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‘Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins’: My Q. & A. with playwright Margaret Engel

imageA black mongrel dog scampers across the stage, “dragging a leash and a canoe paddle.”

Her owner yells for the dog by her proper name, “Shit”—an ever-handy expletive for a Texas oilman’s red-headed daughter, grouchy about the status quo.

This is the populist journalist Molly Ivins at home, in a new play by Margaret (Peggy) Engel and her sister, Allison. With the blessing of the Ivins estate, the twins have deftly stitched together an Ivins soliloquy from her actual writings.

Ivins wrote best-selling books and syndicated columns and fired up hundreds of young reporters, only to die of breast cancer in 2007 at 62. But if Kathleen Turner’s acting is as good as the script I read the other day, even Molly’s barefoot ghost might have to double-check the death certificate.

imageThe play’s debut, March 19 through April 18, is in Philadelphia. Ahead is an edited email interview with Peggy Engel (right in photo by Mark Berndt), former Washington Post reporter, ex-managing editor of the Newseum and long-time director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Peggy and I have been friends for decades, starting with her first newspaper job in Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland. Peggy now lives in Bethesda, Maryland; Allison, in Los Angeles, where she is director of communications at the University of Southern California.

Q. Tell us more about who Molly was. Which other writer, dead or alive, was she most like in her humor and some other respects? Admirers say Ambrose Bierce or even Mark Twain.

She was hilariously funny. She was so smart and her wit just sparkled. She was a combination of Bierce and Twain and Will Rogers, with some of that caustic humor that Ann Richards possessed.

Q. How well did Molly know George W. Bush while in high school? Any memorable incidents involving the two?

She knew him casually as they circulated in the same private school and country club circles. She found him easy to like personally. It was his policies that she detested.

Q. Just why did she count so much to you and other female journalists, personally and in other ways? Her most attractive traits as a person and political writer?

She counted to other journalists period, regardless of gender. She was fearless, hard-working and never was swayed by someone’s position or influence. She kept the ordinary person front and center.

Q. Tell us about the origins and evolution of Molly’s political views. Would they have been different if her boyfriend Henry Holland had lived longer, and why? Did she herself believe at one point in the teachings of Ayn Rand?

She was a voracious reader, gaining the nickname “Mole” because she was always behind a book. It was her exposure to the Texas Observer and its passionate crusades against the Vietnam War, corruption, rip-offs, etc. that turned her away from her comfortable Republican upbringing. She may have flirted with Ayn Rand as some 20-year-olds did, but she was a serious student of current and past history and educated herself into the populist views she held for a lifetime.

Q. What about the role of alcohol in Molly’s life? Could she have accomplished more without it, or did it actually help—by bonding her closer to friends and sources?

She accomplished a stunning amount with alcohol, so I don’t think it would have made a big difference in her output. There’s no question that she got inside the workings of the Texas legislature through her regular after-hours socializing.

Q. Some say she was too close to politicians such as Ann Richards. True? Or did this actually work to her readers’ benefit?

Molly would take after friends and foes when the occasion called for it. Her readers definitely benefited from her many political friendships because she wasn’t in the business of keeping stories out of print.

Q. Peggy, tell us about your career. You’ve made quite a reputation as a manager type at the Newseum and elsewhere—did your managerial background at all get in the way of your writing about a hell-raiser who said editors were mice training to be rats? Or, as a younger Peggy, were you Molly? If so, in what ways? And did any remnants hang around? Think she had editors pegged right with that rodent gem? Any editor horror stories of your own?

My forays into management were always fairly brief. My attitudes were cast as a reporter pushing against the grain, so, of course, Molly was a hero to me. But she was best known for her commentary, something I’ve rarely written. Hey, we’ve all had editors who are rats. But they are so out-numbered by the truly genius and inspiring editors I’ve worked with, starting with Irving Leibowitz at the Lorain (Ohio) Journal. I wish he and Molly had met!

