The Molly Days

Many journalists applied to join The Texas Observer when publisher Ronnie Dugger sent out a call for applicants in 1970. I was associate editor and helped Ronnie sort through the prospects. A rollicking, lively letter came from somebody at the Minneapolis Tribune named Molly Ivins. She had grown up in Houston and wanted to return to Texas. She enclosed a few clips; one was about going to summer camp with an LBJ daughter. The daughter’s letters home to the White House urged on the envelope, “Deliver de letter de sooner de better.”

OK, not great journalism, but it was clear Molly had a unique and idiosyncratic eye for detail, and would write about anything she damn well wanted to.

The Observer splurged to fly her to Austin for an interview, a huge commitment with our budget. Ronnie, Observer business manager Cliff Olofson, and I met with Molly at Ronnie’s house. Molly brought her own six-pack, which, given the times, didn’t seem such an odd thing to do during an Observer job interview. It was soon decided that I would be editor, and Molly co-editor. At Molly’s suggestion, she and Cliff and I accepted the same yearly salary as legislators made ($7,800 a year or $8,700 a year, I don’t remember which, but without a per diem).

I was immensely grateful to Ronnie for allowing me to stay on. I was painfully reticent, comfortable with the written word, but not with people unless they thought exactly like I did.

He put two women in their 20s in charge of the only independent political voice in Texas—it was a gutsy decision on his part. I hope he didn’t regret it too often.

Later, Molly and I wished we had asked for Ronnie’s counsel more often, but as nascent feminists we didn’t want too much advice from a male authority figure, and Ronnie never pushed—except to try to get us to learn to spell and proofread, which we pretty much never did.

Molly was a wonder from the day she arrived for work in the car she called “The Tank.” It had no reverse, which goes to show how far she was willing to be inconvenienced for a good anecdote. Besides, she was always broke.

She set about getting to know every politician in the state. She was so funny and friendly that all were happy to see her. A redheaded 6-footer, she always stood out in a crowd. Molly had an innate writing ability—she actually enjoyed writing—and she never forgot anything funny anybody told her. I didn’t have much editing experience, but I knew my job would mainly be to step aside and let her do her thing. There were a few lapses in judgment on my part. We did not have a fact-checker. But Brother Lester Roloff would have sued Molly and the Observer for libel for no other reason than she called him a “stud hoss evangelizer.”

Following Molly’s example, I learned how to loosen up and have fun with my writing. We soon had the Legislature’s full attention. Very few of our government leaders wanted our advice, but they wanted to read what we said about them. I’ll leave the anthologists to determine what was any good.

The Observer was fortunate—if the state wasn’t—that Texas newspapers were so lousy then. Some of the big dailies were still coming to grips with desegregation, and some of their best rejected series ended up in the Observer’s pages because the papers didn’t want to agitate their readers. No other opinion journal existed in the state, nor did Texas Monthly or the city magazines. We had the field to ourselves.

We took on a third editor, wonderful John Ferguson, to help edit and proofread. He was a great writer, but he rarely chose to write. All three of us would troop over to unionized Futura Press to lay out the paper and write headlines. Owners Bill and Ann McAfee were patiently supportive, but Novella, the redheaded printer, scared the dickens out of us.

Cliff Olofson was an absolute rock, a spiritual man who dedicated his life to the Observer and was always there to back us up.

In late 1970, we moved our office from near the University of Texas to the second floor of 600 West Seventh St., a yellow brick mansion that had been purchased by lawyers David Richards and Sam Houston Clinton. They offered charity rental rates to the Observer and the Texas Civil Liberties Union. We had a huge veranda, which was covered with wisteria in the spring. It was on the veranda that we would gather for the 5:30 p.m. news, otherwise known as the “Watergate Wallow,” to learn of the latest outrages of the Nixon administration. Needless to say, there was usually an ice chest of beer on hand.

I loved sharing an office with Molly except for the fact that I was a teetotaler and nonsmoker. I spent most of our six years together with tears in my eyes either from laughter or Marlboro smoke or both. Both during and after work hours we were privileged to learn how the legendary liberal politicians of our time ticked—Reps. Sissy Farenthold, Craig Washington, Neil Caldwell, Democratic honchos such as Billie Carr, the entire Dirty Thirty of Sharpstown Scandal fame. I won’t explain the scandal because it really wasn’t that big a deal. Suffice it to say that questionable securities transactions benefiting state leaders served as a dose of Viagra for the Texas House of Representatives, as well as the Texas press corps.

Drink did not seem to inhibit the quality of Molly’s work. In fact, it played into the way she covered politics. At the close of a legislative session, she wandered over to the Capitol to visit key senators such as Oscar Mauzy and Babe Schwartz and Charlie Wilson as they opened their wet bars and discussed the day’s work.

Molly’s legislative coverage sounded authoritative because it was. Sometimes the people who told her what was going on were surprised to be quoted in the Observer, but her philosophy was, “Everything’s on the record.” Pretty soon everybody got used to it.

Molly became very close to Bob Bullock when he was secretary of state, and she frequently left the office about 4 p.m. to join him and his aides for the cocktail hour or hours. These sessions were, for her and subsequently for Observer readers, magnificent lessons about the real workings of state government. Fortunately, she had a great memory, drunk or sober. And she had boundless energy.

When Dave and Ann Richards and Sam and Virginia Whitten (plus four children each) moved to Austin from Dallas, they absorbed us into their circle of friends. My partner at the time was one of the owners of Armadillo World Headquarters, and he and others at the club gave us heady access to the incomparable music scene. Our free time was occupied by music, camping, canoeing, and storytelling. Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong’s Ides of March campout and Dave and Ann’s campfires on the lower San Gabriel River were as much a part of our political education as were any interviews we did with pencil and notepad.

Meanwhile, Molly was soaking up everything John Henry Faulk could teach her about the Bill of Rights and the spoken word. She also garnered national recognition from freelance articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. She finally left the Observer in 1976 to go to work for the Times. Having been educated on the East Coast, she couldn’t resist the call, at least for a while, of Manhattan.

I’ve debated whether to include this confidence, but I will because it hints about the depth of her drive. Molly once told me that when she was an adolescent, she wrote a resolution and put it in her wallet: The resolution was to commit suicide if she weren’t famous by the age of 25. By the time she arrived at the Observer, she had thought better of such an extreme measure, but she was drawn to celebrity. When she reached it, she was infinitely generous to her fans and friends. In addition to being a great writer, she became a great speaker, teacher, and political motivator. And she never got et’ up with the big ass.

Kaye Northcott is editor of Texas Coop Power magazine. She served as an editor at The Texas Observer from 1967 to 1976.

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Published at 12:00 am CST