Saturday, November 07, 2009

Ivins loved role of rebel

Not to be confused with social justice, the end of this piece reads "rebellion, even for the best of causes, isn’t a large enough motive for life." MOLLY IVINS: A REBEL LIFE sounds like a great book.


Web Posted: 11/07/2009 4:18 CST
Ivins loved role of rebel
Jan Jarboe Russell - Express-News

For those who miss the wit and whip of Molly Ivins, the new biography of her life will make you laugh, cry, shudder and think.

In “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life,” the authors, Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith describe how ribald, rollicking Molly became a national celebrity, an outside-the-Beltway populist operating from the unforgiving environment of Texas. They also reveal the dark side of Molly’s fame — her alcoholism, her tragic love life, the many costs of her lifelong rebellion.

The biography traces who created the public Molly: her father, James E. Ivins, former president of Tenneco, the powerful oil and gas company. Molly grew up in Houston’s River Oaks in the same gilded social class as former President George W. Bush. Both Molly and Bush wanted to succeed on their own, to out-do their fathers. However, unlike Bush, who embraced his father’s conservative values, Molly defined herself in opposition to her father. “I believe that all the strength I have comes from learning how to stand up to him,” she wrote.

Her desire for fame was the fuel she used to invent herself as “Molly, Inc.,” one of the most influential journalists in American history. When she was in high school at Houston’s St. John’s, a private school for kids from oil-rich families, she wrote a resolution on a piece of paper and carried it in her wallet for the rest of her life. If she wasn’t famous by the age of 25, she vowed to commit suicide.

As I read this book, I wondered what Molly’s life as a writer would have been if she had written from some stance other than rebellion. As a young, gorgeous red-headed woman, who spoke fluent French and was well-educated at Smith College, Molly aspired to serious writing but early on she also discovered her intoxicating knack for making people laugh with short stories.

Molly’s life changed irrevocably in the summer of 1964, when the young man she called the “love of her life” died in a motorcycle accident. Like Molly, Henry “Hank” Holland, Jr., who was from a rich East Coast family and went to Yale, knew how to hold a room. He was smart, opinionated and fascinated by power. If Molly had married him, the authors suggest the public Molly might never have existed.

The book does a good job of covering the arc of Molly’s career in journalism: her early days as an intern at The Houston Chronicle, her years in the late 1960s on the Minneapolis Tribune, making sense of student unrest and the civil rights movement, her full embrace of subjectivity in the 1970s at The Texas Observer, the unhappiness at The New York Times, and finally the launch of her celebrated life as a unapologetic liberal columnist first at the Dallas Times Herald, later at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and finally, on her own. A 2000 charge of plagiarism is given short treatment, blamed primarily on sloppiness and pressure.

Behind the comic mask, there was tragedy and loneliness. While her friend Ann Richards sought help from alcoholism in the 1980s, Molly battled it from her early 20s until 2005, two years before she died. She was often so drunk that she was debilitated — yet she kept the columns coming. She kept compulsive notes on her drinking. Here’s one passage: “I have wasted so much time by getting drunk. I have wasted so much time hating myself for it the next day. I have broken and burned things because of alcohol.”

The authors raise questions about Molly’s sex life. For years, her detractors claimed that she was gay. Molly herself laughed at the charge, describing herself as a “left-wing, aging Bohemian journalist who never made a shrewd career move, never got married and isn’t even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting.” The authors suggest, without proving, that she had affairs with many powerful men, including former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and perhaps, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson. These rumored relationships aren’t nailed down just “assumed” — and, to my way of thinking, unfairly handled.

In the end, Molly was funny, smart and complicated. She used her voice to speak the truth to power and awakened the voices of an entire generation of other women. She got what she most wanted — fame — but at a huge personal cost. In the end, rebellion, even for the best of causes, isn’t a large enough motive for life.


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