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7 Facts You May Not Have Known About Betty White

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At the time of her death, Betty White held the world record for being the woman with the longest career in television.

At the time of her death, Betty White held the world record for being the woman with the longest career in television.

Betty White Was A Beloved Television Icon

Betty White, lauded with titles such as "America's Favorite Grandma" and "The First Lady of Television", was a universally beloved actress with 8 decades in showbusiness and 8 Emmy awards. You may remember her as Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls, Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland, or Sue Anne Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Older fans may remember her from her self-titled radio talk show, which later became a TV show.

Before her death, Betty had been working in entertainment for longer than most people today have been alive, and she was six years older than commercially sold sliced bread. Sadly, Betty White died of a stroke at the age of 99 on December 31, 2021, but this woman lived a truly extraordinary life. Here are seven facts that you may not have known about Betty White.

Betty's short name fits with her fun personality. Here she is on her 93rd birthday, posing for the camera.

Betty's short name fits with her fun personality. Here she is on her 93rd birthday, posing for the camera.

1. Betty's name is not short for Elizabeth

Betty White was born Betty Marion White on January 17, 1922. Originally, her parents were going to name her Elizabeth. However, her mother Tess wanted to call her Betty, and she didn't want people to give her other nicknames like Beth or Liza, finding them distasteful, so Betty it was. Over the course of her life, the actress married three times, but she didn't change her full birth name until she married her third husband and true love, Allen Ludden. Then she became Betty Marion White Ludden, but she still used Betty White as her professional name.

In addition to being a legendary actress, Betty White was also a legendary animal advocate. Here she is with some elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo.

In addition to being a legendary actress, Betty White was also a legendary animal advocate. Here she is with some elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo.

2. Betty White Wanted To Be A Park Ranger

Betty White was fascinated by wildlife from an early age. Her family moved from Oak Park, Illinois to Alhambra, California when she was 2 years old, and her parents often took her on camping trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains and Yellowstone National Park. They would spend weeks at a time in the forest, and she longed to spend her whole life there.

However, back in the 1930s and 1940s, women were not allowed to be park rangers, so her attentions turned to writing, the opera, and then acting. Despite her change in career focus, the actress never lost her love for animals, and spent her life advocating for wildlife conservation. She served as a board trustee and president of the Morris Animal Foundation, and as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, she volunteered for the zoo for over 40 years. There's even a Betty White guided tour!

Betty White finally achieved her lifelong dream when the US Forest Service proclaimed her an honorary ranger in 2010. She said her parents would have been prouder of that achievement than anything else.

Betty White in the 1920s with one of her family's dogs.

Betty White in the 1920s with one of her family's dogs.

3. Betty White's Parents Once Owned 26 Dogs At Once

Betty White was an only child growing up, but she definitely was not lonely.

During the Great Depression, her father built radios to earn some extra money. Unfortunately, many people didn't have extra money lying around because they had lost their jobs. However, many had extra dogs. Horace White was a staunch animal lover, so he often agreed to take surplus dogs in order to sell the dogs to better homes. "The dogs ate and the radios didn’t, so it was not the best business deal he ever made.", said Betty.

At one point, their dog count got up to 26, but young Betty enjoyed wrangling them all. There were Pekingese, chow-chows, a German shepherd, cocker spaniels, and a few mutts in their menagerie. Eventually, all of the dogs went to new homes.

If young Betty White wasn't photogenic, there's no help for the rest of us.

If young Betty White wasn't photogenic, there's no help for the rest of us.

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4. Betty White Was Turned Down Early In Her Career For Being Unphotogenic

Betty White found acting when she wrote and played the lead for a play in high school, and she was determined to make it her career, performing small gigs on television, which was a new and experimental medium at the time. During World War II, she took a break from acting to volunteer to help soldiers, driving a truck to deliver supplies to the barracks in Hollywood Hills.

