A Portrait Of Molly Ivins, Maverick Texas Journalist, In 'Raise Hell'

Sep 15, 2019
Originally published on September 15, 2019 12:05 pm

Today, it's almost hard to remember just how different the Texas government was back in the 1970s. That's when Molly Ivins scorched a trail through good-ol'-boy politics like a flamethrower through a cactus patch.

"The legislature was fairly corrupt in those days," she said to NPR in 2006. "And the fact that it was, and that everybody knew it, and that people laughed about it, struck me as worth reporting. And I thought: Why not put it in the way it is?"

That simple but radical idea set Ivins' writing apart all her days. And a dozen years after her death of breast cancer in 2007, there's a new documentary about the liberal Texas columnist, speaker and political gadfly. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins is opening around the country.

In an interview not long before she died, Ivins recounted her life and career.

"Being tall helped — being 6 feet tall," she said. "You know, nobody ever looked at me and said, 'Oh, you poor, sweet, dainty, fragile little thing — we couldn't possibly send you out to cover a fire.' It was always, 'Ivins, get your ass out there!' "

Ivins was affable, funny and a hell of a good storyteller. And politicians liked having Molly around.

At the day's end, she'd drop by the offices of the lieutenant governor or the House speaker and have a drink or two. She'd tell a story, they'd tell her one; the drinks and conversation would flow. And by 7 p.m., happy hour was over and she'd know things no other reporter did.

"I have drunk enough beer to float the battleship Texas in pursuit of political stories," she said.

At the left-wing Texas Observer in Austin, Ivins' prose took flight. She despised politicians who used their influence to further marginalize the powerless.

Ivins was completely unafraid of them. And she used humor to turn her targets into punchlines.

"I think the meanest thing I ever said about one of them was that he ran on all fours, sucked eggs and had no sense of humor," she said. "And I swear I saw him in the Capitol the next day and all he said was, 'Baby, you put my name in your paper!' "

No matter what Ivins wrote about conservative politicians, it wasn't about to get them in trouble back home in East and West Texas.

Following her time at the Texas Observer, Ivins had a stint in the newsroom of The New York Times from 1976-82.
Molly Ivins Collection, Briscoe Archives / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The new documentary Raise Hell is a six-year labor of love by filmmaker Janice Engel — who, by the way, is not a Texan. Her friend, and eventually partner in production James Egan, recommended that she attend a one-woman play called Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, starring Kathleen Turner.

"And I said, 'why?' " Engel says. "And he said, 'Don't ask. Just go.' "

She hadn't really heard of Molly Ivins before, but the play would change Engel's life. She began her research that night, and by the time she was finished, she'd discovered a treasure trove of Ivins' life and history archived at the University of Texas.

"She saved everything," Engel says. "And Molly was very private. She was also, I learned, actually a very shy person — which a lot of people couldn't even imagine because of her larger-than-life personality and her take-no-prisoners humor. No, but underneath it she was actually quite shy. She was a loner. I mean, you're a writer, it's solitary."

The documentary pulls no punches. All those professionally productive drinking sessions turned Ivins into an alcoholic. It afflicted her for decades until she finally went to what she called "drunk school."

The movie also draws on footage that lays bare Ivins' unabashed approach to journalism. A sample statement:

"First of all, there's no such thing as objectivity. Everybody in journalism knows it and I think we hoist ourselves on our own petard constantly by pretending we're objective, when there is no such thing. How you see the world depends on where you stand and who you are, there's nothing any of us can do about that. So my solution has been to let my readers know where I stand, and they can take that with a grain of salt of a pound of salt, depending on their preferences. "

Former Texas Agricultural Commissioner and longtime Ivins colleague Jim Hightower says the documentary does a good job capturing Ivins' essence.

"Molly was not just a big woman and a big personality, though she certainly was both of those things," Hightower says. "But she had a heart bigger than a No. 10 washtub and a brain hotter than the sun."

For the past 30 years, to be a politically engaged liberal in Texas was mostly an exercise in futility. But Ivins believed in and loved the fight.

"OK, here's the real reason I'm optimistic about politics in this country: It's because I watched the civil rights movement," she said. "I grew up in the South before the civil rights movement. I know how much things can change and how fast things can change and how much difference government action can mean in the lives of people in this country.

"And the civil rights movement was not something where, you know, beneficent white people decided it was time to change things. It was poor black people who got up and walked. And that is something I have never forgotten. You can change this country. It's our right to change it."

