Betty White has been gracing our television screens for nearly a century in groundbreaking shows like The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her career hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however, and Portland author Paula Bernstein thinks we can learn from these moments of wisdom.
Bernstein spent a year putting together a collection of White’s best advice, life experiences, and anecdotes from her many characters into one book—How to Be Golden, out October 5—so we can all read and learn something from everyone's favorite ditsy Golden Girl.
We talked to Bernstein about her book and asked what about Betty White keeps us coming back for more. Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Portland Monthly: So, why Betty White? Why write a book about her?
Paula Bernstein: Well, I had actually just finished my previous book, Love is all Around, which was about the 50th anniversary of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That was sort of a sweet look back at that show, which was really groundbreaking. And Betty White, of course, became really a breakout star of that show…. I was really inspired by the fact that she really has been working from the time she was a baby. So, I admired her work ethic, but really, I was just curious.
Do you remember when she first grabbed your attention?
When I discovered her, I guess, was most primarily through The Golden Girls. I mean, I was familiar with The Mary Tyler Moore Show…. I had always admired her, but I really didn’t know that half of it. You know, I had no idea that she had been this groundbreaking woman in her days of radio, and then early experimental TV. I think that’s another reason everyone loves her—because she has been here forever.
What makes her stand apart from other actresses?
It’s rare to get someone in their '80s who is still not just performing but is thriving, and probably more famous than ever. In her '80s I think she did become more famous, and then now I feel like she’s almost in a protected category of people.
What do you admire the most about her?
I really admire that she didn’t always hold out for the precious, perfect roles. She just dove headfirst into whatever opportunity came her way. And now, it’s easy to look and say, ‘Oh, well, she had a successful career, of course, so she kept on going.’ But in fact, if you read the book, you know she had a lot of disappointing situations. I mean, countless shows that she was in did not hit and were canceled.
What do you think is the number one thing or multiple things that we should take away from her career or her life?
I feel like she’s had a knack for making the most of an opportunity, but also not letting a setback slow her down. And, again, some of that is her sense of humor and the ability to laugh at herself. So I think that’s one of the reasons we love her and appreciate watching her is that she does have such a sense of humor about herself and isn’t afraid to sort of mock this character of Betty White that she has created.
Do you have a favorite of her many characters?
Oh, it’s so hard! I know Sue Ann [from The Mary Tyler Moore Show] is so deliciously devious, it’s hilarious… But ultimately I think it’s Rose. I love Rose. She’s just so sweet and sentimental, but she is also surprisingly smart. And you know, surprises people. I think she’s sort of a little bit of a space case, but then she’ll come around just when you need her to stand up for something, and she’ll be really reliable. She’s a good friend.
What makes your book stand out from other books written about her?
It’s not an official biography, it’s really part biography and part a funny, humorous self-help book. I don’t think anyone’s going to literally study this for life advice for how they are going to be golden. But I do think that hopefully in reading this, people will learn a lot more about her and then also maybe just take some of that humor and attitude and sass. I’m just looking to, especially during this difficult time, make people laugh, and maybe tip them off on some shows they should check out, or some movies.
Who would you recommend this book to? Who do you think would benefit the most from reading this?
As you know, younger people have really discovered Betty White as well. And I think they would be fascinated reading about her early days. But it’s not like a dense history book or something. It’s really a light, fun book that hopefully anyone can enjoy, like, sitting in the bathroom, reading in the bath or something.