You were friends with Ann Richards. You worked on her campaign in 1990, and your wife, Dorothy Browne, was a close, old friend who went camping with her in the seventies, and worked for her when she was state treasurer in the eighties and governor in the nineties. Is the Ann you discovered in your research the same person you went looking for? Was she the same person you were friends with while she was alive?
Well, I knew she was a great story that first time I ever saw her, in 1979. She was playing bridge, this sexy, 47-year-old woman who had complete command of the room. And it wasn’t a crowd of nobodies. I soon learned that she’d recently been crushed, that she had just come back from treatment for alcoholism and the intervention that came before that, and that her marriage to David Richards was effectively over, though they called it a separation for a while. But that night she was playing what they all called Gonzo Bridge, with six or seven tables going, booze sloshing everywhere, and she was totally at ease.
When I dug into her life for the book, it turned out she’d always been right in the swirl of history. She’d been in the crowd waiting for Kennedy’s speech in Dallas. Her daughter Cecile had been a first grader in the Dallas school where the kids famously cheered Kennedy’s death. She and David had been involved with Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society and moved back and forth from DC to Dallas, and then finally to Austin, where she ran Sarah Weddington’s legislative office while Sarah was winning Roe vs. Wade. She worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment as a member of Jimmy Carter’s Advisory Council for Women. And she was on the board of the Armadillo World Headquarters. So there was this moment when I was writing where I thought, “God damn, I’ve gotten through 250 pages and she hasn’t done anything yet!” Right. Nothing except have this incredible life.
She was serving as Travis County Commissioner when you met her. Was there a thought that she was going to rise as high as she did?
No, no. It was hard to think she was looking at being county commissioner for the rest of her life, and she had this reputation as a tremendous speaker, but she was also deep into feminist politics, which probably wasn’t going to help her statewide.
But she looked the part, right? In the book you write that she carefully cultivated the iconic image we all came to know.
I first read about that transformation in a Mimi Swartz story. And I could see it in old photographs from before she became ‘Ann.’ At one point she had a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo. At another she was dressed like an earth mother, with her hair long and tied in the back. Then all of a sudden her clothing style changed completely. David talked about that, about how suddenly there were hair curlers everywhere. So it was pretty calculated, the image of the smart-mouthed, good-looking grandma who wouldn’t make the good old boys too nervous.
Sounds like a good subject for a book.
The project started when she died. To my astonishment, [former Texas Monthly editor] Evan Smith called and asked me to write a piece for the magazine after that [ “Ann,” November 2006”]. I thought, “Shit. I’ve never been one of their political writers.” Fortunately he gave me such a tight deadline, five days or something crazy like that, that I couldn’t get lost in research, couldn’t get tangled up in the story. And when it came out, people that liked her really liked it.
Then I got a call from somebody at the Woodrow Wilson presidential library. She was editing a book about governors in American history, and she was looking for rich, little pieces by real historians … and me. So I was going to do a piece for her mostly about Ann, but also about some female governors of both parties who came after. I think I was the first person in Texas to know about Sarah Palin. When I started that, I found Ann had left her papers to what’s now the Briscoe Center for American History at UT, and shit, just the index was 700 pages, single-spaced. I thought, Well, I know her family to some extent, a lot of people who worked for her, and now I see this stuff—this might just be possible
And three years later, you’ve got a book.
The great coup was discovering all that correspondence in her archive. It was official business, but also these funny Christmas cards she’d sent and love letters with Bud Shrake. And unlike the Bushes, and the Clintons, and even Obama, I think, she had said that a year and a half after she died, everything was to be opened save a few personnel matters and most of the death penalty cases. I’d go in and order five boxes of files at a time.
The hard part was finding a title. Nothing we tried was working. We were going to call it Ann, but weren’t crazy about that because Holland Taylor’s one-woman play was going to be called Ann, and it was coming out before the book. But the managing editor figured it out, and it should’ve been obvious: Let the People In. Hell, it’s on her gravestone.
You spend a lot of time showing Ann either witnessing or participating in things like the Armadillo and the ERA and explaining the significance of all that cultural history. It created this sense of time and place that made me feel like I was going back to Austin in the seventies. It was like picking up a novel.
I’d written a short, rock and roll book, on the making of Derek and the Dominos’ album Layla and Other Love Songs. And the editor of that had told me to quit trying to