Molly Ivins, ‘Red Hot Patriot’: A play and a bio—and some ‘Scandals’-style uppitiness

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imageThe late Molly Ivins, subject of a new biography, as well as a forthcoming play called Red Hot Patriot, never met two fellow newspaper types named Wendy Blevin and Jonathan Stone.

And why should she have? They’re fictitious—both Wendy (daughter of Morrison T. Blevin, the skilled bagger of both ducks and fighter-plane contracts—from his hunting-lodge guests) and Jon (the reporter protagonist of The Solomon Scandals).

Still, I can imagine some boozy bull-sessions, among the three characters, over commonalities beyond just newspapering and sass.

Molly Ivins dissed the richest and the snobbiest of Texas. She grew up amid oil tycoons and yacht owners and acquaintances like the Bush family, one of whose members, Dubya, she would lovingly immortalize as Shrub. The New York Time was not the right place for even a Smith alum who went barefoot in the city room, or for copy with felicities such as “gang pluck” (to describe a chicken-kill). But Ivins thrived as a muckraker—especially at the Texas Observer—and as an author and speaker. Ivins’s syndicated column reached hundreds of newspapers. She died in 2007 at 62 of cancer, reliably outspoken and witty to the end. “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun,” she said. “First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”

Wendy Blevin, agitator and newspaper columnist, might as well have been Ivins’s East Coast cousin in many respects. “I’ll forever recall the aftermath of her chicken-and-rice dinner with friends in a decaying Anacostia neighborhood with lackadaisical garbage collection,” Stone writes of Wendy in his memoirs about his Washington Telegram days. ”They were authentic friends, not get-to-know-for-a-cause friends, and as a strategist Wendy gave them her best. A giant pile of pet droppings, laced with the carcasses of dead rats, ended up on the lawn of a sanitation bureaucrat in Kalorama Heights. Wendy was the only Vassar-educated debutante I knew who had learned community organizing under Saul Alinsky.”

Stone himself is a long way from Molly or Wendy in family wealth or eccentricity, but is known to have shown up the Telegram’s city room in his pajamas to protest early-morning meetings. More importantly, he takes on not just any establishment but, like Molly, the one closest to him—in this case the Washington business community, where his father works for a public affairs firm with indirect but significant ties to Seymour Solomon, the very target of Stone’s expose, the one Jon may or may not get into the Telegram, given all the advertising that Solomon has sent its way.

The 60s did it, this beast of an era. All three of the aforementioned troublemakers, Molly Ivins, Wendy Blevin and Jon Stone, are products of it; and the new Ivins biography excels at telling how the age molded Molly as a young woman.

I’d have welcome more “Why” in Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (for example, more delving into how her leftish side grew more dominant after the death of a patently elitist boyfriend). And I suspect Blevin and Stone and Ivins herself might have urged the two authors of the biography, Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, to have made it shorter and punchier. Still, Wendy and Jon would have loved both the book and the subject and—in the presence of Molly Ivins herself—have traded endless stories about the inanities of the media and the cosmos in general. As a bonus, Amazon’s electronic version of Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life is speech-enabled, just right for a walk with a Kindle 2 on a brisk winter day, when your eyes are tired and you want a change of pace from the usual reading. I’m amazed that the book drew only a three-paragraph review in the Washington Post, considering the fame and importance of its subject. Molly Ivins inspired a generation of female muckrakers.

image As for Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins—the main title is too good not to come immediately after Ivins’s name in my headline—it will debut in Philly and run there March 19-April 18, 2010. Sooner or later it will most likely show up in the D.C. area, where Arena Stage helped refine the script. I’ll be shocked if I don’t like Red Hot Patriot, for the simple reason that I’ve known one of the co-authors for decades and believe she is DNA-destined not to write a dull line. Red Hot isn’t just a collaboration: it’s a a sister act, even. Margaret (Peggy) Engel, a friend from my Ohio newspaper days, is now director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, as well as author of baseball books with her husband, Bruce Adams. Allison Engel works as communications director of the University of Southern California. Eons ago, they competed against each other for bylines in Des Moines Tribune; fodder for their next play?

While the Engel sisters are the biggest names that count to me, I haven’t even mentioned the most important one for the rest of the world, besides Ivins: Kathleen Turner, the sultry Mattie in Body Heat, who loved the Engels’ script and will be Molly in the world premiere in Philadelphia. Broadway, in time? You never know. The next Best Little Whorehouse in Texas? Ms. Turner isn’t from there; but like her and the character she plays in Red Hot, Lone Star culture has legs.

Related: Detailed Q & A with Margaret Engel, one of the twin sisters who wrote Red Hot Patriot.

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