Betty White’s New Book Celebrates Her Extraordinary Life

The news hit social media like a rocket.  There’s a collective gasp being experienced across the world.  Betty White, whose 100th birthday next month was to be a momentous affair, died peacefully overnight – of no particular cause, no ailment.  She’d been keeping herself isolated since the pandemic in her Los Angeles home, reading, watching TV, and working on crossword puzzles. 

In an interview with People magazine (hitting the stands any day now) she proclaimed herself “a cockeyed optimist” to explain her positive and upbeat attitude, and jokingly added, “I try to avoid anything green.”  What has been called a “dream career” ends on one level but continues forever on another: on TV, and in our hearts.  Google Betty and you’ll see all her accomplishments, stories from other entertainers who worked with her, one just as glorious as the next.  First Lady, Dr. Biden just posted, “Who didn’t love Betty?”  

To that we all agree. 

Her name is really Betty.  Not short for Elizabeth as one would think. Her full name?  Betty Marion White Ludden, and on January 17, 2022, the first lady of television, turns 100 years old.  To celebrate her life, her career, and ever-lasting popularity, a new coffee table book released this month, chronicles the highlights of her life from radio in the 1930’s, to TV and movie-stardom throughout the latter part of the last century, and into the twenty-first, to celebrate her enduring show business career.

Betty White: 100 Remarkable Moments In An Extraordinary Life, by Ray Richmond, begins with a forward by Gavin MacLeod, who played alongside Betty in the TV classic, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  “I’ve always thought the woman should be declared a national treasure,” he writes. “As far as I’m concerned, she belongs on Mount Rushmore right alongside the presidents.”  McLeod, who passed away last May, credits her natural and easy-going manner during their scenes together to “being part of live television and doing so much improvisation…she’s like TV royalty.”  

Her start in TV is one of the first remarkable moments covered in the hefty book. In early 1939, teenage Betty had taken part in a singing performance at her Beverly Hills high school which led to an invitation to perform in an experimental event: a television transmission test that would go out on NBC. As author Richmond writes, “this predated by more than two months, RCA’s broadcast on April 30, 1939, at the opening of the New York World’s Fair that had marked the beginning of regular television programming in North America.” Evidence that her “first lady of television” title is a statement of fact rather than an honorary accolade. 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (top row): Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Ted Knight, (seated): Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, Georgia Engel, 1970-77 (Courtesy: Everett Collection)

There’s a chapter for every decade, such as her volunteer stint as a World War II driver in the 1940’s; roles in radio and TV classics in the 50’s and 60’s, including meeting and marrying Allen Ludden; co-starring in classic TV comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ‘70’s; The Golden Girls in the 80’s; inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in the 90’s, and becoming Hot in Cleveland, and advising Sandra Bullock in the film, The Proposal in the 90’s and beyond. In 2010, at the age of 88, she hosted Saturday Night Live, and in 2018 made the Guinness World Records for having the “longest TV career by an entertainer.” 

Saturday Night Live, Betty White, ‘Opening Monologue’, (Season 35, aired May 8, 2010), 1975-. photo: Dana Edelson / © NBC

On what the author learned about Betty in his research, Richmond says, “What really surprised me while researching and writing this book was her incredible versatility and just how game Betty has been to do ANYTHING. We all think of her in a certain box, as either the man-crazy Sue Ann Nivens of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ or the naïve Rose Nylund of ‘The Golden Girls.’ But in fact, she’s done pretty much everything, from serving as a celebrity contestant on hundreds of game show installments to emceeing the Rose Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, acting in a soap opera – and then, in her 90s, she had basically a whole other career as a comedy series regular on ‘Hot in Cleveland’ and appearing all over television. 

Betty White, ca. mid-1950s (Courtesy: Everett Collection)

“But,” he adds, “the one thing that really demonstrates how eager Betty has been to stretch her brand came in 2006, when she served as one of the bawdy presenters on the ‘Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner.’ She told the writers not to hold back, that she could hold her own in such a racy and crude environment – and she did. The woman has no fear. People who think they know Betty White as the embodiment of all that’s sweet and wholesome don’t know the half of it. The woman has been known to swear like a sailor behind the scenes and well understands how to stretch her image without ever crossing the line.”

It’s well known that Betty is not only an animal lover, but also a strong advocate for animal rights, something that began long before her career in show business. In the 1930’s, Betty’s father was in the radio-building business, but since many of his customers had little money, he was occasionally paid in…dogs. The idea, Betty explained, was to give the dogs better homes, and at one time, their “family rescue shelter” housed over 25 of them, with every one of them finding new homes through their efforts. 

In 2018, Betty was honored at the 70th annual Primetime Emmy Awards for having the “longest career of any actor or actress in television history.” After a kiss on the hand by Kate McKinnon and then Alec Baldwin, she thanked the audience, saying, “How lucky can I be?” 

To that we can only say: how lucky can WE be! 

Happy birthday, Betty.

Author and entertainment journalist Ray Richmond has worked as a chief television critic, columnist, and reporter for several publications, interviewing dozens of celebrities for The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety, the Los Angeles Daily News, The Orange County Register and (online) Deadline Hollywood.  

Top photo: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, from left: Gavin MacLeod, Betty White, 1970-77. Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Book Cover – courtesy of the author

About MJ Hanley-Goff (110 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and college essay writing help to students. MJ is thrilled and honored to write for WAT for the amazing adventures it offers, like reviewing concerts, people, authors, events, and tourist attractions in New York, and around the world. “I enjoy drawing attention to the off-the-beaten path kinds of stories,” she says. “It’s great big world out there, with so many talented and creative artists, doers, and thinkers.”