February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins

One of the world's most reliable sources of mirth is gone -- Molly Ivins died yesterday.

The NYT obit (Katherine Q. Seelye, "Molly Ivins is Dead at 62; Columnist Skewered Politicians", 2/1/2007) listed a few of her better jokes, for example:

After Patrick J. Buchanan, as a conservative candidate for president, declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention that the United States was engaged in a cultural war, she said his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

But both the Grey Lady and the internet failed me on one point. According to the obit,

In 1976, her writing, which she said was often fueled by “truly impressive amounts of beer,” landed her a job at The New York Times. She cut an unusual figure in The Times newsroom, wearing blue jeans, going barefoot and bringing in her dog, whose name was an expletive.

Which expletive was that, I immediately wondered? Searching for {"Molly Ivins" dog "New York Times"}, and similar things, was unenlightening on this point. If you know the answer, please tell me. [Update: mystery solved -- see below.]

I bet that Molly will be having a laugh over that "dog, whose name was an expletive", as she settles down behind her keyboard in heaven. Here's what the obit in the Dallas Morning News has to say about her time at the Times:

She frequently butted heads with what she considered the stuffed shirts at the Times and described her idea of hell as "being edited by the Times copy desk for all eternity."

She liked to say that if she described something that "squawked like a $2 fiddle," the Times copy editors would change it to "an inexpensive instrument."

The grey lady and the red-headed one parted ways after Ms. Ivins covered a New Mexico community chicken festival and wanted to refer to it as "a gang pluck."

The NYT obit primly describes this episode as follows:

Covering an annual chicken slaughter in New Mexico in 1980, she used a sexually suggestive phrase, which her editors deleted from the final article. But her attempt to use it angered the executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, who ordered her back to New York and assigned her to City Hall, where she covered routine matters with little flair.

Some other Molly Ivins quotes, from the Dallas Morning News obit:

Of the Gore-Bush presidential race in 2000 she said, "It's like having Ted Baxter of the old 'Mary Tyler Moore' show running for president: Gore has Ted's manner and Bush has his brain."

Of ultraconservative U.S. Rep. Jim Collins, R-Dallas, in the early 1980s, she said: "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."

"Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that."

The NYT obit cites one Ivins zinger that the Dallas Morning News omits:

She quit The Times in 1982 after The Dallas Times Herald offered to make her a columnist. She took the job even though she loathed Dallas, once describing it as the kind of town "that would have rooted for Goliath to beat David."

And her motto (recorded in several variants) is one of my favorites:

"I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth."

For an inspiring model of grace and courage as well as humor, see her forthright response (in 1995) to a serious accusation of plagiarism.

[Update -- Rob Twin provides the answer, via Rosalind Alexander, "'Who's it screw, and who's doing the screwing?' Jawin' with Molly Ivins, America's funniest hell raiser", Seattle Weekly, 4/22/1998. The lede:

Within a respectful time after her dog Shit died, Molly Ivins began looking for another pet. She hoped to name it Achilles. "Then I'd get to command 'Achilles! Heel!'" she explains in her trademark Texas drawl.

John Cowan adds:

This name was only semi-intentional; its original name was Shitfire or Shitface or something of the sort, which became Shit by hypocoristic truncation. She wrote a sweet and funny piece about the dog after its death.

On general stylistic grounds, I'd put my money on "shitface". More as I learn it. ]

[ (Update 2/3/2007.)  Molly Ivins' obituary for her dog, published in the Texas Observer in February, 1987, and reprinted in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? (pp. 207-210), explains the name:

I never intended to name the dog Shit. Kaye Northcott foisted the little black puppy on me with a heartless ploy -- left her with me "just for the weekend" and then returned Monday threatening to take her to the pound and have her put to sleep. I was going to name her something lovely, like Athena, but reality intervened. She was the only dog I ever saw that could trip on the pattern in the linoleum, so we called her Shitface for a while, and then it got to be Shit for short and then it was too late.

The whole piece is here.

I learned a useful new verb from the opening sentence ("Shit the Dog finally croaked on December 9 after fourteen-and-a-half years of marplotting through life"). According to the OED, a marplot is "A person who or (occas.) a thing which spoils a plot or hinders the success of any undertaking". The verb isn't in the dictionary -- and {marplotting} now nets only six Google hits, with one of them being a quote from Molly's article, and two others being fake text on Taiwanese porn sites. But if we all start using it -- and which of us doesn't have good and frequent reason to do so? -- we should be able to being it into general use. I certainly plan to try. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 1, 2007 07:58 AM