Betty White: My Favorite Mistake

Betty White in 2009. Lawrence Ho / Los Angeles Times-Contour by Getty Images

Interview by Marlow Stern

I've had two bad marriages, and I don't like to think of them as good mistakes. They were traumatizing to go through. You really feel like a failure when your marriage doesn't work. But they did make me appreciate it when the perfect one came along.

Back in those days—I'm pushing 90—you didn't sleep with a fella unless you married him. It was during World War II and I met this P-38 pilot, which was terribly romantic, and we were going to live just up the coast from Los Angeles. He didn't tell me he got mustered out, so instead of going up to our apartment in Santa Maria, we had to drive to Belle Center, Ohio, a town of 800 people. Belle Center was a chicken farm. We were living with his mom and dad, and they would send me out to kill a chicken to bring it in for dinner. I said, "No way!" That was a real trauma because I'm such an animal nut. I couldn't hack it, so I split and came back to California. We were married eight months, and it was a very bad mistake early on.

Then I met a wonderful man, Lane Allen. He was a theatrical agent, and we had a couple of very good years. But he wanted me to stop working. He didn't want me to be in show business. When you have a calling you have to follow it, so I made the choice, blew the marriage, and I've never regretted it.

Because of the two divorces, I felt like such a failure. I have a tendency to take everything as my fault, and I kept kicking myself for agreeing to marry them. Then I met Allen Ludden. He was enthusiastic about everything. He was intellectually wonderful. He was silly. He was romantic. He knew how to court a lady. Eventually, he wouldn't even say hello—he'd say, "Will you marry me?" And I'd say, "No way!" He was hosting the game show Password in New York and I was living in California, and I said, "No way will I get married again." I kept saying no for a year. Finally, Easter came along. He sent me a white stuffed bunny with diamond earrings clipped to its ears and a card that said, "Please Say Yes?" So when I answered the phone that night, I didn't say hello, I just said, "Yes." Even long after we were married, he'd call me up during the day and ask me out on a date. He'd barbecue a chicken. We'd have a glass of wine, put on a stack of records, and dance. Now, that's silly for an old married couple—and a far cry from my first marriage, in terms of chickens—but it worked.