Molly at the Times

It’s too easy to say “Square Peg in a Round Hole” when talking about Molly’s five years at The New York Times. Not because it’s wrong. It isn’t. Nor because it amounts to understatement comparable to President Bush saying there have been “problems” in Iraq. Understatement, a Times staple, was not foreign to the Molly who wrote the phrase “ethically challenged” (but not in the Times).

No, it’s because clichés start out as fresh phrases conveying something true and end up as clichés because they become a crutch that oversimplifies.

Take the classic Molly description of her problem with 43rd Street: “They hired me because I could write, and then they wouldn’t let me do it,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, nine years after she left the Times. It’s true, and not just the famous editing-out of the phrase “gang pluck” from a 1980 account of a New Mexico chicken-slaughtering festival. (Indeed, the word “pluck,” in any of its formations, survived to the Times archives only in the caption of a picture showing Fred Harris removing feathers from a decapitated bird. The story also retained a cryptic reference to dealing with feathers. It says surgical training is no help. I think the next paragraph—deleted—must have been where the offending image would have fit.)

She lost a lot of good stuff on the copy desks. It is, alas, not preserved. But anyone who sat down and skimmed through her 390 Times bylines, as I did recently, sees that Molly got a lot of great stuff into the paper, where it stood out far more dramatically than it does today in a paper where someone like Dan Barry thrives and the copy generally is light years better than it was in the ’60s or ’70s.

We all know Molly as a writer with a gift for a phrase that punctured the pompous, but rereading those Times clips reminds us that she was also a fine reporter with a great ear. It translated into her authority later as a columnist. As she wrote in 1979 reviewing a columnist’s book, “I believe it is true of all columnists, feminist, political or other, that they benefit greatly from leaving their armchairs and venturing forth to gaze on specific realities. In other words, they need to do more reporting.”

She always reported. One of her first pieces from the West, where she starred and then fell for the Times, reported carefully on a rise in polygamy. There was nothing flip in the article. The people, whose religion was foreign not only to New York readers but to the current standard of most of Utah, came across as sincere and thoughtful. One advocate, 71-year-old Rhea Kunz, whose eight children practiced polygamy and had produced 70 grandchildren, explained that polygamous wives had the right to divorce. She had divorced two husbands, she said.

The late 1979 account of the trouble Sen. Frank Church of Idaho was facing for re-election caught his problems—the Panama Canal, abortion, those who opposed the wilderness areas he backed—thoroughly. Then, in a Timesian usage meaning, “I think,” she wrote that “many analysts here believe that Senator Church’s problem is that he is simply more liberal than his state.” He was, though by only 4,262 votes.

But the Times had a lot of smart reporters. It lacked those who could tell a serious story as well as she could. That showed from the beginning. Her first story as a Times reporter, in 1976, was an account of a fuel oil spill on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The article covered thoroughly the spill, the progressing cleanup, the threats to wildlife and tourism. But the way she told it demonstrated that serious stories need not be dull: “There would not be such a hue and cry if 300,000 gallons of black gunk were floating around in the lower depths of industrial New Jersey or those stretches of the Texas Gulf Coast where the oil refineries glow like a prelude to Hades.” Then she noted the arrival of hustling commercial oil-spill cleaners, “like gulls over the wake of a garbage scow.”

Before Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor, ordered her back from Denver to purgatory on the metro desk after the chicken-plucking adventure in 1980, she had explained the underpopulated West to subway-riding New Yorkers. There were stories about trailer fever in a Wyoming winter, a Colorado town with election feuds but only 47 voters, a ski-bum shortage that led Aspen resorts to hire Vietnamese and Filipinos, and census-takers on snowmobiles, horses, and mules in Utah. The lede on that story: “The census workers were out trying to take their part of the national snapshot today and were finding it hard to get everyone to hold still and say cheese.”

That coverage led David Jones, the Times national editor who got her hired, to recall the other day, “She was a wonderful reporter, a wonderful writer, and she brought a real understanding of the country to our report.” Jones had hoped Molly and the Times could adjust to each other better than they ultimately did.

Molly’s arrival at the Gray Lady in 1976 came as part of an effort to add some superior writing and knowledge of the country to the authoritative but East Coast-based reporting that was the paper’s staple. It was an institutionally conflicted effort, because reporters hired for their writing resisted efforts to fit them, with sandpaper, file, rasp, or chisel, into round holes, to achieve a perfected Molly or Greg Jaynes or Howell Raines or Bill Kovach.

As reporters, Raines and Kovach navigated around the hazards of putting fresh writing into the Times, occasionally bumping off the rocks but never sinking. Jaynes and, more spectacularly, Molly, tried to drive straight ahead.

Molly, in particular, seemed to think that it was good for authority to be challenged, perhaps even undermined. That was all right at the Times when she wrote of a police chief in the Hamptons “with an impressive collection of cannabis growing in his office in hanging pots,” and reported that he “said it was evidence.” But it was a problem from her earliest days in the newsroom when she brought her faithful mongrel into the newsroom with her. Especially when she would call the dog by name. Her name was “Shit.” Molly was ordered to leave the dog home.

And whatever her problems with chickens, it could hardly be said fairly that she did not have some Times tradition in her. Covering the Albany funeral of Democratic boss Dan O’Connell in 1977, she recalled that the deceased had once called the priest who celebrated mass “that dago son of a bitch.” I wondered if Molly had been the first to get that phrase into the paper and searched for the phrase. She had not been first. An 1853 edition had quoted someone on “Irish sons of bitches.”

I haven’t used the word “Ivins” in this piece out of respect for her complaint about her otherwise perfect-pitch obituary of Elvis. Her complaint was that editors made her call him Mr. Presley.

Before she departed the Times, she offered one major suggestion that might have made the metro desk a happier place to work. She proposed that the metropolitan editor post each week an official “Shit List.” It was her idea that many reporters, simply victims of benign neglect and not consciously shunned, would be relieved to find their names off the list. Not that she doubted she would still be on it.

Adam Clymer retired as chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times in 2003 after 26 years with the paper.

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