Memories of Molly

Published 8 months, 2 weeks past

The Web is a little bit darker today, a fair bit poorer: Molly Holzschlag is dead.  She lived hard, but I hope she died easy.  I am more sparing than most with my use of the word “friend”, and she was absolutely one.  To everyone.

If you don’t know her name, I’m sorry.  Too many didn’t.  She was one of the first web gurus, a title she adamantly rejected  —  “We’re all just people, people!”  —  but it fit nevertheless.  She was a groundbreaker, expanding and explaining the Web at its infancy.  So many people, on hearing the mournful news, have described her as a force of nature, and that’s a title she would have accepted with pride.  She was raucous, rambunctious, open-hearted, never ever close-mouthed, blazing with fire, and laughed (as she did everything) with her entire chest, constantly.  She was giving and took and she hurt and she wanted to heal everyone, all the time.  She was messily imperfect, would tell you so loudly and repeatedly, and gonzo in all the senses of that word.  Hunter S. Thompson should have written her obituary.

I could tell so many stories.  The time we were waiting to check into a hotel, talking about who knows what, and realized Little Richard was a few spots ahead of us in line.  Once he’d finished checking in, Molly walked right over to introduce herself and spend a few minutes talking with him.  An evening a group of us had dinner one the top floor of a building in Chiba City and I got the unexpectedly fresh shrimp hibachi.  The time she and I were chatting online about a talk or training gig, somehow got onto the subject of Nick Drake, and coordinated a playing of “ Three Hours” just to savor it together.  A night in San Francisco where the two of us went out for dinner before some conference or other, stopped at a bar just off Union Square so she could have a couple of drinks, and she got propositioned by the impressively drunk couple seated next to her after they’d failed to talk the two of us into hooking up.  The bartender couldn’t stop laughing.

Or the time a bunch of us were gathered in New Orleans (again, some conference or other) and went to dinner at a jazz club, where we ended up seated next to the live jazz trio and she sang along with some of the songs.  She had a voice like a blues singer in a cabaret, brassy and smoky and full of hard-won joys, and she used it to great effect standing in front of Bill Gates to harangue him about Internet Explorer.  She raised it to fight like hell for the Web and its users, for the foundational principles of universal access and accessible development.  She put her voice on paper in some three dozen books, and was working on yet another when she died.  In one book, she managed to sneak past the editors an example that used a stick-figure Kama Sutra custom font face.  She could never resist a prank, particularly a bawdy one, as long as it didn’t hurt anyone.

She made the trek to Cleveland at least once to attend and be part of the crew for one of our Bread and Soup parties.  We put her to work rolling tiny matzoh balls and she immediately made ribald jokes about it, laughing harder at our one-up jokes than she had at her own.  She stopped by the house a couple of other times over the years, when she was in town for consulting work, “Auntie Molly” to our eldest and one of my few colleagues to have spent any time with Rebecca.  Those pictures were lost, and I still keenly regret that.

There were so many things about what the Web became that she hated, that she’d spent so much time and energy fighting to avert, but she still loved it for what it could be and what it had been originally designed to be.  She took more than one fledgling web designer under her wing, boosted their skills and careers, and beamed with pride at their accomplishments.  She told a great story about one, I think it was Dunstan Orchard but I could be wrong, and his afternoon walk through a dry Arizona arroyo.

I could go on for pages, but I won’t; if this were a toast and she were here, she would have long ago heckled me (affectionately) into shutting up.  But if you have treasured memories of Molly, I’d love to hear them in the comments below, or on your own blog or social media or podcasts or anywhere.  She loved stories.  Tell hers.

Comments (38)

  1. One of my proudest memories of our Molls was at SXSW. I think it was 2005. She had a panel discussion topic was the lack of women in the tech world. She invited me to be on the panel as the woman who had been in the tech world the longest and had moved into the web world – the official crone of the panel. I was so proud to be chosen.

    Molly and I both loved pushing and breaking the rules to show us all how it is done – and she included our beloved Eric Meyer on the panel of women about women in tech because she knew you were the one who understood and could talk to the issue as the man that we all respected the most.

    I loved every chance I had to sit with Molly in whatever city we both happened to be in and especially loved when she got in touch when she was in my home city. It was always a memorable occasion.

