Let’s remember when Betty MacDonald was sued for libel by former neighbors, whose trial began on this day in 1951 (February 5)
Even today, Betty MacDonald remains one of the most well-known and beloved authors to come from the Northwest. Claudette Colbert played MacDonald in the adaptation of her most famous book, and it spawned 9 sequels. The author of The Egg and I and the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle children’s books even had something of a renaissance a couple of years ago when University of Washington Press published a well-received biography of MacDonald.
The Egg and I was a big hit, reportedly selling over a million copies in less than a year, when it was published in 1945. It is a humorous take on her experience living on a chicken farm as a newlywed. She also reportedly sold the movie rights to the book for $100,000 and the successful film starred Claudette Colbert as MacDonald and Fred MacMurray as her husband. It was a big hit, and, as washingtonhistory.org noted:
Eggs gained status, as photographers artfully included them in snapshots of Betty and her family. One creative bit of public relations had Betty dropping raw eggs from the 12th-story balcony of the Northwest Mutual Fire Insurance Building at the corner of Third and Pine in Seattle. This bit of fun actually promoted a host of goods and activities: while MacDonald aimed for absorbent mats manufactured by the U. S. Rubber Company, two Seattle Rainiers catchers stood by to cushion the eggs after they rebounded unbroken from the mats, and the crowd of bystanders was invited into the nearby Bon Marche to watch demonstrations of an exciting new product television. Readers and journalists who were savvy enough to realize that the MacDonalds’ Vashon Island home was not the site of the Hesketts’ chicken farm did not have to search long for the real thing. In 1946 a real estate notice in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer advertised that “The Egg and I farm” was up for sale. Situated near Chimacum, on the Quimper Peninsula, the farm had been attracting curious tourists for months. Owners Alfred and Anita Larsen explained that along with the property came an unusual business opportunity charging those curious tourists an entrance fee of one dollar per car, which had netted the Larsens over $500 already.
Not everyone was amused, though, as HistoryLink tells us the inspiration for the Ma and Pa Kettle family brought suit against MacDonald, her publishers and more:
The plaintiffs were Albert Bishop and his six sons, two daughters, and one daughter-in-law, all former or current residents of Jefferson County, and Raymond H. Johnson, then living in Seattle. The Bishop children were brothers Herbert, Wilbur, Eugene, Arthur, Charles, and Walter Bishop, sisters Edith Bishop Stark and Madeline Bishop Holmes, and Herbert Bishop’s wife, Janet Bishop. The Bishop family alleged that they had been depicted by MacDonald as the good natured but slatternly Kettle family in The Egg and I. Johnson alleged that he was depicted as Crowbar, an Indian. All claimed to have been subjected to shame and humiliation because they had been identified with the characters in the book, which topped national non-fiction best seller lists well into its second year in print.
They had good reason to be upset. Again, HistoryLink:
Ironically, a January 19, 1947, article in The Sunday Oregonian about Egg’s transformation into a motion picture stated, “After the contract for ‘The Egg’ was signed publishers sent out attorneys with fine-toothed combs and noses for libel suits. It was decided to eliminate a juicy chapter on the mountain moonshiner and no suits have resulted from Mrs. Hick’s liver or the Kettle’s immodestly located outhouse.”
Lippincott’s attorneys evidently didn’t sniff hard enough. Perhaps goaded into action by The Sunday Oregonian article, on March 25, 1947, Edward A. Bishop and Ilah M. Bishop, a married couple farming in Center, filed suit against MacDonald and her husband Donald, asking $100,000 in damages. They alleged that they were MacDonald’s models for Egg’s Mr. and Mrs. Hicks characters, that the book was libelous and an invasion of their right to privacy, and that they had been exposed to ridicule, hatred, and contempt because of their alleged portrayal. In the book the characters are introduced as follows: “Mr. Hicks, a large ruddy dullard, walked gingerly through life, being careful not to get dirt on anything or in any way to irritate Mrs. Hicks, whom he regarded as a cross between Mary Magdalene and the County Agent.” In the book the Hicks and the Kettles are Betty and Bob’s nearest neighbors.
On September 27, 1947, King County Superior Judge Hugh Todd issued a memorandum opinion, denying MacDonald’s demurrer (a motion to dismiss) and ordering the case to trial. The Seattle Times reported, “In his memorandum opinion issued yesterday the judge ruled that certain statements in the book, if true, were libelous. The judge pointed out that although truth is a defense in actions of this kind, the publication of such facts or conversation oftimes is an invasion of the rights of privacy.
The trial eventually began on February 5, 1951 but ended with the case against MacDonald dismissed.
For further reading: