Yes, Miss Molly was a great defender of principle and a mighty chastiser of sinners. But what I will remember is her powerful warmth and exquisite good manners and that beautiful smile. We’ve all known great defenders and chastisers who were about as friendly as a fence post, and a sort of general prickliness among fellow writers and liberals. And then there was Molly, who was ever cheerful and loved to be with her people and was so generous to readers and listeners. That’s the one I remember.
Paul Krugman wrote a fine column in The New York Times about Molly’s prescience on the Iraq war—how a woman in Austin, Texas, with no inside information, got the war right from the very start—and it’s all true. Future editors of Bartlett’s Quotations will have a hard time picking and choosing among Molly Ivins’ bon mots. All true.
But the Molly I remember is the tall Texas girl who came backstage at “A Prairie Home Companion” in Austin and announced that she was my ride to the party. She drove a pickup truck and offered me a beer en route, and she just enveloped you in warmth and humor. It wasn’t flattery, it wasn’t seduction, it was Molly. The party was at a little house rented by some young people whom Molly knew, very little furniture, no décor, and beer in the fridge and a buffet of taco-makings, dogs wandering in and out, and I remember how much fun it was to stand in a circle of loquacious folks in the backyard and talk and talk and talk into the night. Roy Blount was there, an old friend of mine and Molly’s, and it was like a bucket brigade, passing around funny stories, nobody holding court or pontificating, everybody having their say.
The wake that was held for Molly last fall in Austin (with her present) had the same feeling. Overwhelming to me, coming into town a stranger, to feel immediately at home in that big ballroom crowded with Texas liberals and their admirers, and everybody who spoke was elegant and funny. Everybody. You don’t get that sort of thing in New York or L.A.
The Current Occupant was not an obsession with Molly. He was who he was, and she had seen him clearly when he beat her pal Ann Richards. She had his number—he was a self-invented man, and some parts didn’t fit right—and nobody was funnier or haughtier writing about him, but she wasn’t devoted to him the way so many other liberals have been. You hate going to parties up in Minnesota because you know he’s going to be most of the conversation, his name passing through the room, a thousand small, gassy expulsions.
That night in the backyard she never mentioned him. He was an out-of-towner who never fit in with the weirdness of Austin. Austin is a city, she said, where the most common utterance is, “Let’s knock off work early and have a beer.” The esprit of weird included the hip and eccentric and also the cynical and openly corrupt—in other words, Republicans—but it didn’t include good ole preppies and Dallasites. “Dallas is a city that would have rooted for Goliath.” (Ivins)
She told a story about a man named Jim Franklin, an artist back in the ’70s who kept a pet boa constrictor that ate live chickens, about one a month. Small chickens. But one month the snake had indigestion and couldn’t eat, and by the time he recovered, the chicken Franklin had bought had grown too big for the snake to eat. The snake was afraid of the chicken. And so the chicken became Franklin’s second pet. He took it around with him with a string for a leash, and took it to bars and parties.
One fine summer day Franklin was looking around for a chicken-sitter to keep the bird while he went away for the weekend. He left the bird with a friend who was not, as it turned out, so reliable, and who was not at home when Franklin came. So Franklin left a note on the friend’s kitchen table and left the chicken tied to a tree in the backyard.
It was a hot day, and by the time the friend returned home, the chicken had had a heat stroke. It was lying in the brown grass with its little chicken tongue hanging out of the side of its beak. The friend had a wild and brilliant idea and put three drops of amphetamine on the chicken’s tongue. “The chicken shot straight up full of energy and went off lickety split at 90 mph and hanged himself with the leash,” Molly said. “But what makes it a great story is that nobody thought it was that weird. Everybody kept saying ‘Damn, you heard Franklin’s chicken died?’ and everybody said, “Damn. It’s a shame Franklin’s chicken died.’ That’s Austin. That’s the challenge you young people have to live up to.”
Well, that’s why a Minnesota guy comes to Texas, if he does. Nobody is going to stand around in a backyard in Minneapolis and tell about how the chicken hung itself on a leash. We’re all going to talk about you-know-whom. I’m all for speaking truth to power, but when we’re among ourselves, I’m all for having a good time, people. Molly said once that there are two kinds of humor—the affectionate kind that makes people chuckle (that’s me) and the slashing satire that makes people sit up and take notice (that’s her)—and maybe so, but oh she gave pleasure and love to her friends. God bless her memory.
Garrison Keillor is an author and the host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”