Fine writers and close friends gathered Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the passions and the prescience of Molly Ivins, the larger-than-life Texan who spent every day of her life fighting for what she believed in, until cancer killed her last January, at the age of 62.
The crowd at the Society for Ethical Culture included former New York Times colleagues—Joe Lelyveld, Marcia Chambers, Linda Amster, Paul Goldberger, Mary Breasted, Mike Leahy, Clyde Haberman and Stephanie Lane; pundits like Katrina vanden Heuvel and Eric Alterman; 60's activists like Curtis Gans, and fellow white water adventurers like Carol Bellamy, Ellen Fleysher and Victor and Sarah Kovner.
The festivities began with a slide show (set to songs by the Rock Bottom Remainders) showing the writer-activist at every age, posing with everyone from Bill Clinton to Bill Moyers. The shot of her sporting a Fox News hat got the biggest laugh from the three hundred fans who had gathered to remember her.
Maya Angelou recalled how startled she was when she first met Molly and realized she was six feet tall.
“I knew she was white,” said Ms. Angelou. “I didn’t know she was so much white!” Nevertheless, Molly immediately dubbed the two of them “twins separated at birth.”
Ms. Angelou said there was only one source of frustration: every time she tried to introduce anyone to the magnificent Molly Ivins, she discovered that they were already old friends.
New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin remembered columns that could make you “laugh out loud”: “if a certain Congressman’s IQ dropped any further he’d have to be watered twice a day,” or the one about the Texas gubernatorial candidate who was “so afraid of getting AIDS while visiting San Francisco that when he was in the shower he wore shower caps on her feet.”
Mr. Trillin said her loyalty had “no bounds and no statute of limitations … Reporters visiting Texas on a political story got from Molly not resentment about intrusion on her turf but a jolly welcome.”
Sitting in the audience, Joe Lelyveld echoed that memory: “She was just so incredibly generous,” said the former executive editor of the Times. “When I was writing a column for the Times magazine, she sent me a letter with the names of fifty people I should meet in Texas.”
Molly was my good friend for more than 30 years. When I moved to Paris a few years ago, Molly happened to be living there for a month. It was right after 9/11, and she insisted on meeting me on the street, outside my new apartment, to help me get five huge suitcases and a bicycle up the stairs. After coffee at a nearby cafe, she issued me one sleeping pill and sent me to bed for six hours. Then I met her on the Ile de la Cité for a magnificent Paris dinner. No one had had a warmer welcome since Americans troops reached the City of Light in 1944.
John Leonard described Ivins’ work as “an amphetamine rush of Rabelais, Mark Twain, Lily Tomlin, Lenny Bruce and Jeremiah – whether she was writing about George Bush, Clarence Thomas, country music or the White Trash Hall of Fame…Politics was the normal respiration of her intelligence. She never stopped being both funny and furious…The most important words she ever wrote were these:
There's not a thing wrong with the ideals and mechanisms outlined and the liberties set forth in the Constitution of the U.S. The only problem is the founders left a lot of people out of the Constitution. They left out poor people and black people and female people. It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.
Ivins was a digger and a thinker; she was fearless and selfless, and she was phenomenally focused. There were only three things she cared about: journalism, activism and friendship. And the way she kept the faith made her both a model and a reproach. A model because she lived to afflict the powerful and comfort the powerless; a reproach because she kept on writing and talking and fighting for the causes we had all embraced in the 1960's, long after most us had rechanneled our energies into much more selfish pursuits. “She gave her tired friends the goose to go on after we had abandoned hope,” said Mr. Leonard.
SHE EXCELLED AT THE MOST important test for every pundit: she was right more often about the vital issues of our time than almost any other columnist. This is how she warned against the consequences of a Bush presidency in the introduction to one of her books:
Texas has a lot of things suitable for export. The songs of the Flatlanders or the Dixie Chicks come to mind; ruby-red grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley, boots from El Paso, sweet crude from Odessa, and brown shrimp from Corpus Christi. But public policy stamped MADE IN TEXAS is like Hungarian wine—it does not travel well. In fact, it ought to be embargoed. Very few laws passed east of the Sabine River or south of the Red River are safe for national consumption.
Calvin Trillin recalled Paul Krugman’s a column immediately after Ivins’ death. Mr. Krugman cited these examples of the Texan’s extraordinary prescience:
Nov. 19, 2002: ''The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now.
"So,” Mr. Krugman concluded, “Molly Ivins — who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East — got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do? With very few exceptions, they got everything wrong.”
The most poignant moments were provided by Eden Lipson, a former Times colleague and one of Ivins’ closest friends.
“A few years ago I finally realized that it was us, the cosmopolitan New Yorkers in the media capitol, with our literary and political gossip and hermetic chattering who were, in fact, provincial,” said Ms. Lipson. “ Molly was the one who saw America large and clear, who out-reported the mainstream media from Austin, who had a balanced and ultimately optimistic view of the world. Molly’s generosity was legendary, but in addition, she was brave. She went on book tours two and half times while on chemotherapy.”
Ms. Lipson was also diagnosed with cancer last year. Before it went into remission, Ivins came to visit her at the hospital. This is what she told her friend:
“Understanding mortality is entirely personal and won’t know it until you face it. The cancer will probably kill you in the end, but moving ahead, do as much as you can . . . until you can’t.”
“And then it’s okay to let go.”