Editor’s note: The following essay (previously unpublished) was written in 1951 by Betty MacDonald, bestselling Northwest author of such classics as The Egg and I and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. The Estate of Betty MacDonald shared this essay with us for the release of the new biography Looking for Betty MacDonald.
÷ ÷ ÷
I have just finished reading a couple of books and an article by writers who apparently dipped their pens in their own tears as they set down the gruesome details of the hard lot of an author, particularly a successful author. Now, God knows, I am aware that fame has its seamy side, and that unfortunately almost every city in the United States contains at least one squinty-eye who will crawl four miles over broken glass just to tell an author that her hair looks ugly or they didn’t recognize her because she had gotten so fat
or they had just burned her horrible book. But I am not going to let it blight my life. I'm going to slap the next person who waits in line for an hour just to tell me that “I knew your book would be published, Betty, because all the good writers
are at war,” and I’m going to count my blessings.
The sad thing about it all is that it is so much easier to remember the slights and hurts.
Take for instance the first time I went to Hollywood. Never was anyone more royally entertained. My daughters Anne and Joan, my husband Donald, my sister Mary and I had two beautiful suites at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the most and the most gorgeous flowers I've ever seen, a car and driver, a front table for the opening of Ciro's, a dinner party at the Mocambo, tickets to Carmen
at the Hollywood Bowl, visits to all the major studios, meals at all the most famous restaurants, front seats at all the big radio programs and a magnificent party at the Beverly Hills Club to which were invited all the big name movie stars, writers and producers. Everyone was charming to us and we had an absolutely fabulous ten days, yet when I think of that trip, what comes to my mind? The woman at the party at the Beverly Hills Club who jerked me away from a table around which sat Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Danny Kaye, Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell, shoved me into a corner and hissed at me, “Honey, I think you ought to know that whoever told you to wear your hair in bangs sure gave you a bum steer.”
Take the cocktail party in New York attended by every writer and publisher and editor I had ever dreamed of meeting. The hors d'oeuvres and drinks were superb, the company was brilliant and I, the guest of honor, had a wonderful time. Yet when I think of that party, what comes to my mind first? A little bespectacled man who took me to one side and said, “Mrs. MacDonald, now that you have made all this money, why don’t you write a good book?”
Or the times I was on Mary Margaret McBride’s program with people like Kenneth Spencer, Gary Merrill and Eddie Dowling. I adore Mary Margaret McBride, always loved being on her programs and of course was thrilled to meet such famous people, but what do I remember most clearly? The woman who called me just after the broadcast and said in a low, throaty voice, “Mrs. MacDonald, I have just listened to you on the radio and believe me, dear, you need help. A great deal of help. Now I specialize in training disagreeable voices…”
In each city I met charming people, was lavishly entertained and had a delightful time. What do I remember? The woman who said, “That is a cute picture on the back of your book but it certainly don’t look like you.”
Or the time I flew to San Francisco to open the Anti-Tuberculosis League drive, stayed at the beautiful old Fairmont Hotel, sat in a box at the horse show at the Cow Palace, drank champagne in a tack room afterwards, met charming people and had a very gay time. What do I remember most vividly? The woman who came up to me after the luncheon where I had been the guest speaker, clasped my hand damply in both of hers and said, “My sister thought she was cured of t.b. too and she died last week.”
Or the many radio programs on which I have been a guest. Welcome Travelers
, Information Please
, Kay Kyser
, Queen for a Day
, Author Meets the Critic
, Tommy Dorsey
, the Hedda Hopper show of The Egg and I
, Bride and Groom
, We the People
, Betty Crocker
, G.E. Houseparty
— to name a very few. Everybody was charming to me and although I was usually scared stiff, it was a great thrill. But what do I remember most clearly about all this? The woman interviewer who asked me, “Do you dye your hair? It certainly looks like it.” The man interviewer who said, “I haven't read any of your books because I loathe woman authors.” The woman interviewer who laughed, blinked her watery eyes and said, “Is your husband much younger than you? He certainly looks it.”
