If Edith Macefield had been standing outside the King County courthouse, she might have rolled her eyes.
An auctioneer stood behind a white plastic table. Men in black zip-up jackets sidled up to sign up to bid on her tiny Ballard house. Elbowing reporters jostled for space.
But it was all for show.
In the real estate process, the auction was just a box to check off. The house had to be auctioned before it could be listed on the open market. But for the bidders, whispering into their phones and into each other’s ears, it was a way to be glimpsed on TV.
For the ring of people around them, many of them holding balloons in honor of Macefield, it was a symbol of support for a way of life – old Ballard, before the development and pricey condos.
The house in question is 1,050 square feet and is now boarded up and disconnected from power and sewer lines, surrounded by a retail and office development. It is, to quote Macefield fan Michael Stephens, “a shack in a ditch.”
But it is more than that, because it housed Macefield, who turned down $1 million to sell out to developers. Macefield died in 2008.
Those developers built around her house instead. And as they built, Macefield became an icon for standing tough.
“For me it was that great Ballard spirit,” said Stephens, who became enamored with her story. “My friends and I think she is such a badass.”
Stephens founded the Macefield Music Festival in 2013, named for Edith. Stephens has a tattoo of the house, a simple outline on her forearm. About 40 others have the tattoo as well.
Stephens wonders what Macefield would have made of her following.
“She didn’t want to be a symbol of anything at all,” she said. “She just wanted to stay at her house.”
But Stephens thinks that maybe she would have liked that her house created community.
Absent from the auction was Barry Martin, the superintendent of the construction site. He was working downtown. Macefield bequeathed her house to him when she died in 2008.
Theirs was a difficult relationship at first, a testament to each's stubbornness.
“There was the one time I went down to Ballard Market and got her fresh halibut, baby red potatoes and snap peas,” he said. “It was a beautiful dinner, but she got a hold of the coffee table and flipped it over.
“I was not very happy. When she did that, her Kleenex box dropped. I drop-kicked it off the floor. I said, ‘If you don’t want to eat, or you want to eat off the floor, fine.’”
Macefield replied, “I knew you wouldn’t make it. You’re quitting.”
“I’m not quitting,” Martin said. “I never quit and you can’t make me. I’m going home. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Three miles into his drive, he got a call. It was Macefield. She was hungry. So he turned around and fixed her a frozen dinner.
After that, they were fast friends.
Macefield told Martin about her musical career. Benny Goodman was her cousin, she said. She had an autograph book with signatures from Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. The note from Spencer Tracy suggested that they were friendly.
She said she had been given an English castle during World War II to help the wounded.
Martin found three marriage certificates among her possessions. One was to a man named Macefield. His family had owned a fig plantation in Africa. She would recall the giraffes sauntering over and eating the pies she had set out to cool.
“She would tell you a story for a few minutes, and then she didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said. He dug into her fascinating past and found that much of what she shared was true. (He has since written a book about their friendship, Under One Roof, published by St. Martin's Press.)
Martin also took her to doctor appointments. When she was asked about her power of attorney, she turned to Martin and announced it would be him. That’s how he came to inherit her house.
He sold it for $310,000 to a buyer who eventually had financial trouble. Martin put that money in a mutual fund, which saved him during the recession.
The monthly interest he received from the fund was $6 more than his mortgage payment. And when it was time, he spent the money as Macefield had asked – on his kids’ education.
Back at the King County Courthouse, the auctioneer mumbled some words and then …
“SOLD! For $216,356.70!”
There was some confusion until someone explained: The bank now owned the property and could sell it on the open market.
Ian Morell of Caliber Real Estate was among those at the auction. He explained that there was a lien against the house. That meant a buyer could have had to pay over half a million dollars for Macefield’s house.
So why even bother to show up?
“Just to get in the spotlight,” Morell said.
Exactly where Edith Macefield never wanted to be.