Betty White: A Life, a Legacy, a Legend
Before Oprah Winfrey, American had Betty White. Not only was she a television pioneer, but her birth year was 1922, quite literally six years before the invention of sliced bread. Betty White was a trailblazer who defied expectations by accomplishing the impossible all throughout her lifetime. On the morning of Friday, December 31st, 2021, she did what many were certain was impossible when she died at her Los Angeles home from a stroke she suffered six days prior, as confirmed by her agent, Jeff Witjas. She was 99 years old - 17 days away from her 100th birthday. Her monumental birthday was something that People had hyped up in their latest magazine cover, a documentary film was being made featuring interviews from herself and her various co-stars to highlight the occasion, as well as her fans getting ready to celebrate in their own honorary ways. Her death came as a heartbreaking start to the new year for many, but even though she didn’t live to celebrate her monumental birthday, her life was nothing short of monumental.
Many of White’s fans from today’s era easily recognize her as Rose Nylund, the naive, inquisitive, and cheerfully innocent woman from Susan Harris’ '80’s sitcom, The Golden Girls.
White on the set of The Golden Girls with fellow cast members: Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty.
But, her career spanned for more than 80 years, encompassing a wide variety of other roles. Her grit and determination within the male-dominated television industry are why Americans know television as the enjoyable source of entertainment that it is. In the '50s, at age 31, White became a working woman before Women’s Liberation when she starred in her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth, playing the sometimes ditzy, but all-around cleverly charming, newly-wed, Elizabeth. The show was a massive hit. Simultaneously, White hosted her own talk show called none other than The Betty White Show.
White as a working woman in 1954, at age 32.
Nearly twenty years later, White played the man-hungry, blunt, happy homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
White in character as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Throughout her long career, White’s greatest love was her third husband, the charismatic game show host, Allen Ludden. The pair met on Ludden’s '60’s game show, Password, where White visited as a frequent celebrity contestant. They had been married for 17 years when Ludden died in 1981, just days before their 18th wedding anniversary. White lived for more than 40 years after the fact and never remarried.
“Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” She famously said.
White and Ludden together, as newlyweds, during an episode of Password, which premiered on June 24th, 1963.
Although the pair never had any children together, White’s passion was animal advocacy.
White petting a live lion on her 70's show, Betty White's Pet Set.
White sitting with her golden retriever, Pontiac.
“I love children,” she said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “The only problem with children is that they grow up to be people, and I just like animals better than people. It’s that simple.”
Even though she may not have liked people all too well, she surely knew how to treat them. In 1954, amidst the height of 19th-century racism in America, White was told that the ratings of her talk show would plummet if she continued to allow the show's black dancer, Arthur Duncan, to perform because the segregationists in the south wouldn’t approve. It was her neck on a controversial line, and her male advisors told the then up-and-coming 32-year-old to let Ducan go.
“He stays. Live with it,” she said.
Her respect for others didn't fade as she aged. Some people believe that older people get a pass to make tasteless, insensitive comments because they’re from “that generation,” but White was from “that generation” and never forgot how to uphold herself. Larry King asked her in a 2014 interview how she felt about gay marriage and gay advances.
“I don’t care whom you sleep with,” she said, “it’s what kind of a human being you are... It’s such a personal, private business, and none of mine.”
Betty White was a good person, a wholesomely optimistic and modest person, a special kind of person who made everybody feel welcome and credited her success in a CNN interview to being,
“The luckiest old broad on two feet.”
Her name became the meaning of immortality and America’s common ground. Her influence further expanded generations when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 2010. She was grateful for everything she had because she didn’t know how else to behave.
“...Gratitude is the name of the game,” she wrote in her 2011 memoir, If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t).
White during the monologue of her Mother's Day SNL episode on May 8th, 2010.
The world needs more people like Betty White, but unfortunately, there was only one. One that will be missed; one that didn’t have any children and somehow managed to feel like everybody’s grandma; one that lived a fulfilling, radiantly positive 99-year life, and somehow is gone too soon. At the moment, the best this nation can assume is that she thought it was the funniest joke possible to die two and half weeks before her 100th birthday.
The Archive of American Television once asked White how she’d like to be remembered. She answered,
“I—I don’t even know that I’d be remembered. I would just like it to [say] somewhere along the line that I made people laugh, and I made them think a little bit. The two parts of my life, the animal part and the television part, I worked them together as much as I could. By doing all the game shows, and by doing all the talk shows, by doing situation comedies and the diversity that I’ve done… That’s what I’d like to be remembered as: Betty, as their [the audience’s] good friend that they invite into their home.”
January 17th would have marked her 100th birthday, and though it might have looked a little different without her, there is still reason to celebrate her and her iconic, legendary life. In fact, animal shelters across the country have recently been reaping the benefits of White’s lifetime of animal advocacy through the “Betty White Challenge” where fans and fellow advocates donate to animal shelters in her honor.
“We’ve received over 9,000 dollars in donations, lots of food and toys, and we’re still receiving funds from fans in her name and to honor her,” said the Executive Director of The Saint Joseph County Humane Society, Genny Brown. “She was a great lady, somebody (who) our community really got behind,”
“We’ve received dog food, cat food, money for projects… It’s been a great turnout and a wonderful tribute to Mrs. White. She influenced many generations,” added South Bend Pet Refuge.
More information about how to donate to the Saint Joseph County Humane Society or South Bend Pet Refuge in Betty’s honor can be found in the links below:
White's last photo was taken on December 20th, 2021 - days before her death. The photo was later posted to her Instagram page by her assistant, Kiersten Mikelas:
All image copyright belongs to the respective owners.