Nadine Brammer Eckhardt, first wife and muse of novelist Billy Lee Brammer (The Gay Place) and second wife of Texas Democratic Congressman Robert C. Eckhardt, died on Saturday at the age of 87.
An alluring and articulate light among Washington, D.C. and Texas political circles, she was a provocative beauty whose well-honed political savvy, frankness and straightforward verbal wit earned her lifelong friendships among writers, artists, progressive activists and politicos. Namesake for two notable restaurants (Nadine’s in New York City and Nadine’sin Austin) and for filmmaker Robert Benton’s 1987 film, Nadine, she was seen by many as an influential cultural conduit, by virtue of her ability to move confidently across many subcultures and historic moments.
“Nadine wanted to be Zelda [Fitzgerald]” said Benton when interviewed by biographer Tracy Daugherty for his recently released Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society. “Not a bad thing to want to be, and if anybody could have pulled it off, it was Nadine. … [She was] a great life-spirit. Being with her was like being in a car with someone who’s driving 20 miles an hour too fast.”
As a young married couple in the 1950s, Eckhardt and her first husband Billy Lee Brammer served on Senate Majority LeaderLyndon Johnson’s staff. In his novel, The Gay Place, set in an idyllic 1950s Austin, Brammer based the character of Ouida, a beautiful and discontented young political wife, on Eckhardt. The character is a complex, charismatic creature of her time, who competes with Governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker for the attentions of a disillusioned younger politician. A character modeled on writer Willie Morris warns the young politician: “She’s got, as the phrase used to go, a reputation. Most eligible married woman in town.”
After Eckhardt divorced Brammer in 1961, she began working at the Texas Capitol, which provided her with valuable experience and introduced her to an up-and-coming state representative from Houston named Robert C. Eckhardt. He proposed to her in 1962, and with the aid of her energetic charm and political instincts, he was elected as a Democrat to U.S. Congress, from the 8th District in Houston, in 1966. Eckhardt understood the value of collegiality in politics. The night of her husband’s election, she and Congressman Eckhardt drove to the campaign headquarters of newly elected Republican Congressman George H.W. Bush to celebrate with Bush and his wife, Barbara, who had become friends with the liberal-minded Eckhardts while on the campaign trail. The Bushes never forgot that gesture. Eckhardt often attributed her political savoir-faire to having closely observed Lady Bird Johnson graciously guiding her own senator husband in his career.
As a congressman’s wife, Eckhardt was known for her generous hospitality and diverting conversation. LBJ advisor and MPAA head Jack Valenti once remarked to the Washington Post that Nadine Eckhardt was the person he’d most like to be seated next to at a Washington, D.C. dinner party.
During a heady time of cultural and political upheaval, Eckhardt worked diligently to keep her husband’s congressional office and home life a well-organized and effective political machine, while also keeping him up on the changing times. They visited Resurrection City during the Poor People’s March in 1968, and invited friends they made there to their home for hot showers and a good night’s sleep. She counseled the congressman to speak out against the Vietnam War, opposing her old boss, then the sitting president from Texas. Eckhardt opened up their Georgetown townhouse to student antiwar demonstrators running from tear gas fired at them by National Guardsmen during the 1970 May Day protests.
A lifelong progressive activist, Eckhardt always managed to straddle both the establishment and counterculture. She continued to count younger people as her close friends until her death. “Nadine was unique in that she was funny and smart as hell, with the ability to speak her mind about the injustices she saw,” recalls Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project.
Increasingly disenchanted with the superficiality of Washington life during the Watergate years, Eckhardt returned to East Texas in the late 1970s, where she went into therapy, divorced the congressman, sold real estate and worked on regional political campaigns. She returned to Austin in the 1980s, where she opened Nadine’s restaurant in East Austin with her son, Willy, where they served home cooking and exhibited the works of many local artists and photographers. Several younger politicians received the benefit of Eckhardt’s connections during those years, including a progressive-minded street vendor named Max Nofziger (who was elected, against all odds, to the Austin City Council).
Eckhardt joined her three daughters (Sidney and Shelby Brammer and Sarah Eckhardt) in New York City in the 1990s, devoting her political acumen and contacts to organizing Manhattan fundraisers for her friend, Ann Richards, during Richards’ successful bid for Texas governor. Eckhardt also worked as a dean’s assistant at NYU while serving as a figurehead for the new Nadine’s restaurant in the West Village, which featured several of her Texas recipes.
A decade later and back in Austin, Eckhardt was behind the political scenes again, helping to elect her youngest daughter, Sarah Eckhardt, to the Travis County Commissioner’s Court. Eckhardt also worked for the Texas Public Utilities Commission and as an assistant to Molly Ivins, using the skills she attributed to her early training on Senator Johnson’s staff: the day-in/day-out clipping of newspapers, maintaining of contacts and meaningful correspondence with constituents.
Duchess of Palms: A Memoir By Nadine Echardt University of Texas Press $29.95; 176 pages
In her 70s, Eckhardt wrote a noteworthy memoir (Duchess of Palms, University of Texas Press) about her long life in politics and letters. Evident in her dedication “to the ’50s girls,” Eckhardt saw herself as an example of the many pre-feminist women of her generation who had to apply their brains and talent to pushing ambivalent mates toward high achievement, rather than pursuing their own dreams and careers. “She was smart, witty, entertaining, extraordinarily insightful, loving, literate, hip and cool, adventuresome and a genuine trail brazing model for women of the 1950s trying to find a meaningful life,” noted Patricia Mathis, a close family friend and telecom industry executive who served in the Carter administration.
Eckhardt was photographed as a young natural beauty by Robert Benton as part of his first professional portfolio. Though she always nurtured artists, she rarely employed her own gifts as a visual artist — but, as Benton once remarked, “Nadine’s life is her art.”
She is survived by her children, William Eckhardt and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, and Sidney and Shelby Brammer of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, as well as two grandchildren, Nadine and Hank Sauer Eckhardt, and her stepdaughters, Orissa Eckhardt Arend and Rosalind Eckhardt. A memorial service is being planned for January 2019 in Austin.
Director/playwright Shelby Brammer was a longtime drama department chair for Austin Community College and is now the artistic director of Theater Bartlesville. Sidney Brammer is a writer/editor, and online creative writing professor for Austin Community College and English professor at Rogers State University; she has been a past contributing writer to the Texas Observer. Both now reside in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
As chair of the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation from 2003 to 2008, Representative Dennis Bonnen was labeled a “tyrant,” a “Clean Air Villain” and consistently rated among the worst lawmakers in the Legislature by environmental activists. The Gulf Coast Republican often berated environmentalists and public officials, earning him the nickname “Dennis the Menace.” Environmental bills opposed by polluting industries rarely got hearings, typically dying a slow death in Bonnen’s committee.
“He was quite a handful,” recalled Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who has been lobbying at the Legislature since the late 1990s. “He was kind of unusual for a Texas legislator in that he was a lot more hostile to witnesses. He could be quite intimidating to the people who came there.”
But Schneider and other environmental advocates say his petulant behavior has waned in recent years, particularly after 2009, when Joe Straus became speaker of the House and Bonnen was reassigned to a different committee. While the change hasn’t been total, Bonnen matured, advocates say; he’s not exactly friendly to environmental causes, but he’s willing to find compromises.
“Representative Bonnen’s voting record under Straus has been better than under [former speaker Tom] Craddick,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “The question is, is he going to be more like [he was] under Craddick or Straus.”
Under Speaker Joe Straus, Bonnen has in some cases been willing to work with environmental groups to find middle ground. Courtesy/Facebook
A spokesperson for Bonnen declined to comment on his environmental priorities, saying they would not issue statements until after he’s elected speaker in January. But a closer look at his legislative record provides a few hints.
