The TGB Interview: BETTY WHITE
Thursday, 30 June 2011
About 25 years ago, when I was working on The Barbara Walters Specials, we interviewed actor Betty White at her home in Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is that needlepoint is everywhere – pillows, cushions, seat covers, wall hangings – all of it Betty's doing.
Since then, I've often repeated to friends a favorite moment from that interview:
Regularly, at the end of their workdays, Betty and her husband, Allen Ludden, relaxed with their favorite drink, vodka on the rocks with lemon, while Betty worked on a needlepoint project and they discussed what had happened at their respective television shows that day.
As Allen told an interviewer and Betty told us, one evening he looked around the room and, struck by the multitude of accumulated needlepoint, thought, “My god, we must drink a lot.”
On Tuesday this week, I spent some time on the telephone with Betty White. She has recently published a new memoir, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), that is, like Betty herself, funny and wise and wonderful.
In preparation for the interview, I watched several of her recent television interviews during which she often warmly recalls her life with Allen Ludden who died in 1981. I asked if she marks the day each year, 10 June, that would have been their wedding anniversary.
”Yes, I celebrate quietly with myself. Allen is never far away. It's been 30 years since he died and he is still so prevalent in my home and in my life.”
The death of a wife or husband is a life crisis many people face in later years so I wanted to know what she has learned that might help others to get through it.
”I get a lot of fan letters with this question; it's one I always answer,” said Betty. “'You've been there, how did you manage?' they ask. There's no formula. Keep busy with your work and your life. You can't become a professional mourner. It doesn't help you or others. Keep the person in your heart all the time. Replay the good times. Be grateful for the years you had.”
You undoubtedly know that Betty has starred in a winning string of hit television shows throughout her more than 60 professional years. I'm sure a lot of TGB readers are old enough to remember Life With Elizabeth in the 1950s.
There have also been her bawdy role as the neighborhood nymphomaniac, Sue Ann Nivens, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the naïve Rose on the now-classic Golden Girls; and on her latest, the pot-smoking Elka in Hot in Cleveland. This is from the premier episode two seasons ago.
Many television actors rely on cue cards, but Betty has always memorized her scripts except, when she hosted Saturday Night Live (for which she won an Emmy in 2010), that wasn't possible:
”I can't stand cue cards,” said Betty. “People are always looking slightly off from the person they are talking to. But there are so many skits that are always changing during the week of rehearsals that I can't memorize them on Saturday Night Life. It drives me crazy.
“But they have a wonderful cue card man, Wally, who told me – if I'm with Tina Fey, for example – to look just over her head at him. 'Don't look at Tina and your eyes won't move and you'll be fine,' he said. 'Trust me.' I did, and it made all the difference.”
On other shows, she memorizes, and perhaps this helps: “I do a lot of crossword puzzles,” Betty told me. “I'm an addict. It keeps your mind limber.”
Betty has boatload of awards stretching back to her shows at the beginning of the television era. I asked if there are favorites among them.
”I really loved the Emmys from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I got the first Emmy on Golden Girls and I thought the first should have gone to Bea Arthur. I don't think there was any way to single out one of us. It was awkward.”
In January, the Screen Actors Guild gave Betty their Lifetime Achievement Award. Her acceptance speech stole the show - heartfelt, funny and a little bawdy. In other words, quintessential Betty White:
For more than 40 years, Betty has been an animal activist, working with the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation and other organizations, so you can't talk with Betty White without talking animals.
I was intrigued to read in her book – and jealous too – that she is friends with Koko, the famous chimpanzee who has a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words.
”Oh, my beloved Koko. I've visited her several times. What a lady she is," Betty said. "She named me Lipstick. She rubs her fingers across her lips and her trainer explained that is her sign for lipstick. She doesn't have many visitors who wear lipstick.”
Betty has talked about how elephants – or, at least, the ones she knows personally – like to have their tongues slapped.
