Remembering Betty White

By Terrance Turner

Dec. 31, 2021

Legendary actress Betty White has died. She was 99.

The Los Angeles Police Department responded to a “death investigation” on the 500 block of North Carmelina Avenue in LA at 9:30 am, according to Variety magazine. White is believed to have died last night at her home. She would’ve turned 100 on Jan. 17.

White’s agent and close friend Jeff Witjas confirmed her death to Variety. “Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” Witjas said in a statement. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”

Born Betty Marion White on Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, White was an only child. Her father was an electrical engineer; her mother, a homemaker. According to the New York Times, when Betty was a toddler, her parents moved to L.A., where she grew up.

At Beverly Hills High School, where she graduated in 1939, she appeared in several student productions and even wrote her class’ graduation play (in which she played the lead). During World War II, she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. That was the largest women’s service organization in the country. Women were trained to drive ambulances, fight fires and provide emergency medical aid, according to the National Women’s History Museum. White drove a “PX truck” delivering soap, toothpaste, and candy to soldiers manned on encampments in the Hollywood Hills and in Santa Monica.

She also met and married a P-39 pilot named Dick Barker. The marriage lasted less than a year. The New York Times notes that “when Ms. White wrote an autobiography, ‘Here We Go Again,’ in 1995, she mentioned the marriage but did not mention his name.”

Towards the end of the war, White became involved with the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater. Her first performance there was in a comedy called “Dear Ruth”. An actor-turned-agent named Lane Allen saw the play and encouraged her to pursue acting. He and White married in late 1947. But things began to unravel rather quickly. Allen wanted children. White (who was already getting radio work) wanted a career.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna be content to just stay home, and I knew that a career was very much in my future,” White told Lifetime’s “Intimate Portrait” in 2000. “He wanted to have a family, naturally. If I did have a baby, that baby would have to be the whole thing for me. And I wasn’t — that wasn’t my field of expertise. So I decided not to have children.”

White and Lane divorced in 1949. She took it hard. “It was my failure to live up to the kind of wife he wanted to have,” she told Lifetime. That same year, however, White landed a part on “Grab Your Phone,” a radio program in which host Al Bettersea would pose questions to the audience. The audience would then call in with the answers. White manned the phones. Her appearance caught the eye of a radio star, which led to another opportunity. Host Al Jarvis made White an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“Disc Jockey Al Jarvis saw me [on Grab Your Phone] and he [asked me], ‘Would you like to be my Girl Friday? I’m starting a television show,” she recalls. “It turned out I was to be his Girl Friday… Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. He was going to be on for five hours every day. That’s how he did his radio show and he wanted to do [the same thing but on TV]. He said he’d pay me fifty dollars a week. Fifty dollars a week! I was in heaven!”

“We played records and in between the records we’d talk a little … But while the record was on, the audience would see us moving around and talking to each other. After the first week they called in and they said, ‘It’s driving us crazy, we need to know what you’re saying.’ So they scrubbed the records and threw out the turntables and we would ad-lib for five hours.”

When he left the show, White became host. She parlayed that into a major showcase.

In 1953, Betty White produced and starred in her own show, “Life with Elizabeth.” It ran for two seasons, and White won a best actress Emmy for her performance. The next year she landed her own show, a half-hour variety program called “The Betty White Show”. She featured a Black dancer named Arthur Duncan on the show. People in the South complained about his inclusion, and some stations threatened to pull the show if he remained on it. White responded: “I’m sorry. Live with it.” The show was canceled shortly thereafter.

Over the next decade, White did short-lived television shows and became known as a frequent guest on game shows: “What’s My Line?” , Match Game,” “To Tell the Truth”, and most notably “Password”, in which she appeared in 1961. There, she met the the host of “Password,” Allen Ludden. He worked with Betty White in a summer stock play called “Critic’s Choice” in Massachusetts in 1963. “I fell in love with her on opening night,” Ludden later said. Ludden fell hard and proposed to her during the three-week run of the show. But she repeatedly turned him down. Closer Weekly magazine reveals:

Allen and his family returned to New York when the summer ended, while Betty headed home to California — yet the couple continued to court long-distance. On several occasions, Allen asked for Betty’s hand in marriage, but she kept saying no. “In love as I was, nonetheless, marrying and moving east was still not in the equation,” she recalls. Allen, however, “truly believed in what he was selling and kept the pressure on.”

Finally, on Easter, Allen mailed Betty a stuffed white bunny rabbit, wearing gold flower-shaped earrings adorned with tiny diamonds. Along with this gift was a note that said: “Please say YES.” She did. On June 14, 1963, Betty White married Allen Ludden at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

Betty White and Allen Ludden at their wedding in June 1963. Photo from the University of Las Vegas.

Thanks to Ludden’s persistence, White overcame her reservations about marrying him: she didn’t want to move from New York to California, where Ludden was. And she was hesitant about marrying again after two failed marriages.

“After two bad experiences you’re very wary…I just wasn’t about to take another chance,” White said of marriage in a 2012 CNN interview. “Then I thought, ‘Am I going to live the rest of my life without this man?’ Thank goodness we got married when we did.”