Bonnen was first elected to the Texas House in 1996 at the age of 24, just two years after graduating from St. Edward’s University with a degree in political science. A banker at the time, Bonnen whipped his Democratic opponent by almost 34 percentage points to represent Brazoria County, a boggy coastal enclave that hosts a vast complex of petrochemical plants, including the 5,000-acre Dow Chemical plant.
In his first few sessions, Bonnen’s legislative achievements were modest, passing bills to improve drainage systems and protect the interests of the insurance industry. His colleagues labeled him “the pig guy” after he purchased $350 worth of pork chops and sausage with campaign funds and asked at a lecture on state ethics laws if it was illegal to eat it.
Bonnen gained notoriety and influence in 2003 when Midland oilman Tom Craddick became speaker. Craddick was known for his hard-nosed, top-down management of the House, power that he wielded largely in the service of corporate interests. Bonnen was picked to oversee the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, which quickly became known as a graveyard for environmental legislation, including bills that would’ve increased penalties for polluters and regulated cancer-causing chemicals.
“He’s pretty pragmatic and aligns with the industry position. Where he did things we agreed on were issues where it didn’t impact industry so directly.”
He also went out of his way to support corporate interests. In 2003, he introduced a bill that prevented criminal charges from being filed against polluters. In 2005, he scored zero percent on the legislative scorecard published by Environment Texas. The next year, during the election cycle, about a third of his campaign contributions were from the oil and gas industry.
In 2007, a year during which Bonnen’s committee didn’t even meet for more than two months, the Environmental Defense Fund spent $17,000 on radio ads and billboards labeling him “Dennis the Menace” and asking listeners to “Tell Bonnen to do his job and protect the air we breathe or get off the environment committee.”
When the committee did meet, Bonnen was often remarkably hostile to witnesses. In one instance in 2007, while discussing a bill to stop Austin from disposal waste in a Cedar Park quarry, Bonnen harangued Austin city employees, asking them a second question before they could answer the first and criticizing a city attorney for their handwriting on an affidavit. When Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, pointed out during one hearing that the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Air Trust had named him “Clean Air Villain of the Month,” he grinned and said he was “quite proud of that honor.”
“[Bonnen] was quite a handful,” recalled Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Sam DeGrave
More recently, though, under the mild-mannered Speaker Straus, Bonnen has in some cases been willing to work with environmental groups to find middle ground. For the 2013 legislative session, he scored 43 percent and was voted “most improved” by the Texas League of Conservation Voters. That year he voted in favor of bills that increased funding for clean air programs and strengthened penalties for pipeline companies that flouted safety rules. Notably, his contributions from the oil and gas industry have declined. Between 2013 and 2016, just 7 percent of his campaign funds came from Big Oil.
“He’s pretty pragmatic and aligns with the industry position,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “Where he did things we agreed on were issues where it didn’t impact industry so directly.” Reed cited Bonnen’s support of funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), a program established by the Legislature in 2001 to use fees from vehicle inspections and sales to fund improvements in air quality. Since reductions in smog reduces the regulatory burden on industry, businesses have supported TERP, which in turn garnered support from Bonnen, Reed said.
Metzger said that strong environmental protections and public health measures stand to benefit constituents in Bonnen’s district, which is overrun with polluting industries. “It hasn’t been a priority it seems heretofore, but hope springs eternal,” he said.
Photographer Keith Carter has spent his life revealing the magical in the mundane. Born in 1948 in Madison, Wisconsin, Carter moved with his family to Beaumont when he was 3 and, with only occasional interruption, has lived there ever since, documenting the people and places of East Texas in a remarkable body of work that is the subject of the new book Keith Carter: Fifty Years. Carter personally selected the book’s 251 images, which are drawn from the full arc of his career and arranged thematically rather than chronologically, in keeping with his quasi-mystical sense of vocation. “Memory is not linear, and I don’t think the work I’ve done is linear,” Carter said.
Keith Carter: Fifty Years By Keith Carter University of Texas Press $65; 320 pages
Carter is perhaps best known for his 1992 image “Fireflies,” which shows two young boys standing ankle-deep in a shallow pond, peering into a large glass jar that they hold between them. What’s unusual about the photograph is that its subjects, the boys and their jar, are blurred — the presence of fireflies only implied by the title — while their surroundings are in crisp focus.
“I was so disappointed when I made that, because I was trying to make a sharp photograph,” Carter said. “But those little fellows wouldn’t hold still, so I did the photographs and developed them, hoping one of them was sharp. Turned out, none of them were.” When Carter’s late wife, Pat, urged him to make a print anyway, the result proved a revelation. “That dynamited me straight out of the documentary tradition. It was like a veil lifted from my eyes, and I saw that there was so much more there.”
Carter’s photographs had always been informed by regional folklore, but after “Fireflies” his visual language shifted decisively in the direction of magical realism. He experimented with focus and depth of field to create fantastical images of levitating children, Rapunzel-haired Pentecostal women, figures obscured in mysterious wreaths of smoke. His most recent work included in the book was produced using the wet-collodion process, invented in 1851, which involves coating a glass plate with photosensitive chemicals and exposing it while still wet. The resulting images, such as Carter’s portraits of Pat as she was dying from cancer, have a haunting, hallucinatory look reminiscent of 19th-century spirit photography.
In recent years Carter lost both Pat and his mother, a professional portrait photographer who inspired his own choice of career. He also lost most sight in his left eye after receiving radiation treatment for ocular melanoma, a rare form of cancer. Yet Carter continues to experiment. He began working with digital photography for the first time, expressing delight in how editing software allows him to create “anything I can dream.”
And while he sometimes tires of Beaumont, Carter says he could never have created his photography anywhere else. Around 1985, he heard Texas playwright Horton Foote give a speech about his upbringing in the small farming community of Wharton, which became the setting for much of his writing.
“I thought, I live in a place that everyone makes fun of,” Carter recalls. “It’s muddy, it’s flat, it’s dangerous, it’s mosquito-ridden, but it’s my place. So I decided then and there that I would pay attention to the ordinary things found in this ordinary place.”
The results, as readers of this book will see, are anything but ordinary.
Fireflies is one of my favorite accidental images. When I developed the film, the combination of short focus, slow shutter speed and constant movement had produced an unexpected dreamlike effect.
“Two Choir Women,” 2009
This was part of a series of portraits I made of Pentecostal women.
Occasionally the world presents a lovely, askew moment, at once ordinary and mysterious. Walking along the waterfront in Venice early one March morning, I came across this sculpture.
“Chicken Feathers,” 1992
It had begun to drizzle early one evening as these three children were trick-or-treating in a rural area near Fannett.
My granddaughter, Meagan, was pissed. She found a deceased bird one spring morning and wanted to know why it died.
This goat had been brought to the marketplace outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, to be sold.
She was staying at a small pensione on the shores of Lake Garda, Italy. I would see her every day when she played cards with friends or read. She would often feed the goldfish.
“White Horse in Moonlight,” 1984
Driving late one night on Highway 84 near Waco, I passed this horse in a moonlit pasture. I made a 60-second exposure to see what it would look like. I suffered from chigger bites for days after.
“Fox Harris,” 1984
Fox Harris lived and worked in my hometown of Beaumont. He was what we call today a visionary, folk artist or outsider artist. His astounding totems, rooted in African mythology and made of found objects, covered every square foot of his modest home.
Wet-plate collodian image of a lucite bat skeleton found in a biology classroom.
Editor’s note: Legendary Austinite and politico Nadine Eckhardt died Saturday, December 8, 2018, at age 87. As Robert Leleux wrote in his review of her memoir, Duchess of Palms, if Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place is “Austin’s Arthurian legend, then she [was] its Guinevere.” His review, below, was originally published by the Observer in 2009.
Though Eckhardt is oft-noted for her marriages to famous men — including Brammer and, later, Congressman Bob Eckhardt — she also worked as an assistant to Molly Ivins and LBJ, and campaigned for Ann Richards. Her daughter, Sarah Eckhardt, is the first female Travis County judge.
