Book feature

Making It in the 2-1-2: How Kenneth Walsh Achieved His NY Dream

Online publication:
The Daily Beast

February 19, 2014

Kenneth Walsh grew up with one aim: to live in New York. Not only did he “make it” there, he did so with a dash of scandal along the way. Now he shares a shoe cobbler with Debbie Harry.

When Kenneth Walsh called his mother Molly in 2003 to tell her he had gotten a job at The New York Times, he was hoping for a proud, maternal “Congratulations.” Instead, his mother bellowed to Walsh’s stepfather: “Gary! Don’t eat that cheese!”

Walsh, 46, smiles as he recalls this story in Manhattan’s Malibu Diner in Chelsea, where he spent much time editing Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?, his new memoir about growing up as a suburban boy who only ever wanted to make it in New York City.

His popular blog, Kennethinthe212, which he began in 2005, features a mash-up of news, gossip, random musings and pictures of very hot men, including the daily, eponymous “Morning Wood.” Walsh estimates it has around 250,000 visitors a month.

The memoir covers Walsh’s fractured childhood and segues into crazy ex-boyfriends and sojourns to West Hollywood (where he lodges with a porn star), followed by his numerous adventures in New York itself, where an encounter with MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts sealed Walsh’s notoriety.

Recalling his early years, Walsh, now a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, says his mother maintains a strong presence in his life. He grew up as the youngest of three boys in the suburbs of “lower, middle class” Detroit, then Phoenix, and his father Bill was an alcoholic.

“She gave it everything she could,” says Walsh. “He couldn’t hold down a job. He hit her. I remember when I was four, he was drunk and attacking her and I put on my hockey mask and guard, I guess to make myself more intimidating. He picked me up, threw me through a paneled wall and that was the day she left him.” She married Gary a year later.

Bill was a “weekend-dad” until one night, while driving his sons home while drunk, he crashed into a street-lighting pole, situated—as luck would (or would not) have it—outside a police station. Bill ended up in a boarding house, whose owner one day found him, then 40, unconscious having suffered a blow to his head. “His memory was wiped, and he got full-blown dementia,” says Walsh.

In 1993, 20 years after last seeing him, Walsh was reunited with his father, by then in a veterans’ hospital. “I walked in and the nurse introduced me as Kenny. He was like, ‘Oh, I have a son called Kenny.’ I was really devastated.” Walsh continued to visit him until his father died of lung cancer in 2005.

Walsh’s mother is very “no-nonsense, with a sharp tongue, which is fun to be around as long as it’s not you.” They are close. He recalls her buying Danish furniture for a bedroom makeover he had (a proto-homo in the making clearly). They listened to the all-Gershwin soundtrack of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as they painted and looked at swatches. “I don’t know how she did it, but we always had ten times more presents at Christmas than the other kids in the neighborhood.”

His fascination with New York began when, as a boy, Walsh saw the sitcom Family Affair, about three children sent to live with their jet-setting bachelor uncle Bill in New York. “They lived in an apartment, which I thought was so cool, with a terrace. They went to Central Park, which was just a strip of green carpet in a studio, but still, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. From that moment I was hooked.”

Walsh was his mother’s favorite; she imagined, he says, him with children and grandchildren. Like Cher, Walsh smiles, “you’d always imagine my mom would be OK with being gay [she had a gay friend, he remembers] but she had a problem with it when it was her own child. We’re good now.”

There were early (read: flashing neon) signs of Walsh’s professional future: He began a school newspaper when he was in fourth grade, and loved English class—Charlotte’s Web and Judy Blume were among his favorites. He recalls sitting at his kitchen table with his mother and her friends, listening to them gossip and bitch about their husbands and other sundry neighborhood scandals. “I lapped it up,” says Walsh. He loved music and pop culture: “There wasn’t one piece of real estate of my bedroom that wasn’t plastered with Debbie Harry, plus some Bananarama and Kim Wilde.”

Growing up, “without the language to describe being gay,” Walsh assumed he’d marry a woman and “fake” his way through it. When Walsh was 14, he heard his mother washing his sister Jennifer’s hair roughly. “Go easy Mom,” he said, nosing his head around the bathroom door. “You’re hurting her.” In response, his mother retorted, “Stay out of this, woman.” It made Walsh feel “busted,” that his mother was “on to” his homosexuality. When he saw the news stories in 1981 about Billie Jean King getting sued by Marilyn Barnett, a past lover, in a high-profile palimony suit, he heard the word “gay” for the first time. “For me that was like, ‘That’s me. I’m that. I’m gay.’”

The first guy Walsh slept with, when he was a student at Arizona State University, dedicated Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” to him. “How could I not go home with him at that point?” he says, laughing.

Walsh built his career in journalism at various publications, in New York in the last eleven years at The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He created the blog, because “I’ve always been very opinionated and even before the internet was a list-maker: lists of favorite albums, tennis players. I have a very chronological mind.” Walsh caused its biggest stir when, in 2007, he published naked pictures of news anchor Thomas Roberts, one full-frontal, one of him lying down on a bed “with his beautiful ass,” a black cat next to him. Walsh didn’t name Roberts, “but all hell broke loose.”

The Page Six gossip column carried it as an item, and Walsh “started to get hundreds and thousands of emails ripping into me, threatening me, saying how dare I do what I did?” For Walsh, Roberts was a public figure. Surely he knew there was a possibility he’d be found out. One perk of being famous is that you get free entry to restaurants, the drawback is you give up your privacy.”

He never heard anything from Roberts, until Walsh received a tap on his shoulder while out with friends in a Chelsea bar years later. It was Roberts, who “for like an hour, non-stop, just spilled his guts about what I had done and how it made him feel. It was an emotional rollercoaster. It ran the gamut of ‘I want to thank you,’ ‘Because of you I turned a corner,’ to ‘How could you do this to me?’ to ‘You’re loving every minute of this.’”

So, New York has turned out to be just as crazy, in a good way he says, as Walsh hoped it would be. When he first landed, as a newbie, he had lots of sex and went out a lot. But, “mainly” a serial monogamist, for the last twelve years he has been with his partner Michael. They both live near each other in rent-stabilized apartments.

What have his favorite New York moments been? He recalls a dinner in the East Village, seated alongside former NBC Today presenter Jane Pauley and former congressman Michael Huffington, just after he had revealed his homosexuality. “He was with some twink, but he was giving me the eye all night.”

Walsh’s most prized Manhattan memory is shortly after moving into his apartment in the late 1990s “seeing this woman with an old shopping bag in front of my building, and it’s Debbie Harry. My jaw just dropped. ‘Hey Debbie,’ I said. ‘Hey,’ she replied. She walked right past me. I had to sit on my stoop for a few minutes and think, ‘Did that just happen?’ I thought of growing up, my bedroom walls and the posters of her. These days I see her all the time. I run into her in the shoe cobbler, and this Italian restaurant she and I go to. But that first time was pretty mind-boggling.” Every day, he says, New York offers up some new surprise or exoticism. Yes, Walsh made it “in the 212,” and the 212 made him in return.