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.