Q. Tell us about your sister and her own background and how she would compare with Molly in areas such as politics.

Allison started out as a reporter on the Des Moines Tribune, covering everything from shoddy car repair shops to scoring a rare interview with Mamie Eisenhower where Mamie defended Richard Nixon after Watergate. She then worked for Meredith Publications for several of its magazines, an affiliation that has continued for 30 years. She later worked for the San Jose Mercury, Pacific News Service and won a Knight journalism fellowship to Stanford. She’s just finished a master’s in screenwriting at USC while working to put out the university’s magazine, newspaper and website.

Q. Molly called her father “the general.” He was actually general counsel to the Tenneco oil company but a hawk on all things military. You yourself were born at West Point if I recall correctly, and your father led a distinguished Army career. Did this lead to any interesting dialogue on Vietnam or other issues? How caught up were you in the Sixties?

We had daily and nightly discussions and arguments about Vietnam in our household as my parents were very active citizens. At one point, my parents had community discussions in our living room with other students in our classes and their parents. We protested the war and we also had friends who served in Vietnam.

Q. Why would a New York Times review of an Ivins bio try to downplay her importance and say she concealed her Smith background? Was the paper settling old scores, or did this just come naturally to the outside contributor, himself once a Texas newspaper reporter?

The review gave her credit, but had the customary negative graph that seems obligatory in Times book reviews. As one journalist pointed out, there are plenty of much-lauded reporters (Walter Lippmann, James Reston, etc.) who never produced a doorstop Big Book, but they didn’t get criticized for it. Molly gave the world an abundance of original, insightful material, in columns, reportage and books. Her record stands for itself. She never concealed her Smith background; Texas just superseded it.

Q. How did you come to do the play? Did you ever meet Molly Ivins or know a lot of people in common?

I did meet Molly a few times at conferences and was a longtime addict of her column. I do have some friends in common with her, but I was not in her orbit in any way but as a fan.

Q. Did you write the draft of the play first, and then get the authorization of the estate, or did you sound ‘em out early? Any disagreements with the estate? Did her family or others put anything beyond bounds?

We wrote the play always knowing that we would need to get permission from the estate. Fortunately, her literary agent and Molly’s literary beneficiaries approved the script. There were no restrictions put on us.

Q. How did you and Allison divide up the playwriting? Since Allison is on the West Coast, did you work entirely by computer and phone?

The play was my idea—really a reaction to my grief at hearing about her death. Allison and I have written together a lot—three books and countless articles. When we first started collaborating, there weren’t even fax machines, so we had the world’s largest phone bills. It’s a lot easier now. I sent her a draft, she sends back her improvements, and we keep ping-ponging like that, with long phone calls. Early on, I did fly out to California and we worked straight through one Easter break to get the flow right.

Q. Washington’s Arena Stage helped you develop the play. Why isn’t the play opening there?

It was a function of Kathleen Turner’s schedule. Arena is re-opening this October in its new, glorious space, but Kathleen’s fall schedule got booked. She had an opening this spring and fortunately the Philadelphia Theatre Company was able to squeeze it in.

Q. Loved Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, The War of the Roses, you name it. How’d she end up in your one-woman play? Not a bad trick at all for a pair of first-time playwrights, however gifted. Did you suggest her?

We had both seen her onstage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and she was our dream casting choice. Allison is friends with Jim Autry, the former magazine group president of Meredith Publications, who serves with Kathleen Turner on the board of People for the American Way. That’s how the script got to her.

Q. What percentage of the play is in Ivins’ words, and how much is transition, and how much did you change the language to make things flow?

We’ve been through many rewrites and probably are at a 50-50 level between her writing and ours.

Q. Has the Newseum memoralized Molly in any ways, or are there plans to do so? Or will her maverick history make that difficult?

The Newseum explicitly is not a Hall of Fame. Molly is included where most journalists are, in the Newspeople Database in the News History Gallery and probably a few other places, such as the video archives.

