Why ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert Compared Her Fame to Being a ‘Princess in a Tower’

Melissa Gilbert was cast as Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie when she was just 9 years old. She spent much of her formative years in the spotlight. In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Gilbert compares growing up as a celebrity to being a “princess in a tower,” removed from the real world and watching in wonder from afar.

Melissa Gilbert during British Olympic Association Hosts Gala Dinner - April 18, 1984 at Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States
Melissa Gilbert | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert wasn’t ‘what you’d call streetwise’

Being a teenager was hard on Gilbert.

“Adolescence is torturous at best,” she wrote in her memoir. “For a repressed, dorky child star it is a living hell. I had no idea who I was, or what I was doing or feeling. I just knew that I was overwhelmed and ugly and unlovable.”

Once, Gilbert’s mother told a reporter that her daughter was “not what you’d call streetwise.”

“Ya think? My days were fully scheduled,” wrote Gilbert. “I was sheltered, overprotected, and rarely alone. In some ways, I was like the princess in the tower looking out the window and wondering what was going on out in the world.

“I craved information and wanted to be around people who were more open and honest, and spoke about things other than what ‘nice girls’ would do.” 

How Melissa Gilbert got ‘streetwise’

Gilbert’s mother “was at the helm of everything, including my career, my food intake, and how I dressed–my whole life.” So the actor ventured outside of her own home in search of freedom and frankness about the world.

Melissa Gilbert on a bench
Melissa Gilbert | William Franklin Mcmahon/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

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As a teenager, Gilbert started to spend a lot of time with her godparents, Mitzi and Charlie, and their daughter, Jennifer.

“Their house was funkier than mine, their friends were edgier, and things were looser, wackier, and louder there,” wrote Gilbert. “Uncle Charlie drank and smoked grass, and he was open about it. Unlike the people in my house, they kept few things hidden.”

Melissa Gilbert learned about sex and drugs from Alan David and Bunny

In addition to her godparents, Gilbert also started to spend time with her Uncle Ray’s associate Alan David and his wife, Bunny.

“They were barely ten years older than me, very hip, and on the cutting edge of Hollywood,” wrote Gilbert.  

At David’s house, Gilbert learned about drugs and sex.

“Alan and Bunny smoked and drank and talked about doing drugs and sex with even more openness than at my godparents’ house,” she wrote. “It was exciting and liberating to be around them and occasionally ask a question containing a word or words I wouldn’t use at home.”

Melissa Gilbert and Rob Lowe
Melissa Gilbert and Rob Lowe | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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Before Gilbert started hanging around David and his wife, she’d been taught that “doing acid or LSD would turn you into a vegetable. It was to your brain what salt is to a slug: instant fizzle.” Her new friends told her otherwise.

Additionally, Gilbert’s uncle’s associates spoke freely of sex.  

“While having dinner one night Alan made a bold but prescient prediction,” wrote Gilbert. “He said, ‘Everything’s going to change the first time that girl has sex.’ Bunny agreed.”

According to the Little House star, they were right.