Or the hundreds of autographings given for me by department and book stores and nearly always preceded by at least two orchids and many nice remarks about my writing. I have autographed in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Toronto, Montreal, Fort Wayne, Lima, Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago and Tacoma. In each city I met charming people, was lavishly entertained and had a delightful time. What do I remember? The woman who said, “That is a cute picture on the back of your book but it certainly don’t look like you.” The woman who tipped the vase of zinnias gracing the small desk where I sat, into the lap of my new autographing suit, then said, “I just came down here to tell you that I hate you, Betty MacDonald, and I hate your book. My sister gave me a copy for Christmas and I burned it.” The woman who had me write on the flyleaf of The Plague and I
a long and tender message to her son in a tuberculosis sanatorium, then just as I finished, reached over, tore out the flyleaf, crumpled it up, threw it in my face and said, “What do you think you’re doing. He don’t want his new book wrote in.” The woman who wanted me to inscribe in her copy of The Egg and I
, “Dear Uncle Charlie, I received the Xmas package o.k. but the shirts don’t fit and the fudge was all crumbly.” The time I sat forlornly in a bookstore from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon and nobody asked for my autograph and nobody spoke to me, not even the clerks in the bookstore.
Or the enormous book and author luncheons in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia where I was a speaker along with Burl Ives, Raymond Gram Swing, Louis Bromfield
and others of equal import. Of course the food was always that special glued together, uncuttable, maybe even imitation half a chicken, and I was so scared. I can make myself sick at my stomach even now just thinking about it, but it was very, very glamorous. Orchids, photographers, reporters and a huge audience. But what do I recall most vividly? The time I was introduced as Betty Smith
Then there are the fan letters, of which I get anywhere from two to forty a day, most of them nice letters from nice people who take the time and trouble to write and tell me they like my writing. Naturally I am delighted with these letters and answer each one just as fast as I can get to it. But which letters can I quote? The one from a woman in a mental institution who wrote, “They have me shut up here and there is nothing wrong with me and I am writing a book just like yours…” The ten single-spaced typewritten pages from a religious crackpot damning me for my use of blasphemy, quoting numerous verses from the Bible and ending, “The worst thing that you did, Betty MacDonald, and the sin you have committed for which there is no recompense is at the very end of your dreadful book when you said The hen is the boss
when every right thinking person knows that God is the boss
And the people, the bus drivers, the waitresses, the clerks, the woman on the escalator, the farm woman at the Fair who just want to tell me that they like my books and wish me luck. I love these people and they do wonderful things for my spirits, but are they the ones I tell about when people ask me what it feels like to be famous? Not on your tintype. I tell about the time I was in the A&P getting groceries and I heard from the pickle and olive section a woman's nasal voice saying, “Well, I know Betty MacDonald real well and it is too true that she is divorcing George, her present husband and marrying her publisher.” Another voice said, “And her marriage to that MacDonald was her fourth and I heard the other day...” The voices faded out into the soap powders. I wanted to run after the women and tip over their grocery carts. Instead I meekly paid for my groceries and went home to braise oxtails for George or Donald or whoever I was married to at the time.
Then there is my publicity. All the bright, witty and friendly members of the press I have met. The dandy spread in Life Magazine
. The long write-up in Time
. The marvelous reviews in Atlantic Monthly
, Saturday Review
, Herald Tribune
and New York Times
. The two covers on the book section of the Chicago Tribune
. The terrific advertising I have had from Good Housekeeping
, Reader’s Digest
and the Saturday Evening Post
. The many, many enthusiastic very complimentary interviews in the papers of every town I have visited. So what do I scrabble for when I go through my clippings? A write-up by an AP man who dumped a half a cantaloupe in my lap then hurried home and wrote that I was a big
woman with prominent teeth and freckled hands.
I don’t know what’s the matter. I have a handsome husband (my second only), two beautiful daughters, three adorable grandchildren, a house on the Sound, a wonderful mother, an abundance of rollicking brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles, a sense of humor, three dogs, seven cats, an avid interest in cooking and gardening, and I can cash a check almost anywhere. I don't think I am a manic depressive or that I’m suffering from melancholia or insecurity. I’m also quite sure that I shouldn’t change my name according to numerology to Mergda or Opfal. But here I sit, just like those other authors, mulling over all my old hurts and slights and wondering if perhaps I wouldn’t write just a tiny bit better in a cottage on the Mediterranean.
I guess the trouble with us authors is that we’re just too sensitive to put up with all our miserable old success.
÷ ÷ ÷
(1907-1958) was the bestselling author of The Egg and I
and the classic Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
series of children's books. Looking for Betty MacDonald
by Paula Becker, the first biography of this endearing Northwest storyteller, reveals the story behind the memoirs and the difference between the real Betty MacDonald and her literary persona.