The Betty MacDonald Network™

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Editor's Blog

What happened to Bob Heskett – Betty MacDonald’s first husband?

Robert Heskett Headstone
Robert Heskett Headstone

Betty Bard and Robert Eugene “Bob” Heskett were married in July of 1927, and started a chicken business less than a mile away from the farm that had been rented by Betty’s mother and siblings in 1926. Both farms were on Swansonville Road near Chimacum, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The Bard farm failed in 1930 and Betty’s family returned to Seattle.

In March of 1931, shortly before Easter, Betty went to her mother’s Seattle home with she and Bob’s two young daughters and did not return to the chicken ranch. Betty formally filed for divorce in July of 1931, claiming cruelty (the other alternatives were adultery or desertion). The divorce was not finalized until March of 1935. There may have been an attempt at reconciliation in the intervening years, as MacDonald hints at in her books.

By 1942, when he was 46 years old, Bob was living in Oakland, California, in a modest neighborhood close to the waterfront and rail yards. He was registered as a Democrat and was a member of the local carpenters’ union. That same year, Betty married Donald MacDonald, and Bob and Betty’s daughters began to use their stepfather’s last name, although it is not clear if they were formally adopted by him.

While Bob remained in an urban setting for the rest of his life, Betty, Don and the children quickly moved to a country setting on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound, where Betty once again raised chickens and eventually had a flock of approximately 4,000 hens. There is no evidence that Bob was ever contacted by reporters after the phenomenal success of Betty’s first book, The Egg and I, in 1945, in order to give his own version of life with Betty on the chicken ranch. Betty’s book, which was a sort of fictionalized memoir, imaginatively and humorously re-created the first two years of their marriage. There is also no evidence that Bob received any payment in exchange for the use of his life and name, although Betty became wealthy from the book sales and movie rights. The Hollywood movie by the same name came out in 1947, in which Bob was portrayed as a World War II vet named “Bob MacDonald.”

Bob Heskett’s Death

Bob died in 1951, at the age of 55. He was killed by Thomas J. Blake, a bulldozer operator from Visalia, California. Blake had arrived uninvited at Bob’s Oakland apartment on Sunday, July 21, demanding to see his former wife, Thelma, and their two young daughters, who had been living in Bob’s apartment for the prior week. An argument ensued, Blake was asked to leave, he refused to go, and during a struggle in the hallway Blake stabbed Bob in the heart, killing him almost instantly.

The following day Blake was charged with Bob’s murder, which he claimed had been in self-defense. However, Thelma Blake, who had witnessed the murder, contradicted that claim. The story of Bob’s death was not carried in major newspapers such as the New York Times, although a number of smaller-circulation papers did carry it. One of Bob’s friends from the carpenters’ union gave a statement to the Associated Press that confirmed Bob’s identity as “Bob” from The Egg and I. The friend added that, according to Bob, Betty had left their marriage because he did not fit in with her future plans for life.

Bob was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Mateo County, California (he had served as a Marine in World War I). In September of 1951, less than two months after Bob’s death, the television-series version of The Egg and I was premiered. Bob was once again portrayed as “Bob MacDonald.”

For more information about Bob Heskett, go here.