While Molly Ivins lost her life to cancer, she never lost faith.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Molly Ivins was a liberal columnist, speaker and political gadfly who took on the powerful politicians of her native Texas and earned their admiration for doing it. A new documentary about her is opening in theaters around the country. It's called "Raise Hell: The Life And Times Of Molly Ivins." Here is NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Dallas.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: In 2019, it's almost hard to remember just how different things were back in the 1970s when Molly Ivins scorched a trail through good-ol'-boy Texas politics like a flame thrower through a cactus patch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOLLY IVINS: The legislature was fairly corrupt in those days. And the fact that it was and that everybody knew it and that people laughed about it struck me as worth reporting. And I thought, (laughter) why not put it in the way it is?

GOODWYN: That simple but radical idea set Ivins' writing apart all her days. In an interview with me, not long before she died of breast cancer in 2007, Ivins recounted her life and career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IVINS: Being tall helped, being 6 feet tall. You know, nobody ever looked at me and said, oh, you poor, slight, tiny, fragile, little thing. We can't possibly send you out to cover a fire. It was always, Ivins, get your ass out there.

GOODWYN: Ivins was affable, funny and a hell of a good storyteller. Politicians liked having Molly around. At the day's end, she'd drop by the office of the lieutenant governor or the House speaker and have a drink or two. She'd tell a story. They'd tell her one. The drinks and conversation would flow. And by 7 o'clock, happy hour was over. And she'd know things no other reporter did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IVINS: I have drunk enough beer to float the battleship Texas in pursuit of political stories.

GOODWYN: At the left-wing Texas Observer in Austin, Ivins' prose took flight. She despised politicians who used their influence to further marginalize the powerless. Ivan's was completely unafraid of them. And she used humor to turn her targets into punchlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IVINS: I think the meanest thing I ever said about one of them was that he ran on all fours, sucked eggs and had no sense of humor. And I swear I saw him in the Capitol the next day. And all he said was, baby, you put my name in your paper (laughter).

GOODWYN: The truth of the matter was, no matter what Ivins wrote about them, it wasn't about to get conservative politicians in trouble back home in East and West Texas. The new documentary "Raise Hell: The Life And Times Of Molly Ivins" is a six-year labor of love by filmmaker Janice Engel, who by the way is not even a Texan.

JANICE ENGEL: Molly came into my radar through my producing partner, my friend James Egan who in 2012 called me up and said, you need to go see this one-woman play called "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit Of Molly Ivins." It stars Kathleen Turner. And I said, why? And he said, don't ask. Just go.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT: THE KICK-ASS WIT OF MOLLY IVINS")

KATHLEEN TURNER: (As Molly Ivins) I am a liberal and damn proud of it. Fish got to swim. Hearts got to bleed.

GOODWYN: She hadn't really heard of Molly Ivins before Kathleen Turner conjured her on the stage. But the play would change Engel's life. She began her research that night. And by the time she was finished, she discovered a treasure trove of Ivins' life and history archived at the University of Texas.

ENGEL: Somebody said that she knew she wanted to be famous. That's why she saved everything. And Molly was very private. She was also, I learned, a very shy person, which a lot of people couldn't even imagine because of her larger-than-life personality and her take-no-prisoners humor. No, but underneath it, she was actually quite shy. She was a loner. I mean, you're a writer. You - it's solitary.

GOODWYN: The documentary pulls no punches. All those professionally productive drinking sessions turned Ivins into an alcoholic. It affected her for decades until she finally went to what she called drunk school. And the movie draws on footage that lays bare Ivins' unabashed approach to journalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS")

IVINS: First of all, there's no such thing as objectivity. And everybody in journalism knows it. And I think we hoist ourselves on our own petard constantly by pretending that we're objective when there is no such thing. How you see the world depends on where you stand and who you are. There's nothing any of us can do about that. So my solution has been to let my readers know where I stand. And they can take that with a grain of salt or a pound myself depending on their preferences.

GOODWYN: Former Texas agricultural commissioner and longtime Ivins colleague Jim Hightower says the documentary does a good job capturing Ivins' essence.

JIM HIGHTOWER: Molly was not just a big woman and a big personality, though she certainly was both of those things. But she had, you know, a heart bigger than a No. 10 washtub and a brain hotter than the sun.

GOODWYN: For the last 30 years, to be a politically engaged liberal in Texas was mostly an exercise in futility. But Ivins believed in and loved the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVINS: OK. Here's the real reason I'm optimistic about politics in this country. It's because I watched the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. I know how much things can change and how fast things can change and how much difference government action can mean in the lives of people in this country. And the Civil Rights Movement was not something where, you know, beneficent white people decided it was time to change things. It was poor, black people who got up and walked. And that is something I have never forgotten. You can change this country. It's our right to change it.

GOODWYN: While Molly Ivins lost her life to cancer too soon, she never lost her faith. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.