    I think she considered me a friend. I know I considered her one and did my best to be a good friend to someone who deserved every moment of love and friendship she shared.

  2. Thank you for these memories.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this, Eric. I never really had a chance to meet Molly in person, I don’t think. Sorry to see her gone.

  5. Thank you for sharing your memories. I had the joy of meeting Molly over the years thanks to SXSW, and it was a joy to relive some of those moments as I thought of her. She made the World Wide Web and the whole world a better place.

    I always appreciated that she fought so hard for accessibility. As I moved in to my photo career, I often pointed out to people that blind people might want photos too, and our sites needed to work for them. My way of passing some of Molly’s light and wisdom along.

  6. Heartbroken. Molly will be greatly missed. She was a force to be reckoned with in just about every way imaginable.

    I didn’t have nearly the regular hangouts with Molly as you and Z, but I shared the stage and conference hall chats with her enough to know how incredibly passionate, endearing, and important she was to our industry. Correction, she IS to our industry. Her legacy will live on in those of us who continue to champion what she worked so hard to champion.

  7. Molly edited the book I cowrote on website usability, way back in 2001. I didn’t know her personally besides that, but I followed her work and always appreciated that I got to share a book credit with her. I wrote 50 pages of one book and it was a lot–Molly’s 35 books on improving the web is amazing and should be remembered.

  8. So sorry for the loss of your friend and co worker. She looks pretty young to have passed but it shows that no one knows if they will have a tomorrow 😢

  9. I met Molly a couple of times at conferences in Vegas, and both times I ended up drunk, not becuase she forced me to drink, but her presence was captivating and you just stayed drinking to be around her. She was a hoot. Well, apart from the time she persuaded me to have sea urchin in a sushi bar, that was unpleasant, although she found it hilarious (as you would). The world is a poorer place without her.

  10. I only met Molly a couple of times, at the @media conferences in London. The second time I met her, she apologised for forgetting my name, although she had absolutely no reason to remember it: I was just a random attendee she had met a year prior.

    I think that’s all part of who she was: she cared about the web but she cared more about the people who build the web and the people who use it. She’s the first speaker I ever saw who focused more on the people than the technology.

  11. What a lovely post, Eric.

    You are right, the world and the web is now poorer for the loss of the amazing Molly. Having followed her work online and learning so much from her ~ I appreciated her attitude and teaching, she shaped and formed my path into web design as much as yours and Jeffrey’s writings did. Her drive for the good of the web is something I talk about every year to my students, her name always on the list of those driving web standards, promoting the one web and inclusive design.

    I only met Molly once in person at a conference in London, around 2002, I think ~ but it created a connection that did not fade. I watched talks, interviews and felt I still ‘saw’ her lots. We’d talk online, shared laughs and links ~ and despite this remoteness, her loss feels like losing a friend.

    We will miss her ~ and treasure her memories and legacy, always x

  12. But if you have treasured memories of Molly, I’d love to hear them in the comments below, or on your own blog or social media or podcasts or anywhere. She loved stories. Tell hers.

    I’m shocked, even though we could see it coming in the last years… So, as I believe in remembrance through good/happy memories, Here’s an article I wrote remembering Molly (in French), and as far as memories go, here’s a rough translation of the “Anecdotes” part of the article I’ll share below. Because sharing was her raison d’être.

    Two memories stand out:

    First when she came for Paris Web, I was at the speakers’ hotel, and came to be at the foot of the stairs she was climbing down. Timidly (Molly being the star she was), I said “Molly? Hi, it’s Stéphane”. — “HI STEPHAAAANE” she exclaimed, and fell into my arms from three steps up the stairs! She gave me a legendary, most powerful hug.

    Second: one conference night, we ended up in the hotel lobby, and the hotel concierge was kind enough to let us move all the couches into a noisy and happy circle where we talked and laughed happily so much a good part of the night — one of those times when you understand this community is your second family. Molly, as always, (how did you so precisely called it) held court, tirelessly joking all the evening! 🙂

    We are — I am — so lucky to have met her, and the community owes her a lot.

  13. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Molly at several conferences in both Amsterdam and London. One of the best was getting invited to diner with her and a bunch of fellow speakers at one of the @media events in london.

    She sure was a force of nature and did wonders for the web.

