Actress Betty White on success, hard work, and making the best of what you have, in the words of her mom
“My daughter, Betty White.” Those would be proud words for any mother, but I’m especially proud — because of what I know about Betty.
From the February 1954 TV Radio Mirror article, “Life with Betty: My Daughter, Betty White” – by Mrs Tess White
My daughter, Betty White, has a philosophy of life which grew out of a series of hard knocks. In the ten years that she has been climbing up the slim rope of success in the entertainment industry, she has frequently slipped, but she has never given up trying.
The philosophy which has sprung from these struggles? She says it in just five words: “I don’t believe in defeat.”
Betty learned this lesson very early in her career; she was only two when we moved from Oak Park, Illinois, to California. She went to Horace Mann Junior High School here in Los Angeles, and then to Beverly Hills High School — and in all these years she hoped someday to grow up to be an operatic singer.
Betty worked hard for what she called the “big voice.” Rather than go on to college when she finished high school, she decided to continue her study of music, concentrating on her singing career.
She had every reason to do so. She did have the raw material of a good voice; it was developing well; and she had the encouragement of her teacher, Felix Hughes, the brother of the writer, Rupert Hughes, and himself once a well-known opera singer. So, with all this behind her, Betty looked forward to a lifetime dream come true: a successful career on the opera stage.
Then fate stepped in. Betty was stricken with a strep throat. It was no ordinary infection; rather, it was very much like a siege, a six-weeks’ battle for Betty’s life. She was bedridden for almost two months, during which time the fever — fought with the then-new sulfa drugs — gradually waned.
But, when the fever left her, it took the best part of her voice along with it. During the weeks Betty was recouping her strength, she was able only to smile and croak, “Hello.”
Yes, she was a discouraged little girl. But I think it was right then that she decided not to be beaten. True, she had lost everything she had dreamed about, worked toward for years, but she didn’t give up. In fact, she told me one day: “Mother,” she said, “you know, things aren’t so black after all.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “it seems obvious to me. I’ve lost my voice. Everything I’ve planned on is down the drain. Now there’s only one way for my luck to go. It can’t get any worse — that means it has to get better!”
Making her next steps with gratitude
And Betty really felt fortunate. She thought her situation quite encouraging. She reasoned that there was only one way she could go now — and that was up.
She decided that, if she couldn’t do the “big” things, she would do the best with the tools she had. Though her father and I thought she was still spending her afternoons rebuilding her voice with Mr. Hughes, when she was well enough to be up and about, we eventually found to our surprise that she was out pounding the pavement. She was going from agent to agent, trying to find a job suited to her talents.
Her perseverance paid off. She finally got a one-line bit in a radio commercial, through a Mr. Van Heidensfelt. He was with an agency, and Betty, I think, looked a little pathetic and desperate. She certainly didn’t need the job, for she always had a home — but she did want the break she thought the commercial job would give her.
I forget what the exact payment was. Something like twenty-five dollars — and it cost her father thirty-nine-fifty to have her join the federation of radio and TV artists!
So Betty was never an opera singer. After the first disappointment of her illness, she marshaled her courage and reorganized her plan of life. If she couldn’t sing, she’d talk. And that’s how she launched her career — with that first radio commercial and with many others that followed.
It wasn’t long before Betty was doing a regular part on The Great Gildersleeve, then regular parts on several radio shows, and, finally, television came into the picture.
Betty has won some personal bonuses from her philosophy of life. “I don’t believe in defeat” has taught her something of both courage and faith.
There was the time, for example, even after she had started in radio, when her progress seemed stymied. She just wasn’t getting ahead.
But she felt, inside of herself — or, rather, she knew deep inside of her — that making people happy with entertainment was for her, and in this she had faith. This faith carried her through a bleak period which followed her original radio success.
But, during this time, she didn’t complain. Instead, she told me one day how she felt: “Mom,” she said, “anybody can keep going when the going is good, but the secret is to hang on when everything seems to be going against you.”
