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Molly Ivins' voice still resonates

A book on the late Texas columnist adds new life to an outsize personality.

November 18, 2009|Claudia Feldman

My editor flipped through the new book about iconic Texas journalist Molly Ivins that I'd carried to him like a dog with a bone.

Before her death in 2007, I was a huge Ivins fan.

"Does anybody still care?" he asked. "And what could possibly be new?"

Pretty soon I was posing those same questions to Austin author Bill Minutaglio, who along with W. Michael Smith wrote "Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life."

"Of course I'm heavily biased," Minutaglio said, "but Molly's millions of fans do still care. She opened the door for women in journalism. She made it OK for them to be front and center on opinion pages in a provocative and funny way. Also, she made it OK for liberals to identify themselves, to come forward."

For the devotees who already know all that, Minutaglio and Smith pored over thousands of documents -- Ivins was a pack rat and kept letters, pay stubs, even report cards -- and got to know the private woman, separate and apart from her raucous public persona.

"She was far more complicated than it seems from the mug shot on the cover of the book, with her thousand-watt smile and wide-open face," Minutaglio said. "She had her demons, and she wrestled with them most of her life."

For starters, she struggled with her relationship with her father, an oil company executive who believed in conservative values and traditional gender roles.

She also battled with alcoholism most of her adult life. It's easy to see how she got hooked, Minutaglio says.

When Ivins worked for the Texas Observer in the '70s, she decided the best way to get meaningful stories was to meet politicians where they really lived, which was often at the corner bar.

In time, the tall, red-headed reporter was able to stay up later and drink harder than many of the state's officials. When those encounters did produce great stories, her success only reinforced her methodology.

"A lot of the time she was the only woman in the room," Minutaglio said, "surrounded by machismo and testosterone."

Ivins was a bestselling author and syndicated columnist, a lightning rod, a one-woman industry who inspired strong feelings -- positive and negative -- and detractors -- wherever she went.

Ultimately, she was felled by breast cancer at the age of 62, but she didn't go quietly. She held on to that raucous laugh. She continued to churn out columns and speak until the end.

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Feldman writes for the Houston Chronicle.

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