Betty MacDonald was born Anne Elizabeth Campbell Bard in Boulder, Colorado. Her official birth date is given as March 26, 1908, although federal census returns seem to indicate 1907.
Her family moved to the north slope of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 1918, moving to the Laurelhurst neighborhood a year later and finally settling in the Roosevelt neighborhood in 1922, where she graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1924.
MacDonald married Robert Eugene Heskett (1895–1951) at age 20 in July 1927; they lived on a chicken farm in the Olympic Peninsula’s Chimacum Valley, near Center and a few miles south of Port Townsend. She left Heskett in 1931 and returned to Seattle, where she worked at a variety of jobs to support their daughters Anne and Joan; after the divorce the ex-spouses had virtually no contact.
She spent nine months at Firland Sanatorium near Seattle in 1937–1938 for treatment of tuberculosis. On April 24, 1942 she married Donald C. MacDonald (1910–1975) and moved to Vashon Island, where she wrote most of her books. The MacDonalds moved to California’s Carmel Valley in 1956.
MacDonald rose to fame when her first book, The Egg and I, was published in 1945. It was a bestseller and was translated into 20 languages. Based on her life on the Chimacum Valley chicken farm, the books introduced the characters Ma and Pa Kettle, who also were featured in the movie version of The Egg and I. The characters become so popular a series of nine more films were made featuring them. In the
film of The Egg and I, made in 1947, MacDonald was played by Claudette Colbert. Her husband (simply called “Bob” in the book) was called “Bob MacDonald” in the film, as studio executives were keen not to raise the matter of MacDonald’s divorce in the public consciousness. He was played by Fred MacMurray.
Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it was criticized for its stereotypical treatment of Native Americans. It had also been claimed that it “spawned a perception of Washington as a land of eccentric country bumpkins like Ma and Pa Kettle.”
MacDonald’s defenders point out that in the context of the 1940s such stereotyping was far more acceptable. MacDonald faced two lawsuits: by members of a family who claimed she had based the Kettles on them, and by a man who claimed he was the model for the Indian character Crowbar. One lawsuit was settled out of court, while the second went to trial in February 1951. The plaintiffs did not prevail, although the judge indicated he felt they had shown that some of the claims of defamation had merit.
MacDonald also published three other semi-autobiographical books: Anybody Can Do Anything, recounting her life in the Depression trying to find work; The Plague and I, describing her nine-month stay at the Firlands tuberculosis sanitarium; and Onions in the Stew, about her life on Vashon Island with her second husband and daughters during the war years. She also wrote the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of children’s books and another children’s book, entitled Nancy and Plum.
Books in order of publication:
- 1945 The Egg and I
- 1947 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (first edition illustrated by Richard Bennett, subsequent editions by Hilary Knight)
- 1948 The Plague and I
- 1949 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic (illustrated by Hilary Knight)
- 1950 Anybody Can Do Anything
- 1952 Nancy and Plum
- 1954 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm (illustrated by Maurice Sendak)
- 1955 Onions in the Stew
- 1957 Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (illustrated by Hilary Knight)
- 1959 Who, Me? The autobiography of Betty MacDonald (a collection of selected chapters from her four adult books, credited posthumously as Betty Bard MacDonald)
- 2007 Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (a final Piggle-Wiggle collection finished by her daughter Anne and published posthumously)