Most millennials know Betty White for her long-standing role as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls and occasional raunchy appearances on Saturday Night Live. But White, an American icon whose show-business career has spanned nearly a century, is far more than that. A pioneer for women in television, she is credited with paving the way for generations to come.
Older than sliced bread (which was invented six years after her birth on Jan. 17, 1922), White was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Ill. As a child, she wanted to become a writer, and her parents encouraged her to write stories and poems. Her accomplishments range from driving supply trucks with the American Women’s Voluntary Services during World War II, to hiring NBC’s first woman director for The Betty White Show in 1954, to being a long-time advocate for the Los Angeles humane society and the Humane Society of the United States.
As an actor and comedian, White started with a career in radio that led her to roles on popular programs including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973-1977), The Golden Girls (1985-1992), That ‘70s Show (2002-2003), and Hot in Cleveland (2010-2015).
“I originally had no idea that she started out in radio and that she was such a groundbreaking pioneer for women in early television,” Paula Bernstein, author of the recently released How to Be Golden: Lessons We Can Learn From Betty White, said when we met for coffee in the Southeast Hawthorne neighborhood. According to Bernstein, this small, bright, and entertaining book can be read in one sitting or non-chronologically at the whim of the reader.
“What interested me to write about her is the fact that everyone seems to know her name,” Bernstein said, “… they all say that they love Betty White, but not very many people know much about her or her back story.”
A lifelong New Yorker, Bernstein moved to Portland with her family seven years ago in search of a lifestyle change. “I was one of these people who was always a writer, I was always writing stories, and I later decided that I wanted to be a journalist,” said Bernstein, who got her master’s degree in cinema studies with the goal of writing about film.
Bernstein has written about the entertainment industry for publications including Fortune, Filmmaker Magazine, and Variety, and chronicled The Mary Tyler Moore Show in her 2020 release Love Is All Around. After learning that White is the show’s last-surviving major cast member, Bernstein decided to embark on How to Be Golden, which aims to offer a feminist perspective on a household name.
Although never directly referring to herself as a feminist, White paved the way for women leaders in television production by hiring women producers and directors whenever possible.
Profiling a celebrity whose career has spanned many decades comes down to doing research and being unafraid to add the necessary element of whimsy, Bernstein said. To include a fun element, Bernstein created mini-quizzes about White in most chapters, mimicking the magazine quizzes Bernstein loved taking as a child and the BuzzFeed quizzes that infiltrate today’s social media.
“In a way, 2020 was such an odd year to be writing an inspirational, upbeat book, but ultimately, I think it’s good timing in that we can all use some smiles,” Bernstein said.
“At a time when nobody can agree on anything, particularly politically,” she added, “I feel that Betty White is one of those ‘protected’ celebrities that we can all mostly agree is awesome. Her comedy was never overtly political, but she made decisions that were political in her personal actions.”
What Bernstein really admires about White, and what she thinks young women can learn from her, is “fake it till you make it.”
“Put yourself out there,” Bernstein said. “Don’t shy away from opportunity, always try new things, and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Betty never let a setback bring her down.”