Betty (Bard) MacDonald was born in Boulder, Colorado, on March 26, 1908. The second of what would become a family of five children, “Betsy,” as her family called her, was a clever, bright, and precocious child.
Betty and the Bishops and the Book
True or False?
Probably the most oft-asked question about Betty MacDonald is, “Were Betty’s books autobiographical?” There is no question that her later books were, but the bombshell best-seller The Egg and I falls into a grey area, since its main characters may have been largely based on a family who later brought a lawsuit for libel! But Betty seemed to live by the credo “Write what you know,” and we see that clearly with her first book.
The Egg and I is as close to an autobiography as you can get, though you will find it classified as Fiction in bookstores and libraries. Likely, that classification is due to the libel lawsuit brought against MacDonald by a family named Bishop, who lived near Betty and her then husband Bob Heskett (in Jefferson County, Washington). The Bishops (along with one other plaintiff who claimed to be libeled in the book) sued Betty, her publisher, her husband, and Bon Marche, the store that distributed the book – and they nearly won the lawsuit! In fact, one of the Bishop sons had settled out of court with Betty earlier, which undoubtedly prompted the ten subsequent lawsuits brought by other members of the family and a man known as Crowbar. So, who were the Bishops?
Bishop or Kettle? You Make the Call!
The Bishops were neighbors of Betty’s, and the family still lives in the Chimacum Valley area of Washington state. Albert and Susannah Bishop were the parents of a large family in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when Betty and Bob Heskett lived in the area known as Center, Washington. The libel suit alleged that the Bishops were the basis for the Kettle family, who appear prominently in The Egg and I, and virtually “steal the show” in the feature film of the same name, released in 1947. In fact, the Ma and Pa Kettle (spelled “Maw” and “Paw” Kettle in the book) characters were so popular, nine Kettle movies were made by Universal Pictures in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Today, mention Ma and Pa Kettle, and you will find that almost every American over about thirty years old will know who you’re talking about; they became American icons. Marjorie Main, who played “Ma” and Percy Kilbride, who played “Pa” were never able to shake the stereotyping that came from their portrayals of the hillbilly-like Kettles.
So were the Bishops the Kettles? My answer would be Yes … and No. We must bear in mind that Betty wrote The Egg and I nearly twenty years after leaving the Olympic Peninsula. She remembered the Bishops, of course, but writing a book meant taking “poetic license,” and she clearly exaggerated the characters. For instance, the Bishops had thirteen children; the Kettles had fifteen children. In the book (and film), the Kettles owned a farm which Betty portrayed as being chaotic, messy, and basically pretty dirty (in the movie, Ma tells Betty, “I used to be clean but Pa weren’t so I had to switch.”). The Bishop farm couldn’t be any further from that description. It is (and was) a tidy, rather small white farmhouse, surrounded by barns and outbuildings that are still owned and maintained by the Bishop family. And Susannah Bishop certainly did not have a Southern accent – she was of Swiss descent, as was her husband Albert Bishop. No one in the community (and none of their children) referred to Mrs. Bishop as “Maw” or Mr. Bishop as “Paw.”
However, in the book, Betty perfectly described the way Albert Bishop spoke – with a very pronounced lisp. In the movie version, Percy Kilbride does not have a lisp, though he does have a slow, drawn out way of speaking, which also has been reported of Mr. Bishop. He also wears a bowler (hat) most of the time, something Albert Bishop was known for wearing, as well. Lastly, Pa Kettle was a bit of a mooch, looking to “borrow” items from his neighbors that he rarely, if ever, returned. To a much lesser degree, Albert Bishop also was known to approach his neighbors for items that may be considered surplus or discards, though in Depression era rural Washington, it was not likely much of what he acquired in this manner was truly “surplus.” Most neighbors just took this in stride, and were amused by Albert’s little “shopping” expeditions. And it certainly never got to the level of Betty’s parodies in the book and movie, such as Pa “borrowing” all the nails, lumber, and paint Bob had purchased to repair his water tank. That was fiction; that was poetic license.
Still, it is obvious that the Bishops were at least the inspiration for the Kettle family, despite Betty’s lawyer’s denials at the libel trial. They did a good job, and prevailed in court, but even the judge recognized that Betty used the Bishop family to create the fictional Kettle family. Judge Wilkins, who had been one of the Nuremberg trial judges, stated that he felt the plaintiffs deserved “something,” and he cleared believed that the Bishops had, indeed, been libeled in the book. However, the jury ruled entirely in the defendants’ favor, and no money was awared or paid to the plaintiffs.
Even so, I don’t think anyone (except perhaps one or two of the Bishop decedents) believes that Betty’s exaggerated descriptions were meant to be mean or mocking. They were intended to make an amusing story, and even the Bishops can’t deny that they did that.
The Indian Problem
One of the plaintiffs in the libel action brought in 1950 was a Native American named Raymond Johnson, who claimed to have been portrayed as Crowbar in The Egg and I. Before we go any further, it should be noted that Betty’s portrayals of the Native Americans was extremely unflattering. She clearly disliked them and had an axe to grind, it seems. That may be because the “loyal Indians,” as they were referred to at that time, could have been behind some of the problems Betty had with Bob’s drinking. You don’t find much mention of it in the book, but people who knew the real Betty and her husband, Bob Heskett, say Bob had a drinking problem. And considering this was during Prohibition, the rumors that Bob and the Indians set up a still in the woods and were selling their moonshine seem to have merit. In fact, it is quite likely the cornmeal Bob purchased “for the chickens” was actually used to produce corn mash liquor. If the rumors are true, the Indians were his partners in the bootlegging endeavor, something Betty detested.
We can see evidence of Betty’s dislike for the Indians in the movie version of “Egg.” Early in the film, Crowbar and his brother, Geo Duck, peer into a window of the cabin, frightening Betty to the point of her screaming, “Indians! Indians!” In the book, she relates a few stories and makes it very clear that she did not like dealing with them.
Many years later, in a reprint of the paperback version of “Egg,” Betty’s daughters Anne and Joan wrote an apologetic preface, addressing their mother’s harsh treatment of Native Americans in the book. The preface has been included in more recent printings of the book.