Yesterdays – The Book Publisher and I

By Jean Mickle - Yesterdays Columnist

One of the Sarasota, Fla., reporters of the paper I wrote for had a piece in the morning edition about Publisher Joseph W. Lippincott, retired CEO of Lippincott Publishers of Philadelphia and New York. He was then at his winter home in Venice, Fla.

This was of great interest to me because he had published the books of my favorite author Betty MacDonald. The book, “The Egg and I,” was a million-seller. It was made into a movie and from it came the “Ma and Pa Kettle” series. The Kettles had been neighbors of Mrs. MacDonald’s when she lived on a chicken ranch in the mountains of the state of Washington in the days before electric lights or indoor plumbing and miles from the nearest neighbors.

She had married at 18 and she and her siblings had known the “good life” of private schools and luxurious homes as her father had been a mining engineer. Her great sense of humor (but leanings toward spinsterhood) were awakened by a handsome 31-year-old former marine who talked her into marriage and joining him in the raising of chickens. She gave it a “go” but at the end of four years of deprivations, took her two small children and returned home to the warmth and love of her large family.

Then followed years of earning hers and her children’s daily bread in a succession of office jobs, which she wrote about in the book, “Anybody Can Do Anything.” Unfortunately, she collapsed with tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanatorium in Seattle, Wash., from which came, “The Plague and I.” After her recovery, she married a second time and moved with her new husband and by then, teenage daughters, to a huge house on Vashon Island off Seattle, Wash., during World War II. The house was always overflowing with guests and she wrote about those years in the book, “Onions in the Stew.”

I sent Mr. Lippincott a brief note requesting a meeting with him and mentioned that I would be bringing my then-teen-age daughter Michelle who was also a fan of Mrs. MacDonald’s writing.

He wrote back immediately and graciously offered to see us at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. This would work out well for us and because my husband was up north on a business trip and after visiting with the publisher, we were planning to go on to a hotel on the beach in Sarasota, Fla., to spend the weekend. I was planning to kick off my shoes and enjoy a much-needed rest. We would have a meal served on the balcony of our room, with dinners in the dining room so we could hear the singer who performed nightly.

Mr. and Mrs. Lippincott welcomed us warmly in their spacious home and escorted us into their den for the visit. I immediately noticed a large photo of famous author Ernest Hemingway and commented on it.

“He and I were life-long friends,” said our host. “We hunted and fished together all over the world. I never published Ernie because I knew that was the surest way to lose a friend.” (He didn’t elaborate.)

I also noticed an attractive row of matching cabinets along one wall and commented on them. “They house my collection of sea shells from everywhere,” he said, with a laugh.

He filled us in on a number of details about Mrs. MacDonald which were not generally known and said he and Mrs. Lippincott had been guests of the MacDonalds at their home on Vashon Island many times.

He also said the author had purchased homes for members of her family on that island, (all of them having lost their father at a young age.) He thought Mrs. MacDonald “very beautiful, with red hair and a vibrant personality,” so obvious in all of her books.

She died at the age of 47 of lung cancer but her vivid personality lives on in her books, including a series for children.

By Jean Mickle

Yesterdays Columnist

Jean Mickle is a local resident who writes columns for the Record-Herald.

Jean Mickle is a local resident who writes columns for the Record-Herald.