Reviewers of Jeannette Walls's 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, often mentioned the "truth is stranger than fiction" aphorism. Walls is part of New York's media elite, the author of a widely read gossip column published four times a week on the Web site MSNBC.com. Imposingly tall and usually described as a style-savvy redhead, she rose to a position of immense power in the celebrity-news-driven culture of the late 1990s. What she had feared for much of her stellar ascent, however, was that another journalist might uncover the real scoop— that she had lived in near-unimaginable poverty in West Virginia as a child, sometimes sharing cat food with her siblings, and that her parents had followed her north when she was in college and then willingly became members of the city's homeless population.
Walls was 17 years old when she joined her older sister in New York in 1977. The family's roots were out West: her mother, Rose Mary, was the daughter of an Arizona cattle rancher, and married an Air Force officer named Rex Walls in 1956. Children Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen followed, but neither parent was enthusiastic about holding down a regular job. The family lived hand-to-mouth, with Rex taking occasional electrician jobs and Rose Mary using her teaching degree for a year before giving it up. Rex talked about a gold-prospecting device he called The Prospector, which never made it past the blueprint stage. Rose Mary preferred painting and drawing over supervising or even providing meals for her children.
The bohemian ideals of Walls' parents, played out in various towns of the Southwest during the 1960s, might be classified as neglect and even abuse by social workers a generation later. At age three, Walls was badly burned when she tried to cook hot dogs by herself on the family stove, and underwent skin graft operations. Later, there were times when there was no food in the house, nor even lunches for them to take to school, but their parents refused to enroll them in a free-lunch program. Sometimes Walls stole food from the lunch sacks of her classmates to stave off hunger. The family usually fled from one town to another to avoid creditors, but Rex would tell the children that the bill collectors were actually government agents. "We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure," Walls writes in The Glass House,in which she also recounts one escape when her father tossed the family cat out of the window of a moving car as they departed.
Eventually Walls and her family moved to Rex's hometown of Welch, West Virginia, a hardscrabble hamlet where nearly every household lived below the poverty line. Among a townsfolk full of poor, the Walls family was the poorest. They lived in a three-room shack without running water, and with only sporadic electricity. A hole in the roof went un-mended and grew, Rex's drinking became a problem, and Walls and her siblings sometimes had to scavenge for food. Despite the hardships of her home life, Walls—taught to read at an early age by her mother—excelled in school.
Walls and her older sister began planning their escape from Welch and a home where wooden electrical spools served as their only furniture when they were in their teens. When a pair of documentary filmmakers from New York City visited the town, both she and Lori were interviewed by them; in return, they grilled the New Yorkers about what life was like there. Lori fled first, and Walls dropped out of high school after her junior year in 1977 and got on a bus to join her. They shared an apartment in the South Bronx, which was not a particularly nice neighborhood even then, but the sisters considered it paradise. Despite the dangerous streets, they were thrilled to live in a place that had water, heat, and electricity.
Walls and her sister easily found service-industry jobs, and sent for their brother. Back in West Virginia, Walls had worked on the school newspaper, and when she began high school in New York, her teachers directed her toward an internship at an alternative newspaper. From there she went on to Barnard College, part of the Columbia University system. She graduated in 1984, having financed her degree with some scholarship funds, student loans, and her own earnings. In the interim, the Walls siblings had sent for their youngest sister, Maureen, at which point Rex and Rose Mary decided to move to New York City, too. Dismayed but hopeful that the city would have some sort of positive effect on their free-spirited but ambition-less parents, Walls and her sister tried to help them at first, but Lori was forced to kick them out, and after that they lived in a van. Eventually, they joined the city's burgeoning homeless population.
Walls' story also had a Cinderella element: she began dating someone from moneyed, old-New York family. She eventually moved into the family home, in a plush Park Avenue building, and when they wed in 1988, she did not invite her parents to the ceremony and reception at the elite Harvard Club. By then she was writing the "Intelligencer" column forNew Yorkmagazine, which was not technically a gossip column but more of a weekly monitor of Manhattan media, politics, and celebrity cultures. At the time, her parents were living in a "squat," or an off-the-books residence in an abandoned building. This was a point when the issue of homelessness was gaining a great deal of media attention, and squatting was in some cases a form of political protest. Rex proved a media-savvy ringleader, and Walls sometimes saw him being interviewed for the local television news.
