Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING: BRING BACK BETTY MACDONALD!!

Several years ago a friend turned me on to a writer named Betty MacDonald, best known as the author of The Egg and I (1945) (the book that gave rise to the characters Ma and Pa Kettle), and who I say--let's start reading again!

The book of hers I'm (re-)reading now is called Anybody Can Do Anything, and it's all about Seattle in the Depression, and Betty's wacky family--they're all back home, living with the chain-smoking, novel-reading, mild-mannered mother--headed up by the oldest sibling, Mary, and how Mary gets Betty, who is divorced with two young daughters, a succession of odd jobs for which Betty is completely and utterly unqualified.


Here's the conversation that ensues, for example, after Mary announces to Betty that she's volunteered her for a job "at the Western Insurance Company being private secretary to a perfectly darling man named Welton Brown."

I tried to keep my voice normal as I asked, "Just what have you told this Welton Brown I could do, Mary?"

Mary said, "Stop interrupting and you'll find out. Because Welton gets out a magazine, his secretary has to be able to type and take shorthand, know all about insurance, be familiar with advertising and layouts, draw well enough to illustrate the magazine and be able to write and edit articles. He'd really prefer someone who's been published."

"Well," I said, "A--I'm only mediocre to rotten in shorthand and typing; B--I don't know anything about advertising or layouts; C--I majored in art in college but we never drew anything but plaster casts; D--I can't write and I've never had anything published and all my insurance information is mixed up with chickens." [an allusion to what would become her first book, see below]


Mary said, "Listen, Betty, I've known you for twenty-four years and you've never thought you could do ANYTHING. Now there's a depression and  jobs are hard to find and you've got two children to support and it's about time you grew up and changed your thinking to things you can do instead of things you can't do. Mull over your talents and build up your ego. A--you have to know insurance--you were married to an insurance salesman. B--You have to know advertising--you don't but I do and I can teach you. C--You have to be able to draw and you say you can only draw plaster casts--and what may I ask, could be more ideal training for an insurance company with all their accidents? D--Shorthand and typing--if  Welton Brown thinks he can get a court reporter who can do all those things he's a bigger jackass than I think he is. E--You have to be able to write and that is one thing you have to admit you can do. What about your children's stories--what about 'Sandra Surrenders'--I'll bet the Ladies' Home Journal would snap it up if we ever finished it."

In other words, this is a book we could all use in our own Depression era, not because it has job-hunting tips but because of its complete lack of self-pity and huge sense of fun.

Betty ends up working as a photo tinter, an organizer for a rabbit grower, a typer of bills for a florist, a dentist and a laboratory. She works for an oil promoter, a public stenographer, a Mr. Wilson who runs a pyramid scheme, and a gangster. Mary's also constantly setting Betty up on gruesome blind dates, and as the two of them good-naturedly dismiss the guy with roving hands as "Oh that old raper" and the elderly lech as "Probably just some lonely old buzzard who wants to meet some girls," I couldn't help reflecting upon how much we've lost in our dreadful anti-sex-discrimination-lawsuit era. For fun, the sisters (there are four of them) put on a pot of spaghetti, invite a crowd of artistes--some of  whom end up staying for years--and crowd around the gramophone or piano making fun of each other, smoking, drinking endless cups of coffee, putting on plays and/or singing.

Actually, everyone in Betty's family, including her, chain-smoked, which probably did not help stave off the TB that killed her at the age of 50, but again, you have to appreciate her refusal to whine or blame. Here's the bridge from one job to another with which she alludes to her year in a sanitarium about which she wrote the also delightful The Plague and I: 

"I finally collapsed with tuberculosis and was wheeled away from the Treasury Department. When I got well again I went to work for the National Youth Administration. The NYA and Mary would have seen eye to eye about a lot of things. Executives for instance. Mary believed that everybody but our collie was a potential executive and the NYA proved it. "


There's also a great chapter--"All the World's a Stage"--on the free entertainment to be found by going about the city ferreting out amateur dance and song recitals:

"Then Miss Grondahl announced that she would play "Rustle of Spring" and "Hark, Hark the Lark." She had shed her gold cape and was simply clad in a sleeveless black satin dress and some crystal beads. She settled herself on the piano bench, folded her hands in her lap and began to play. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and then suddenly, like running in backdoor in jumping rope, she lit into the first runs of "Rustle." Miss Grondahl was a vigorous very loud player but what made her performance irresistible to [Betty's sister] Dede and me were the large tufts of black hair which sprang quivering out of the armholes of her dress each time she lifted her hands at the end of a run or raised her arms for a crashing chord."

Eventually, Betty re-marries, moves to Vashon Island, off the coast of Washington state, and begins working for a contractor with cost-plus government contracts (she would later write Onions in the Stew about her time there).


But first, Mary convinces her to write a book about her adventures on the remote chicken ranch to which she'd moved with her first husband (father to her two daughters): a marriage that had ended when Betty matter-of-factly packed up the kids one rainy, gloomy day, walked them down the hill, and boarded a bus for Seattle, never to return. The book was accepted by J. B. Lippincott, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, and the rest was history, thereby proving Mary's theory that anybody can do anything, or as she triumphantly told Betty, "You just feel successful, but imagine how I feel. All of a sudden my big lies have started coming true!"

Would that we all had a sister Mary! And long live Betty MacDonald.

20 comments:

  1. Adapt, improvise, and overcome...civilian style. And I also remember this book being on my mom's shelf. She put it into practice too.

