tribune was inspiring and inspired by an unlikely assemblage of troublemakers, I think she called them, that included a bevy of radical, underground nuns. I was privileged to get a tour of Minneapolis, the Tribune, and the best reporter bar in town when I was trying to decide whether to take a job as a reporter or look for creative ways of not going to Vietnam. Over vodka martinis, Molly wisely counseled the latter.

South toward home, Molly gave up the big salary and great honor of Midwest reporting to come to Austin, where I had gotten into liberal Democratic politics, to become the more impoverished co-editor of The Texas Observer, which has always been home to Molly’s heart. I was source and friend. I’ll never forget the day she called to invite me to celebrate the first profit turned by the Observer—all of it to be expended on a single pitcher of beer at Scholz Garten.

Lured away first to the West and then to New York City by the stodgy New York Times, which was looking to make itself a little less so, Molly managed repeatedly to offend the powers that were. When she referred to a chicken festival as a “gang pluck,” she finally crossed the line.

Her editors never even saw her as I still can so vividly see her today, running full speed down West 67th Street toward Central Park on the trail of her dog, which had gotten loose. Passersby were amazed not only at the sight of this tall, imposing, red-haired woman, arms flailing, chasing a huge dog through the city streets, but also at her screaming what they didn’t realize was the dog’s name. “Shit … Shit … Shit … Shit,” she hollered. New Yorkers gawked. It was a glorious sight.

Molly was always a little bit on the outrageous side, where she felt as comfortable as she did on the side of the Bill of Rights and its protections for the powerless and the downtrodden.

If her heart was always with the Observer and its poverty-level wages, she reached her stride as the columnist that most of her admirers came to love, laugh at, and count on to get us through the week.

Through her insightful columns and television commentaries and interviews, Molly became something of a professional Texan—her down-home style and language and accent growing thicker through the years. But she was not boondocks and bull. Her humorous, Texian take on the most serious issues carried her message to ever-wider audiences, and barely masked the erudition of one of the most prolific readers and one of the best writers I have known.

Molly enjoyed fine food and good wine (which, like those damned cigarettes she liked too much, she only reluctantly, if repeatedly, gave up). But she never lived extravagantly. She preferred good friends, good humor, and good conversation, all of which she enjoyed in abundance.

She loved rehearsing new stories, new columns, new lines on her friends. And her friends were honored when, occasionally, their ideas or attempts at humor were adopted by Molly. She loved my coinage of “Marco Blanco” to describe former Texas Gov. Mark White and shared it with the world.

Even in grief or pain, both of which she suffered too frequently and too severely, Molly could bring a smile to my face when I called or visited or went to lunch or dinner with her. Her, “Hi, Sweet Pea” and “Hey, Darlin'” were irresistible.

Irresistible, too, was her investment of time and money and passion in the things she cared about.

When she first became a best-selling author, making real money for the first time in her professional life, she gave most of it away—to the Observer, the Texas Democracy Foundation, and goodness only knows what other good causes. Maybe she’d spend some money from the next book or the book after that on herself—perhaps another trip to Paris, which she loved and visited last year for the last time, or a little spot of land somewhere in the Hill Country.

When she met young people with talent or potential or need, she’d invite them to her home and make sure they met other inspiring folks. Without saying so, she’d let them know they could make their mark and that people like Molly who cared about them would always be around to help.

When our old friend and civil libertarian John Henry Faulk died, she knew that one of the most passionate voices for the Constitution and Bill of Rights had been stilled. She would take up his banner, because, after all, what could be more important? She even had a book in the works with another former Observer editor, Lou Dubose, about real-life stories revealing the meaning and importance of the Bill of Rights.

What a glorious present for us all and for Molly’s memory if that book could be finished and published.

Molly was feisty and engaged when I visited with her last month.

Exhausted by the chemo and the radiation, she tried with me to fathom the insanity of W’s war in Iraq, why there was so little outrage about the assault on her beloved Bill of Rights, and other weighty issues.

We expressed optimism, even if we knew the Democrats have an uncanny ability to screw things up. We laughed again. She was thinking about her next column—beginning to write it in her head and try it out on me.

But first, Molly wanted to know how my brother and nieces and nephew were doing. “And are you doin’ OK, Sweet Pea?” That was Molly.

And she wanted to talk about the future. She started telling me about the house she wanted Joe Pinnelli and the architect of the garden room in her Travis Heights home to build for her out in the Hill Country near London, Texas, on the farm she bought a few years ago with her brother Andy.

It would be unpretentiously sunny, elegant, and beautiful, welcoming to people of conscience, conviction, and passion.

It would be like Molly.

Carlton Carl is vice president of policy and strategy for the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.