Walls' husband knew her full story, but no one in her professional life did. She was increasingly successful at her job, and the cutthroat magazine atmosphere did not deter her. "A couple people lashed out at me," she recalled in an interview with Jim Windolf forVanity Fair."This woman atNew Yorkmagazine said, 'You Barnard [graduates] don't know what it's like for the rest of us. You had everything handed to you.'I was flattered. I was like, 'Yes! I pulled it off!'" Her secret was nearly made public when a comic-strip writer from theVillage Voicecalled and told her he had interviewed a homeless man who claimed to be her father. She begged him to keep the story quiet, but around this same time she finally confessed to a female colleague at the magazine. That woman later wrote a romance novel about a high-profile Manhattanite, redheaded like Walls, who covers up an impoverished Appalachian past.
The "Intelligencer" column was read and noticed by many, and Walls had little trouble moving on to a higher-profile job after a few years. She turned down offers from theNew York PostandNew York Daily Newsto write a daily gossip column, instead taking a job withEsquirein 1993. Five years later, she moved on to MSNBC.com, where her "Scoop" column ranks among the leading scandalmongers in a pack that includes syndicated veterans Liz Smith and Cindy Adams, as well as the feared Richard Johnson ofNew York Post's "Page Six" and hisNew York Daily Newscounterpart, Lloyd Grove.
Walls' first book was published in 2000. Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip,was not a tell-all on the industry, but instead recounted its history in American pop culture over the decades. It also charted the explosive rise of a celebrity-driven media industry over the past decade. Her book did offer one somewhat scandalous assertion: she "outed" Matt Drudge ofThe Drudge Report,revealing the sexual orientation of the Internet scribe who first broke the Monica Lewinsky story. In response, Drudge published Walls' home phone number on his site, but Walls said she refused to change the listing and instead answered every call.
Walls' first marriage ended after almost a decade. In 2002, she wed a fellow journalist, John Taylor, who was familiar with the confessional-memoir genre. Three years earlier, Taylor had written an account of his own failed first marriage,Falling: The Story of One Marriage.But Taylor did not know the full story of Walls' upbringing. Finally, on a walk through Central Park one day, Taylor told her, "'I'm tired of this. You're lying to me about something,'" Walls recalled in theVanity Fairinterview. "He's a good journalist. He noticed some holes in my story. And I told him. But I was ashamed. If you have that sort of past, you either exploit it or are ashamed of it, one or the other."
Taylor encouraged Walls to come clean before someone else beat her to it, and she joked that he duct-taped her to a desk in order to force her to sit down and write her next book. The result wasThe Glass Castle: A Memoir,which enjoyed tremendous publishing-industry buzz before it appeared in stores. When chapters were sent out to test the waters, editors and reviewers clamored for more, and some admitted to reading the manuscript in one sitting. The title was taken from a fantasy that Walls's father used to spin for her, that one day he would build her a fabulous, solar-powered glass castle in the desert.
Reviews commended Walls' honesty and evenhanded treatment of Rex, who had died of a heart attack in 1994, and Rose Mary, who was 70 years old but still living in an unheated East Village hovel with a multitude of cats. Critiquing it for theNew York Times Book Review,Francine Prose asserted that "Walls has a telling memory for detail and an appealing, unadorned style. And there's something admirable about her refusal to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis, to descend to the jargon of dysfunction or theorizeabout the sources of her parents' behavior."
Walls was pleased that her candid revelations about her family did not turn out as badly as she expected. During the writing process, "I kept wondering, 'Who the heck is going to care about this pathetic kid and her wacky family?'" she toldPublishers Weeklyinterviewer Bridget Kinsella. "But the response has just bowled me over." Even Rose Mary read the book and liked it, though she took issue with a few minor characterizations, such as the fact that Walls wrote that her mother was a terrible driver.
Walls still writes the "Scoop" column, which continues to break the occasional celebrity-shocker. She was the first to report, for instance, that hackers had cracked the code of the personal digital assistant device belonging to Paris Hilton, and were posting the phone numbers and text messages online. Two of Walls' siblings also fared well as adults: Lori became a successful illustrator, while her brother retired after 20 years as a New York City cop and started college. Their youngest sister, Maureen, lives a less orthodox lifestyle in California. Childless, Walls and her husband enjoy the pinnacle of success for a New York couple: a home in Manhattan, and another in the Long Island resort community of the Hamptons. She still appreciates the small luxuries, she toldEntertainment Weeklywriter Karen Valby. "I will never take for granted a thermostat. Every time I turn on the sink it's a miracle. 'Look at all that water gushing out!' I go to the grocery store and I can buy anything I want. I don't have to ask the manager if he has any bruised bananas at a discount."