Her memoir, Leleux noted, functions as “an extraordinary work of women’s history, offering a candid consideration of the wifely role in politics during a pre-women’s movement era when ‘wife’ was the best job in town for a woman with political ambitions.”
ORIGINAL POST: No time or place in Texas history has been more fervently mythologized than the Austin of the 1950s and early ’60s. To a bevy of Bright Young Men, the city then boasted something better than cheap rents and easy virtue. It was a mucho macho moment when liberalism seemed virile instead of bleeding-heart, when a man could be progressive without being called a pansy. Little wonder, then, that published accounts of this era tend to include so few women, at least from the neck up. But those that do tend to mention Nadine Eckhardt.
If The Gay Place is Austin’s Arthurian legend, then she’s its Guinevere — the red-hot redhead of a million Scholz Garten nights, who married not just Austin’s Dark Poet (Billy Lee Brammer) but its Crown Prince (Bob Eckhardt) as well. The problem with this story, at least so far as it regards Nadine Eckhardt, is that she was always more than a Sweater Girl. As her new memoir, Duchess of Palms, reveals, Eckhardt was the catalyst, rather than the mere consort, of these two brilliant men. Her intellect and oomph helped transform their latent, eccentric talents into dazzling accomplishments.
In her preface, Eckhardt describes Duchess of Palms (the title refers ironically to the author’s beauty-queen past) as a memoir of “two marriages to two semi-famous Texas men.” In the most limited sense, that’s accurate. But Duchess of Palms is also an extraordinary work of women’s history, offering a candid consideration of the wifely role in politics during a pre-women’s movement era when “wife” was the best job in town for a woman with political ambitions.
Duchess of Palms: A Memoir By Nadine Eckhardt University of Texas Press $29.95; 176 pages
Just what kind of political ambitions Nadine Eckhardt had is difficult to say. She is, in general, a very tricky woman to categorize. “I’m a compulsive moderate,” Eckhardt told me last November in her Austin bungalow — which is a much better description than it sounds, since hers is a personality that seems at ease combining clashing characteristics. “A few weeks ago, I looked up my birthday in The Book of Days. You know that book? Anyway, it turns out I was born on the Day of the Freewheeler. For whatever that’s worth. But then, I also looked up Barack Obama, and he was born on the Day of the Guiding Light, so who knows?”
Eckhardt does seem freewheeling, possessing (at 77!) an almost rock’n’roll vigor and sex appeal. She looked impossibly young on that soft November evening, all wide eyes and bouncy red bangs — features that, I’m sure, have often distracted men from noticing her stiletto mind. Robert Caro, interviewing her for his celebrated LBJ biography, reportedly called her the most perceptive person he’d ever spoken to regarding Lyndon Johnson. Her home is bohemian but orderly, and rafter-packed with paintings and sculpture of herself (gifts from her many admirers). Despite this, Eckhardt seems to have developed the indifference toward good looks of a woman who’s grown bored with being a beauty. When I remarked on a particularly lovely bust, for instance, set on a low shelf near the kitchen, she said, “Yeah, I loved that one. But then the nose snapped off during a move. So I called the artist to see if he could stick on a new nose. But he said there wasn’t any way to do it without it looking like the old nose snapped off, and you tried to stick on a new nose on. Hmph,” she said, with a shrug of her shoulders. It’s a characteristic gesture. Her whole attitude seems to declare, “Noses snap off; marriages bust up; life goes on.” It’s a forward-looking outlook that almost certainly accounts for Eckhardt’s youthfulness — and probably also for her interest in politics, which she defines as just “hanging out” with people. Talking over cold drinks at her dining table, I began to think of her political ambition as a desire to satisfy her natural curiosity, her liaisons with prominent artists and politicians as a way of engaging the world.
In April of 1950, when Nadine Cannon married Billy Lee Brammer, she may have been a green 19-year-old from dusty McAllen, but she was also one of those strangely visionary young people whose instincts surpass their experience. Though she’d never met a famous novelist, she knew that with her help Brammer would become one. During the early years of their marriage, years filled with high times and low bank balances, the stylish couple became Austin’s F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. On staff at The Texas Observer, Billy Lee began reporting events (like the filming of Giant) he’d eventually fictionalize and weave into The Gay Place. The crystallizing moment of their young lives came in early 1955: “The Senator,” as the Brammers came to call LBJ, had a fondness for hiring couples. First he put them on the payroll and then on a Brown & Root plane headed for Washington.
In a move straight out of Stendhal, these two provincial youths were thrust into the nation’s power circles, receiving an incomparable education that would determine the divergent courses of their later lives. Billy Lee’s fate is notorious: After spending time as one of Lyndon’s “hard-peckered boys,” he transformed “The Senator” into fiction, creating a portrait of LBJ in The Gay Place that would prove the simultaneous debut and climax of his writing career. For Nadine, however, her apprenticeship with the Johnsons was only the beginning.
LBJ’s most obvious motive for hiring young couples was to leverage control over his staff — his boys could work late nights without their wives complaining. But Johnson also arguably viewed “the couple” as the basic unit of political success, due to his long partnership with the tireless Lady Bird. The opportunity to observe Lady Bird was formative for Nadine. From her example, the future Mrs. Bob Eckhardt learned that “effective political wives are much like first-rate executives.” Watching from the proximity of the Johnsons’ secretarial pool, Nadine noticed that “like her husband, Lady Bird worked constantly … she desired power just as much as he did. Theirs was a creative relationship that served to accomplish their goals for money and political power.”
It was the idea that marriage could be a “creative relationship,” a mutual adventure, that Eckhardt seems to have found particularly stimulating — poignantly so, since by the 1961 publication of The Gay Place, she and Brammer had drifted apart. They divorced in June of that year. And as Billy Lee entered a distinctly ’60s spiral into speed and Gonzo journalism, Nadine retreated to Austin. There she found work in the Capitol, and in the following months began a whirlwind romance with Bob Eckhardt, then a crusading state representative with unmistakable potential.
From the start, Nadine’s attraction to Eckhardt seems to have been a mélange in which love and politics were inextricably bound. She saw in him an ideal partner for the kind of “creative relationship” she’d witnessed between LBJ and Lady Bird. Of her decision to marry Eckhardt in 1962, Nadine writes:
My vision was so compelling and my gut instinct so certain, I decided I would marry this mature, attractive, talented man, create a wonderful home, help him achieve a congressional seat, and return to Washington as a congressional wife. Consciously, I was marrying Bob because I loved him and wanted to help him in his political career. Subconsciously, I think I was the one who really wanted to go to Congress.
The discrepancies between their political drives (Bob Eckhardt, though a brilliant legislator, found the process of getting elected degrading, while Nadine thrived on organizing and campaigning) seemed, at first, to make them a perfect match. By 1966, Bob was elected to Congress from Texas’ 8th District. Arriving in Washington, the couple was warmly welcomed by now-President Johnson and the First Lady — who, as a matter of taste, never acknowledged that their new colleague’s wife was also their former secretary. For a while, the bustle and flurry of Washington, its parties and talk, was exhilarating. But by the early ’70s, the Eckhardts’ marriage was showing signs of strain.
There is no question that, as a congressman, Bob Eckhardt belongs to a sparsely populated pantheon of truly commendable Texas politicians. But as a husband, forget about it. When it came to crafting legislation, he was a genius. When it came to doing laundry, it was a whole other story. He could debate the fine points of tax policy, but ask him to balance his checkbook and the poor man just crumbled. Of his tendency toward abstraction, Molly Ivins once wrote: “He was absolutely not worth dog on any kind of practical aspect of life. If he had not been taken care of by good women all his life, he’d have been totally nonfunctional.” During his rise to national prominence, it was Nadine who took care of Bob Eckhardt.
