Betsy Prioleau was born and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Her father was portrait artist Hugo Stevens, and her home life, full of books, art, and talkfests. She attended Sweet Briar College and received both a B.S. and M.A. from the University of Virginia. At one point, she spent a year on a hippie enclave in Vermont.
After a Ph.D. in American literature at Duke University, she taught English and World Literature at Manhattan College, where she was a tenured associate professor. She was a scholar in residence for three semesters at New York University, and most recently, taught cultural history at New York University Liberal Studies Program.