Saturday, December 26, 2009
The Spotlight Interview: Bill Minutaglio, Author of "Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life"
10 questions with two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Bill Minutaglio, the author of the recently-released book, "Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life”
First, Mr. Minutaglio provided this exclusive preface for us:
Molly Ivins was, for a while, the most powerful woman in journalism—and she was one of the toughest, most tragic, women in America.
She had enormous power and influence: Presidents, senators and royalty called her.
She appeared in over 300 newspapers, had huge national bestselling books, and appeared on 60 Minutes, Letterman and Leno. She had millions of followers.
She punched men out in Texas—and once knocked George W. Bush's most important political partner to his knees in a bar in Austin. She rode motorcycles—and could drink any man under the table. She eventually became a profoundly high-functioning alcoholic - in and out of rehab, causing a ruckus around major political figures (like Nancy Pelosi), and managing through it all to write for every major magazine and news outlet imaginable. Her work was compared to Mark Twain, Rabelais and Mencken.
She broke open the doors for Maureen Dowd, Arianna Huffington, Gail Collins and almost any other woman who wanted to have an opinion column in America. She suffered death threats and bomb scares. She raised millions of dollars for civil liberties and other causes across America. She personally supported hundreds of people over the life of her career—she gave away, in the end, millions of her own dollars, to strangers, friends, the homeless. She was unfathomably generous.
And, her entire life was defined by her relationship with her father—who was the autocratic, racist, head of Tenneco, one of the most powerful energy corporations in the world. She grew up in unbridled affluence, she grew up as friends with George W. Bush, she attended the finest private schools in America and studied in France—and she rejected all of it to become of the most fiercely liberal voices in American history. She lived with one of the most radical activists in America, she was engaged to be married to a wealthy man who wanted to start a "master race”—and Hollywood producers continually talked to her about making a movie of her life.
There really was never a figure like Molly Ivins. And there will probably never be another. She was like Amelia Earhart meets Annie Oakley.
Her story was one that needed to be told—it was so intensely narrative (which explains, I believe, why those producers, screenwriters and directors wanted to make that movie based on her life). She fought sexism at every turn in her life. She lived large, fought hard and told the top editor of The New York Times to fuck off. And just when she seemed ready to beat back her raging, drunken nightmares, she was hit with cancer. She battled three wicked bouts of cancer.
And through it all, she laughed her ass off, spoke truth to power, gave away even more money -- and never stopped working. Her friends—Maya Angelou, Dan Rather, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, Bill Clinton—marveled at her stamina. And when she died there were enormous memorial services around the country, including ones in New York City and Texas.
For a narrative story teller, Ivins's story was inevitable. There were so many breathtaking twists and turns in her life. I knew her a bit and knew some of her story. But not all of it. It simply became richer, more intense, as I researched it.
With one of her former researchers, we worked on the book for 18 months. We did research across America. We delved into her personal archives, her diaries (including scalding, intense ones where she talks about her fight with alcohol, her lovers, her fights with the most powerful people in American publishing and politics), her personal letters. She was the most profound self-chronicler imaginable, and we had access to hundreds of thousands of documents, papers, letters, touching on almost every aspect of her and her family's personal history.
I learned that, when you weigh Molly Ivins in historic context, her story is a grand, outsized American saga. She was often "the only woman in the room"—and she fought like holy hell to be heard, to be respected, to change things for the good of America. She was a trailblazer and a firebrand. Again, to say she lived large is really an understatement.
Mike: Do you remember the day you decided to write a book about Molly Ivins?
Minutaglio: With Molly Ivins having millions of readers, a huge national following, and the kind of rocketing life that made some movie producers want to make a film about her, I assumed someone was going to write a biography. She was larger than life. She lived hard. Her former aide-researcher in Texas began telling me these fascinating stories about her life and that's when we decided to collaborate.
Mike: How well did you know Molly personally?
Minutaglio: I knew her as a colleague in the media. We both covered George W. Bush. I worked down the hallway from her when I was in daily journalism in Texas. We were in the Austin bureaus of competing Texas newspapers. I would see her at Bush's press conferences, meetings. After I wrote my biography of Bush for Random House, I got to know her a bit more—we were both interviewed on the Charlie Rose TV show.
Mike: Do you have a memorable firsthand experience with her?
Minutaglio: We had lunch a decade ago in a raucous Mexican restaurant in Austin. Loud, crazy scene. She had called me up and demanded I meet her. I remember her leaning over the table, staring hard at me and talking about her life. She said that fame could wash over you. That you had to keep from drowning. That it was a wild ride. And then she laughed - which she did a lot - and laughed very loudly. She was always throwing her head back and laughing really hard.