It was Nadine who “made decisions when the staff couldn’t get an answer from Bob” and “remembered the names of the people who were key to his success and entertained constituents.” And it wasn’t the burden of caretaking, per se, that was Nadine’s real problem with the relationship. It was that if she’d modeled her second marriage on the Johnsons’, she was destined for disappointment, because Bob Eckhardt, to his moral credit, was no LBJ. Whereas Lyndon lived for acclaim and power and money, Bob just wanted to be left alone with the law. LBJ valued Lady Bird’s discreet, tactful efforts because he understood their necessity to his career. But Eckhardt seemed blind to the politicking Nadine did on his behalf. Or even worse, he saw it as something useful but of no particular value, like doing the laundry. “He couldn’t change,” Nadine writes. “I lost patience with his helplessness and after years of being a wife/staffer, I lost respect for him. Actually, it was more complicated than that. I was losing respect for myself for putting myself in such a position.”
The position in which Nadine found herself was captured succinctly by journalist Myra MacPherson in 1975’s The Power Lovers: An Intimate Look at Politicians and Their Marriages, a book that would cause considerable mischief for the Eckhardts upon its publication. Here MacPherson recounts a particularly frank (and awkward) exchange between the two:
The talk shifted to political wives; [Bob Eckhardt joked] that the best campaigners are those who are ‘simply not engaged in helping the opposition. I’m inclined to think a man alone in a campaign would be better.’ Surprising to his audience, he said that a nice, warm, friendly wife with no ambition or ideological bent can often make the best political wife.
Nadine was sitting quietly, but hardly containing herself. She is a strong personality, vivacious, with a strong ideological bent, reads politics avidly, discusses it avidly, and has an avid opinion. When Eckhardt mentioned one ‘perfect’ wife who ‘loved’ politics and fit the pattern he had just described, Nadine asked with a shade of innocence, ‘Why is she perfect?’ ‘Because she does it so well.’ She replied, ‘Well, “good, supportive” wives are not necessarily happy.’
He seemed somewhat perplexed at the interjection of the word ‘happy’ into the conversation. ‘I didn’t say they were happy — I said they were tremendous assets.’ She said, ‘I don’t think they are really assets. Did you ever see her really smile? Did you ever see her happy?’ He said, ‘I’m not talking about happy, honey, but about assets.’
If Bob Eckhardt wasn’t LBJ, Nadine was no Lady Bird. She didn’t have a temperament suited for hero worship or public humiliation — both helpful character traits for Washington wives. In another passage, MacPherson quotes Nadine as saying, “Those wives don’t even realize their egos are suffering. It’s a kick to have people say, ‘What a speech you gave,’ instead of, ‘Oh, I think your husband’s wonderful.’ I answer that I think he is too, but I also feel, holy hell, so am I.” Unlike Lady Bird, access to power and money appears never to have motivated Nadine. And though for a while she’d enjoyed working as Bob’s campaign partner, she was beginning to feel exploited. If her choice truly was, as her husband related it to MacPherson, between being a supportive wife and being a happy person, then Nadine would pick happy. Newly influenced by the civil rights and feminist movements, she suddenly found herself unwilling to devote all her talents to a man who didn’t appreciate them. When the Eckhardts separated in 1976, Nadine predicted that without her help Bob would be voted out of office within four years. In 1980, he was.
It’s at this point that Duchess of Palms becomes most compelling — because for Nadine, the breakup of her second marriage prompted one of those come-to-Jesus moments that call into question a lifetime of decision-making. She began to see parallels between her current predicament and her divorce from Bill Brammer 15 years earlier:
We separated when [Bob] was at the peak of his career, just as Bill and I had separated at the point when The Gay Place was being published. I left each marriage at the time that each husband was reaping the rewards of our mutual dedication and hard work. I didn’t know how to achieve for myself, only for others, and I felt ripped off and empty.
Like so many of the “fifties girls” to whom Eckhardt dedicates her book, she realized she’d spent the first half of her life ricocheting between her conflicting desires for security and freedom. For Nadine, unlike so many of those girls, freedom won. The chance to start over was worth walking away from a safe marriage with less than her share. In The Power Lovers, Bob Eckhardt is quoted as groaning “Oh, my God” when Nadine suggests that “every congressional wife should get a pension.” But while their 1977 divorce settlement seems to have split the Eckhardts’ real estate fairly, the property in which the couple had built the most equity was his congressional seat — and that couldn’t be divvied up in divorce court. Like any politician’s wife with a passion for politics, Nadine didn’t just lose a husband when she divorced Bob Eckhardt, she also lost a flourishing career. As her ex-husband’s congressional seniority increased, her own résumé came up empty, her years as Mrs. Bob Eckhardt technically amounting to a lapse in work experience. There was a sense of being put out to pasture in her prime. But however unjust Nadine found this bargain, it was nonetheless worth it. During our visit last November, she insisted: “I saw the way those wives were living up in Washington, and so many of them were miserable. Well, I realized I wasn’t willing to be miserable. I had a taste of that life, and I didn’t want any part of it.”
“I didn’t mind working for either of my husbands,” she told me. “But whenever I realized I was working harder than they were, I got bored fast.” Since divorcing Bob Eckhardt, Nadine’s life seems to have been dizzy with work — on her own behalf, and for notably appreciative audiences. She campaigned for Ann Richards, worked as Molly Ivins’ assistant and helped run Nadine’s, the New York City restaurant her daughters named in her honor. She formed friendships with both her ex-husbands that seem to have been far more satisfying than their married relationships. Her bond with Eckhardt, in the years before his death in 2001, is especially touching.
But it’s the 2006 election of their daughter, Sarah Eckhardt, to the Travis County Commissioners Court that serves as the happy ending to Duchess of Palms. Speaking proudly of Sarah’s political future, the ailing former congressman was finally able to recognize the strength of his and Nadine’s combined talents. “Not long before he died,” Nadine writes, “[Bob] looked me hard in the eye and said, ‘Sarah got the best of you and the best of me and she would make a good legislator.'”
The manuscript of Duchess of Palms amounts to its own happy ending. For a woman whose accomplishments have so often been tantamount to ghostwriting — hard work for which she was never credited — this memoir, almost 10 years in the writing, is a strikingly individual achievement. Its upcoming publication (scheduled for March by the University of Texas Press) seems to have made past sacrifices worthwhile. As Nadine walked me to her door, I noticed a bookshelf filled with various editions of The Gay Place. Seeing them, I was reminded of an obvious question I’d forgotten. “So, in the book, the character Ouida. That’s you, right?”
“Yeah,” Nadine said, her eyes firing. “That’s me.”
“Did that bother you?”
“At the time, it did. Because I felt like Bill took my life, my stories, and put them in his book. But you know, now, so what? Now, I am over it.”
Robert Leleux is a Texpat living in New York City. His first book, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, is newly available in paperback from St. Martin’s Press.
The Texas Legislature’s zeal for passing anti-abortion legislation has created an endless cycle of court challenges that’s frustrated lawmakers and judges alike. “Why don’t we just stop passing unconstitutional laws?” pleaded Democratic Representative Chris Turner, in the midst of a debate over a sweeping anti-abortion bill last May. But the measure passed and immediately prompted a lawsuit, landing in front of a fed-up federal judge just three months later. “There is a constant, never-ending stream of these cases,” District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, a George W. Bush appointee, said of the challenge that August. His Austin courtroom is merely a “whistlestop” on the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he added.
Texas Republicans pass increasingly extreme anti-abortion laws, judges block them and then both sides fight it out, often all the way to SCOTUS. Many of these laws are still winding their way through the court system now, even as state lawmakers file their next round of anti-abortion bills ahead of the 2019 session. Those that pass will likely prompt more lawsuits next year.
