Written By: Richard Jerome
The following is from LIFE’s special tribute issue Betty White: The Illustrated Biography. (For more see also PEOPLE’s special edition, Betty White At 100, available here.)
What was it about Betty White?
Some perspective: When White, who died on Dec. 31, 2021, eighteen days shy of her hundredth birthday, made her first entrance almost a century ago, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were alive, Lindbergh’s flight to Paris was several years away—and so were talking pictures, The Great Gatsby and penicillin. Babe Ruth had just hit his prime, the divine Sarah Bernhardt graced European stages and Impressionist master Claude Monet was still turning out water lilies.
White’s own career, meanwhile, would last more than 80 years, longer than the average American life expectancy, the show business equivalent of several geological epochs. She broke in with the dawn of television—in 1939, the year RCA introduced the technology at the World’s Fair, hyping its potential to foster the “unification of the life of the nation.” Through all the turbulent decades to come, White would endure, defying the odds of a brutally capricious industry in which even bona fide stars shine brilliantly for a few years, then burn out, fade away and cash their residual checks.
But Betty White never left us; never made anyone’s “Where Are They Now?” issue or “You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today!” listicle. She was always there—present, accounted for and active, usually in front of a camera and eventually on the Web. And she did more than simply survive. Other icons have stuck around the pop culture landscape so long they came to be viewed as creaky relics—think of Bob Hope, whose interminable twilight made it hard imagine that he was an edgy and immensely influential comic in his day.
That’s the thing: It was always Betty White’s day—sunny and hot, in Cleveland and points beyond. By some miraculous alchemy she managed to remain popular—au courant, at times even outré, winning hearts and minds up and down America’s family tree, from the Greatest Generation to Gens X, Y and Z. White’s earliest fans could huddle up in front of the tube with their great-grandkids (or was it great-great?) and share a laugh—never at Betty, always with her. Most often the trigger was White’s comic trademark, the bawdy line—or sometimes scathing putdown—delivered with your mom’s smile and a cobra’s timing.
While her appeal may be universal, each age demographic does have its own Betty White. For the over-70 set, it may be Ike-Age Betty of the fabulous ’50s. That’s when she starred in (and produced) the sitcom Life With Elizabeth and pitched innumerable products as a go-to commercial spokeswoman. (Who else could sell Geritol at 32?) Boomers know White as the quippy game-show queen and talk-show guest—and of course for her Emmy-winning turn from 1970–77 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Sue Ann Nivens, the saccharine “Happy Homemaker,” who was a sexually ravenous harpy off camera.
The ’80s and ’90s brought The Golden Girls’ sweetly ingenuous Rose, the role and show that may first define her, and then the 21st century delivered a trove of new delights—caustic Elka on Hot in Cleveland; droll cameos on sitcoms, in Super Bowl spots and Funny or Die videos; hosting Saturday Night Live—after a national Internet campaign on her behalf. Google her and you’ll find sites like “Why We Love Betty White” and “30 Reasons Why Betty White is the Greatest Person Ever.”
So, what was it about Betty White? What was the secret sauce—or perhaps it was a love potion—behind her undimmed awesomeness. Perhaps the answer is something like Louis Armstrong’s reply to the question What is jazz?: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But to hazard a guess, the source of her sorcery may simply lie in what can only be described as her quality of Betty Whiteness. First, that heart-shaped face, all chiseled cheeks and deep dimples. The Pepsodent smile, the turned-down nose and those eyes—sparkling, of course, but always with the puckish glint of someone who knows something we don’t. Then the voice—warm, merry and quintessentially American, like a heartland good morning. What you saw and heard was what you got, by all accounts. White lived 10 decades in this unforgiving world, conveying relentless good cheer all the way. That indomitable spirit sustained her through the devastating loss of her life’s love—third husband Allen Ludden, the popular game-show host. He died when White was not yet 60, four years before The Golden Girls began. “You can’t become a professional mourner,” White advised. “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.”
Of course, White also said things like “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” She was earthy and ribald to the end, a gingerbread cookie spiked with tequila, and somehow even though we knew it was coming, we were always surprised. The racy old lady is a stock comic character, but White defied the stereotype—her risqué zingers weren’t for incongruous effect or Mae Westian camp. She was genuinely, unabashedly sexual—with #nofilter.
That was one of her most valuable contributions. Aging can be a terrifying prospect, and ageism is epidemic in American society. If you’re over 50 you’re dead wood in many quarters, even invisible (except to AARP, which won’t leave you alone). Seniors, the elderly, people of “a certain age”—whatever you call them, they’re often treated as second-class citizens, diminished in ways large and small—subject to microaggressions, to use a current term of art. In a youth-obsessed culture, being called “old” is an insult. There’s the eye roll of millennial contempt; still worse may be the well-meaning condescension. Think of those cell-phone commercials that suggest retirees are too dim to handle technology. And of course, they’re post-sexual. How many of us, when young, saw an older couple hold hands or kiss, and thought, Aww, aren’t they cute? Reducing them, as it were, to puppies or kittens?
Betty White wasn’t cute, at least not in that way. And she was always in her prime. She may have logged more years than some Monets last on museum walls, but like the Frenchman’s garden landscapes, she remained forever fresh and radiant. And she never got old.
Here are a sampling of photos from LIFE’s special tribute issue Betty White: The Illustrated Biography. (For more see also PEOPLE’s special edition, Betty White At 100, available here.)