By Cliff Jahr
has always worshipped youth, which is one reason stars who once scored
in their own hit series can seldom do it again. As for successful
comebacks by female stars nearing sixty--it's never been done.
Until now, that is. Bea Arthur of Maude fame, and Betty White,
best known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, co-star in NBC's
surprise hit, The Golden Girls. From the sitcom's launching,
it's been one of this season's most popular new shows.
Bea will be sixty in May, and Betty allows as how she herself is "probably
a little bit older." But to see them pause for a rare breather
during their recent New York promotional tour, there's no telling
Handsomely turned out and peppy as debutantes, both women glow with
health and optimism. Dewy skin does hint of help from cosmetic surgery,
and yes, Betty had "puffs" trimmed from her eyes ("which
need doing again," she says brightly), while Bea had a second
face-lift after losing thirty pounds. But so what? They're entitled.
They've been through a lot since their sitcoms went off the air more
than six years ago.
Both lost husbands, one to cancer, one to divorce. Both failed twice
in new series, and until recently both shared nests with elderly and
disabled mothers (and as we went to press, the Journal learned
that Bea's and Betty's mothers died peacefully, within days of each
other). After surviving all that, how do they feel about the widespread
notion that for women, fifty if fatal? Riled by such nonsense, they
nearly jump up off the sofa. "That old stereotype again,"
growls Bea. "It's ridiculous! I have just as much stamina as
I ever did."
"I'm thrilled to be this age and this healthy," adds Betty.
"Why, I sleep four hours maximum. Last night, I was out discoing
at Regine's until three A.M., and I still got up at six."
"Betty looks so great," Bea teases, "because she was
professionally made up for a TV interview this morning. Oh sure, we're
over fifty, but to quote Rhett Butler [Betty joins in], 'Frankly,
my dear, I don't give a damn'". Both women laugh and clasp hands.
They are as unsinkable as the characters they play on The Golden
Girls--widows who have teamed up with a man-crazy divorcee, played
deliciously by Rue McClanahan (Bea's former neighbor in Maude).
All three, nearing sixty, share a house in Miami and are joined by
Bea's salty-tongued eighty-year-old mom, played by Estelle Getty.
Since the show shares its locale with the often violent Miami
Vice, it has been nicknamed Miami Nice. But it's not
always all that nice, at least not for the staid or the squeamish.
Subjects range from casual sex and ethnic stereotypes to hot flashes
"It's honest," explains Betty. "The show's about real
life. Probably if young girls discussed taboo subjects the way we
do, the show would be bleeped. They'd be accused of doing it for shock
value. But we four ladies have been around the Horn several times."
Taboo topics are not new to Bea Arthur. They were Maude's
stock-in-trade: women's lib, abortion, marijuana, race relations and
even, in one 1973 episode, a debate over her first face-lift. "Everybody
thought I had really had one," she says, "but not yet. It
was only makeup. I wore the Lucille Ball picker-upper, which I discovered
when we did the movie Mame together. The makeup man asked
if I wanted to wear 'lifts.' He said, "If you don't, you're going
to look thirty years older than Lucille Ball.' When Lucille saw me,
she said that I looked terrific. 'I ought to,' I told her. 'I'm wearing
lifts and I can barely move my jaw--my skin is so tight that I can't
close my eyes!"
While Betty and Bea have a lot in common, their origins differ greatly.
Bea started out as Bernice Frankel from New York City, the middle
daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Poland.
was born in New York City," she explains, "but at a very
"We were all born at a very early age," quips Betty.
"Betty, Bet--ty," moans Bea facetiously. "I give you
credit when they're funny, but--"
"No, no," pleads Betty, "it keeps my skin clear. Jokes
fester if I don't get them out. I apologize."
"We'll talk about that," mutters Bea. "Anyway, at a
very early age, my parents moved to Cambridge, Maryland. As a girl,
I wanted to be Ida Lupino--oh, I adored that little blond floozie
who got involved with bad people in roadhouse movies. But instead,
I became a lab technician, influenced, I suppose, by the medical students
Bea's destiny, however, would owe more to Ida Lupino. She returned
to New York at twenty-one to study acting and soon attracted a cult
following in theaters and nightclubs. In a dozen roles, her statuesque
height (five nine and a half), deep voice and talent for both comedy
and drama made her always the standout--never the star.
One big break came in 1964, when she appeared in Fiddler on the
Roof. Bur her role was cut drastically to favor Zero Mostel's.
She soon got a second chance, co-starring in the musical Mame,
for which she won raves. Then, in 1971, a guest appearance on All
in the Family as Edith Bunker's loudmouthed cousin Maude proved
screamingly funny, and Bea caught the eye of CBS network executives.
The result was the Norman Lear spin-off Maude, on which,
for six years, she played the well-off suburban matriarch with outspoken
liberal views. It was a role not unlike the real life she'd been living
in Bedford, New York, as a working wife and mother of two sons.