But if any of the pending cases do reach the high court in the coming years, they’ll face a very different panel than when the cases were filed. Abortion rights advocates felt optimistic after their major win in 2016, when SCOTUS struck down much of House Bill 2 — a sweeping 2013 law that shuttered more than half the abortion clinics in the state. Now, President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch throws the future of Roe v. Wade into question. Here are four reproductive justice-related challenges in Texas that could end up at SCOTUS soon.
Amy Hagstrom Miller in her Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Austin. The clinic reopened in 2017 following the HB 2 Supreme Court decision. Sophie Novack
Before Trump swung the Supreme Court to the right, reproductive rights advocates were plotting how to leverage the Court’s favorable HB 2 ruling in 2016 into more legal victories. Their plan: a sweeping lawsuit, filed this spring by abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health, along with a group of Texas abortion funds, challenging dozens of Texas anti-abortion laws from the last two decades. Their argument is that a slew of abortion regulations — including the state’s required waiting period, ultrasound and parental consent, as well as restrictions on medication abortion — are unconstitutional under the “undue burden” standard for abortion access that was affirmed in the 2016 SCOTUS ruling.
“It’s important for us, inasmuch as we get to control the path of a case, to bring things before this court before the court changes,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, told the Observer in June. “We’ve got to challenge it, quick.” Less than two weeks later, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, and Trump nominated Kavanaugh soon after.
But the lawsuit presses on. “In red states like Texas, litigation is one of the only paths to move things forward,” Hagstrom Miller said in December. “We can’t change course just because people on the courts change.” She’s waiting for Yeakel — again the assigned judge — to set a court date but says this challenge, which she calls “omnibus repeal,” could be particularly lengthy, given its wide scope.
D&E Abortion Ban
Planned Parenthood supporters and anti-abortion protesters holding “Bank of Abortion” signs exchange words outside the downtown Austin Bank of America building in October 2015. Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Conservative activists hope this challenge of a 2017 state law goes all the way to the Supreme Court, as a way to effectively challenge the right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade. Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law banning what anti-abortion lawmakers call “dismemberment abortions” — a nonmedical term for the dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedure, the most common form of second-trimester abortion. The bill was the top legislative priority in 2017 for the far-right group Texas Right to Life, which says the policy “sheds light on the humanity of the preborn child” and could offer a “historic opportunity” to overturn Roe.
Reproductive rights advocates say the law amounts to an illegal abortion ban, and that the state’s proposed alternatives to D&E put pregnant women at risk of unsafe practices. Last summer, a federal judge agreed that the law was an undue burden on abortion access, writing that it would cause women to “suffer irreparable harm by being unable to access the most commonly used and safest” type of abortion in the second trimester.
The state of Texas filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the case in early November but has yet to issue a ruling.
A new grave for fetal remains at Assumption Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in South Austin. Sophie Novack
Just days after the Supreme Court struck Texas’ anti-abortion regulations in HB 2 in 2016, the state health commission quietly entered a new rule requiring the burial or cremation of all fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages at facilities across the state. Whole Woman’s Health quickly challenged the measure, and it was ultimately blocked by a federal judge. But as litigation continued, the Legislature met the following year and passed a similar measure. That version, too, was blocked in court.
The state argues that the law shows “profound respect for the life of the unborn,” but opponents say it’s a backdoor way to shutter clinics by passing regulations they can’t comply with. Blake Norton, who shared her story publicly for first time with the Observer earlier this year, testified in July that being forced by a Catholic hospital in Austin to bury the fetal remains following her miscarriage made her feel “shamed and stigmatized.”
A judge once again sided with the plaintiffs, writing that the law would “likely cause a near catastrophic failure of the healthcare system designed to serve women of childbearing age within the State of Texas.”
The state appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit; a hearing has not yet been set.
Planned Parenthood and Medicaid
Planned Parenthood supporters rally outside the Texas Capitol in 2017. Sophie Novack
Texas has been fighting for a few years now to kick Planned Parenthood out of its Medicaid program entirely. The state argued in 2015 that the organization was not fit to serve in the program, accusing Planned Parenthood of trying to sell fetal tissue. The state’s proof: heavily edited and widely discredited undercover videos, which Attorney General Ken Paxton has referred to as “raw, unedited footage.”
Calling the state’s arguments “the building blocks of a best-selling novel,” a federal judge halted the move last February, agreeing with Planned Parenthood advocates that kicking the provider out of Medicaid would limit access to care for thousands of low-income patients. Federal law prohibits Medicaid dollars from paying for abortions. But these bans in Texas and a handful of other states would also prevent program recipients from using their insurance to cover pap smears, cancer screenings and other services at Planned Parenthood facilities.
The Fifth Circuit heard arguments on the state’s appeal this summer, but has not yet issued a ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court in December declined to take similar cases out of Louisiana and Kansas, leaving lower court rulings in place that blocked the Medicaid ban.
In the early 1990s, the Texas Legislature tried to build something surprisingly progressive amid the state’s tough-on-crime prison boom: an alternative to prison for low-level felons.
Lawmakers reclassified a host of third-degree felony charges, mostly for drug and property crimes, and reduced their maximum sentences from 10 to two years, creating a new category of offense called state jail felonies. Rather than lengthy prison terms, such offenders would serve shorter sentences in state jails built closer to major cities, where they’d ostensibly have access to more treatment and rehab programs. The idea was to relieve pressure on the overcrowded prison system while also breaking the cycle of incarceration for low-level felons.
Instead, more than two decades later, people leaving state jail have a greater chance of reoffending than any other group in the Texas criminal justice system. Nearly 63 percent of people released from state jails are rearrested, compared to 46 percent of inmates released from Texas prisons, according to Legislative Budget Board data.
What happened to such a promising idea?
“You could wait weeks for treatment in the community, or you could relapse and get arrested tomorrow. Those are the only options a lot of people have right now.”
Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says lawmakers never delivered on the rehabilitation-focused approach they had promised. Without re-entry planning, ongoing mental health care and other rehabilitative programs, many formerly incarcerated Texans have little chance of reintegrating into society. According to Smith, state jail felons have lower education levels and higher rates of drug abuse and mental illness than the broader prison population. Meanwhile, only six of Texas’ 15 state jails provide substance abuse treatment, which many offenders don’t qualify for because their sentences are too short.
Even for state jail felons who do access treatment in lockup, there’s almost never follow-up care or supervision. According to a new report co-authored by Smith, only 87 of the nearly 20,000 people discharged from state jails in 2016 were released on probation — less than one-half of 1 percent.
“Basically, we’re throwing a great amount of need into a system that is not designed to provide any meaningful or effective rehabilitation,” Smith told the Observer. “This is not the failure of individuals who made mistakes and kept reoffending. This is the failure of a whole system.”
Smith is encouraging the Legislature to fund more diversion programs to keep people out of state jails, while also boosting rehabilitative and re-entry programs for the offenders who wind up there. After a series of interim hearings on the issue, lawmakers are expected to consider reforming the state jail felony system in the 2019 session.
The system’s failures underscore the need for lawmakers to find ways to address public health issues outside the criminal justice system, Smith said. On average, low-income Texans with substance abuse disorders must wait more than two weeks for intensive residential treatment and nearly four weeks for outpatient treatment.
“You could wait weeks for treatment in the community, or you could relapse and get arrested tomorrow,” Smith said. “Those are the only options a lot of people have right now.”
Last week, the Observer reported that Ray Myers — who had a hand in crafting the platform for the most influential state Republican party in the country — had posted on his Facebook declaring, “Damn right, I’m a WHITE NATIONALIST.”
The story, which included an interview with Myers doubling down on the comment, quickly drew national attention. Just a few days earlier, the state party’s executive council passed a resolution affirming its opposition to religious bigotry after a handful of Tarrant County activists tried to oust the local party’s Muslim vice-chair. After the story published, another Facebook post surfaced in which Myers called for “a rope and a tree” for Brenda Snipes, the Broward County elections supervisor in Florida and a black woman.
