By Regina Arbeia | On | Comments (0)
Betty MacDonald (March 26, 1907 – February 7, 1958) was an American author of humorous memoirs and children’s books, born Anne Elizabeth Campbell Bard in Boulder, Colorado. Her father was a mining engineer, and the family moved frequently before finally settling in Seattle, Washington in 1916.
At age 20, Betty married Robert Eugene Heskett. It was 1927, and the couple made their home on a chicken farm in Chimacum Valley, part of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. The marriage ended just three years later when Betty left her husband and returned to Seattle in 1931. During the Great Depression, Betty MacDonald struggled to support herself, her daughters Anne and Joan, her mother, and her two younger sisters, working in a variety of occupations.
Move to Vashon Island
From September 1938 to June 1939, she was treated for pulmonary tuberculosis in Firland Sanatorium near Seattle. Betty married Donald C. MacDonald in 1942 and moved to Vashon Island in Puget Sound, where she wrote most of her books. In 1945 she published The Egg and I, a humorous memoir her experiences with her first husband on the chicken farm. More about that ahead.
Her memories of her experience in Firland Sanatorium resulted in The Plague and I (1948). This was followed by Anybody Can Do Anything (1950), based on her struggles to find work during the Depression years. Onions in the Stew (1955), written with her trademark wit, was about life on Vashon Island during World War II.
The Egg and I
Betty became an “overnight success” when The Egg and I was published in 1945. An immediate bestseller, the humorous memoir of her brief stint as a chicken farmer was translated into twenty languages and catapulted her to worldwide fame.
In 1947, The Egg and I was released as a film starring Claudette Colbert as Betty and Fred MacMurray as her husband. Like the book, the film was a huge success. The spin-off characters Ma and Pa Kettle so captured the public imagination that they were featured in nine spin-off movies of their own.
Publishing success had its downside as Betty was hit with lawsuits brought by members of a family who claimed she had based the Kettles on them, and also by a man who said he was the model for the Indian character, Crowbar. One case was settled out of court. The second case was heard in King County Courthouse over two weeks in February 1951, and concluded with a jury verdict that exonerated her.
The worldwide success of The Egg and I turned Betty into a celebrity author, instantly recognizable for her toothy smile and trademark hairdo featuring bangs. During the 1940s and 1950s she was as well-known as any movie star.
Rivaling the success of The Egg and I were Betty’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children, published between 1947 and 1957 featured a kind, magical woman who lived in an upside-down house in a noisy neighborhood inhabited by children with bad habits. Described in a two mid-century editions:
“Everyone loves Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She lives in an upside-down hose and smells like cookies. She was even married to a pirate once. Most of all, she knows everything about children. She can cure them of any ailment. Patsy hates baths. Robert never puts anything away. Allen eats v-e-r-y slowly. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a treatment for all of them.”
“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle loves children, healthy children. She has a big cupboard overflowing with magic pills and potions and appliances for curing them of bad habits. Like the powder that makes Philip Carmody completely invisible when he shows off. Or the anti-slowpoe spray she uses to treat Harbin’s extra-acute daydreaming disease. However unusual the problem, you can count on Mr. Piggle-Wiggle for the answer!”
Mrs Piggle-Wiggle was made into a TV series in the 1990s and The Magical Mrs Piggle-Wiggle is still a popular musical production in American regional theaters.
Betty’s descendants continued to build on the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. In 2007, her daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham published Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and is attributed to both Betty and Anne. Annie Parnell, Betty’s great-granddaughter and Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin, came out with Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure in 2016.
Betty wrote one other children’s title, Nancy & Plum (1952).
You might also like this review of The Egg and I
Death and legacy
Betty MacDonald died of uterine cancer on February 7, 1958 in Seattle, Washington, a month shy of her 51st birthday.
In addition to the continuation of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by her descendants, Betty was given a reappraisal in 2008, when HarperCollins released a paperback edition of The Egg and I. On the back of the book, the esteemed author and editor Michael Korda offered this testimonial:
“Re-reading The Egg and I now, I not only think it’s a wonderful work of real comic genius, but strangely touching as well. It remains what it always was — a wonderful, funny, warm, honest book and, to use a much over-used word, a classic.”
Betty MacDonald page on Amazon
More about Betty MacDonald on this site
- Quotes from the Memoirs and Novels of Betty MacDonald
- How Betty MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Came to the Page
- The Egg and I (1945)
- Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (series, 1947 – 1957)
- The Plague and I (1948)
- Anybody Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald (1950)
- Nancy and Plum (1952)
- Onions in the Stew (1955)
- Looking for Betty MacDonald by Paula Becker (2016)
- Betty: The Story of Betty MacDonald by Anne Wellman (2016)
- MacDonald information and links on PaulaBecker.org
- Reader discussion of MacDonald’s books on Goodreads
- The Betty MacDonald Farm, Vashon, WA
This biography of Betty MacDonald was contributed by Regina Arbeia, who blogs at The History Bucket.
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