Because I'm a patron of the [Los Angeles] zoo, I have backstage privileges with 'contact elephants.' I go walking with my buddy Gita and the keeper. No chains. No nothing. We all just walk around the whole zoo together.
“I say, 'Trunk up, Gita,' and when I slap her tongue, [it's like Gita is saying], 'Oh, she speaks my language' or...'Oh, are you from the same small town I'm from.'”
Betty will be 90 next January and is obviously way too busy to think much or be frightened about death. I asked her to repeat what her mother had told her about dying.
”That is the most comforting thing...I'm not looking forward to death; it's important to live while we are here. But those who have died, my mother said, now they know the secret. And someday we all will.”
“Now they know the secret.” I'm tucking that away in a special memory drawer to pull out when I want to think about it from time to time.
As we wound up our conversation, she recalled that The Barbara Walters Special I'd worked on so long ago had been scheduled to be broadcast at Christmas time.
”So your crew brought in some beautiful logs for the gas fireplace that would be seen on camera burning in the background. They're still there 25 years later,” Betty told me. “I tell friends they are the Barbara Walters logs.”
In any medium - on the telephone, in her television appearances and in her charming, funny memoir - Betty White is a delight, nothing less than a national treasure. Speaking with her is a lot like spending time with an old friend you haven't seen in awhile; you feel like you've always known her.
Best of all, she's is a fantastic ambassador to the world for elderhood.
Betty is quite a lady! I grew up with her in the early days of television
Posted by: Kay Dennison | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 06:19 AM
Oh, this was unexpected and so much fun! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Betty White!! Maybe because she reminds me so much of my mom (not the naive or baudy parts she plays, but her true self, and her looks). I actually bought her book. Quite a quick and fun read. (Glad I'm not the only adult who still has stuffed animals.)
I'm sooo jealous of you right now!
Posted by: Possumlady | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 06:58 AM
Posted by: laura | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:01 AM
Yes, indeed, Betty White sure is a national treasure.
And a wonderful role model.
Posted by: SuzyR | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:13 AM
I like what she said and especially that one about not being a professional mourner (which can be true of anything that has happened negatively in a person's life). I have seen that behavior, and it short circuits life; but for some it seems to be the way they go. Leave it to her to call it for what it is.
Posted by: Rain | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:19 AM
Loved this interview! And I have always admired Betty White. I'll also have to keep that quote about death and "knowing the secret" in my mind as I age.
What a great lady she is!
Posted by: Cara | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:21 AM
You lucky duck! To interview such a really neat celebrity. Who's next? Thanks. Dee
Posted by: Dee | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:24 AM
Betty White was also the smartest celebrity I have ever seen .
On top of her award winning performances in scripted shows, she was the BEST Password player ever, which proved she was way above the rest in intelligence,too.
Posted by: Nancy | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 07:32 AM
Thank you. I'm sitting here smiling.
Posted by: Mage Bailey | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 08:37 AM
Betty White's smile just makes you feel good all over. And she is always smiling.
I envy you meeting her in person. What a privilege! But then, it was a reciprocal privilege for Betty in meeting you.
Posted by: Darlene | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 08:46 AM
Since I watch little television, I haven't actually clapped eyes on Betty White since a Golden Girls episode I watched with my mother (a Bea Arthur re-enactor, for all practical purposes)many years ago.
Thanks to this, I'm going to buy her book, seek out her show.
Posted by: Nance | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 09:37 AM
Thanks for this post. Betty White sends good energy out from anywhere she is, She's amazing.
Posted by: Celia | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:27 AM
Betty has that enthusiasm for life that makes her fun to be around. I try to emulate that as I age.
I strive to avoid behaviors that make others (esp younger people) NOT want to be around me. This includes bitterness and complaining, lecturing and disapproval, and (as she mentioned) professional mourning.
Who wants to be around a sourpuss?