The following day, Myers posted on Facebook a photo of state Senator Bob Hall, Kaufman County GOP Chair Jimmy Weaver and others who had traveled with him to Washington, D.C., to visit Trump Hotel and the White House. Hall, whose district stretches from east Dallas into rural northeast Texas, has not responded to a request for comment. Myers’ Facebook page has apparently been taken down.
As pressure grew to explicitly condemn Myers, Texas GOP chair James Dickey put out an op-ed Friday addressing the recent racist statements and bigoted actions: “We denounce them and we want nothing to do with them.”
I emailed the Texas Republican Party’s spokesperson to clarify whether Dickey had meant to denounce Myers’ comments or Myers as an influential activist within the party.
Soon after, my phone rang. It was James Dickey — he wanted to set the record straight. He commenced to perform a delicate high-wire act in real time, providing an insightful window into a party that has been led in recent years by an ascendant and increasingly extremist right wing — and which arguably prompted electoral consequences last month.
Left to right: Doc Collins, James Dickey, Senator Bob Hall, Ray Myers Courtesy/Facebook
Many of my questions were followed by long periods of silence and carefully phrased answers as Dickey struggled to find a balance between condemning recent comments and actions within the party without calling out the people in it or the party itself. After all, Dickey helped found the Dallas Tea Party chapter around the same time that Ray Myers founded the Kaufman County Tea Party just miles to the east. He owes his powerful post to the party’s hard-right factions. After a contentious re-election bid at the state convention in June, he gave a victory speech flanked by tea party acolytes such as state representatives Jonathan Stickland and Matt Rinaldi and state senator Bob Hall. Myers was a vocal supporter of Dickey.
Dickey is a tea party activist, but he doesn’t sound like one at the moment. In our interview, he was careful and contained, talking about the raw anger fueling Trump’s brand of nationalism like a logician and addressing examples of his party’s extremist elements in terms of statistic probabilities and near certainties.
What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our interview. Dickey began by voicing frustration that Myers has been portrayed in news stories as a GOP official.
Justin Miller: He is a member of the platform committee though, right?
James Dickey: [Chuckles] If by “is” you mean “was for about 12 hours on one day, 6 months ago,” yes, as a volunteer. … They are permanent in that they are permanent for the duration of the convention. So literally, the guy was elected on Friday, the [committee] report was given Saturday. That’s it. He was one of 32 volunteers. He served on a committee that then referred stuff to the body that was then debated for hours by the body before being voted on by the body of thousands of delegates. He was a volunteer on a committee. That does not make him an official of the party. Not even close.
Then, of course, we entirely disavow any racist bigoted statements and positions from anyone and don’t welcome any such thing in our party.
Is it the statements or is it the people who are making these statements that are not welcome in the party?
Our history is full of tragic things that happen when people are judged as people instead of on their actions or their positions. As a party, we’re organized by our principles and our statements and our actions. As a party, and especially as chairman of the party, I make no effort to judge people on my assumptions of them or on their internal workings or on their worth as human beings as a whole. I can only judge the words and positions I hear and the actions I see.
We as a party are going to judge everyone for who they are based on the positions they espouse and the actions they perform. And we are going to restrict our comment, for good or ill, to those things. … There’s a very small line between— [sighs] It’s easy to get into bad territory if you do more than judge people based on actions and words. So I’m restricting my comments to be based on actions and words.
Do you think that’s enough? These things that continue to happen. Passing a resolution affirming that there is no bigotry is one thing. I think a lot of people wonder why the members of the Texas Republican Party are so often caught saying things or doing things that need to be condemned?
I would argue that it’s highly likely that what you’re seeing is confirmation bias. It’s selection bias. Why are examples being found of this? Because people are looking for examples of this. If people were looking for, if there was an equivalent effort looking for reprehensible things from Texas Democrats — granted, there are fewer Texas Democrats so there wouldn’t be quite as large a sample size — I would be quite comfortable in positing that it is highly likely there would be at least as many examples.
And as the party, for the most part, because we know that none of the exceptions found are anything other than extreme exceptions, we ignore that noise and focus on the positive benefits that our efforts are bringing for the state.
But is it just noise, or is it a significant segment and an animating element of the Texas Republican Party?
I know for a fact it is not a substantial segment or animating percentage, based on the tens of thousands of Texas Republicans that I have known for years. I also understand why Democrats try desperately to claim otherwise.
Going back to the attempt by activists in the Tarrant County GOP to oust the vice chair because he is Muslim. Do you think that it’s a problem that a lot of people within the party view Islam and Muslims as a threat to their Judeo-Christian values, which are enshrined in the party platform? Is that inherently at odds with the Republican Party?
There are positions held by people of all groups that are at odds with the positions of the Republican Party. Which is exactly why, as I said, we focus on the principles, positions and actions of the people — not the people. So the question for the party is not is someone Muslim or is someone Christian or is someone Jewish. The question is, does someone espouse support for the principles of the party and want to work to advance those.
Do you think this increased embrace of nationalism and people defining themselves as “nationalists” is a problem? Or do you agree with this emerging new nationalism espoused by President Trump?
If it’s defined as, and I believe it is, a contrast to globalism, there’s nothing — for much of our history, foreign policy experts have advised that we make sure that we conduct our foreign policy with a focus on our national interest. It is logical to do so. And if it’s logical to do so on foreign policy than it is possible, if not probable, that it is logical to do so in at least some parts of our economic policy. And, certainly, those who are elected with an accountability to our voters, have a duty to consider putting those voters first.
Do you think that framing of America First as an ideology can invite and fuel xenophobia as a matter of the politics and policy it espouses?
I have certainly seen people claim that. But the logical corollary fails. That would mean that the only way to keep our country successful and growing and diverse as it is already would be to put the interests of citizens of other countries ahead of the citizens of our country. That does not seem logical.
But what about the interests of marginalized U.S. citizens, whether they are Muslim, black, recently naturalized citizens from Latin America or wherever — do you think that there is a tendency and a risk of this style of politics to lead to something that borders on white nationalism?
Texas’ history is full of those who have made amazing positive impacts on our state after having immigrated here. So no. It does not necessarily follow that fighting for the interests of Texans means concluding that those coming here would not continue that tradition.
Do you think Ray Myers is a white nationalist?
My impression from [his Facebook post] and your article is that he was responding and reacting to the accusation against the president and was not focusing on how that reaction would be taken. That was my impression from your article. Which again goes to my comments on the words and the actions — not on the person.
Myers is close to and appears to have influence with both state Senator Bob Hall and Kaufman County GOP Chair Jimmy Weaver — both of whom are elected GOP officials. The day after the article ran, he posted on Facebook a photo of them at Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Is that troubling to you?
I can’t speak to that. I’m unaware of anything to do with that.
James Allison talks with Ph.D. students in his lab. Ilana Panich-Linsman/Redux
Just a few years ago, Jim Allison was considered something of a “snake oil salesman” by other cancer researchers. The ruddy-faced, scraggly-haired scientist from Alice is used to forging his own path. He fought his high school teachers who refused to teach evolution. Later, he became convinced that the body’s immune system could be harnessed to combat cancer, even as colleagues said it would never work.
It turns out Allison was right. Now chair of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Allison will be in Sweden Monday to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with Japanese immunologist Tasuku Honjo. Allison — who plays harmonica in a band of immunologists called The Checkpoints — developed the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug. His research led to life-saving treatments for patients who had little chance of survival. Now, Allison is focused on broadening the efficacy of immunotherapy.
Q:Can you put your work in the context of how cancer research has changed over time?
A: The whole idea of using the immune system to treat cancer has been around for over 100 years, but nobody ever really got it to work all that well. There was a lot of skepticism. The three pillars of cancer therapy were surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, discovered in that order. Immunology was kind of in the backwaters; only crazy people were doing it.
