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Betty MacDonald (March 26, 1908 – February 7, 1958) was an American author who specialized in humorous autobiographical tales, and is best known for her book The Egg and I. She also wrote the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of children's books. She is associated with the Pacific Northwest, especially Washington state.
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) in July 1927 when she was 20 years old. The couple were living on a chicken farm in the Olympic Peninsula's Chimacum Valley, near Center and a few miles south of the seaside community of Port Townsend.
MacDonald left Heskett in 1931 and returned to Seattle, where she worked at a variety of jobs to support her daughters Anne and Joan from her marriage to Heskett. After the divorce, contact between the ex-spouses was virtually nonexistent. Betty MacDonald spent nine months at Firlands Sanitarium near Seattle in 1937–1938 for treatment of tuberculosis.
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, Betty 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 1970's it was criticized[by whom?] for its stereotypical treatment of native Americans. It was 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. A posthumous collection of her writings, entitled Who Me?, was later released.
MacDonald died in Seattle of cancer on February 7, 1958, aged 49.
MacDonald's sister, Mary Bard (Jensen), also was a published author. MacDonald had two other sisters, Dorothea Bard and Alison Bard, and one brother, Sydney Cleveland Bard. Another sister, Sylvia, died in infancy. All her siblings are now deceased.
In 2007 MacDonald's daughter Anne MacDonald Canham published Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, based on stories and characters created by her mother. The book is attributed to both mother and daughter. MacDonald's younger daughter, Joan MacDonald Keil, died in July 2005.
On March 13, 2008 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a tribute programme to Betty MacDonald, commemorating the 100th anniversary of her birth. In 2009, BBC Radio 4 also broadcast a reading of MacDonald's book, Anybody Can Do Anything.