How faith paid off for Betty White
I think Betty’s first job in television illustrates how faith pays off. Because she knew in her heart that entertaining was for her, she was willing to do anything to keep herself going — even working for nothing. This she did, one day on Joe Landis’ early variety show.
Where fate had previously stolen her voice, it stepped in again with this first job. Mr. Landis had a long list of singers and possibilities to call on for his show.
But, by pure chance, not one of them was able to show up! Betty’s name was the last on the list — and, just one hour before showtime, she got the call. She went on, did the song and, on the strength of it, was signed to do a song spot on another show, Wes Battersea’s Grab Your Phone.
But this didn’t last long, either. I think that, psychologically, this was Betty’s low point. She had been trying desperately to break into TV — those two nibbles had encouraged and then disappointed her — and pounding the pavement from one agent’s door to another had resulted in only “no work” news.
She came in, on the day we call “the very discouraged Thursday,” nearly defeated, saying: “Oh, Mom. I just don’t know, any more . . . am I beat or am I beat?”
“What do you think?” I said. “Have you forgotten so soon what you told me about hanging on?”
“No,” she said, “I haven’t forgotten!” She sat up and, proceeding to pull herself out of it, said: “Yup! I will just go out again tomorrow. I still feel it: I just know there must be something!”
At that very instant, the phone rang. It was Al Jarvis. She had known him briefly on the KLAC lot — they had been introduced, but that’s all.
“I’ve seen you on the ‘Grab Your Phone’ show,” he said. “How would you like to try out for a television show I’m starting?”
“Fine,” said Betty, thinking it was for one time only.
“Tell me,” asked Mr. Jarvis, “Can you sing? Dance? Are you willing to do the commercials?”
Betty, stretching it a bit, bravely said “Yes” to everything. Then, hanging up the phone, she reported: “Mother, I think I’ve got a job for Monday!” Monday she went in to discover that her job was to run five hours a day, six days a week!
That was Betty’s real beginning. At first, she was only to answer the phone on Mr. Jarvis’ show, as she had on “Grab Your Phone.” But the job grew to helping with the commercials, then “setting up” the commercials — then interviewing the guests.
I remember an incident that happened last year, which illustrates Betty’s enthusiasm, her optimism, her “don’t believe in defeat” attitude. Betty and her orchestra leader, Frank DeVol, were both candidates in the race for Honorary Mayor of Hollywood.
Selection of the Mayor was part of an annual Kiwanis campaign to raise money for underprivileged and needy children. All of Hollywood — in fact, everyone — can vote, the votes costing ten cents each, the money going into the Kiwanis Children’s Fund.
I remember that, at a luncheon honoring the “mayoral candidates” (Betty, Frank DeVol, Lawrence Welk, Tennessee Ernie, Jack Bailey, and others), there were a number of long Kiwanian faces. Though it was early in the race, there had been such a scant number of ten-cent votes counted that their $3,000 goal looked mighty distant.
But Betty didn’t lose her enthusiasm. In fact, knowing that things looked rough, she was more determined than ever to make the campaign a success. Then, at the luncheon, she and Frank DeVol were thrown into an ad-lib skit together — as one mind, it seemed, they began making jokes of the financial situation. Before the luncheon was over, their enthusiasm had spread to all the club members.
No, neither Betty nor Frank DeVol won the title — at that time (though Betty did win this year’s campaign). Jack Bailey, of Queen For A Day, was elected. But the enthusiasm with which all the “mayors” campaigned did make the original $3,000 figure look pale and wan — all together, they raised $10,000!
And, the day after the luncheon, Betty went up to her producers, Don Fedderson and George Tibbies, saying: “That Frank DeVol is a funny man — if he can make the Kiwanians laugh in such a situation, he should be able to make other folks laugh, too. And we work like a charm together. We really ought to find a situation for him on Life With Elizabeth.” And that’s how Frank came to that show.
But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. We were still talking about Al Jarvis and Betty’s first success. You know, Betty has always been first to give credit for this success to Mr. Jarvis. Al gave her a schooling she will never forget. And it’s fared her well, believe me.
