I met Betty White twice. The first time was at a restaurant in Monterey, Calif. on October 12, 1997. I remember the day it happened because it was the day John Denver died in a plane crash nearby.
I was there with my ex, and the restaurant was pretty empty. Betty was there and seemed approachable, so I felt it was okay to go over and tell her how much I loved her. When I arrived at her table, she looked up at me with those sparkling eyes, and cooed, “Well, hello, handsome.”
The next time I met her was at the 34th Daytime Emmys Awards on June 15, 2007. I was working for Kmart, and they were sponsoring the Green Room, so they sent me and my team out to manage it. While I hob-knobbed with many stars that evening, when Betty walked in, I made a beeline to her. “Hi Betty, I’m John Casey with Kmart, welcome to the Green Room,” I said rather excitedly.
Just like the previous time we crossed paths, Betty replied, “My, aren’t you the handsome one.”
“You said that the last time we met ten years ago,” I shot back. Without missing a beat, Betty replied, “Well, you haven’t changed a bit.”
I never considered myself handsome, but Betty made me feel like I was. She also made me feel special. I think those attributes carried through on her television appearances, the situation comedies she starred in, and in her daily manner. If there was something about Mary Tyler Moore, there surely was something about Betty White. She was magnetic.
As a writer, we often adhere to the practice of referring to the subject’s last name when crafting an article or a column. For example, I would lead with Betty White, and then thereafter refer to her as “White,” as in “White replied, or White cooed.” But that seems so impersonal to someone who was so personable. She’s simply Betty to so many.
As gay men, particularly older gay men, we sure did have a soft spot for Betty. Almost certainly, she began to attract gay men as followers while she was playing the brassy Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Betty played the happy homemaker on the fictitious WJM television station in Minneapolis, where the show took place.
But “off-camera,” Sue Ann’s character was feisty, flirtatious, and horny, and she made no secret about it. She was head over heels for her boss, Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner who also died this year). Sue Ann’s character could easily have been a gay man, like a Jack McFarland from Will & Grace. There weren’t any secrets with Sue Ann. She held nothing back and all her comments were double entendres. If you were a man – handsome or otherwise – Sue Ann was outrageously coquettish. She won two Emmys for playing Sue Ann.
But I think there was another reason that gay men loved and admired her. The love of her life, Allen Ludden, died in the early 1980s. He hosted the game show Password, where she was a frequent, hilarious participant. It was during these years that so many of us lost the loves of our lives to AIDS. We could relate to Betty, and she could relate to us. She was a strong supporter of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other LGBTQ+ organizations including GLAAD. I think Betty knew all too well what it was like to lose the man of your dreams, and she understood the strength and difficulty to carry on.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Betty’s next character, Rose Nyland, on The Golden Girls, had a brush with HIV. The show, titled “72 Hours,” centered on Rose after she learns that a blood transfusion she received may have exposed her to HIV. After taking an HIV test, Rose had to wait 72 hours for the test results. The message of the show was that HIV and AIDS had the potential to affect anyone, not just the LGBTQ+ community.
Long before Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha, there was Rose and Dorothy, Blanche and Sophia. Cliques of gay men in the late ‘80s, when the show aired, blissfully assigned themselves one of the characters from The Golden Girls. If you were brazen you were Dorothy, horny you were Blanche, curt and crass you were Sophia, and sweet and innocent you were Rose.
That show continues to enthrall gay men, and I venture to guess when the show premiered on Hulu in 2017, a majority of people who were downloading the reruns were gay men. And while we lost Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur years ago, Betty stuck around and continued to work, radiating and mesmerizing us. Betty was a survivor, like most of us.
It took a Snickers commercial during the Super Bowl in 2010 to put her back on the map. The only reason I watched Hot in Cleveland was because of Betty. I couldn’t get enough of her, and I was one of the many who petitioned Saturday Night Live to have Betty host the show. She lives on as one of the most enduring hosts in the show’s history. Betty never disappointed.
Betty died Friday, just a few weeks before her 100th birthday. I was rooting for her to blow past it, and somehow, maybe miraculously, return to television in some fashion. Yet, just like she teased me with her handsome comments, she teased us about turning 100.
Just three days ago, on her Instagram (Of course I follow Betty!), she posted the cover of the upcoming People magazine with the headline, “Betty White Turns 100!” The post said, “My 100th birthday…I cannot believe it is coming up…”
I can't believe she didn't make it. I thought she would go on forever. I think we all feel that way. But Betty leaves behind so many fantastic characters and memories that her talent, impeccable comedic timing, and uniqueness will live on forever. We were so lucky that we had her for so long.
How much I would give to run into Betty one more time, and have her tell me I’m handsome. And I would respond this time by returning the compliment, “Betty, you’re so beautiful, and God broke the mold when he made you.”