Posted by: Darla | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:44 AM
Not having TV most of the earlier years, my first exposure to Ms White was on "The Golden Girls", which I watched with my granddaughter. Although her (scripted) language has sometimes made me uncomfortable, I do admire her for having mastered her craft.
Thanks for bringing us the interview that only you could bring us, Ronni!
Posted by: Cop Car | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 11:07 AM
All well and good for Betty White, but what about the widow down the street? Does she have to keep a smiley face on after such a huge tragedy?
I appreciate that Betty White is a very resilent person with pleny of resources, but not everyone is, and it's always a very tough go.
So instead of saying t..ts up to widows, how about honoring their grief and supporting their sorrow for a while?
Posted by: Hattie | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 12:24 PM
Here's an early clip from the 1954 Betty White Show, that I vaguely recall
Posted by: Larry | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 12:44 PM
I apologize if my post contributed to your feeling that your grief was not being honored.
As a matter of fact, I've been thinking of suggesting to Ronni that she host a round-robin panel discussion (or something?-not sure how to do it) on widowhood. That is certainly a big concern of aging people. I'd like to hear other people's experiences and advice.
Posted by: Darla | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 12:50 PM
I would like to remind everyone that while disagreement is welcome and encouraged at TGB, personal attacks - in words or tone - are not allowed, not on me, other commenters or invited guests, as today.
Part of that is not making assumptions or reading into others' words intentions that are not expressed.
No one knows another person's grief. In personal tragedy, well-known people have no more or no fewer resources, necessarily, than anyone else.
Neither Betty White, Darla or anyone here has indicated in any manner that widows (or widowers, for that matter, or anyone who has lost someone dear to them who is not a spouse) is not to be honored in their sorrow.
I am personally embarrassed to have an invited guest of TGB misinterpreted. There will be no more interviews.
Posted by: Ronni Bennett | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 02:21 PM
Betty White is a marvel. I love everything I've ever seen her do.
Posted by: Nikki | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 02:22 PM
I don't understand why anyone would be upset with Betty White's thoughts. I am not a celebrity, but am a widow who agrees with her completely. I know several professional mourners, who have nearly destroyed their own life by expecting people to continually 'honor' their grief.
I certainly have never expected anyone to honor me because I am widow. To me honor is defined as receiving merit/credit for something one has accomplished, not something that has happened to you.
I hope you don't stop doing interviews, Ronni, it would be most unfortunate to have bitter remarks take away the pleasure the rest of us derive from them.
Posted by: Mona | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 02:52 PM
Ronni--Please understand how much some of us value your blogs. Thank you!
Please reconsider the possibility of ceasing to do interviews. It is regrettable that a misinterpretation has occurred; but, it happens in our lives. It would be a shame to discontinue a service that many of your readers (I'm sure that I'm not alone) value.
Posted by: Cop Car | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 09:27 PM
1 out of 21? Please don't let that stop you from doing anything, Ronni. We appreciate your writing so much and learn from it (yes, even at 78, I learn every day, and bless my teachers).
Posted by: Lyn Burnstine | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:25 PM
Fantastic post! I have always loved Betty White. Like the 2nd commenter, she reminds me quite a lot of my own mother. Betty White has been very pretty her whole life, but not just her good looks that captivate us..it is her Joie de vivre. As far as negative comments go, if I get any on my blog, I delete them! Who needs it!
Posted by: Celeste | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:34 PM
Wonderful post! I've always loved seeing her on TV. What a joy she is,and you get to talk to her. Thank you!
Posted by: annie | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:52 PM
To be clear, I am not a widow. I simply am making the point that all of us can be isolated by life's sorrows and need a little understanding if we can't always pull it together to be nice to be around. I do think Betty White is exemplary.
I am sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings. Ronni: please don't give up your interviews.
Posted by: Hattie | Thursday, 30 June 2011 at 10:56 PM
Ronni, WOW this interview. Nailed it. Don't stop interviewing.
