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MacDonald, Betty (1908-1958)
HistoryLink.org Essay 156
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The first book written by Betty MacDonald, The Egg and I, rocketed to the top of the national bestseller list in 1945. Translations followed in more than 30 languages, along with a series of popular movies. In the wake of World War II, the hilarious accounts of MacDonald's adventures as a backwoods farmer's wife in Chimacum Valley were a breath of fresh air for readers around the world. On the negative side, her book spawned a perception of Washington as a land of eccentric country bumpkins like Ma and Pa Kettle.
Born Betty Bard
Anne Elizabeth Campbell Bard, called Betsy in childhood and later known world-wide as Betty MacDonald, was born in Boulder, Colorado, to Darsie and Elsie/Sydney Bard on March 26, 1908. Her father, a mining engineer, moved the family frequently before settling in Seattle. Betty attended the St. Nicholas School on Capitol Hill, then Lincoln High School. In 1924 she graduated from Roosevelt High School.
On July 9, 1927, Betty Bard married Robert E. Heskett and moved with him to the farm in the tiny community of Center in the Chimacum Valley near Port Townsend that lacked both plumbing and electricity. Betty later regaled family and friends with stories of her struggles during this time, eventually transforming them into the book that would make her famous.
Whatever money the Hesketts made had gone to the chickens that Betty so eloquently hated in The Egg and I:
"Even baby chickens. Their sole idea in life is to jam themselves under the brooder and get killed; stuff their little boneheads so far into their drinking fountains they drown, drink cold water and die ... and peck out each other's eyes."
After four years, Betty left Robert Heskett, taking their two daughters, Anne and Joan, with her. She returned to the family home in Seattle and worked at various jobs, keeping her sense of humor and her journal even when tuberculosis forced her to spend a year at Firland Sanatorium in what is now the city of Shoreline.
On April 29, 1942, she married Donald C. MacDonald (1910-1975) and moved with him and her daughters to a beach home on Vashon Island. Built as a summer home, it was cold and damp and in need of improvements. Anne and Joan enrolled in school while Don and Betty commuted to Seattle for work every day. Betty later described her daily scramble from home to the ferry dock in Onions In The Stew:
"It was always seven o'clock and my ferry left at seven-twenty and I should have left at six-fifty and now I would have to run the last quarter of a mile. I wore loafers and woolen socks over my silk stockings, carried my office shoes along with my lunch, purse, current book and grocery list in a large green felt bag. The county trail connecting our beach with the rest of the world begins at a cluster of mailboxes down by the dock, meanders along the steep southwest face of the island about fifty feet above the shore, and ends at our house ... if it was dark when I left the house (and it usually was) I ... ran the rest of the way to the ferry ... This boisterous early morning activity also started my blood circulating, churning, really, and by the time I got to the office I was not only bileless, I was boiling hot" (p. 57).
What Mary Put Her Mind To
Their fortune changed with a call from MacDonald's sister, Mary Bard Jensen (1904-1970). At a cocktail party, Mary ran into a friend who was a publishing company scout and told him that Betty was writing a book (which she was not). Betty whipped up the proposal for The Egg and I to save her sister embarrassment. The scout requested a full manuscript, which was rejected by one publishing house. With the assistance of the New York literary agency Brandt & Brandt, the book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and then published by J.B. Lippincott. She dedicated the book "To my sister Mary, who has always believed that I can do anything she puts her mind to." Later Mary Bard also wrote humorous books about her life, dedicating the first, The Doctor Wears Three Faces, "To my sister Betty, who egged me on."
The Egg And I, published in 1945 in the immediate aftermath of World War II, was received by an American public exhausted by the war effort and parched for laughter. The Egg gave them belly laughs, and Betty MacDonald's wry, self-deprecatory take on her life and the world around her was impeccably timed with the national mood.
The book became an immediate runaway bestseller, and soon resonated around the globe under translated titles like L'Oeuf et Moi, El Huevo y Yo, Das Ei und Ich, and Vejce a Ja. Betty MacDonald, Don (whom nearly everyone confused with Bob, Betty's first husband who featured prominently in The Egg And I), Anne, and Joan became instant celebrities, appearing in a multi-page Life magazine spread on March 18, 1946. With proceeds from Betty's bestseller, the MacDonalds improved their property and purchased 10 adjoining acres. They built a large barn and chicken coop and Donald marketed eggs on the island and at Pike Place Market in Seattle.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle et al.
Continuing to amuse her fans with tongue-in-cheek accounts of her own experience, MacDonald wrote The Plague and I, a humorous but poignant account of her battle with tuberculosis. The Plague And I remains one of a tiny handful of first-person accounts of life in a tuberculosis sanatorium before the era of penicillin. Plague was followed by Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty's account of how she and her daughters survived the grim years of the 1930s after leaving her first marriage, with the helpful companionship of her warm family. "The best thing about the depression," MacDonald wrote in the opening line of the book, "was the way it reunited our family and gave my sister Mary a real opportunity to prove that anybody can do anything, especially Betty" (p. 9).
Her next bestseller, Onions in the Stew, focused on the family's life on Vashon Island. With her own and neighbors' children, nieces and nephews, and eventually her grandchildren as her constant companions, the writer made up stories to give them hours of entertainment. These inspired her still-popular children's books, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Magic, Hello, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Farm, and Nancy and Plum.
In 1952 Betty and Don purchased ranch land in California's Carmel Valley. They built a house and moved there circa 1956, ranching cattle and commuting periodically to Seattle.
On February 7, 1958, Betty MacDonald died of cancer in Seattle at age 49.
The house where MacDonald wrote her books is located about a quarter of a mile south of Dolphin Point on the east side of Vashon Island. Today, visitors stop beside the road above to look down at the huge barn that the MacDonalds built. Painted red with white trim, it has been remodeled as a Bed and Breakfast. Adjoining it is the former chicken house, where Don MacDonald briefly ran a commercial egg business that capitalized on Betty's association with The Egg in the public's perception. Betty and Donald's beach-front house is a private residence, and the orchards, woods, and pristine natural setting remain essentially unchanged.
Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: a Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 296-7; Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Edward R. Bingham and Glan A. Love (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); William Cumming, Sketchbook: a Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); Washington State: a Literary Chronicle ed. by Lee W. Storrs (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969); "Vashon Island Was Home to Betty MacDonald," Arts News, (Vashon Allied Arts, March, 1988); The Betty MacDonald Farm (http://www.bettymacdonaldfarm.com); Betty MacDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1950); Blanche Caffiere, Much Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of One Woman's Friendship with Betty MacDonald and Her Family (Vashon, WA: Blue Gables Press, 1992), 39; Betty MacDonald, Onions In The Stew (New York: Lippencott, 1954); Mary Bard, The Doctor Wears Three Faces (New York: Lippencott, 1949).
Note: This essay was corrected on June 3, 2002, and expanded by Paula Becker on March 28, 2006, and again on August 27, 2007.
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Betty MacDonald signing the one millionth copy of The Egg and I for Washington Governor Mon C. Walgren,Seattle, September 12, 1946
Courtesy National Archives
Betty MacDonald on Vashon Island, ca. 1954
Photo by Art Forde and Fred Carter, Courtesy J. B. Lippincott Co.
Sisters Mary Bard Jensen (1904-1970) and Betty MacDonald (1908-1958) film version of The Doctor Wears Three Faces, Seattle, March, 1950
Courtesy MOHAI (Neg. PI 86.5.30,158.1)
Betty MacDonald, The Plague and I, 1948
Betty MacDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything, 1950
Betty MacDonald, Onions in the Stew, 1954
Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, 1947
Cover by Richard Bennett