Bishop v. MacDonald Libel Lawsuit

The Legal Problems – Bishop, et al. v. MacDonald, et al.

In 1947, the eldest Bishop son, Edward, and his wife, Ilah, brought suit against Betty for what they claimed was her unflattering portrayal of them as the Hicks family in The Egg and I.  Before the case went to trial, Betty reached an out-of-court settlement with Edward and Ilah Bishop, paying them a reported $50,000.00 (although this amount has never been substantiated). The story goes that the lawsuit and settlement was a topic of lively discussion at a 1948 Bishop family reunion, prompting the other members of the family to consult an attorney. In September 1949, nine members of the Bishop family and a Native American named Raymond Johnson filed separate, consecutively numbered lawsuits against Betty MacDonald and others, in the King County Superior Court in downtown Seattle. The total sought in all the suits was $975,000.00, the highest sum sought in civil court in Washington at the time. To the best of my knowledge, neither the Bishops nor Raymond Johnson had ever approached Betty for a retraction, an apology, or any sum of money prior to bringing the huge damages lawsuits.

The lawsuits were all filed by the same attorney that Edward and Ilah had used, whom almost certainly believed the huge success of the book and the movie, together with the settlement Betty already had reached with Ed and Ilah Bishop, would ensure a “slam dunk” for his clients. The suit also named Betty’s new husband, Donald C. MacDonald, her publisher, Lippincott & Co., and the Bon Marche department store, which had distributed the book in the Seattle area. The suits were consolidated prior to trial.

The trial began on February 5, 1951, before Judge James Wilkins, who had been a judge during the Nuremberg Trials. The libel trial was a huge media event, in the Seattle papers every day, and the topic of dinnertime discussions for two weeks. The trial was full of drama – one day plaintiff Elwin Bishop was told to show the jury his eyes, and a newspaper photo shows him leaning over the jury box, intensely peering at the jurors who were asked to determine if they matched the description of Elvin Kettle’s eyes in the book. On another day, Betty had what might be called a minor breakdown during her testimony. It was late in the day, so Judge Wilkins stopped the proceedings, allowing Betty to resume – more composed – the next day.

After two weeks of testimony, Judge Wilkins released the case to the jury, instructing them to first read The Egg and I. The judge also read the book. After deliberating for only one day, the jury came back with a verdict that shocked everyone. They found in favor of Betty, and the other defendants; the courtroom erupted when that was announced! Betty had been exonerated, but why? Was it her popularity? That seems to have been the case, as even the judge believed that Betty HAD sculpted her Kettle family after the Bishops, either intentionally or by accident. The trial took a toll on Betty, however; that is for certain. She never again wrote in such detail about other people, only herself or her family. She spent thousands and thousands of dollars on attorneys to defend herself, and missed the birth of her grandchild, Heidi, who was born during the trial.