By the way, Ronni, have you seen the Nestle ice Tea ad, in which a young man spins a bottle of tea, it points to a senior woman, they take off for some wild adventures that include grocery cart racing, fishing, diving off a cliff holding hands?
Friendly fun between the ages.
All in the name of combating ageism.
Check it out.
Posted by: doctafill | Friday, 01 July 2011 at 05:31 AM
What Betty White was saying about not being a professional mourner is a fact and nothing anybody should apologize for. We all have things that went wrong but if we dwell on them, continue to use them as our identity (most painful I have seen others go through is loss of a child), I think it's unhealthy and she said as much.
It didn't mean the person shouldn't have a time to grieve, that she didn't grieve. It means they eventually release it, not turn it into their identity. I have seen the professional mourners and it's not just about widowhood. It can be anything. I don't think they are healthy to be around and they don't benefit those who listen to their pain day after week after month, after year into forever. We are not the bad things that happened to us.
What she said was wise and it wasn't that you cannot grieve, and i think very pertinent to a blog of elders where most have or will lose a partner. It's that you cannot make a life or career out of it. There is a time to mourn and a time to release. For some they never release. It becomes like a badge of honor and they want everybody to sympathize with them for years and years. Sorry but it won't be me.
Every woman in my family and one of the men lost their mate sooner or later. They all went onto to be more than just a widow/widower. It's reality if you marry someone, and don't divorce, one of you will be left. So forever after it's a title? I don't see it as wise.
As Hattie said, they need to have a time to grieve but she was talking about not having it be years and years. My sympathy eventually wears out as does that of most other people except maybe those who cluster together to continue the dirge for each other and it can be years and years if they don't get a grip on it.
I thought your interview with her was fine.
Posted by: Rain | Friday, 01 July 2011 at 08:52 AM
Ronni, I have loved Betty since I first became aware of her (circa Mary Tyler Moore). I am surprised that you didn't delete Hattie's comment; it was uncalled for and unkind. Everyone handles grief differently, and I would hope that Hattie and others like her would grant us the opportunity to be as we wish.
Posted by: kenju | Friday, 01 July 2011 at 11:34 AM
Once you get to a "certain age" you are VERY lucky if you haven't lost someone close.
Then again, not having lost someone might just mean you have never been close to anyone.
Living a long and full life means you have made mistakes, hurt people, been hurt, lost people, and have been misunderstood -- it's all part of outliving other folks.
We all have to handle these things as best we can. Hopefully we can learn to forgive - both ourselves and others.
By the way, we can STILL make mistakes even after 70 -- I know I have. The best you can do is apologize, and move on -- remember, life goes on, until it doesn't.
Might as well live it while you can.
Posted by: tinagrrl | Friday, 01 July 2011 at 09:04 PM
Posted by: Sheila Silver Halet | Saturday, 02 July 2011 at 10:14 AM
The discussion of grieving here suggests to me a Gay & Gray column I must write some day. We live among a generation of (mostly) gay men who experienced the loss of loved ones "out of sequence" -- for whom the AIDS epidemic took away friends and lovers in the prime of life, without the seasoning of age. They learned some things -- universal but particular -- about grieving and going on. I will try to find a way to share some of this -- maybe not immediately, but I'll hold the thought.
Posted by: janinsanfran | Saturday, 02 July 2011 at 10:54 AM
it wouldn't have been a good interview if someone hadn't of disagreed.
in our encounters with others, we realize our otherness, I read somewhere and it stuck with me in all my interviews.
good show on Betty White.
Posted by: emmett smith | Sunday, 03 July 2011 at 02:02 PM
Hot in Cleveland is one of our favorite hidden gems on tv; congrats to you, Ronni, for spreading the word since it's hard to find, hidden away on the TVLand channel.
Putting a smile on, holding the lost in your heart, moving on with grace and laughter -- I want to be Betty White when I grow up!
Posted by: Ashleigh Burroughs | Monday, 04 July 2011 at 08:03 AM