Our metastatic melanoma data kept looking better and better, so [the drug ipilimumab] was approved by the FDA in 2011. It was a big hallmark. But the skeptics said, “Oh, it’s just a melanoma drug.” Then there were responses in prostate cancer, kidney cancer, and that kind of shut that up. In about 2014, there was enough data where there were 10 years of follow-up from about 5,000 patients, and it showed that 22 percent of the patients were alive 10 years after a single dose. When this work started, if you were diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, your median life expectancy was 11 months, and there was nothing to improve that.
Finally [immunology] has become the fourth pillar of cancer therapy, and this is what really revolutionizes everything. If you get chemo or other target therapies, they’re going to kill a cell with a particular weakness. But without doing something else, they’ll become resistant. The nice thing about immunology is you can add it with those and it’ll play friendly. That opens thousands and thousands of combinations.
Have you heard from some of the immunology skeptics since winning the Nobel?
Oh yeah. Jim Watson, the guy who worked out the structure of DNA.
In 2006, I was invited to give the opening-night lecture at the big Cold Spring Harbor [cancer research conference]. I was the only immunologist there, and I’d been warned that a lot of people there were real skeptics. My friends, joking around, said, “You know, after you finish they’re just going to build a fire and burn you.” But Jim came up to me and said, “Nice talk, you almost convinced me.”
[After the Nobel Prize announcement] I got a very nice note from him that said, “Congratulations, you did it.”
You’ve said that your high school wouldn’t teach evolution. What was it like growing up in Alice?
My dad was a country doctor. He gave me a chemistry set and a microscope and other gizmos. You know, if you don’t play football, you’ve got to do something.
I also was lucky enough to have some good teachers — not in biology. I looked at the syllabus and it had a little bit of biochemistry and the rest was just memorization and animal species, genus, all that stuff. Which is cool, but after a while it’s boring. I said, I’m not going to take that, where is evolution? Trying to teach biology without Darwin is like teaching physics without Newton; you don’t go anywhere. It was pretty ugly for a while. One teacher decided I had betrayed him, because I excelled at all his classes but he thought I was some kind of heathen.
But several other teachers and counselors helped hook me up with programs at the University of Texas at Austin. Every summer I would go from Alice to Austin, and it really opened my eyes. I got hooked.
You testified on evolution at a Texas Legislature committee hearing in 1981—
Ernestine Glossbrenner [then a state representative from Alice] was my eighth-grade algebra teacher. She was pretty liberal, but somehow she got elected. She was on the Education Committee, and Mike Martin — that guy was a lunatic — he introduced a bill to require the teaching of creation science. Ernestine said, “Martin’s going to have three or four busloads of people from his church area in East Texas [to testify], I’ve got to have somebody come.” So I went down.
I said: Use your creation science to show me how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Use your creation science to tell me how a tumor escapes the immune system. To try to predict something that has never happened before. What you’re proposing isn’t even science. You can believe whatever you want, but it’s not science, and it has no place in a science curriculum.
The bill died, but the State Board of Education is still fighting over evolution. What do you make of that?
I just think it’s nuts. It’s not scientific reasons they’re giving; they’re always religious reasons. After that bill failed, then it just moved down for a while to the local schools. The rabid anti-evolution folks can mobilize people and scare the crap out of principals and teachers and just bully their way in. I just don’t know why people are so afraid — of knowledge, basically.
Texas has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, and cancer treatment is expensive. Do you see a way for these drugs to be widely available?
There’s no simple answer to that. I think [Bristol-Myers Squibb] gets $130,000 for four doses of ipilimumab. They deserve to make their money back, but that cost has no relationship whatsoever to what it costs to make the drug. Something’s gotta happen. I think the sad truth is that almost any cancer drug, even ones that don’t work very well, are expensive. That’s just somehow hammered into the system.
How did your history with cancer influence your path?
When I was about 10, my mom had lymphoma. I was holding her hand when she died. Two of her brothers died of cancer. So it’s not that it made me say, “I’m gonna go cure cancer,” but I always had that in the back of my head. I had a gut feeling that T cells were going to be a way to treat cancer, but I also knew that unless you know extremely deeply how they work, it’s not going to go anywhere.
Then my brother died about 12 years ago of metastatic prostate cancer; I was also with him when he died. Right after he passed away, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was caught early, so successfully treated. Then, a couple years ago, I had a melanoma removed from my nose. I’m currently getting another round of treatment for localized bladder cancer. So I’m on my third cancer, and hopefully I don’t get a fourth. Luckily, these were all caught very early, so the treatment is just surgery. Except for this one, which is surgery followed by, ironically enough, the crudest immunotherapy that could possibly be.
One of the reasons I guess I’m still here is that I was at a major cancer center. I probably wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t doing this.
Some scientists are hesitant to talk about “curing” cancer. What’s your view?
I’ve faced that a couple times. But we’ve got this data now: 5,000 patients, and one in five of them are alive 10 years after a single treatment, and show no sign of getting it again. Is that a cure? Technically, no.
But I know a patient that got tired of just worrying about it all the time, being told she had a chronic disease that was manageable. Doctors told her, “Don’t have babies.” Finally she just said, “To hell with this, I’m cured, I’m not going to let this thing dominate my life.” So she went ahead and had babies and got on with it. People still need to get checked out, but you’ve gotta give them some hope. I know enough about cancer, and it’s really scary. But now it’s not a death sentence at all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DAINGERFIELD // The hunt for Bigfoot continues at Daingerfield State Park, where rangers held a weekend of events dedicated to the mythical forest giant. The Longview News-Journal reports that campers gathered for a screening of the 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek, posed for photos with a Bigfoot cutout and trekked through the pines on a “Searchin’ for Bigfoot” nighttime hike. The elusive creature failed to show itself, but that didn’t stop attendees from celebrating by dancing to oldies tunes piped through the park’s vintage jukebox.
SAN ANTONIO // How many snakes is too many? Surely fewer than 136. That’s the number of pythons San Antonio Animal Care Services officers confiscated from a two-bedroom home on the city’s south side — along with their food source, 415 rats and mice. The San Antonio Express-News notes that as the reptiles were being carried out in bags, “several people drove by and stopped to ask responders if they could purchase the snakes.” The immediate answer was no, though depending on what a judge decides, they may end up being offered for adoption. We suspect the rodents met a worse fate.
GRAHAM // More than 30 chainsaw artists set up shop along three city blocks for the weekend-long Southern States Chainsaw Carving Championship, which was promptly changed from a competition to a friendly “rendezvous” after a scheduled wood delivery failed to arrive. Nonetheless, carvers brought their own timber and buzzed up a storm. “I have never had high blood pressure since doing this,” participant Rob Banda told KCAU as he put the finishing touches on a large owl.
OATMEAL // Oatmeal tends not to attract the rabid fan base of, say, tacos or barbecue, but for one glorious weekend the lowly oat takes center stage. We’re referring to the annual Oatmeal Festival, held for the 39th time this September in the sister cities of Oatmeal and Bertram. According to the Burnet Bulletin, 33 pageant contestants vied for the titles of Miss Oatmeal and Mr. Groaty Oats. The wholesome revelry also included a parade, a scavenger hunt, costumed oat and sugar mascots, something called the Goat Pill Pop-Off and of course, “the famous oatmeal-eating contest.”
Marshala Perkins Hunt County Sheriff's Office
DALLAS // A Dallas woman’s arrest turned into a career opportunity thanks to her on-point makeup. After Marshala Perkins, 19, was charged with marijuana possession, a Twitter account called @MugshotBaes shared her mug shot, in which Perkins sports pink glittery eyeshadow and voluminous mascara. Other women asked for makeup tutorials, which she now provides to her thousands of Instagram, YouTube and Twitter followers. “My phone started going crazy,” Perkins told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I was still kind of embarrassed … [but] when I started reading the comments I was like, besides me being in jail people are really noticing my talent and what I can do.”
