A nationally-syndicated political columnist and author of seven books, Molly Ivins was a pickup-driving, beer-swigging Texan with a foul mouth who just so happened to be a liberal. Raise Hell: The Life and Times Of Molly Irvins is a new documentary that tells the story of the prescient woman who chronicled the country’s political trajectory from the 1970s until her death in 2007, all while somehow managing to keep a smile on her face.
An LA-based documentary film professor, Janice Engel was inspired to write, direct, and produce the film after she saw a one-woman show starring Kathleen Turner called Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. “I was knocked out by who Molly Ivins was, how she spoke and who she so brilliantly skewered,” Engel said in a director’s statement. “I also discovered on a much more personal level that both Molly and I shared a similar trajectory: a deep distrust of patriarchal authority and a need to stand up for the underdog.”
Spoiler alert. Even though Ivins was from Texas, she often called her home state the “national laboratory for bad government.” She believed that political fools were fair game, and that it was her duty to help show the American people who they really elected — especially president George W. Bush. As Rachel Maddow says in the film, “The people who Molly took apart were the right people to aim at, and they knew it. People who had power and misused it — those are the people who she aimed at.”
A shy bookworm of a girl, Ivins shot up to six feet in height by the time she was 12 years old. “I always felt like a St. Bernard with a bunch of greyhounds; a clydesdale among thoroughbreds,” she’d quip in her signature Texas drawl.
She wanted to be a journalist ever since she saw Humphrey Bogart play a newsman in Deadline — U.S.A. “I thought that wandering around the world, being paid princely sums to have fabulous adventures in exotic places sounded like a great way to make a living, and that was what I wanted,” Ivins says in the film.
The budding writer grew up in the south before Civil Rights movement and entered the world of journalism in the 1960s, constantly clashing with her conservative oil-executive father. After traveling to France and graduating from Smith College, she earned an MS in journalism from Columbia University and got job offer at the Minneapolis Tribune, where she was the city’s first female police reporter. She credited her height with getting the job. “It really does make a difference if you tower over your editors,” she said.
Ivins wrote a series of articles about protestors, “Who are the young radicals?” followed by another series, “Who are the young conservatives?” She was particularly proud of the fact that the Minneapolis Tactical Squad named their pig mascot “Molly,” even though it was probably meant to be an insult. All the while, she openly voiced her opinion that there was no such thing as objectivity. “How you see the world depends on where you stand and who you are,” she said. “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 of salt, depending on their preferences.”
After she resigned from the Minneapolis Tribune, Ivins went to work at The Texas Observer in 1970, where she showed up for the interview with a six-pack of beer. The self-described “outsider journalist” was then asked to join the New York Times, where she walked around barefoot with her dog named Shit. She was assigned to write Elvis Presley’s obituary on account of her southern accent, then covered his funeral, referring to his lifeless body as a “plump corpse.”
Molly Ivins at the New York Times in Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Molly Ivins Collection, Briscoe Archives. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ivins then became Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief for the New York Times, saying, “Great way to work for the New York Times is to be at least a thousand miles away from New York.” She then went back to Texas to work at the Dallas Times Herald, and appeared on David Letterman once her books started to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. At the height of her career, Ivins was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, drawing praise along with vitriolic letters, including death threats.
“One of the mistakes we make when we try to talk about politics in this country is we keep pretending that the political spectrum runs from right to left. It doesn’t. It runs from top to bottom,” she said. In that spirit, she always looked out for the so-called little people, i.e. those most affected by top-down politics.
While she stood up for those without a voice, Ivins contended with her own demons as well. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but still went on the road to promote her book, and continued to smoke and drink heavily. The cancer appeared to be in remission and Ivins finally got sober, only to have the cancer came back and claim her life at the age of 62.
Today, Molly Ivins is remembered as one of the few journalists who had the courage to stand up to the powers that be, and speak the truth. It’s worth learning more about her in the new, well-deserved documentary, Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.