    She will be missed…

  14. Eric, Thank you a thoughtful obituary. Molly was a bundle of enthusiasm for web standards and I was happy that she found meaningful work at Opera, as my colleague.

    My most vivid recollection of her work was at SXSW in 2009 where she organized a gathering for young CSS designers to come meet Håkon for a quiz night on CSS. The youngsters won. We were all delighted, with high hopes for the younger generation. (Picture)

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  17. Molly may be the only person I’ve ever met with that outsize level of smarts, personality, and passion who actually made you feel welcome in the conversation. Early in my involvement in the web standards community, I didn’t know if I had anything meaningful to contribute, but the validation of a giant like her made all the difference. Later, having her as the editor on a book I co-wrote was a badge of honor. She had her struggles, and I wasn’t close enough to know how to really help, which was hard. I hope she’s at peace now.

  18. I’m deeply sorry. I started learning web development with her book “Using HTML 4”. That was my web bible back then. May she rest in peace.

  19. Loved admiring Molly from afar. Her, alongside Lynda, were such icons of leadership for my young self just starting my career at I believe I was at every single conference you reference above, probably at the table next to you, looking to sign you both to more titles in the library, waiting to hand you my card, that rounded corner card everyone loved back in the day.

    Molly was a joy and a spark, such a role model of what candor, grit and strength of character looks like. She will be sorely missed and I hope her legacy stays alive and well for future generations to continue to learn from.

  20. I met Molly at many many webdev and open source conferences! I remember her at that New Orleans webdev conference… although I didn’t get to hear her at that Jazz Club, darn it. She was one of the greats. An inspiration, and extremely supportive in every way.

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  22. I only met Molly twice. The first time was at a London Geek Dinner and then again at AtMedia 2007. This was right at the beginning of my freelance career as a self-taught web developer and her influence on my learning was huge. She was a web guru and I was a rookie, but she always had time for everyone. And she was always the life and soul of any gathering.

    Years later, I saw her post on social media showing off some socks with cute cat patterns on them. I casually remarked that I loved them. A few weeks later several pairs of the same socks made their transatlantic journey to my letterbox, unbidden but very welcome. I still have them. I still wear them. And I think of Molly every time.

    Thank you Molly, for the socks, and for everything.

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  24. Thanks, Eric. I met Molly once at a conference (because, of course) in SF a lifetime ago and it was one of those “yes, you can meet your heros and love them even more” kind of moments. While it is a tremendous loss to us all, her work will live on much longer, and those of us old and lucky enough to have met her and known her work first hand can carry her memory with a smile.

  25. It hurt to watch Molly disintegrate over the past year or two. Our conversations of late were always over email or facebook or twitter, not in person. But we knew one another as document people who cared deeply about accessibility and reuse and about other people.

    It was time: she was in so much pain, and had so much frustration. Yet, she’d still been trying to write a book. To make a difference in the world. To fight for all of us.

    Thank you, Eric, and thank you, Molly.

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  27. Eric, I posted a tribute on my personal site, Thanks for sharing your memories. My only in-person memory of Molly was hearing from her and you during an hour seminar at the UI 10 conference in Boston in 2005.

  28. Molly will be sorely missed. I benefitted many times over from her generosity and leadership, from “Web with Molly” workshops (shout out to Kimberly Blessing) to local Web Standards meetups from 2003 in Tucson to early SXSW whispering to hep me make the most of the setting. She galvanized our community! Molly’s legacy lives on, and I’m just one of many in southern Arizona I know she touched directly at crucial moments in our careers.

  29. I, too, was devastated, learning of Molly’s passing last week. Devastated, but not exactly surprised, given how the last few years of her life went. As others have mentioned, her last couple of years had been riddled with pain and suffering, and I trust that wherever she is now, she’s in a better place and no longer suffers.

    Like countless others, I owe much to Molly. From learning the ropes of HTML back in the late 90s, to discovering that the open web standards community was a welcoming one in the very early 2000s, to finding my way to accessibility a few years later… All of those things and more I owe, in large part, to Molly’s leadership and huge heart.

    I’ve had the privilege to meet her multiple times over the years, at SXSW, AccessU, OpenWeb Camp, and I believe CSUN as well. She was always warm and welcoming, bigger than life. She even contributed to me developing a taste for bourbon, which I’m currently having in her honour as I write this.

