“The world looks different now,” actor Ryan Reynolds wrote of BETTY WHITE, his longtime friend and costar in the 2009 movie, The Proposal. “She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We will miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret.” The secret Reynolds alluded to was how Betty’s mother spoke of death, for when you die, you come to know the secret we can only anticipate in life.
The beloved actress, comedienne, author, and animal welfare advocate was a pioneer of early television and the first woman to produce a sitcom. Best known as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose on The Golden Girls, Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois on January 17, 1922, the only child of adoring parents. She was only a year-old when her family moved to California, where she would spend the rest of her life. Growing up during the Great Depression in Beverly Hills, young Betty aspired to follow the footsteps of motion picture musical actress Jeanette MacDonald. Her dream, however, was interrupted by World War II, when Betty served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services driving a PX truck with military supplies. “It was a strange time and out of balance with everything,” she would recollect.
After the war, she got random jobs on radio reading commercials, then bit parts on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI, and soon had her own show, The Betty White Show. In 1949, she began appearing on fledgling television as co-host with Al Jarvis on the live, daily variety show, Hollywood on Television. Almost six hours of live ad lib television, six days a week, for four continuous years honed her timing, skills, and spontaneous ability to take a line and run with it in a manner that no other actor, before or since, had ever achieved. From there came Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955), a nationally syndicated, half-hour television show that established 28-year-old Betty, who was still living with her parents, as the first woman television producer. Fast forward to May 8, 2010, when Betty, age 88, became the oldest guest host of Saturday Night Live, earning her a Prime Time Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, and her starring role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, The Lost Valentine, which first aired on January 30, 2011, earning the highest ratings for the network in the previous four years and winning first place in that time slot on that date. (In appreciation of Betty, the Hallmark Channel is now airing The Lost Valentine on demand.) The litany of her television credits, awards, and good deeds would take volumes, but to get a pure sense of the goodness and wit of this woman who, made a friend of everyone she met and had no enemies, takes but a few quotes:
Of her character in Golden Girls, who Betty White described as “terminally naïve,” she said: “If you told Rose you were so hungry you could eat a horse, she’d call the ASPCA.”
“Kindness and consideration of somebody besides yourself. I think that keeps you feeling young. I really do.”
“Now that I’m 91, as opposed to being 90, I’m much wiser. I’m much more aware and I’m much sexier.”
“Retirement is not in my vocabulary. They aren’t going to get rid of me that way.”
“It’s [old age] not a surprise, we knew it was coming—make the most of it. So you may not be as fast on your feet, and the image in your mirror may be a little disappointing, but if you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game.”
“I think we’re losing our sense of humor instead of being able to relax and laugh at ourselves. I don’t care whether it’s ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or whose ox is being gored.”
“Friendship takes time and energy if it’s going to work. You can luck into something great, but it doesn’t last if you don’t give it proper appreciation. Friendship can be so comfortable, but nurture it—don’t take it for granted.”
“Hot dogs and Red Vines (red licorice) and potato chips and French fries are my favorite foods.”
“You can always tell about somebody by the way they put their hands on an animal.”
Shortly before her death, Betty was asked about her diet as the secret to her longevity. “I try to avoid anything green,” she joked. “I think it’s working.”
Actress Valerie Bertinelli, Betty’s co-star on Hot in Cleveland, wrote this tribute: “Rest in peace, sweet Betty. My God, how bright heaven must be right now.” Betty died in her sleep on New Year’s Eve morning. Before she closed her eyes the last time, her last word was “Alan.” Allan Ludden, the love of her life and husband, had predeceased his Betty by 32 years. Now they both know the secret.