In a world so divided, one of the last things we could all agree on was Betty White. The iconic actress sadly died on the last day of 2021, just shy of her 100th birthday. Whilst it was a sad end to a rollercoaster of a year, better to end the year on a sad note than begin it on one. When I poured my cocktail on New Year’s Eve, I drank to Betty White.
Through no fault of her own, the world may descend into chaos now that she’s gone. We must protect Dolly Parton at all costs, for she’s the only other thing we all agree on!
White’s honorific title, “the First Lady of television”, was no exaggeration. A pioneer of early television, with a career spanning 9 decades, she worked longer in television than anyone else in that medium, earning her a Guiness World Record in 2018. She was among the first women to exert control in front of and behind the camera, and the first woman to produce a sitcom (Life with Elizabeth), which contributed to her being named honorary Mayor of Hollywood in 1955. Over the course of her career, she received eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy Award. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was a 1995 Television Hall of Fame inductee.
White started off in radio before making the transition to TV, quickly becoming a staple panelist of American game shows. Dubbed “the First Lady of game shows”, she became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host.
It is her starring roles in well-known sitcoms, however, that White is best remembered for. Her most notable roles include the saucy Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973–1977), the restless Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls (1985–1992), and the enthusiastic Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland (2010–2015). She gained renewed popularity after her appearance in the The Proposal (2009), and was subsequently the subject of a successful Facebook-based campaign to host Saturday Night Live in 2010, which garnered her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
White was both the First Lady of television and the last living Golden Girl. I got into Golden Girls during the first lockdown of 2021. I was skipping through the TV channels and came across Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A fan of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I thought I’d give this 90s hit show a go, but I found it dated. Ground-breaking for its time, sure, but the things that set it apart have been appropriated, overdone and conventionalised. So, I skipped the channel and stumbled across Golden Girls, which I decided to watch, if not for my love of Betty White, then because nothing else was on!
To my surprise, I loved it. Whilst Golden Girls is even older than Sabrina, it’s still so relevant, what with the issues it tackled (including AIDS and homophobia), and its comedy has aged so well. Most of it anyway – perhaps not the “blackface”.
In a scene from season 4 episode 22, Rose asks the other girls, “What happens when there’s only one of us left?”, prompting Sophia (Estelle Getty) – the eldest character but second youngest actress – to joke, “Don’t worry: I can take care of myself”. Eerily, not only did Getty die first, but the girls are sat in the order in which they died: Getty died in 2008, Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (Dorothy) died in 2009, and Rue McLanahan (Blanche) died in 2010. These deaths, over three consecutive years, left White the last living Golden Girl for over a decade.
Now, White was more than just an actress; she was also noted for her her activism, especially animal welfare advocacy. She fought for everything from civil to gay rights. In 1954, she faced criticism for featuring Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, on her talkshow. “I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays. Deal with it,” was her impassioned response, before she gave Duncan even more airtime. Her show was cancelled soon after. Duncan, who credits White with giving him his big break, remained oblivious to this sad affair for years to come. Years later, the pair reunited for a dance.
As for gay rights: White spoken openly about her inability to understand why people care who others sleep with. Some notable examples include her HIV and AIDS activism, her interviews with Joy Behar and Larry King (who also died last year), a panel with cast and creatives from Golden Girls, and hear appearances at the GLAAD Awards in 2012 and 2013.
White lived a good, long life. She was older than everything from Mount Rushmore to sliced bread! The latter was the subject of an hilarious segment on The Late, Late Show with James Corden. When asked if sliced bread is older than White, Amar’e Stoudemire said, “Sliced bread has been around for a long time”. White then chirped in: “So has Betty White”. Whilst it sure is consolation that White’s life was long and full, that doesn’t take away the pain. I’m sat here, writing this article, wiping away the tears, wondering why I’m mourning the death of an old woman I never even knew. But when I go over what I’ve written, and the words of others that have informed this article, it’s crystal clear: White was an international treasure who brought so much joy to so many lives over the course of her own (long, full) life. Let this be an incentive for us all to live our lives in such a way that if we die at 99, it’s still too soon.
Whilst she lived longer than most, it sucks that she was so close to her 100th birthday – even closer than Zsa Zsa Gabor was. White was very excited about becoming a centenarian – another achievement for her endless collection – as seen in the recent interview, which she had shared to her Instagram days before her death. I remember wishing White a happy 99th birthday, and all year I’ve been praying that the grandmother of my dreams made it to 100. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. But that does not have to stop the celebrations. Join me today in wishing White the happiest of heavenly birthdays. I’m sure she’s enjoying a slice of birthday cheesecake right about now!
It’s hard not to mourn the passing of an icon, but that doesn’t have to stop us from celebrating her many achievements. After all, that’s what White would have wanted.
On grief, she said: “You can’t become a professional mourner. It doesn’t help you or others. Replay the good times. Be grateful for the years you had” – and, oh, she had many!
On the passing of Lucille Ball, she said: “No matter how many tears we cry today, the laughs outnumber them”. Three decades later, we can say those same words about White.
On being remembered herself, she said: “I don’t even know that I’d be remembered,” revealing that even Betty White can get it wrong! This modesty, humility and humbleness made White all the more loveable. As the song goes, “You don’t know you’re beautiful – that’s what makes you beautiful” – and that’s the only time I’ll ever quote One Direction.
White eventually answered the question, telling the interviewer that she wants to be remembered as a friend we invite into our living rooms.
Well, Betty: thank you for being a friend.