Texas Monthly on Texas Women
by the editors
UT Press, 229 pp., $18.95 (paper)
When I was a 10-year-old girl in the colorless Houston suburb of Spring, I liked to sneak Gary Cartwright's collection Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter off my parents' bookshelf and read his observant and painstakingly researched essay about Candy Barr, the retired Dallas stripper turned Brownwood recluse. Candy made her name in the skin trade but endured as an anti-establishment icon because she was an obstreperous, lawless, and occasionally violent woman who hated injustice. She put Cartwright through his paces as a subject, and the resulting essay from 1976 is a model of personality journalism, capturing a person, a time, and a place with a freshness and immediacy that makes it seem topical 30 years later. Not every piece in this collection (the first in a planned series, with such topics as Texas cuisine, politics, and music) is as strong, but there are several standouts worth revisiting, and the best among them demonstrate how Texas shapes remarkable women: gutsy, iconoclastic survivors who don't give a shit. "The Making of Barbara Jordan," by William Broyles Jr., depicts a fearless and indefatigable politician rising up from segregated 1950s Houston to pursue her dream of power within the establishment, but it also reveals the close-knit nexus of liberal black Houston and its allies in the labor unions. The oppressive Port Arthur of Janis Joplin's youth is a character in Robert Draper's "O Janis"; Poncé Kiah Marchelle Heloise Cruse Evans known best as Heloise, of household-hint fame likewise bristled at the snobbery of Alamo Heights in her Army-brat teenage years and sought to give working-class housewives a leg up in the world. Mimi Swartz's fine "The Witness," a profile of Nellie Connally from 2003, shows a stalwart woman whose strength is her optimism. Two of the pieces are winning in their own right, but don't fit the collection: "Lip Shtick," a report from the Neiman's cosmetics department, and Cecelia Ballí's personal essay "All About My Mother."