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.

November 2009By Comments

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 sarcastic young interns and new reporters, many of whom were openly quacking about whether the Chronicle was too stodgy, too wedded to the various businesses and boards that the Houston Endowment kingmakers presided over. It was an early manifestation of what would become her lifelong suspicion of newspaper ownership, the high sheriffs, as she called them. She was exposed to the business at a time when the editorial pages often perfectly reflected the groupthink of the citizen kings. It was also a time when the paper was designed and laid out by hand, when boys delivered it on bikes, when muscled pressmen would fold up a newspaper sheet into a “pressman’s hat” to keep the ink mist from spraying on their heads. It was too a time when most women were relegated to the back sections of the paper, the softer news, the “women’s section.”

But she was also exposed to a particular newspaper at a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the disparities and the inequities that persisted as Houston grew. The Astrodome had opened, and baseball was miraculously being played indoors—but inside the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the best seats were reserved for the wealthy white citizens. The growth of Houston, each glittering triumph, only made it harder than ever to ignore the harsh juxtaposition with the poor neighborhoods. When Ivins drove to work from River Oaks, she skirted the south side of Buffalo Bayou and could see the Fourth Ward, the boundaries of it very easy to identify and the bleak look of it so singular.

The titans had built a new airport, a stadium with air-conditioning, and they were busy laying out all those tunnels downtown so that you could walk from your bank to your private club without breaking a sweat on Texas Avenue. But the city’s intransigence toward the Fourth Ward—and the sister zones where blacks and Latinos were exiled, the Second, Third, and Fifth wards—was only made more clear with each new highway expansion and building crane looming over downtown. There were even homes in the Settegast neighborhood—a place dotted with “affordable” homes that might lure Negroes away from any encroachment into white neighborhoods—where there was still no running water and raw sewage simply flowed into ditches and the streets. There was nothing subtle in the least about the disparities. It was in the architecture and in the language. Reporters coming back from interviews with the police said some of them were still talking about the “niggers.” The police force was widely viewed by critics as one of the most racist in America. And at the courthouses it was easy to see that the separate water fountains for blacks and whites hadn’t yet been removed; one person at the courthouse told a reporter that they had been kept there “for historic reasons.” It was 1965 in the meanest, richest city below the Mason-Dixon Line, and Ivins was party to occasional, but still enlightening, moments of how journalism could shine a light on a dark corner. A week after a reporter mentioned the drinking fountains in a small item in the Chronicle, they were no longer separate.

That summer the city was also on edge over a local attorney named Barbara Jordan who had co-founded People for Upgraded Schools in Houston and had recently led a demonstration of two thousand people protesting the fact that 85 to 90 percent of the school system remained aggressively segregated. White flight was emerging, as families had begun to anticipate desegregated neighborhoods and schools. Ivins was learning, as were the other interns who had gone to extraordinarily exclusive schools like St. John’s and Kinkaid, where there were no minorities beyond the janitors and landscapers, that Houston was not just multihued but twitchy, restive, and getting hotter all the time.

The following year, she was back for her last internship at the Chronicle. She wrote a series of articles with fellow intern (and current publisher of the Texas Observer) Carlton Carl that were compressed into one long piece about poverty in Houston. It wound up on the front page, a major coup considering the topic and the fact that it had been spearheaded by interns. On Saturdays she’d invite the newer interns for trips aboard her father’s yacht, people sometimes laughing so hard they fell overboard, and she spent weekends at the slivers of beach on Galveston Island, walking out on the piers where the mob still ran their illicit casinos.

She had parties at her parents’ house, and for some of her friends it became a home away from home. She had a swimming pool, something magical and not yet ubiquitous in the well-off areas. There was food and jokes and plenty of beer and booze. And she made sure no one was intimidated by General Jim, who demanded, when the interns went sailing, that people know the difference between a halyard and a lanyard. Molly taught them how to rig the boat and take it down.

She was still clinging to a certain yacht club sensibility. Terry O’Rourke, another intern in the summer of 1966, remembered peering at her over those black typewriters on the city desk: “She spoke with an East Coast, educated elite diction, inflected by a junior-year-abroad French accent. She sounded like Jacqueline Kennedy. And like Jackie, she not only spoke fluent French, she also read novels and political theory in French. Molly was tall and slim and beautiful. In her unpretentious, classic, expensive clothing, Molly exuded a soft, confident aura. Molly taught me to sail her father’s thirty-two-foot racing sloop at the Houston Yacht Club. She was the daughter of corporate power and wealth.”

But through her work at the paper she was developing an interest in understanding the big process and policy of power. It was a function, most likely, of trying to figure out how her father, her family, fit into the oligarchy. It was, of course, a process of self-examination. She was learning where her family ranked. Studying power, ruminating on who had it and why, would become a constant focus for her. Ivins was not often going to specialize in telling stories from the bottom up—long narratives based on intimate details about race, poverty, and injustice. Instead, she would more often touch on those themes by exploring the system, the historical context, and the very specific policies and policy makers.

Those summers at the Chronicle were the early foundation for her boldly skeptical voice. It was as if she was ultimately determined to reprise the beery rap sessions, the laugh riots with the rat pack, the reporters topping one another with insider accounts of some pinhead who ran things in town—all those skittering-toward-cynical talk-fests with the awestruck interns and the jaded reporters, all that after-work deconstruction of what was really going on and who was really in charge.

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