But Richards, as Texas Monthly writer at large Jan Reid demonstrates in his savvy new biography, “Let the People In,” was more than the sharp-tongued granny she often played for the national press. She was among the first ardent feminists to gain high office, and for a time in the early 1990s, she was mentioned as a presidential candidate. But as fate would have it, Richards fell almost as quickly as she rose, swamped by the rising tide of Texas conservatism.
Hers is a darned good story, and Reid, a veteran of Austin literary and political circles, tells it with sympathy, insight and a deep knowledge of contemporary Texas politics. Richards was born poorish in 1933 and raised in Waco, a pretty girl and champion debater who married her high school sweetheart, a wealthyish intellectual named David Richards who went on to a long career as one of the state’s top liberal lawyers.
Like many women of her generation, all Ann wanted was a loving husband and a tidy house full of children, and “that’s what I did,” she once said. “And it just bored the living hell out of me. I was so bored, cooking and sewing and — you know, there were days when I spent the entire day ironing shirts.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, Ann found two ways to escape this boredom — local politics and alcohol. David Richards was an active Democrat, and his work pulled her into a world of campaigns, demonstrations and organizing, first in Dallas and later in Austin. In the capital, the Richardses fell in with a hard-partying group of politicos and artists who constituted the core of a kind of ’70s-era Texas cultural renaissance: singers such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker; writers such as Texas Monthly’s Gary Cartwright and especially the man who became Ann’s great love after her 1983 divorce, the late novelist and screenwriter Edwin “Bud’’ Shrake.
Scenes from this era are easily the book’s best, such as the time Walker, Shrake and Cartwright, masquerading as a mock athletic troupe known as the Flying Punzers, crashed into the Richardses’ bedroom late one night doing somersaults and similar bits of derring-do. Drugs were as prevalent as cicadas in Austin at the time, and Reid reports that Ann developed a serious love of marijuana — he writes that she once lit up while riding in a limousine with a Carter administration official. Her true vice, though, was vodka, which she downed in tall glasses for hours at a time.