After the war, she began auditioning for movie studios, but some producers told her she wasn't photogenic. Betty switched focus to radio jobs, where her looks didn't matter, and her talent was all she needed to shine. Eventually, Betty was given her own radio show, and then she founded her own production company, Bandy Productions, to get more roles and have creative control over her own work.

The producers who called her unphotogenic really regretted it by the time she received her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress in 1951. Her show Life With Elizabeth, which she wrote, produced, and starred in, won her an Emmy the following year.

Arthur Duncan reuniting with Betty White on "Little Big Shots".

Arthur Duncan reuniting with Betty White on "Little Big Shots".

5. Betty White Refused To Kick Out A Dancer On Her Show For Being Black

Controversy ensued on Betty White's 1952 talk show, The Betty White Show, when she hired Arthur Duncan, a talented tap dancer, as a series regular. He happened to be the first Black person to take a regular role on a talk show, and as the show gained a wider audience, protests increased about his presence from television stations in the segregated South. They demanded that he be fired, or they would stop airing the show.

Betty refused to give in to their demands. "I'm sorry, but he stays. Live with it.", she told them. Arthur would go on to have a successful career as a tap dancer; he toured military bases with Bob Hope's troupe, danced on The Laurence Welk Show for 18 years, and he was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2020. He remained friends with Betty White until her death, and he remained grateful that she helped him start his career.

Betty White with her husband and her three stepchildren (from left to right), Sarah, David, and Martha

Betty White with her husband and her three stepchildren (from left to right), Sarah, David, and Martha

6. Betty White Had No Biological Children, But She Adored Her Stepchildren

Betty White was child-free by choice and devoted to her career. Her divorce with her second husband, talent agent Lane Allen, ended because he wanted her to give up acting to have children. In a 2012 interview with Katie Couric, she said "I'm so compulsive about stuff, I know if I had ever gotten pregnant, of course, that would have been my whole focus. I just don't think, as compulsive as I am, that I could manage both."

Her third husband, Allen Ludden, had three children with his first wife, who had died of cancer. At first, Betty was nervous about becoming a stepmom to teenagers David, Martha, and Sarah. There were a few hiccups between them, particularly between Martha and Betty (according to some sources Martha didn't want her father to remarry so soon after she lost her mother), but eventually Betty and her stepchildren bonded, and they began to affectionately call her "Dragon Lady." Betty stated many times in interviews that she was blessed to have them in her life.

Betty and Allen, 1972, in front of their home.

Betty and Allen, 1972, in front of their home.

7. Betty White Loved Her Third Husband To Her Last Word

It was not love at first sight when Betty White first met Allen Ludden on the set of Password, a popular, long-running game show that he was hosting and she was guest-starring on. Ludden had just lost his wife two weeks before their first meeting, and Betty was seeing World War II pilot Phil Cochran at the time.

Things changed when they starred in a theater production together a year later as husband and wife. Allen's pretend feelings became real, especially with their long kissing scenes, and eventually rather than saying hello to Betty on set he asked her to marry him. For a whole year, Allen pursued Betty relentlessly, even buying a wedding ring and wearing it on a necklace in front of her. Eventually her relationship ended, and Betty finally agreed to marry Allen when he sent her a stuffed bunny wearing earrings encrusted with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. "I'm the only woman in the world who said yes to marrying him not for the earrings, but for the stuffed bunny."

Allen's enthusiasm for her continued throughout their marriage and never faltered. He left her love notes in the most unusual places, even when they were growing older together. Under her pillow one night she found a note that said "If you can't see that I love you..." on the front, and "SQUINT!" on the inside.

Betty kept her husband's notes long after Allen Ludden died of stomach cancer, at the age of 63. The actress never wanted another partner after his death, saying that "When you've had the best, who needs the rest?". She didn't fear her own death because she knew he was waiting for her. Before she died, the last word Betty White spoke was "Allen".

© 2022 Lissa Clason

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