LIVINGSTON // Livingston Mayor Judy B. Cochran bagged a 12-foot alligator — the same creature, she believes, that ate her miniature horse a few years ago. “Typically the gators don’t bother us, but we’ve been looking for [this one],” Cochran told the Houston Chronicle. Cochran, who recently became a great-grandmother, used a seasoned raccoon to attract the 580-pound animal to her pond, where she shot it. She plans to mount its tail in her office and make several pairs of boots from its hide.
FREEPORT // After two pallets of bananas went unclaimed on the docks, port officials donated them to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Prison staff from the nearby Scott Unit were loading the 45 large boxes to take back to inmates when they realized “one of the boxes felt different,” according to a TDCJ Facebook post. The guards looked inside and found cocaine — 540 packs worth nearly $18 million. An investigation is ongoing.
If there’s a bright side to the fact that, politically speaking, we spent 2018 still deep in what people on Twitter wearily call “the darkest timeline,” it’s the abundance of great books said timeline has produced. The Observer reviewed (or interviewed the authors of) 45 books so far in 2018, and we think it’s been one of the best years in recent memory for Texas readers.
Politics, immigration, poetry, LSD, jellyfish and, yes, vampires: There’s a little something for everyone on this in-no-particular-order list of 10 books we loved this year.
Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain
So much ink has been spilled on the subject of the 2016 presidential election that the genre has become the subject of parody. Yet Ben Fountain somehow makes it feel fresh, bringing a novelist’s flair to the campaign trail. From the review by Justin Miller:
[Fountain] mercilessly skewers Ted Cruz’s voice (“You’d think he gargles twice a day a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil”), his looks (“schlumpy fleshiness”; “the little knob of his chin dangling like a boiled quail egg”; “the skin of an avid indoorsman”) and his competitive piety.
Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
Anyone who thinks poetry is pretentious should read Analicia Sotelo’s work. The Houston poet’s first full-length book is funny, informal and incisive, like gossiping with a witty friend. In “Do You Speak Virgin,” she writes: “This wedding is some hell: / A bouquet of cacti wilting in my hand / while my closest friends / sit on a bar bench / stir the sickles in their drinks / smile up at me.” From the review by Aaron E. Sanchez:
In her Texas, there are no lonesome cowboys, no barren landscapes where men break their bodies. Instead, her incisive and descriptive poems take readers to interracial weddings, modern cities, dinner parties and mother-daughter conversations.
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
It’s still all too rare that stories about poverty are told by those who’ve lived it. Nobody writes about class quite like Sarah Smarsh, an occasional Observercontributor who penned much of her debut book in Austin. Her memoir of growing up on a farm in rural Kansas is nuanced and lyrical, exploring hardships, joys and everything in between. From the review by Chris Collins:
If nothing else, you should read the book for Grandma Betty, a rail-thin, thrice-divorced, whip-smart woman who chain-smokes and works in the courthouse telling probationers how to stay on the right side of the law. Her work ethic and fiery spirit clearly leave an indelible mark on Smarsh, who gets a first taste of journalism while typing up “reports” and reading case files in Betty’s office.
Homelands by Alfredo Corchado
Dallas Morning News journalist Alfredo Corchado traces his immigrant story in a book that’s part memoir, part political history. Corchado deftly interweaves his search for belonging with, for example, a sharp analysis of how NAFTA reshaped Mexico’s economy. From the review by Sasha von Oldershausen:
Again and again, in times of need, the United States welcomed Mexican workers and facilitated their passage into the country — only to turn around and tell them they were unwelcome. [Corchado] writes: “Even as signs popped up across the Southwest stating ‘No Mexicans,’ particularly in Texas, the question persisted: Could Americans do without them?”
The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
Minutaglio and Davis’ second collaboration (their first was 2014’s Dallas 1963) is a wild ride from start to finish. In colorful detail, the book recounts how Richard Nixon and his peons chased after LSD evangelist Timothy Leary over a two-year period. From the review by Brad Tyer:
The book is more than a treasure trove of trivia for Leary freaks. It’s a solvent that dissolves the calcified montage of the ’60s and replaces it with an incredibly detailed moving picture of a specific time (May 1970 through January 1973) and places (California, Algiers, Beirut, Switzerland) in which some incredibly interesting people were doing some deeply weird shit.
The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson
Sexual assault, environmental justice, gun violence: Houston writer Lacy M. Johnson grapples with big, tough subjects in a wide-ranging and incisive book of essays. Her acclaimed 2014 memoir, The Other Side, was a harrowing account of surviving a brutal kidnapping and rape. The new book also treads dark waters, but her skillful writing is never sensationalistic. From the review by Michael Hardy:
The book opens with an audience member at one of Johnson’s book readings asking what she wants to happen to the man who assaulted her. What would justice look like? This question haunts the book: What would justice look like for the Gulf Coast fishermen who have lost their livelihoods? For the Missourians who develop rare cancers after years living next to nuclear waste? For the countless women whose sexual assaults have been downplayed or ignored?
A People’s History of the Vampire Uprisingby Raymond A. Villareal
Stories about dystopias are especially satisfying now that we’re living in one. In A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, San Antonio’s Raymond Villareal builds a richly imagined world that feels ominously close to ours, complete with selfie-snapping bloodsuckers called Gloamings, an infection that is viral in both the medical and the social media senses, and cultural references aplenty, from Dracula to Blade. From the review by Roberto Ontiveros:
Villareal has written a vampire novel that quaffs greedily from the arteries of its literary antecedents, particularly in how he describes the vampire’s ancient erotic allure. “I’d only viewed drawings and read descriptions before, and now here he was — a captivating, angelic face that seemed to radiate and reflect light at the same time,” says an FBI agent caught in the spell of a Gloaming he’s trying to catch.
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
Turning the inspirational memoir genre on its head, Casey Gerald recounts how he went from a rough childhood in Dallas to the Ivy League and a TED talk — as well as what he lost along the way. Rags-to-riches stories like his, as Gerald recently told NPR, are dangerous because they allow politicians and readers to “pretend that there is not a conveyor belt leading most people in this country from nothing to nowhere.” From the review by Michelle Raji:
The “American education cabal” that launched Gerald from Oak Cliff … to the vaults of privilege, a world of secret societies and assimilation (“guess your voice does make you sound dumb. Fix it. Try to sound like them.”) and networking and proximity to power, from the margin to the center, is lethal, lethal in the sense that it kills the spirit. And by spirit, he means “the things you need to live, like love or to become like yourself,” the spirit of the Camus and Emerson he read compulsively after opting out of that life, what philosopher Sean D. Kelly calls aliveness.
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird
Austin author Sarah Bird has been quietly churning out excellent novels for more than three decades. Her latest is a work of historical fiction that reimagines the life of Cathy Williams, a freed slave who passed as a man to become a buffalo soldier during the Civil War. From the review by Rod Davis:
As an epigram, Bird cites an observation from L. Frank Baum, who gave us Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “Girls want marvelous adventures just as much as boys do.” This is the power and meaning of Bird’s entire novel. Maybe her career.
Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars by Jay Wehnert
Artists struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness and other challenges produce incredible work despite countless barriers. The visually stunning Outsider Art in Texas celebrates some of the state’s many little-known talents, such as Charles Dellschau, a reclusive Houstonian whose work gained prominence decades after his death. From the review by David Theis:
In 2015, the New York Times called Dellschau a “visionary,” and the following year a page from one of his notebooks sold for more than $22,000. But there’s little reason to believe that the deeply isolated man would’ve cared for this recognition. He created his notebooks over a period of decades after he retreated from the world … Did he intend the stories and drawings as science fiction, or was he depicting scenes from a mind colored by mental illness? As Wehnert puts it, all we can know is that Dellschau’s life was “shrouded in mystery and wonder.”