Newspaper Days

An exclusive excerpt from a new biography shows how three summers as an intern at the Houston Chronicle helped turn Molly Ivins from a River Oaks girl into the most distinctive liberal voice in Texas journalism.
Newspaper Days
ALL FOR YACHT: During her summers at the Chronicle, Ivins liked to take other interns out sailing on her father’s boat.

She was arguably the most famous woman in print journalism in America. Her column appeared in over three hundred newspapers, she had several best-selling books, she was an icon in the liberal, progressive wings of politics and media, and like it or not, she cemented for millions of her fans and critics a certain image of Texas. But Molly Ivins’s path to fame had ordinary origins: She owed her first newspaper job to her dad. “General Jim” Ivins was the president of Tenneco, an oil and gas company in Houston, and after his daughter’s first year at Smith College, in Massachusetts, he helped arrange an internship for her at the sleepy Houston Chronicle. It would keep her home, and he could take her out on his Lightning yacht. And so in 1964 she returned to her parents’ house, on Chevy Chase Drive in River Oaks, and had her initial, limited exposure to the inner workings of the journalism business.

At the time the Chronicle was a paper that often managed to be both moribund and obsequiously deferential to the powers that be. It was seen by many as a jingoistic house organ for the oligarchy of America’s sixth-largest city. The Chronicle had been owned by the former Secretary of Commerce, Jesse Jones, and after he died, the paper moved into the control of his heavily bankrolled and very private Houston Endowment. It was an influential body that endorsed the notion that once the patricians had accumulated enough money, they could segue into civic ventures coated with the patina of noblesse oblige.

When Ivins visited the paper that summer during the first of what would be three internships there, the Endowment was busy buying and shutting one of the Chronicle’s major rivals, the gritty Houston Press. The Endowment’s philosophy was that the editorial process should never block the megadeals that were being cooked up at the still-segregated River Oaks Country Club; the Old Capitol Club, in the Rice Hotel; the Petroleum Club; the Houston Club; and the Houston Yacht Club.

During her summers at the Chronicle she was assigned to a variety of low-level tasks: answering phones, filling paste pots, and cutting out articles for the library morgue. She also ran errands for the grizzled veterans, including the caustic local-legend-in-the-making Zarko Franks, with whom she would remain close for years. Franks, who liked to mingle with the reporters in fedoras at the courthouse, could have walked off the pages of A. J. Liebling’s The Telephone Booth Indian. He was a player and immediately drawn to the tall, twenty-year-old redhead who liked to smoke. He would call her “Molly Bee” and “Viking Goddess” and tell her she had “lake-blue eyes.” He liked to send her working versions of stories he had banged out on his typewriter, asking if she had ever seen anything that good. Every paper in Texas had at least one or two journeymen like him—ballsy, working on a novel, and willing to play the crusty-but-benign part for awed newbies. When Ivins was going downtown in the mid-sixties, before Houston had built most of its six miles of underground tunnels, the streets were still filled with grifters with pencil-line mustaches and nicknames, dreamers by the Greyhound bus terminal whose luck was flatter than a gambler’s wallet, and shoeshine men who played the blues as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins. Franks fit in, knew many of them; he was a Runyonesque rooster who sent roses to women and dreamed of getting his book Goodbye, Golden Girl published. If not that book, then it would be the one he wanted to write with a forensic pathologist, with the working title “I Live With the Dead.”

He constantly made fun of the process, of the earnestness that editors clamored for in stories that he hammered out a few minutes before deadline. Once, he sent her a story he had written, with a joking note attached: “Ask your city editor, the sardonic bastard … if he’s got anybody on that sterile rag capable of doing something like this. I mean, with a phony heartbeat to it, so it sings and cries like pro copy should.” Franks was influential on several levels—including his ability to bat out copy on a dime, something she would do for the next few decades. His perpetual, comedic contempt for editors he viewed as something less than his equal was something else she absorbed.

Ivins liked the idea of going to work at the downtown newspaper; she liked having a desk in the building on Texas Avenue, in the middle of the power complex where her father cut his own deals. She liked the newspaper code talk, the lingo about picas, double trucks, ledes, and refers. She liked the gallows humor. She had never been around reporters before, including the itinerant ones who would work for a few months in one city and then move on to Laredo, El Paso, San Antonio, or Corpus Christi—hired guns brought in to maybe bird-dog a long-running murder trial.

For a twenty-year-old who had essentially done stand-up comedy routines at Smith about holy rollers in Texas, this was something closer to the marrow. It was only a three-minute drive from her parents’ house to something out of one of her favorite books, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, the bitter saga about the man assigned to the “agony beat” at the big-city daily, exposed to too many things, hardened to concrete—and who then “killed his great understanding heart by laughing.”

The next summer she took up residence in a small warren reserved for interns and almost hidden behind a row of large, clunky black typewriters. She worked on short filler items, answered the phones, dealt with reader complaints, and took in wedding announcements. She began hanging out with the smart-ass reporters going to city hall and the courthouses. She was turning 21, bringing home $62 a week, and still inviting people to go sailing and drinking on her father’s boat at the Houston Yacht Club. She was part of a circle of

Tags: POLITICS

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week