This is the story of a woman who slithered out from the swamp of the Craigslist "Writing Gigs" section and into Austin's premier galas. I felt like an undercover agent, donning a Friendly Texas Gal mask so I could slip under the radar. And then, unprepared and unannounced, I was lucky enough to make an ass of myself in front of one of the most famous TV writers of my lifetime.
I've been a freelance writer for over 4 years, but I still find myself turning to Craigslist when I'm desperate for work. I applied to write for the West Austin News in a moment of extreme panic — another project was drawing to an abrupt close, and this small newspaper needed someone to cover gala season. The pay wasn't great, but some of the events came with open bars and upper-class barbecue. So I spent the summer navigating the nauseating twists and turns of the winding road to West Austin.
For one of my first assignments, I covered the new member party for one of Austin's oldest and most secretive clubs: The Admiral's Club.
When I arrived, I thought they must have given me the wrong address. I was outside of a bank building. Feeling like a bimbo, I went inside and asked the guard if he knew where I could find the Admiral's Club. He stood, realizing that he was addressing royalty. "Go inside the elevator and hit the button for the top floor," he told me.
Was I in too deep? Was my dress stupid? I looked at my butt in the reflective walls of the antique elevator. I stepped into the club bar, with its floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a premier view of Austin, and into an unsexy, weirdly dressed version of Mad Men (clumsy foreshadowing).
The Admiral's Club dates back to the 1960s, which is ancient history for Austin. Ah, the 1960s — a golden era for suspicious, all-male clubs. When they began, they were known for an annual party called Aqua Fest, where they gathered on Lake Travis to demonstrate their boat ownership to each other. Because of this, they wear little naval jackets as part of their official club uniform, complete with perfectly dreadful little epaulets.
Both of my maternal grandparents were in the Navy, and I spent the party wondering if I should let everyone know that I was deeply offended by their pageantry. "My grandmother didn't tremendously enjoy her time stationed in San Francisco so I could watch rich men play dress up," I thought.
It's easy to scoff at Texans pretending to have anything to do with the ocean, but credit where credit is due: the buffet had one of the biggest piles of cocktail shrimp I've ever seen. And while Aqua Fest is no more, The Admiral's Club still hosts a very popular debutante ball. So in summary, it's a club for rich men masquerading as military officials who throw an annual party where the theme is teenage girls. Shrimp?
As the room filled with new members, the main pair of epaulets welcomed the crowd and gave a short speech to explain what newcomers could expect from their membership. "Look at the names of our members, and you'll see names that are synonymous with Austin." I looked around and saw that it was true. Lord Torchy's, Lyndon B. Johnson's ghost, the illusive Barton Springs Salamander sporting a festive tiara — they were all there. "Make sure to tell us if you have daughters," the speaker concluded. A shiver went down my spine.
I spent the next hour interrupting people who were asking each other about how Madison was doing in school to take pictures. They anxiously reviewed my photos and kept saying things like, "Shouldn't we wait for Bunny?"
That summer I was plagued by invitations that described the dress code as "cowboy casual." I wasn't about to go buy cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry for a gig that paid me $50 per article, so I bravely just wore the same Charlotte Russe garbage I always wear. One of the cowboy-themed parties aimed to raise money from University of Texas alumni, and a local celebrity attended. Meet Bevo, the University of Texas's longhorn steer mascot.
Our fundraising host had not attended the University of Texas, but he showed his loyalty in other ways. Most of his children had standard rich Texas children names — Spugely, Bridle, Brisket, etc. They pledged allegiance to the university with their youngest son, whom they named "Bevo." The other photographers and I crowded around to take pictures of Bevo next to Bevo, all of us trying to get the longhorn and the little boy to look at the camera at the same time. The rest of the partygoers milled about the expansive lawn, admiring the other mascot, Smoky the Cannon, and waiting their turn to worship a cow. ("It's not a cow!" Texans are fond of saying. "Ha ha! Who cares?" I explain. )
The next week I covered a gala taking place at the University of Texas Ransom Center. It hadn't occur to me this might deviate from the cowboy theme I had gotten used to, and I was alarmed by the amount of tuxedos and ballgowns swarming around the center. When I arrived, a glamorous woman in her 60s swanned over to me, her gown's pattern bristling with the high grasses of the Serengeti. She radiated keeping it fun and flirty over 60. "Molly! We're so glad you could come!" she said, with a smile so beautiful that I made the effort to suck it in a little more. She had a long list of fancy people she wanted me to meet. An extremely old man sidled up to us and opened up his shriveled walnut head to wheeze, "I always find the pretty girls." "Oh, Hugh!" my handler said. "You're such a charmer! A charmer!"
Next, it was time for me to interview some of the gala's hosts. One of them was some guy named Matt. He was addressing a circle of people whose clothes were misshapen by extraordinary wealth. We waited for a pause in the conversation — Matt was talking about finishing up some writing. "I just turned my book into my editor. When they give you their feedback, you always feel so dumb. But then you think, if I wrote how you want me to write, then I'd be you." Everyone laughed, in a very "aren't we so delightfully RICH" type of way. I eagerly jotted down little snippets of their conversation.
One of the event organizers introduced me. "This is Molly, she's working with the West Austin News." Matt snapped his head in my direction, his face suddenly ashen. "You have to SAY if you're a REPORTER!" he exclaimed.
What else would I be? I wondered. I'm dressed terribly and I'm taking notes in a conspicuous notebook. Outwardly I was startled and apologetic. "I haven't written much down!" I assured him, showing him my notebook. He calmed down after he saw how stupid my notes were.
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I'm a writer," he said.
"Oh, cool! Me too!" I said, beaming in solidarity. He shook his head dolefully. "You've got to keep at it," he said. "It's tough out there."
He gave me a quote about why the evening's events were important, and I shuffled away to finish my notes, relieving them of my Craigslist stank. "And a job well done!" I thought to myself.
I reconnected with my handler. "So you met Matthew Weiner," she said. "Who wrote Mad Men," she added. Oh. I see. "If you'll excuse me, madam," I said, staggering for the door and some gulps of fresh wine.
My words echoed in my head: "Writer? Me too!" He helped usher in the current golden era of television, and I was hired via a website that people also use to find free couches and prostitutes. Ah yes, the Weiner who started writing for The Sopranos after responding to an ad David Chase placed in the "Award-Winning HBO Series" section of Craigslist Jobs. "Samesies! Twinsies! You and me, bro!"
"Why were you so unprepared?" I can hear you asking, in that irksome voice of yours. "Why didn't you know who was hosting the event you were covering?" Please keep in mind, gentle reader, that the day before I had covered a high school dance recital, and the day after I was slated to do some hard-hitting reporting on a neighborhood picnic. (Watergate reporter Ben Bradlee's wife Sally Quinn also spoke at the Ransom Center gala. If only I could have met her to explain that I am basically the same as her late husband. ) But I learned my lesson, and to be on the safe side now I always dress cowboy formal.
(The book Matthew Weiner mentioned completing is called Heather, the Totality, and it has since been buried under an avalanche of accolades from award-winning authors. It came out November 7, 2017. I pre-ordered a copy, and in my head that makes up for everything.)
*** Some names have been changed. But not Matthew Weiner's or Bevo's.***