Betty White, star of shows such as Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the record-holder for the longest TV entertainer in history, has died at the age of 99 in her home in Los Angeles, California. With a career spanning nine decades, White leaves behind a legacy of humor, trailblazing and cultural significance that was unlike any other entertainer.
Born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, White initially explored a career as a forest ranger and in grade school she began creating skits and stories. But her role as a writer and actor in a elementary school production led her to discover her talent and inclination towards performing.
“I wrote the graduation play at Horace Mann Grammar School in Beverly Hills,” White said. “And, of course, as any red-blooded Amercian girl would do, I wrote myself into the lead.”
Her upbringing in Illinois and California – where her parents moved to seek better opportunities when she was two-years-old – also taught the future star to revere nature. Their little family trio regularly vacationed in the High Sierras and spent summers camping in Yellowstone National Park.
1955: Betty White at the Christmas Parade in Los Angeles
“The guide would take the horses out and leave us there. We wouldn’t see anybody for three weeks,” White said. Her parents “were directly responsible for my passion for nature in general and animals in particular, we wound up with 26 dogs once,” White said.
Animal activism would remain a lifelong devotion for Betty, but she gradually replaced her dreams of living in the forest with a desire to perform.
“I took very serious singing lessons,” she said. “My mind and heart were set on an operatic career. Unfortunately, my voice had no such plans. This didn’t deter me one iota!”
She began her television career in 1939, when she and a classmate performed the “Merry Widow Waltz,” broadcast from the Packard automobile showroom in Los Angeles.
“I wore my graduation dress, and our Beverly Hills High student body president Harry Bennett and I danced the ‘Merry Widow Waltz,” White recalled. “The show may have been less than enchanting, but for this young merry widow, it was totally exciting.”
While dabbling in other ventures such as modeling, she found her first acting gig with the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre.
White put her career on hold when World War II broke out, in order to serve in the American Women’s Voluntary Services, transporting supplies in California and participating in entertainment events for soldiers before they were deployed.
1981: Betty White with her husband Allen Ludden
“Once America became directly involved [in World War II] in 1941, my priorities did an immediate about-face and dreams of showbiz dissolved into the war effort,” White said. She “opted not to go to college” to pursue a showbiz career.
“I drove a PX truck carrying toothpaste, soap and candy to the various gun emplacement outfits that had been set up in the hills of Hollywood and Santa Monica,” White said. “We would dancee or play games or simply talk with the young men who were so far from home,” she says, calling those times “the age of innocence.”
Along with way, Betty found herself falling in love with a handsome military pilot named Dick Barker.
The two later married in 1945 when White was 23 and she moved into Barker’s home in Ohio.
“Oh, it was a nightmare,” said White, who almost immediately regretted leaving California’s sunshine, her family and her desire for a showbiz career. The pair divorced after less than a year together.
“I married my first [husband] because we wanted to sleep together,” she confessed, joking that “it lasted six months and we were in bed for six months!”
Betty didn’t give up on love – or making it as an actress – but her heart was broken when she was forced to choose between the two.
1979: Betty White at the Tony Awards
At 27, she wed actor-turned-talent agent Lane Allen, who yearned for a “traditional” wife and family.
“With Lane, it was my failure to live up to the kind of wife he wanted to have,” White said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be content to just stay home. I knew that a career was very much in my future, so I decided to not have children. In those days, people didn’t understand that as much as they do now.”
Decades later, after many appearances on game shows (granting her the nickname “The First Lady of Game Shows”), White landed perhaps her most iconic role ever, as The Golden Girls‘ “terminally naive” Rose Nylund in 1985. Alongside Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan, the show followed the trials, tribulations and celebrations of blissful retirement in Miami, Florida.
Running from 1985 to 1992, White won an Emmy for the show in the Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series category, the only member of the cast to receive such a distinction.
White’s career didn’t end with The Golden Girls, she went on to preform in soap operas, films and various other TV shows, and like a fine wine, she became better with age.