Once they married, the two moved to Chappaqua, New York. White admitted in her autobiography that they all took a while to adjust to their new life together; she was sometimes homesick, and she had to adjust to becoming a stepmother. (Ludden had three children from a previous marriage. His wife had died in 1961.) But they made it work. White later described their marriage as “wonderful”.

She came to regret having turned Ludden down. Oprah Winfrey asked White in 2015 if she had any regrets; White answered that it was not marrying Ludden sooner. “I wasted a whole year we could’ve had together,” she lamented. “But we made it!”

Indeed. The two were married for nearly 18 years until Ludden’s death from stomach cancer in 1981. White never remarried. “I had the love of my life. Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” she told Anderson Cooper.

In 1971, the two collaborated on the series “The Pet Set,” in which White interviewed her celebrity friends and their pets, along with animal trainer Ralph Helfer. White and Ludden produced the series, which ran for 39 half-hour episodes. The show grew out of White’s lifelong love for animals: the year “The Pet Set’ premiered, she began serving as trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation — a title she would hold until 2013.

According to Variety, she became trustee of the Los Angeles Zoo in 1974; that same year, she produced “Backstage at the Zoo,” a television special featuring Mary Tyler Moore and Jimmy Stewart, to help residents understand the work being done at the zoo. White joined the zoo’s board of commissioners in 1997, later becoming chair of the board. She also served as chair for the Morris Animal Foundation.) Though “The Pet Set” was canceled after two seasons, White wasted no time getting a new job.

In 1973, White landed a guest role on the fourth season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. She played Sue Ann Nivens — the host of a “household hints” show at the station Moore worked at. Sue Ann was a charming sweetheart on-camera and a man-hungry manipulator off camera. White performed so well she became a series regular, winning back-to-back Emmys in 1975 and 1976 for best supporting actress in a comedy series.

Show regulars (left to right) Edward Asner, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore and Ted Knight. All won their Emmy’s for their roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” except Asner, who won his for his performance in “Rich Man, Poor Man”.

In 1985, Betty White began playing the role that is perhaps her most famous — the naive but good-hearted Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls”. The series followed four widowed or divorced women living together in Miami. White won an Emmy in 1986 for best actress in a comedy series — the first of the cast members to win — and was nominated every year of the show’s run. (All four lead actresses on the show won an Emmy during the series’ run.) She played Rose’s naivete for laughs, but she also anchored some serious moments.

One episode in season four (“High Anxiety”) featured Rose dealing with a 30-year dependency on painkillers. During the fifth season in 1990, Rose learns that she may have contracted HIV during a blood transfusion for gallbladder surgery. The provocative episode came at a time when AIDS stigma was commonplace. And it challenged the views of people who viewed it as a “gay disease“.

“Not only were people understandably afraid of AIDS, but a lot of people wouldn’t even admit it existed,” White summarized. “So this was a daring episode to do, and the writers went straight for it. It’s interesting that they picked Rose for that situation.”

The writers also picked Rose to have a near-death experience in season two. In the episode, Rose drastically alters her behavior after nearly dying. But White herself wasn’t afraid of dying. “My mother had the most wonderful outlook on death,” she told Katie Couric on CBS “Sunday Morning” in 2011. “She would always say, ‘Nobody knows. People think they do — you can believe whatever you want to believe what happens at that last moment — but nobody ever knows until it happens.’ … Growing up, whenever we’d lose somebody, she’d always say, ‘Now they know the secret.’ ”

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, White racked up a string of guest appearances an recurring roles on television. She worked on Bob Newhart’s sitcom “Bob” and won yet another Emmy in 1996 for playing herself on an episode of “The John Larroquette Show”. White recurred on soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” from 2006-09, on “That ’70s Show” and as Catherine Piper both on “The Practice” and on “Boston Legal.” In 2010 she became the oldest person ever to host “Saturday Night Live.”

White won her seventh Emmy Award for guest hosting “SNL” over Mother’s Day weekend. A month later, cable’s TV Land premiered “Hot In Cleveland,” the network’s first original scripted series. It starred Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as three past-their-prime showbiz veterans who move to Cleveland to escape the youth obsession of Hollywood. They move into a home being looked after by an elderly Polish widow named Elka — a character, played by White, who was meant to appear only in the pilot episode, per the AP.

But White stole the show, and the salty Elka Ostrovsky became a key part of the series, an immediate hit. She was voted the Entertainer of the Year by members of The Associated Press. She continued as a series regular until “Hot in Cleveland” ended in 2015.

And White continued to work on behalf on animal welfare. Audubon Nature Institute recently revealed that White (secretly) paid for a private plane to transport penguins from the aquarium after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. In honor, Twitter users are taking part in a #BettyWhiteChallenge in which they donate to an animal shelter on Jan. 17, White’s 100th birthday.

UPDATE (Jan. 10, 2022): Betty White’s death was caused by a stroke that she had six days before, according to her death certificate obtained by the Associated Press. The certificate lists the cause of death as a “cerebrovascular accident,” the medical term for a stroke. The AP adds that White has been cremated.

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