Jt>y now, it seems that everything in Betty’s career since her first introduction to TV on the Jarvis show is almost anti-climactic. From that beginning, she just seemed to grow. The next big break came when Betty was offered her own program on KLAC, here in Los Angeles.
Mr. Don Fedderson, then station manager, had watched Betty take hold of the show, after Mr. Jarvis had gone to another station. When he saw that she was so at home, so successful, he just upped and told her one day: “Betty, from now on we’re going to call this The Betty White Show!”
Then Betty started doing a little three-minute spot at night. It was Betty’s brainchild, called Alvin And Elizabeth, and it, too, soon grew to five minutes — then more. There were no written sketches, just some things that Betty dreamed up.
She finally ran out of ideas and hired George Tibbies to write material for it — but, by then, it was a weekly one-hour show. It was later chopped down to a half-hour of just plain “Life With Elizabeth.” This was the show which won her the 1952 Emmy as the most outstanding personality in TV.
And this year, of course, “Life With Elizabeth” won her Billboard magazine awards. She was so surprised! Last year, Lucy and Jack Webb were the two big winners, with Imogene Coca running a close second. It was something Betty always liked to read about as happening to others, but she never dreamed she was under consideration.
So it came like a bolt from the blue, when she read that she had been voted two top awards: “the best actress in any syndicated program” and “best comedy actress.” Jack Webb won again this year, too, and Loretta Young won as the best network actress.
But not all of Betty’s life since television has been smooth as cream. She has had to work hard for her success.
Her schedule is demanding. She has been so physically tired at times that she was ready to drop. And we’ve had some emotional problems here in the house, in her private life, that have knocked the props out from under her, too.
You know, Betty’s pets play such an important part in her life, and one night we had a tragedy — Betty’s Pekingese was taken sick and, in the middle of the night, she took him to the vet’s. We had had him for many years, but his time had come, and we lost him. Of course, Betty cried the rest of the night.
Well, some people may scoff. They may think you do not get attached to dogs. But I know better. They are just like children to us. They always become such an important part of our house.
Betty, you know, is an only child. And, ever since she was a baby, we’ve had puppies for her to play with. We hoped they would help take the place of the brothers and sisters she couldn’t have — because an auto accident took that possibility away from me shortly after her birth.
It’s for this reason we’ve always had dogs to help fill the house. And that’s why, when we lose one, it’s such a great tragedy.
Betty says that it’s “a vacant place to fill.” She has made it a policy always to fill that emptiness with a new puppy. She says it doesn’t take the same place in your heart the other dog had, but it helps fill up the hurt — and then you get so preoccupied watching the new little puppy in its antics, you fall in love all over again.
The point is that, the night our little Peke died, Betty was prostrated. She cried all night — the very night before she was to make her first and most important film for “Life With Elizabeth.” Up until then, she had been a West Coast personality — but, the next morning, she was to make the appearance which would introduce her across the nation.
Believe me, that day she had to reach down into her faith to put on a smile, to be cheery in front of the camera. But she never said, “Why did this have to happen to me?” She didn’t complain. Rather, as she wiped the tears and went out the door, she said:
“It hurts, Mother. But I guess I’m not the only one in the world with pain. There must be millions who are far worse off today than we are. . . .”
And that statement illustrates the last point in Betty’s philosophy of life: Courage — courage in the face of obstacles. She did not cover herself with self-pity; she did not take the attitude that she was in a situation in which nobody had ever been before. She smiled, went to work, hoping she could bring happiness into someone else’s life.
The way I have been telling this makes it sound like I’m bragging about Betty. Of course, a mother would sound that way, but I don’t mean to make Betty sound noble — she’s nothing of the sort. She’s just a regular gal who’s learned, the hard way, that — when the going gets rough — faith supplies “staying power.”
She’s learned from experience that she’s never alone with her problems — other people have suffered before and won out, probably in the exact situations she found herself in. And these experiences have given her the courage never to believe in defeat.