Driving with Miss Molly


We met over the telephone nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I was hired as the editor of Mother Jones magazine. Her voice was, like her, big, blowsy, take-no-prisoners. Couldn’t understand but every third word, though, what with the references to first thang and rats raht out of the trap, followed by subvocalized dipping and bobbing that I presumed was meant to ward off the faint at heart. Molly professed to having a little trouble making out my California accent. We persevered until I’d made my first assignment to her, which marked the beginning of a two-decade long effort, full of cross-cultural missed communication, to understand one another.

A month later she called up early one morning to say she couldn’t turn in the story we’d discussed. “My psychiatrist says that if I have to do that piece I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” she said. After a stunned moment or two, though, I realized this novel excuse had been tailored for the supposed sensibility of a Left Coast editor. I pointed out that I didn’t think she had a psychiatrist. She called me a “sumbitch, like all the other goddamned editors,” hung up, and sent along a beautiful essay on presidential politics in the South the very next morning. (In later years she accused me of having made up everything I’ve written in the previous five sentences.)

In the world of political reporters—no fancy-pants designation as a double-doming analyst for her—Molly had assigned herself at least two pivotal roles by the time we got to know each other in the mid-1980s. In her thrice-weekly syndicated column for the Dallas Times Herald, she pressed a broad front of progressive causes—”an optimist to the point of idiocy,” as she liked to say, in believing that Texans might yet discover the angels of their better natures. She also knew how to sting, of course, which kept her boosterism for the Constitution from feeling overly saccharine. Consider her dismissive commentary about the ending of the first President Bush’s inaugural address, in which the president opined about “the ‘new breeze’ turning the page of the chapter in the unfolding story: “I was afraid for a minute there the winds of change would start blowing the sands of time.”

Her second important role was as a translator for those of us who had a hard time otherwise understanding how the same state led by Ann Richards and Jim Hightower could also turn out a phony like W. She loved Texas, but she loved, almost as much, puncturing its pretensions. She took it personally that a second, less-skilled Bush had gotten past her. A week before Christmas, I stayed over at her house. She was struggling with her balance and her memory by then, and fighting the cancer to a temporary standoff. But in the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of her shuffling through the living room and rose to make sure she was OK. She’d turned on her computer by the time I reached her office, trying to get her fingers to work in the hunt for the right keys to construct one last column. “Somebody has to just say it,” she announced, when she noticed I was there. “This president has slipped on his own dick.”

She played to her fans, of course, sometimes crudely. But she also regularly risked playing against type, warning knee-jerk liberals against anti-southern bigotry in one of the many pieces she wrote for me. In a passage about racial politics, she noted, “You see more integration in the bowling alleys—where the guys from Don’s Cement or Dickey’s Beer Distributor wear the same team shirts and give each other high fives after a strike—than in the posh clubs.” Molly knew those guys from Don’s Cement and Dicky’s Beer Distributor, and though she’d gone to college at Smith, loved the time she’d spent in Paris, and had been a reporter for The New York Times, she never ran out of sympathy for them.

Molly knew the peculiar flight patterns of southern women, too, especially their fixation on clan relationships and hunger for connection. She wrote in one of her columns: “A few months ago in Mobile, Alabama, I stopped a lady in the street and said, ‘Ma’am, can you tell me how to get to the bus station from here?’ She said, ‘Why yes, honey, I can. You see that yellow house up at the corner? That’s the old Jessup house there. Jefferson Jessup, he was in the grocery trade. They had a daughter who married a boy from Montgomery. He had a brother who had a goiter, but everyone liked him anyway …’ And with that she was off on the history of the entire Jessup clan, a compelling saga which I thoroughly enjoyed.” She had an ear as acute as Flannery O’Connor’s and shared the appetite of understanding people from the inside out.

