On the set of Hot in Cleveland, someone walked up to Betty White with a complaint. “She said, ‘You know what I hate?’ And Betty said, ‘No, I really don’t care to know.’ Not in a mean way,” explains series alum Wendie Malick to Closer. “But in a way to let you know, ‘Don’t come and dump your dark[ness] on me.”

Throughout her life and career, Betty always tried to walk on the sunny side of the street — and it was not an act. “She never had high or low days, she always had Betty White days,” says Dan Watt, a former personal assistant to her Golden Girls costar Bea Arthur. “She was always a sweetheart.”

The beloved showbiz veteran’s cheerful, outgoing disposition rarely wavered, even in the most difficult of times. And Betty, who died in 2021 at age 99, quietly survived quite a few heartbreaks. “Betty was private with her private life,” her close friend Patty Sullivan, author of Betty White’s Pearls of Wisdom, explains.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1922 and raised in California, Betty was an only child who had a close relationship with her parents, Tess and Horace. The family took vacations together in the Sierra Nevada mountains every summer. “They camped for a month or two at a time. It wasn’t a first-class experience; they went on horses,” says Patty. But these early adventures in nature would make Betty a life-long animal lover and a passionate conservationist.

After graduating high school, she began working as a singer and actress on the new medium of TV. Her mom, Tess, remained by her side, cheering her on. “Tess was part of a group of ladies whose daughters and sons were beginning in show business,” Patty says. “From what I gather, she wasn’t afraid of anything. Betty often referred to her as the most amazing woman she had ever known.”

Likewise, Betty had strength that belied her youth. This television pioneer, who became the star of The Betty White Show in 1952, weathered two brief marriages as a young woman and made the decision early on not be become a mother. “She was a professional woman,” explains Patty. “I think Betty thought she would never be good as a mother. All her mothering went to her animals.”

Resigned to the single life, Betty never expected to fall madly in love with Password host Allen Ludden. The widowed TV host proposed twice over several years before Betty finally married him in 1963. “They were a couple with light around them,” says Patty. “And I just think he was dazzled by her.”

Carmel, California, would become the pair’s special place, where with the help of Betty’s earnings playing Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they built a dream home. She spent some of her happiest times with her husband planning it. “Allen designed all of the gardens in the backyard,” says Patty.

Sadly, the couple would spend only one night together in the Carmel house before Allen died of stomach cancer at age 63 in 1981. Betty’s mother, Tess, for whom Betty had designed a full-floor suite, died three years later. “To lose both of her best friends had to have been a really difficult time. She spent a lot of time alone in the Carmel house, walking the beaches and trying to pull herself together,” Patty says. “But she was of that generation that was resilient.”

She never remarried, but Betty didn’t lack company after Allen’s passing. “She had a regular group of poker friends, and they played at least once a month,” says Patty. “Betty was a fierce competitor. She also played a lot of gin rummy

Those rumors about Betty’s love for vodka, hot dogs and a party are true, too. “Her favorite drink was vodka on the rocks with a twist lemon, so the only condiment was lemon,” says Patty, adding that Betty also ate her hot dogs “naked” in just a bun. “She never liked condiments. The same goes for salads. She never liked dressing.”

Betty became a patron of the L.A. Zoo when it first opened and was one of its biggest boosters. One of her last wishes was that their conservation efforts continue far into the future. “I was very, very lucky that Betty would take me to the zoo a lot. We would go at 5:30 in the morning before it opened,” recalls Dan. “We’d ride on a golf cart and she’d go feed her animals. She called them her kids.”

In her last decade, Betty remained cheerful and despite mobility issues, refused to move her bedroom downstairs. “She was determined to keep her legs strong, to keep her wits about her,” says Patty, who adds that she misses Betty’s jokes and laughter the most. “She taught me a lot about growing older. A big part of it is determination.”