Q. What would Molly think of the financial decline of America’s great newspapers? Would she be mourning the loss of jobs or actually be happy that there might be more room for alternatives in the Net era—cyber versions of the Texas Observer where she worked?

She mourned the disintegration of newspapers and the elimination of experienced reporters and editors. She welcomed the explosion of new news sources, but she didn’t understand why news organizations pushed their top talent out the door.

Q. Do the stereotypes apply? Are today’s reporters and editors less aggressive than their counterparts from Molly’s era, and if so is that because of business pressures from above?

There always are good journalists out there. What’s missing is the support of decently-funded newsrooms so that these people can earn a living wage and spend the needed amount of time reporting and writing important stories.

Q. Any advice for J students and other young journalists, especially in the Internet age? And anything in particular they can learn from Molly’s life?

They can learn to not care about the status of your news affiliation but work as fairly and honestly as you can. Beginning journalists need to spend the years that Molly did, covering news from city councils to the U.S. Capitol, before they can comment with her level of wisdom and humor.

Q. Along with your husband, Bruce Adams, you’re the author of some well-received baseball books. Was Molly into baseball or other sports?

She loved anything on water—sailing, canoeing, and was a big enthusiast of camping and hiking. She was suited to Texas’ great outdoors.

Q. Ah, yes, that canoe paddle! So what are you and Allison working on next, both individually and as a pair? Thanks, and break a leg!

We’ve written a screenplay based on one of our favorite books from our childhood—a blockbuster that’s long been out of print and we have a Los Angeles film agent who is representing it. We’re working on another play together. I’ve been gathering string for five years on a third play and Allison’s written a charming book for middle-school readers that we’re circulating as well as a comedy screenplay that she just finished.

Thanks for your good wishes!

Related: Earlier item mentioning Molly Ivins and a biography about her, as well as the Engel sisters’ play.

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3 Comments to “‘Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins’: My Q. & A. with playwright Margaret Engel”

  1. Howard Owens says:

    For the record, Lippmann wrote several big books, most notably, Public Opinion.

  2. clay barham says:

    Ayn Rand’s writings explained how America’s success with individual freedom. Early settlers had no other choice. No paternal government stood by. Jefferson, in the Declaration, defined what Americans created. We had three constitutions to limit the government and protect close governance, starting between the ears and in the heart, to the County no further than a day’s horseback ride. Our elected representatives take an Oath to preserve our system, yet turn on it and trash it to bring back the Old World system rejected 400 years ago and by force just over 200 ears ago. Modern politicians move government away to a distant city as the center of organized crime, as if run by the Sopranos. They picked our pockets and destroyed our economy. See The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and Claysamerica.com

  3. David Rothman says:

    Howard: “Public Opinion” isn’t huge physically, just a few hundred pages, so by that standard it is not a “Big Book,” not when you think of such classics as David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (almost 700 pages in hardback). But as a revealer of Lippmann’s thoughts and a work for academic study—yes, “Public Opinion” is important in those and other ways. Same for books like “A Preface to Morals” (again several hundred pages). Maybe the issue boils down to, “What’s meant by a ‘doorstop Big Book’?” If anyone knows of a 500-pager by Lippmann, let’s hear about it: educate us. Meanwhile many thanks for caring about this detail, and now—a question for you. As a new media expert, what’s your own perspective on Molly Ivins? If newspapers had employed more like her, would they be fitting better with the Internet? Could the current Times have used her, at least in its online edition?

    Clay: Thanks for sharing your opinions. I’m on the progressive side myself and think that government has an important role to play in such areas as education and worker safety. Molly Ivins would have agreed. As for Peggy’s comments, the big point here is that Molly just flirted with the Rand ideology. I guess you’d take offense at “educated herself” into populism. We’ll all agree to disagree about that one–I’ll side with Peggy.

    Thanks,
    David

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