Primetime Live did an amazing piece last night on an old friend of mine, Jeannette Walls, a New York gossip columnist.
The promo on the ABC website said that the segment would be “on the secret she’s kept for decades about her surprising past.”
Jeannette’s secret was that she had grown up partly homeless. During good times, the family lived in a house without electricity or hot water. Jeannette scavenged for food in the school garbage cans in Welch, West Virginia, an impoverished little town where the Walls family seems to have lived the longest.
Jeanette has just written a book entitled “The Glass Castle, A Memoir.” I had learned Jeannette’s story by degrees: First, I learned that she had an alcoholic father and that the family moved around a lot. It was only in the last few months that I learned that Jeannette’s mother, Rosemary Walls, is still alive and living as a squatter in lower Manhattan. Jeannette worries that her mother refuses to have a telephone.
One of the scenes in last night’s Primetime featured Jeannette getting in touch with her mother the only way she can — standing across the street and bellowing, “Rosemary! Rosemary!” until Mrs. Walls hears her and comes down to let her into the building.
Jeannette left West Virginia on the bus to New York after graduating from the eleventh grade. She quickly got a job and made an astonishing discovery: If you pay your bills, you will continue to have hot water and electric lights. It was odd to see the glam Jeanette, who is inevitably described as “Titian-tressed” by Page Six, a rival gossip column which often picks up her items, exulting over hot water as a luxury.
By the time I knew Jeannette Walls, she had worked her way through Barnard, an Ivy League college, and was writing the “Intelligencer” column at New York magazine. She later moved to Esquire and is now at MSNBC. We’ve chatted a lot lately because we both have books coming out in the month of March.
Jeannette Walls doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination share my political views. We don’t vote for the same candidates, and we don’t see eye to eye on ‘the issues.’ But for me Jeannette’s life is a triumph of somebody who believes your own choices are what matters. As far as I can tell, Jeannette has never availed herself of any government program to get ahead. She has made her choices and worked hard.
Jeannette also is able to see her parents’ lives as the sum total of their choices, and, indeed, Mrs. Walls, a talented artist whose work is a lot better than what one sees in many galleries, seems quite content with her choices. When Jeannette wanted her mother to move to the country, where Jeannette lives with her husband, the writer John Taylor, Mrs. Walls let it be known that she didn’t want to move “to the sticks.”
Jeannette has also believed in possibilities. One of the great scenes last night was when Jeannette talked about the Christmas her parents had no money to buy gifts for the children. Rex Walls, her handsome, ne’er do well father, took the children outside. Looking up at the starry skies, Rex Walls told his children to pick the star they wanted for Christmas.
When Jeannette made her choice, her father said it wasn’t a star — it was Venus. But it glittered, and Jeannette said she wanted it. Jeannette indicated last night that she has always enjoyed owning Venus.