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Yellow Rose of Manhattan

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Armstrong, her date for the evening, slips away for a moment and then returns, elegantly proffering Richards a glass of water. "Here," he says. "New York's finest."

Richards takes it. Her eyes bounce along the crowd. "I want to say hi to Liz."

With that, she vanishes, and begins effortlessly working the room. She finds Smith. ("God, girl, you got on your negligee! This is goooood!") She talks to Evelyn Lauder. ("I haven't read the Estée Lauder story in the Times. Is it true? Is it good?") She chats with Patricia Duff, ex-wife of Ron Perelman, whose lime-colored cocktail dress fits her like a second skin. ("We-ell. You're looking pert.")

Then she wanders off to chat with someone I don't recognize. She returns a moment later. "Wanna meet Nora Ephron?"

Before I can answer, a photographer asks if he can take her picture. Then a couple she's never met comes over to ask if she's seen Elaine Stritch's one-woman show. Richards says she's going next week.

"She's a very talented lady," says the wife. "Thank God she got off the booze. It saved her life."

Richards rolls her eyes. "It saved a lot of our lives."

The pair looks slightly taken aback. "You've got a good Texas accent," says the man when he recovers.

"I'm not the one with the accent," says Richards. "You're the one with the accent. It's all in the ear of the hearer." She gives them a smile and heads to the main dining room. "Nice to see y'all."

Alcoholism runs in ann richards's family, essentially in the same zigzag course as a lurching drunk. She started drinking beer as a teenager and moved as she got older in a steady crescendo toward stiffer and stiffer swill -- scotch-and-waters, then gin-and-tonics, then gin martinis, then vodka martinis. Richards drank through her first four years in public office and almost the entirety of her marriage. She didn't quit until one Sunday morning in 1980, when a friend called, claiming to be in crisis. Richards drove over and found her husband, confidantes, and two oldest children, ages 18 and 20, sitting in a circle in her friend's living room.

"Each one of them had a statement prepared," she says. "And, um, each statement had to end with the phrase, I know you would not have done that if you had not been drinking. I was so traumatized. So totally traumatized. Because of course, what's goin' through your mind is, Well, you bunch of hypocrites! You were all drinkin' there with me."

Her anger didn't last long. By the end of the afternoon, she agreed to fly to St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis for help. She was county commissioner at the time. When she returned, she decided the best way to deal with her absence was candor.

"Actually, I was more afraid I wasn't going to be funny anymore," she says. Long pause. "That's a huge thing. Not having a sense of humor. Not doing zany stuff."

While in rehab, she was also forced to contemplate the insidious effects her drinking might have had on her family. All four of her kids came up to visit during family week. "We played this game," she says. "The alcoholic stands there, and the others put you in a statuelike stance to express how they see you. My children put me in a chair with my arms up and my fists like this." She strikes the pose of a champion middleweight. "I had spent all my life being the perfect wife, mother, community leader, nurse, chef, whatever. So, of course, I was the strong one. And I wanted out of that chair. Absolutely. I didn't want to have that relationship with my kids."

Another long pause. "I don't know how not to be formidable," she eventually adds. "I'd love it if I were not so in charge. But I don't know any other way to be."

Richards and her husband divorced just a few years later. Today, the governor is seeing Austin-based sportswriter Bud Shrake. "In a couple," says Ivins, "it adds a lot of pressure when one sobers up and the other keeps drinking. And David, bless his heart, was there for political purposes for I don't know how long while the marriage was quite over. He's a terrific guy."

This morning, Ann Richards is sitting in the sun-saturated library of the Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem, fielding questions from high-school seniors.

"Have you ever thought of running for president?" asks a girl in a ponytail.

"Truly, I have not," says Richards.

"Because I read in a magazine that women can't be president," says the girl. "Because they get their periods."

Richards's large-caliber eyes get even wider. "Well, I don't believe I'd take that magazine anymore." The teachers in the room laugh. The girl persists.

"No, no. Because, like, if you get your period, you might do a wrong decision."

"So," says Richards, folding her arms, "do you think having your period affects the brain?"

"No," the girl answers.

"Has it affected your brain?"

"No."

"It hasn't affected mine either," she says. "I think Hillary Clinton gets a period."

The girls sit and consider this.

"In a way," she says, "it's interesting you raise that question. Because people will use a lot of excuses to keep women down. Reaaaally stuuuupid stuff."

She looks around the room.

"When I was your age, my God -- the only thing I could think of was gettin' married, havin' a family, havin' a little house with a dog and a cat," she says. "It worked that way. But it's not what I thought it was gonna be. And I want you to know, I love children -- I've got four of 'em, and seven grandchildren now. But I also have a life other than raising children. Those babies are cute as they can be, but they are booooooooring. You know, it just consists of spoonin' the applesauce in the mouth. Spoonin' the cereal in the mouth. Cha-ange the diaper. Pa-at the back. Pray that it will sleep for a little while.

"When the opportunity came along for me to run for office, it was really a startling thing," she continues. "I realized I was the one who was gonna have to work. I was gonna have to put the money in the bank. And thank God I realized that.

"Because now," she says, smiling broadly, "I have enough money. I can travel all over the world and see wonderful things. And," she adds, thumping her fist softly on the desk in front of her, "I can move to New York when I'm 68 years old."


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