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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 from Butte, Montana, 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 and he was 31, and the couple moved to 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 Robert 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 rocketed to fame when her first book, The Egg and I, was published in 1945. It was a huge bestseller and was translated into 20 languages. Loosely based on her life on a Chimacum Valley chicken farm, it introduced the characters Ma and Pa Kettle, who also were featured in the movie version of The Egg and I and were 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, more recently it has been criticized for its stereotypical treatment of native Americans. It has 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. The latter was settled out of court, while in the former case it was shown that some of those claiming defamation had profited from the fame brought by the book and film.
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.
MacDonald died in Seattle of uterine 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.