The first time I saw Ann Richards she was playing bridge with old friends at the home of Fletcher and Libby Boone in the hills overlooking Austin. With kids whooping in the bedrooms, a half-dozen card games uproarious in the living room, and much strong drink poured in the kitchen, I was parked on a sofa. I had been invited to the Sunday night tradition because I was courting Dorothy Browne, one of Ann’s old friends and, later, her devoted and trusted aide in state government. It was a hard crowd to overshadow, but that never daunted Ann. She was 47 then, a Travis County commissioner. She was a very attractive woman; for all the premature facial lines and a hairstyle that harked back to a time when “permanent” was used as a noun, sexiness was a distinct part of her bearing. When she turned it on, she was all blue eyes and dimples.
She cocked an eyebrow at the dubious prospects of the hand she’d been dealt, leaned back in her chair, and said, “I’ve just got to tell you all about club,” stretching one syllable into three. “We have such a good time at club. We just talk and talk. And when we get to the end, we vote on what’ll be our next topic of discussion. I think I’m going to propose vaginal itch.”
The bawdy and rowdy feminist was a well-known side of Ann. But something else underlay her crack about the stuffiness and pretensions of social clubs. In a crowd that was well juiced and thought nothing of it, she was talking about the newness and rawness of her commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous. A few Sundays before, her family and close friends had, with great pain of their own, reduced her to sobs in the ordeal of intervention. She walked into a house in West Lake Hills, and on seeing them all, she responded with the instinctive fright of a mother: “Are the children all right?” Hours later she was on a plane to a treatment hospital in Minneapolis. She later said she’d tried to fight off their pleas and their harsh evidence of what she was doing to herself, and to them, because she thought that if she quit drinking, she’d lose her gift for being funny.
“I was terrified,” she wrote of the trip to Minneapolis in her first book, Straight From the Heart. “I was a public person, there was no way I could survive it.” Ann’s long marriage to David Richards, a labor and civil rights lawyer who was also our friend and still is, came to an end in the same period. When Dorothy and I married, in 1982, we invited Ann to our wedding on Fletcher and Libby’s lawn. She sent us a nice gift and a poignant note. She wished us all the best, she wrote, but weddings were something she was having a hard time handling right then.
Ann was wounded in spirit. By standards she held dear—as a wife, as a mother, as a responsible person—she had reason to feel like crawling under a rock. But that was not her way of doing business. Those months at the start of the eighties were the very time when she began a leap upward in politics that would make her grin, drawl, and grit celebrated throughout the world.
Ann was an omnipresent figure in the lives of her friends. She seemed to have been everywhere, seen and done it all, which made her impatient with those of us who were trying to keep up. She was born in 1933, one of the darkest years of the Depression, in a rural community north of Waco. Her dad called on area drugstores, delivering pharmaceuticals, for a salary of $100 a month. She went to Waco High, where she narrowly lost a state contest in debate and met David at an A&W Root Beer stand. After they married and graduated from Baylor University, he went to law school and she began teaching social studies at twenty in a boisterous South Austin junior high. They were standouts in the Scholz Garten gang of liberals. At thirty, living in Dallas, she was a homemaker and political activist awaiting a luncheon speech by the president when it was announced that he’d been shot in a motorcade downtown.
Back in Austin six years later, she carried on her political activism with friends who attended her Episcopal church in West Lake Hills. Other friends, the writers Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright, embarked on the fabled zaniness of Mad Dog Inc. and a would-be acrobatic act, the Flying Punzars. (The third Punzar was singer Jerry Jeff Walker. Look at the photos on the album cover of Jerry Jeff’s storied ¡Viva Terlingua!, recorded in Luckenbach in 1973. Ann sits on a picnic table, taking it all in.)
Like all successful politicians, she was an opportunist with a run of good luck. Seasoned by working for local candidates like Sarah Weddington, who was elected to the Legislature after arguing Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, Ann ousted an incumbent on the Travis County Commissioners’ Court in 1976. She was good at shaking hands and promising to keep folks’ roads fixed. There was a prickly edge to her feminism, but her articulation of those views had an old-fashioned quality that resonated in Texas. “I know there are exceptions,” she later wrote, “and that there are men who do the laundry and who go to the grocery store and plan the meals. But most of the men I know go to the grocery store with a list of instructions. And that list is put together by the female of the household. Men drive the car pool or pick up the cleaning because they are told to. … So, if a woman is not there, the whole management of the house suffers.”
By the time Dorothy and I married, Ann was sober and single, though she and David called it