    Like many others as well, I’ve sadly watched her from a distance these last few years, spiralling down, consumed with pain, grief, and frustration, dealing with one hardship after the other, from the loss of loved ones to her failing health. Like many others as well, I felt awful for not being able to help her out more, because I felt – and forever will feel – that I have this debt that cannot be repaid and was somehow failing her…

    Funny how the finality of death is what it takes for us to realize what it is that we’ve lost. I don’t know how her last few moments were, but I hope that, knowing her time had come, she did look Death right in the eye and got to tell her to f*ck off.

    Thank you, Mols. Love ya.

  30. Thanks for your reflections on Molly’s impact and passing, summarizing what many of the people who make up the world of web development feel. There is no good time to loose a force of nature or an enthusiastic friend.

  31. There is so much people take for granted about the internet today because it seems like it just created itself automatically, but it didn’t. The things Molly fought for were not inevitable and would not have happened without the intense, years-long efforts of her and many others. The pace of browser development seems fast in retrospect, but it was a long, slow haul filled with thousands of disagreements about what should be compatible with what and which properties made the most sense. Through it all, Molly always advocated for one thing: make everything for everyone.

    Cheers Molly. I very much enjoyed getting to call you a colleague.

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  33. I’m so moved by the beautiful memories of my beautiful sister. In this time of deep grief it is comforting to read of her endless and extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place and the lovely moments people shared with her.

    Well, it all began in Brooklyn NY in 1963. I came along a couple of years later. Molly was there in my earliest memories and I am still grappling with trying to imagine a future without her. When we visited recently she enjoyed a pizza with gusto as we watched Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, complete with Molly’s astute observations about the exploitation of labor forces and more – and lots of laughter! She had somehow gotten through so much and kept going and I always hoped she would prevail and thrive again. Molly was indeed a force of nature. Heaven help you if she was angry but it seemed heavens parted when she was inspired!

  34. May her memory be a blessing.

  35. Eric, you captured Molly’s essence so perfectly. I remember many of these events as we walked through New Orleans that night, witnessing Molly on top of the piano and hearing her amazing voice and feeling the ‘force-of-nature’ that she was. I watched in awe as she grabbed Bill’s attention and strove to improve the web. Not once, but twice. Something she never stopped.

    We were a rare representation of women-in-the-web in those days and as such strove to support each other through thick and thin, web and life. And everything-in-between. The day you lost Rebecca, I pulled off to the side of the road in tears. The only person I knew to call was Molly. I knew she would share my once-removed grief as you and your family dealt with the unthinkable. I’m so glad she was able to join a bread and soup moment with your family. Molly was unsinkable. Her support and passion was reflected in every thought she had. She will be missed, and never forgotten.

  36. Molly gathered a bunch of web designers and developers together in her home town of Tucson, AZ together to talk about the state of the Web and hold court. I was inspired and in awe that such a luminary and fierce Web Standards hero was there, in our little community, inviting us all to hang out. I hung out with her a few more times around then, and we had a blast every time.

    She brought the CSS Working Group to Tucson once and I got to spend time in person with a bunch of the amazing folks whose books I’d read and whose work had been the pillars holding up my own. I’ll never forget the positive influence Molly had on my world. I still tell stories of the small amount of time I spent with her and the outsized impact it had.

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  38. I missed the news of Molly’s passing. I left Twitter last year, but before that, I connected with her there, got to know her, and had some nice conversations. And this morning, I wondered how she was doing, so I searched online and found your wonderful tribute to her. I never met Molly personally (unless I asked her a question at AEA, I don’t remember). I mostly knew her from her being a mentor in my career (along with you, Eric, and a few others, waayyy back in the late 90s/2000s).

    I even have a couple of photos I took of her at AEA 2007 when she was on stage.

    She had a huge heart, that lady, and such a passion for web standards, accessibility, and humanity in general. All things near and dear to my own heart. I loved that she had a big voice and used it. And that people listened to her. I loved reading your personal stories. Thanks for making me smile. I’m sad today, but happy she is free of pain. Both physically and the pain of this broken world she loved so fiercely.

    Goodbye, Molly, and thank you for everything.

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