Mike: Did she ever say anything about writing or journalism that's a keeper for you?
Minutaglio: I was staggered to hear how, so early in her life, she was an apostle for subjectivity in journalism. She had come to that idea when she was in her early 20s. She thought a lot of "objectivity" in journalism was phony and useless. She also, probably obviously, believed that it was perfectly fine to poke big fun at the people in power -- as long as you did it with a smile, and didn't do it with acid-tipped daggers. She always maintained that satire was good, but that you never wanted to cross the line into mean-spirited vitriol.
Mike: How long did it take you to write the book?
Minutaglio: It took 18 months. We had access to her personal papers, diaries, notebooks. Her family and best friends were very helpful.
Mike: What's the most surprising/shocking thing you found out about her?
Minutaglio: Molly Ivins was far different than the person millions of her readers assumed her to be. She had an enormous battle with alcohol, one that stretched for decades. It led to some very intense moments in her life—ones where she put herself in great danger, personally and professionally. When she was young, she wrote a note to herself—saying she would commit suicide if she didn't become famous one day.
She also was incredibly unafraid to occasionally step back and literally punch someone in the face: She hit a man so hard in Dallas that his teeth sprayed out on a city street. She hit a man so hard in the Austin area that she knocked him out and he fell into a cactus patch. She knocked George W. Bush's alcoholic political mentor to the ground after he tried to stop her from leaving a drinking session at a bar.
The men in her life were extraordinary: She was engaged to be married to a very affluent man whose father was a high-ranking US diplomat who was doing work for the CIA—and then her fiancé died in a horrific motorcycle crash. Her father was one of the most powerful men in American industry -- he was president of Tenneco—and he committed suicide. She grew up with George W. Bush. She lived with a man who, for a while, was one of the leading activists in America. She gave away, in the end, probably millions of dollars. She had a close relationship with the man who basically paved the way for Bush to become president. She was consulted by presidents, senators and other powerful political figures. She was best friends with Ann Richards—and faced rumors that she and Richards had an intimate relationship. And, of course, Ivins endured three wicked bouts of cancer—and numerous death threats.
And, finally, she decided she hated working at The New York Times—and deliberately provoked the powerful editor Abe Rosenthal by trying to inject some, ahem, "colorful innuendoes" into her stories. It let to her basically telling him, and the Times, to take a hike.
Mike: How did you work the writing with your co-author?
Minutaglio: I wrote the book and he was the lead researcher.
Mike: Do you remember how you felt the day Molly died?
Minutaglio: That it was the end of an era. That there would never be another one like her –so colorful, so singular in American journalism. She had become a national, and maybe international, celebrity.
Mike: What did you like about her writing? What made her so powerful?
Minutaglio: She was, without question, one of the most influential women in the history of American print journalism. She had such an enormous, loyal following. She was often "the only woman in the room" in this ballsy, bad-ass, tough Texas environment—of hard-drinking, devilish (maybe demonic) Texas kingmakers and smashmouth politicos. She stayed up later than all of them, drank them under the table, and was able to get stories and insights that no one else would get. She was unrelenting, had an iron constitution, and she had completely decided to devote her writing (and her many TV appearances -- including her short-lived gig as a commentator on "60 Minutes") to addressing social justice and civil liberties.
Mike: What did you admire about her as a person?
Minutaglio: When you consider the historic context, what she achieved was just extraordinary. Her father was domineering, and her parents had charted out a path for her in a gilded, wealthy world of high society. She rejected all of that -- though she studied at Smith, studied in France, was fluent in French, knew how to sail yachts -- and devoted herself to writing and reporting. And she did it, again, by being "the only woman in the room" in these macho, crazed, moments in Texas.
She was also massively prolific. She wrote thousands of articles, was syndicated in close to 400 newspapers, had several national best sellers—and wrote for most of the major magazines. She gave speeches around the country. She was a workaholic.
Through all of her travails with alcohol, relationships and cancer, she remained fiercely generous. She literally gave away almost all of her money. She gave jobs to friends. She pulled people up, dusted them off, and gave them her time, friendship, work, places to live.
Divorced from how you feel about her politically, she was an exceedingly generous person. She never married, never had children, endured death threats and whispers about her sexuality—and yet always seemed to find time to help what she would call her “extended family”....the many, many people she rescued, fostered, promoted.
You can order Bill Minutaglio’s book on Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Molly-Ivins-Rebel-Bill-Minutaglio/dp/1586487175. And for more info on the book or Mr. Minutaglio, please visit http://www.mollyivinsbook.com and http://www.billminutaglio.com.