March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

The Glass Castle (Book)

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In Season
Jeannette Walls

People glance over their shoulders before talking badly about their friends and enemies at Michael’s, a cavernous Manhattan lunch den favored by the media elite. When gossip columnist Jeannette Walls drops in, a tall drink of water poured into a power suit, her bright red hair shining like a warning flare, folks lower their voices or shut up altogether.

A breathless chatterbox with a great big shotgun laugh, Walls has spent the last 18 years pricking the air out of rich and famous phonies. She questioned the sexuality of right-wing Internet columnist Matt Drudge (he has denied that he is gay). Revealed that Hillary Clinton used a ghostwriter for her best-selling polemic, It Takes a Village. And Paris Hilton’s hacked Sidekick — ”It’s horrifying to brag about this,” she concedes with a good-natured wave of the arm — was her scoop.

So when Walls mustered up the nerve to expose her own secrets and lies, in the new memoir The Glass Castle, the 44-year-old writer steeled herself for a dogfight. ”I honestly believed that writing this book would be the end of my career and I would lose all my friends. I was like, ‘Okay, okay…,”’ her voice deepening into a junkyard growl, ”’Here I am, you sons of bitches! Come after me, I’ll fight you all off! I don’t care what you think of me, this is who I really am!”’

Who Jeannette Walls is — and if this were a conversation over the soggy halibut at Michael’s, now would be the time to lean in — is a girl who grew up in almost medieval poverty, foraging for food and wood like a wild animal. She got on a bus at 17 with $100 and change and her father’s jackknife in her pocket, and moved from a dying West Virginia town to New York City. She worked three jobs to put herself through Barnard College, graduating at 24 and working her way up to her first ”movers and shakers” column at New York magazine at 27. She married a man with money and lived high on the hog in his Park Avenue apartment. Her parents, meanwhile, had followed her up to the big city and were living on the streets, rooting around Dumpsters for their daily bread. She kept them, and the rest of her past, hidden for years.

”Ask me anything! Ask me anything!” she says today, slapping her hand on the table. ”Nothing’s off-limits. If you’re going to write a memoir, you darn well better be able to spill.”

The snow blowing fast and furious on a wintry night, Walls is cozy inside her modest Upper West Side apartment. There are bunches of apricot tulips scattered about, a spread of gourmet cheeses on the coffee table, and Mozart tinkling away on the stereo. Walls, sitting on her stockinged feet in a leather chair, has come a long way from the grinding humiliations of rural poverty. ”But I’ll tell you,” she says, ”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.”

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