Like Rose Nylund, her perennially sunny Golden Girls character, Betty White’s positive outlook and can-do spirit have always been essential parts of her personality. “She’s truly a Mid-westerner,” observed her former Hot in Cleveland co-star Wendie Malick. “She’s still the girl from Oak Park, IL, who was taught to take care of herself, show up on time and do it with the best attitude.”
Throughout her 70-plus years in showbiz, Betty has lost none of that cheerful enthusiasm, which she says she inherited from her parents, Tess, a homemaker, and Horace, an electrical engineer. “I did a magnificent job of choosing a mother and father,” says this only child, who was born exactly 11 months after her parents wed. “They didn’t seem to hold it against me,” she joked. “They were fun and we would laugh a lot.”
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Horace and Tess doted on their daughter and from an early age included her in their grown-up talk around the dinner table — a practice Betty says helped develop her wit. “There wasn’t a straight man in the house. My dad would always ask me how things were at school and somehow, we’d get into silliness and fun,” she recalled. “I think those [conversations] went a long way on teaching me how to appreciate the positives as opposed to the negatives.”
Her upbringing in Illinois and California — where her parents moved to seek better opportunities when Betty 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. “The guide would take the horses out and leave us there. We wouldn’t see anybody for three weeks,” said Betty, whose earliest ambition was to become a park ranger. Her parents “were directly responsible for my passion for nature in general and animals in particular,” noted the actress. “We wound up with 26 dogs once.”
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!” Although Betty was not destined to star in La Traviata, she never stopped reaching for the stars. In grade school, she began creating skits and stories. “My [next] big ambition was to be a writer,” she said. “I wrote the graduation play at Horace Mann Grammar School in Beverly Hills. And, of course, as any red-blooded American girl would do, I wrote myself into the lead.”
Appearing on a public stage for the first time and hearing the applause of the audience gave Betty’s ambition a new focus. “That’s where the ham in me first showed,” she said. “I could hardly wait to foist myself on a panting public.” Betty graduated high school in 1939 — she sang “Spirit Flower” at the commencement exercises — and started knocking on Hollywood studio doors, only to discover that she wasn’t wanted. Being told that she was too “unphotogenic” for motion pictures might have crushed another woman’s dreams, but not Betty’s. She turned her attention to the new medium of television and made her debut on an experimental broadcast from the Packard automobile showroom in LA shortly after receiving her high school diploma.
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“I wore my graduation dress, and our Beverly Hills High student body president Harry Bennett and I danced the ‘Merry Widow Waltz,’” she recalled. “The show may have been less than enchanting, but for this young merry widow, it was totally exciting.” Unfortunately, World War II arrived and put Betty’s aspirations on hold as she donned a uniform and joined in the war effort with the American Women’s Voluntary Services. “I drove a PX truck carrying toothpaste, soap, and candy to the various gun emplacement out ts that had been set up in the hills of Hollywood and Santa Monica,” said Betty. In the evening, she would attend recreational gatherings of the GIs stationed in California. “We would dance or play games or simply talk with the young men who were so far from home,” she said, calling those times “the age of innocence.” Along the way, Betty found herself falling in love with a handsome military pilot named Dick Barker.
The couple married in 1945 when Betty was 23 and moved to Dick’s home in Ohio. “Oh, it was a nightmare,” admitted Betty, 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 [hus- band] because we wanted to sleep together,” she confided, joking that “it lasted six months, and we were in bed for six months!”
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Betty didn’t give up on love — or making it as an actress — but her heart was broken again when she was forced to choose between the two. At 27, she wed actor-turned-talent agent Lane Allen, who yearned for a traditional wife and a family. “With Lane, it was my failure to live up to the kind of wife he wanted to have,” Betty 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 not to have children. In those days, people didn’t understand that as much as they do now.”
Divorced for the second time, Betty moved back in with her parents, feeling like an utter failure but still clinging to her hope of doing something extraordinary with her life. “Show business of some sort was my objective,” noted the eternal optimist. “Even then it never crossed my mind to seek my fortune in any other eld.” And her many fans are so glad she didn’t.
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