MacDonald was born Anne Elizabeth Campbell Bard in Boulder, Colorado. Her official birth date is given as March 26, 1908 (although federal census records seem to indicate 1907). Her family moved from Butte, Montana, to the north slope of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood in 1918, moving to the Laurelhurst neighborhood a year later and finally settling in the Roosevelt neighborhood in 1922, where she graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1924. MacDonald married Robert Eugene Heskett (1895-1951) in July 1927 when she was 20 years old and he was 31, and the couple moved to a chicken farm in the Olympic Peninsula's Chimacum Valley, near Center a few miles south of the seaside community of Port Townsend.
MacDonald left Robert in 1931 and returned to Seattle, where she worked at a variety of jobs to support her daughters Anne and Joan from her marriage to Heskett. Once the couple was divorced, contact between the two ex spouses was virtually nonexistent. Betty MacDonald spent nine months at Firlands Sanitorium outside of Seattle in 1937-1938 for treatment of tuberculosis.
On April 24, 1942, she married Donald C. MacDonald (1910-1975) and moved to Vashon Island, where she wrote most of her books. The MacDonalds later moved to California's Carmel Valley in 1956.
MacDonald rocketed to fame when her first book, The Egg and I, was published in 1945. It was a huge bestseller and was translated into 20 languages. Loosely based on her life on a Chimacum Valley chicken farm, it introduced the characters Ma and Pa Kettle, who also were featured in the movie version of The Egg and I and were so popular a series of nine more films were made featuring them. In the film of The Egg and I, made in 1947, Betty MacDonald was played by Claudette Colbert. Her husband (simply called 'Bob' in the book) was called 'Bob MacDonald' in the film, as studio executives were keen not to raise the matter of MacDonald's divorce in the public consciousness. He was played by Fred MacMurray.
Although the book was a critical as well as a popular success on publication, more recently it has been criticised for its stereotypical treatment of native Americans. It has also been claimed that it "spawned a perception of Washington as a land of eccentric country bumpkins like Ma and Pa Kettle."<5> MacDonald's defenders point out that in the context of the 1940s such stereotyping was far more acceptable. MacDonald faced two lawsuits by members of a family who claimed she had based the Kettles on them and by a man who claimed he was the model for the Indian 'Crowbar'. One case was settled out of court, while in the second it was shown that some of those claiming defamation had in fact profited from the fame brought by the book and film.<6>
MacDonald also published three other semi-autobiographical books: Anybody Can Do Anything recounting her life in the Depression trying to find work,The Plague and I about her stay at Firlands, and Onions in the Stew about her life on Vashon Island with her second husband and daughters during the War years. She also wrote the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series of children's books that are still popular today, and another children's book entitled "Nancy and Plum.".
MacDonald died in Seattle, Washington, of uterine cancer on February 7, 1958, aged 49