In describing that woman from Mobile, she might have been writing about herself. I come from a more WASP-ish tradition, where the quickest way to express information is considered best. Molly invariably got her point across through stories, a skill she polished by studying the performances of her great hero, John Henry Faulk. The only problem was that she often answered a direct question about some political development by telling you a long tale about a boyhood prank played by her beloved brother, Andy, or the latest demented scheme cooked up by an old drunk in the Texas Legislature. Of course, you had to know who these people were to understand the story, so she filled you in about all the family relationships at greater length than you might have thought possible.

When she moved to California for two months in the late 1990s to teach with me at the Journalism School at U.C. Berkeley, she felt flummoxed by the kinds of dinner parties we attended at the homes of journalists and faculty members. There was far too little booze, far too many snippy quips in which conversation resembled a tennis volley instead of real engagement, too much holding forth, and too little singing, too much quiet desperation, and not enough old-fashioned carousing. The minute her teaching stint was over, she headed for the airport early, homesick as anybody I’ve ever seen.

Our more-or-less annual explorations of the Napa, Sonoma, and Alexander valleys, which we announced we’d undertaken “not for pleasure but for science,” were her kind of adventure. We sampled wine widely, and well, and then floated all afternoon in the Russian River, looking at clouds pass by and swapping stories about the most outlandish things that had ever happened to us. Sometimes she’d vanish from my life for half a year at a time. Just as I’d begin to think our friendship was over, suddenly there she’d be again, splashing around in the middle of the river in her big, black one-piece bathing suit, telling me a long story about the night Maria Ramos inadvertently accepted a dance with the devil. The smell of sulfur and the unshod, oversized hooves were the giveaways, as it turned out.

Molly was big as life, in so many ways—fierce in her attachments, personal and otherwise. She loved her work and adored other journalists, but was routinely withering in her assessment of the state of our profession. Her scolding, on point and searing, made American journalism better. “The mortal sins of the press have always been our sins of omission, not our sins of commission, no matter what you may have heard about bias, hubris, or anything else,” she wrote in an essay for me in 1990. “It is the stories we don’t get, the ones we miss, pass over, fail to recognize, don’t pick up on, that will send us to hell.”

Last December we drove out to spend the weekend on the ranch she bought some years ago with her brother. It’s a flat, dry, beautiful stretch of land in the Hill Country west of Austin. On the ride there, we told stories—what else?—and stopped for ribs, sausage, marinated steak, cole slaw, and beans. (The beans were a mistake.) She spelled out her intention to beat the cancer—which she’d warded off for nearly a decade—until maybe age 70 or so. She said that she expected to be far more productive in the years to come, with more columns and books, because she’d managed to stay sober ever since a group of close and brave friends staged an intervention last year.

Hers was an outlandish hope, but she specialized in outsized dreams. It was clear above the scrub brush for miles to the horizon, and the air smelled fresh. Even though she wasn’t supposed to drive any longer, Molly perched herself in the seat of an all-terrain vehicle, revving the engine and roaring off. Her head was almost completely bald, with a few brave wisps of white hair that had resisted the chemotherapy blowing in the back draft. She wore faded black stretch pants and a worn turquoise turtleneck, looking a little like an especially game biker-chick who’d watched Easy Rider one too many times.

I lagged behind her on the other ATV, straining to listen as she told me all about the Cow School she and Andy had attended so they could become proper cattle ranchers, the attributes of the herd they intended to build up, the trees we were passing that she loved the most, and the drought in Texas she attributed to climate change. When we stopped in a grassy meadow for a few minutes, she turned personal again, describing the persistent ache she felt over her nephew’s recent death, and the worry she carried for the happiness of her brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew.

She roared off again in a dangerous figure eight between the trees. It was a little like our first conversation; I could only make out every third sentence or so. During that crazy ride, Molly kept jamming the accelerator, tearing off on curlicue jags, in and out of gullies, up steep climbs, driving faster than she had any business going. Dust billowed, and she glanced back, grinning like a child. Somewhere between the willows and the creek, she lost me. She made her break for it, rat right out of the trap, indefatigable and unrelenting. I lagged behind, navigating by the sound of her engine, finding my own way home.

Douglas Foster, a reporter and editor, is the former editor of Mother Jones magazine and associate professor at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.