Jeannette Walls had a pretty cool career as a gossip columnist for New York Magazine, USA Today, Esquire, and MSNBC (The Scoop) before her memoir, The Glass Castle, became a perennial best seller. It took a little while for the book to get wings, but it has been on the best seller list for 239 weeks (4.6 years). She’s living the good life now on a farm in Virginia with her husband John Taylor, who convinced her to tell her story.
Her colleagues and neighbors on Park Avenue in New York City had no clue that the gossip girl had her own secrets. Her parents, Rex S. and Rose Mary Smith Walls, were homeless squatters who rustled meals from dumpsters. Their lifestyle was more a factor of mental illness than financial necessity:
Mom and Dad. . .had options. . .Mom could work. And she was not destitute. She had her collection of antique Indian jewelry. . .two-carat diamond ring. . .owned property in Phoenix. . .land in Texas, the source of her oil-lease royalties.
When Ms. Walls expressed her concern, her mother admonished:
You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.
Abject Poverty in Welch, WV
Mrs. Walls bought a 1956 Oldsmobile clunker for $200 which “out-Okied the Okies,” and the family headed for Welch, WV. The trip took a month. Welch is an Appalachian coal-mining town that is so poverty-stricken that President John F. Kennedy went there to personally distribute the first food stamps. The county didn’t have a sewer system. Ms. Walls said her paternal grandparents were “genuine hillbillies.”
At school, the Walls kids were bullied:
. . .they called me poor and ugly and dirty, and it was hard to argue the point. I had three dresses to my name, all hand-me-downs or from a thrift store. . .We were also always dirty. Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove. Erma [her grandmother] allowed us only one bath a week in four inches of water that had been heated on the kitchen stove and that all of us kids [Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen] had to share.
93 Little Hobart Street
Mr. Walls bought a “dinky” three-room shack with no bathroom, running water, or electricity for $1,000. The mortgage was $50/month. Mr. Walls planned to build his Glass Castle on the property. In the winter:
It got so cold in the house that icicles hung from the kitchen ceiling, the water in the sink turned into a solid block of ice, and the dirty dishes were stuck. . .no matter how many blankets I piled on top of myself, I still felt cold. . .We fought over who got to sleep with the dogs. . .they kept us warm. . .
By New Year’s we had washed our clothes only once since that first November snowfall. . .by January we were all so rank that Mom decided it was time to splurge: We would go to the Laundromat.
The family subsisted on the income from Ms. Walls’ babysitting, Brian’s weed cutting, and Lori’s paper route. After a man from child welfare showed up, Mrs. Walls got a teaching job.
A Journalist Is Born
Mr. Walls had named his daughter for his high school English teacher Jeannette Bivens. Ms. Walls found her safe haven working on the school newspaper under Ms. Bivens’ guidance:
I loved the newsrooms’ purposeful atmosphere. . .I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on. . .I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.
She got a job for $40/week at the local jewelry store. She started a fund to escape Welch. She continued babysitting and tutored for $2/hour. Brian contributed his earnings to the fund.
Mr. Walls had lucky poker hand and bought a gold Cadillac he called Elvis:
. . .to live in a three-room shack and own a gold Cadillac meant you were bona fide poor white trash. . .It crossed my mind that Dad ought to sell Elvis and use the money to install an indoor toilet and buy us all new clothes.
Instead, Mr. Walls broke open his children’s piggy bank and went on a three-day bender with the money they had saved for a year. Her older sister Lori escaped Welch by becoming a nanny for a family moving back to Iowa. At the end of the summer, Lori moved to New York City to study art. One-by-one, her siblings joined her:
Lori had become an illustrator at a comic-book company. Maureen lived with Lori and went to high school, and Brian. . .had become a warehouse foreman and was serving on the auxiliary force until he was old enough to take the police department’s entrance exam.
Barnard to Best-Selling Author
Ms. Walls was accepted into Barnard and scrambled to pay her tuition via grants, loans, scholarships, and employment. When she was still $1,000 short for her final year’s tuition, Mr. Walls gave her $950 in crumpled bills from his poker winnings.
After graduation, she got a job writing a weekly column and moved into a Park Avenue apartment with her first husband Eric. When her Uncle Jim passed away, Mrs. Walls asked her daughter for a million dollar loan from Eric so that she could buy her brother’s land:
“Uncle Jim’s land is the same size as your land. . .So if Uncle Jim’s land is worth a million dollars, that means your land is worth a million dollars. . .You mean you own land worth a million dollars?” I was thunderstruck. All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing, and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars?
Mr. Walls passed away. Maureen moved to California. Eric and Ms. Walls split up, and she married John Taylor. The couple met while working at New York Magazine. They bought an old country farmhouse in Virginia with 37 acres of land, four horses and two rescue greyhounds. Mrs. Walls lives on the property. Click here to watch a video. Ms. Walls told USA Today:
Some people think I had a horrible childhood. I think I got love and some self-esteem and I got great material. People ask why I’m not bitter. I have a great life. Why complain about how you get there if you get there? I have four flush toilets!
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.
Book Review: Dish by Jeannette Walls, 10/26/13