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  2. Wow!

    You know, I have ALWAYS said: Anyone can do anything if they set their minds to it.

    It is only the "I can't do its" who can't do something.

    Anyway, Wow!

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  3. She also wrote the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books which were a staple of my first-grade experience, and probably the reason I turned out half-civilized. Any series with fathers named Hearthrug, kids named Harvard and Cornell, and a pig who corrects people's table manners has got to be a winner.

    Amazing lady.

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  4. I know the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books come highly recommended--I've not gotten to them so that's something to look forward to. Good to know that others know that Betty basically rocks!

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  5. Read "The Egg and I" many years ago and loved it. I'm glad to find out about her other books; I'll see if our library has got them. And I'm with you--you gotta love the attitude!

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  6. And I am posting this to my Facebook. Thanks for introducing her to me and I have to own a couple of those books... so I am off to Amazon!!

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  7. My book group read "The Egg and I" a few years ago and we all loved it. What struck us as so refreshing was her lack of sentimentality and introspection. It was so unlike most of the memoirs that we were reading at the time.

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  8. Favorite chapter title in the Egg & I: "I Learn to Hate Even Baby Chicks" -- just typing it makes me giggle.

    Love her! Thanks, Heather, for the reminder -- I read all her 'grown-up' books when I was in college year #1 and feeling quite overwhelmed.

    Stefanie

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  9. What a great story, Heather! Geographical note: Vashon Island isn't off the coast of WA. It's in Puget Sound! The actual coast is miles across the Olympic Peninsula. Vashon is one of those lovely places you can see from Seattle, and still see the Olympic Mountains beyond.

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  10. Whoops--thank you, Shannon. Geography has never been my strong suit--though the island did, as you say, sound beautiful...Happy New Year to you. I'm glad you are bringing a bit of comfort and hope to the prisoners...

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  11. How great to meet another Betty fan! I have loved (not too strong a word)her for years. I alswys cackle when I read Chapter 1 of The Egg and I, where Betty talks about her Gammy. Gammy likes to wear an "apern" and makes cookies from anything she might find in the icebox. I could go on and on but like you, I re-read Ms Mac yearly. Thanks for the awesome post. Karen Hesson

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  12. Hi from down under. I absolutely am addicted to Betty MacDonald books! Betty is the wittiest, cleverest writer with the most succint, keenest observations of people. I cannot fathom that she was born in 1908! The social pictures she evokes are still relevant to today eg the ever changing moods of teenage daughters in Onions in the Stew.I was fortunate to get a copy of a photo taken of Betty MacDonald and Claudette Colbert(the actress who played her in the movie of The Egg and I)

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  13. I am so glad to know of another Betty MacDonald fan! And that social picture of the teenage girls, growing up on the island, is priceless. I love the part where one of them wails, (apropos of her no doubt flawless young skin): "Mother, just LOOK at the pores in my nose! They're as big as the holes in a cribbage board..." And that time they were trying to collect driftwood and saw a washing machine floating around in the water and tried to lasso it in with the sash from Betty's bathrobe...or something like that...Anyway, she is as fresh, smart, and unbelievably funny and relevant as ever. And that is grand you have a photo of her and Claudette Colbert...

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  14. Heather, you turned me on to dear Betty MacDonald and I still think ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING would be a great movie. Thanks for posting this. Love the photos!

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  15. Stumbled across this post while poking around the 'Net for pig farrowing shed plans...Betty and I would get along fine, except for the chain-smoking bit.

    I actually went to elementary school (on Vashon Island) with one of her grandsons and can still remember when "Onions in the Stew" was the hit play of our community theater group one winter. We Island kids all grew up reading "Mrs. Piggle Wiggle" stories, too.

    And what has that done for me? Well, now my partner and I have our own farm in Maine, where we keep Scottish Highland Cattle, inumerable chickens for meat and eggs, a few guinea fowl, and heritage-breed pigs. We love to get in over our heads--and sometimes succeed--with projects we're not quite qualified to do, like building pig farrowing sheds!

    Thanks for a delightful post.

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  16. Anyone who is looking, anywhere, for "'Net for pig farrowing shed plans" deserves a gold star in my book! So thrilled to meet another Betty fan PLUS someone who actually grew up on Vashon Island! The LA Times ran a piece in their travel section a few weeks ago--apparently Betty's place has been turned into a B and B and you can stay there! Though it probably wouldn't be the same without Joan whining "You WANT us to look ugly, Betty!" and Don mixing martinis and Anne spilling Tropical Passion nail polish on one of Betty's borrowed cashmere sweaters and Betty, cigarette in hand, making clam fritters.

    Your spread in Maine sounds divine. (Having grown up on the coast of New Hampshire, I'm forever a New Englander at heart). All the best with your cattle, chickens and pigs! And thanks for the comment...

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  17. Betty MacDonald is beloved all over the world.
    Betty MacDonald fan club has members in 40 countries.
    Wolfgang Hampel, author of Betty MacDonald biography interviewed Betty MacDonald's family and friends. Betty MacDonald's sister Alison Bard Burnett is as witty as her famous sister Betty MacDonald and shared the most delightful family stories.

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  18. Betty rocks! This is so good to know...

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  19. Betty MacDonald rocks the world and she really deserves it.

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  20. I've been a Betty MacDonald fan for many years-- first read her books when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I'm glad that they are in print again and available.

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