While stardom was finally hers, her twenty-nine-year marriage to director
Gene Saks came apart when Maude ended. Bea attributes the
failure of the marriage to the demands of success and a lull in Gene's
"I never dreamed success would be so difficult," sighs Bea,
inhaling deeply on a cigarette. "In a way, it emasculated Gene.
Suddenly, people chased me down the street for autographs, and there
he stood, the world's most brilliant director, unrecognized. But when
you're doing a series, there's no time to examine relationships. Your
personal life's on the back-burner."
In contrast, Betty's seventeen-year marriage to TV game-show host
Allen Ludden seldom faced career conflicts. But it, too, ended sadly
when he died almost five years ago at sixty-two. Ludden was TV's first
highbrow game show host, beginning with G.E. College Bowl
in the fifties, followed by Password in the sixties and seventies.
The two met when Betty appeared on Password, winning the
game--and the emcee.
"When he was trying to get me to marry him," she recalls,
"Allen promised, 'Someday I'll build you a house by the ocean
in Carmel.' He knew it was place I loved best. Well, halfway through
the construction we learned he had inoperable cancer. We finished
the house in a couple of years, but after eighteen months, Allen had
a stroke, and he died the next year. I don't get up to Carmel much,
but in my mind's eye, I often run away to my garden there with the
whales and the otters rolling in the surf right below."
She was born Betty Marion White in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park,
an only child, of English, Danish and Greek heritage. Her parents
moved to Southern California when Betty was still in diapers, but
her manner suggests a heartland upbringing. "Remember,"
she explains, "my parents were very Midwestern."
Starting out in radio in 1949, she switched to television two years
later. It wasn't long before her quick humor crowned her queen of
the game-show guests, and she was a TV commentator on many a Tournament
of Roses and Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
The big break came in 1973 with her role as Sue Ann Nivens, the man-eating
TV chef with a poison-apple smile, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
"They were looking for someone who could be sickeningly sweet,"
she says frankly. "The producer wanted a 'Betty White type,'
and someone asked, 'Why not get Betty White?' Mary and I were friends,
so if I flunked the audition, it would be awful. But that one-shot
lasted five years."
Since then, Betty and Bea each tried to return in a new series, but
their efforts sank without a bubble. No longer typecast, however,
they received some surprising offers. As a result of Betty's work
for animal welfare and her book, Betty White's Pet Love: How Pets
Take Care of Us (Pinnacle Books, 1985), she was offered roles
as a veterinarian.
"And I got law enforcement scripts," says Bea, bewildered.
"Me playing a uniformed patrol cop, a judge, a mayor, even a
plainclothesman's mother. Then along came Golden Girls,"
she adds, "I really didn't want to go back to work because I
was so tied up with my mother. But my agent said get off your rear
and get on with your life."
Until Golden Girls began, Bea and Betty cared full-time for
their mothers. Betty's mother, Tess, was eighty-six and mentally sharp
when she died, but she had suffered from, among other things, painful
disintegrating spinal disks.
Bea's mother, Rebecca, was eighty-five and "just the opposite,"
she notes. "Mom's body was strong, but she was totally blind,
totally deaf, totally miserable. She wanted desperately to die and
had begged me to help her, but what could I do? I'd read the Betty
Rollin book (Last Wish, Linden Press, in which Rollin tells
how she helped her cancer-stricken mother commit suicide). Unfortunately,
in this big world, euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands. When
I spoke to her doctor about it, he said no, his hands were tied, and
he got angry with me.
"This is a lady who used to do the Sunday New York Times
crossword puzzle in ink, and then she became just a shell
of nothing. I felt she was dead before she died. But I could not put
her into a nursing home, so I had round-the-clock nurses."
"I wouldn't let mine go either," adds Betty. "It was
heartbreaking, but we did still have quality time together. I'd fix
her breakfast, sit with her, give her the medication and insulin shots
every morning at seven-forty-five. You have to rotate shots, so I'd
say cheerily, 'Okay, where do you want them today? Left center finger,
right hip, or left middle tummy?' You've got to joke about it; you've
got to keep your sanity. What's the alternative? Fortunately, Mother
didn't get sick until after Allen died. I would have been torn apart
trying to care for the two people I loved most."
"Betty had really been running a convalescent home for many
years," says Bea sympathetically.
Betty smiles wanly and looks away. "And I was the only little
girl in the world who never wanted to grow up to be a nurse,"
she says, in a very tiny voice. "You know, Lucille Ball once
said, 'You're never old until your mother dies, because to her you'll
always be a little girl.'"
"Even though," continues Bea, "you finally turn into
the mother, and she the child. I'll never forget when we had to do
a musical number on the show, like from the Ziegfeld Follies, coming
down a flight of stairs. I was hysterical with fear that I would fall.
I said, 'Oh God--just get me through this one night, and I'll do anything.'
Then Betty turned and said to me, 'Listen, honey, things could be
worse.... We could be home now."
Their smiles fade.
Ironically, just four days after her mother's passing. Bea had to
rehearse the next Golden Girls script, in which her sitcom
character's mother has a heart attack. "That was pret-ty rough,"
says Bea hoarsely, "but death was a blessing, and work actually
helped me get through the next week. Then came the delayed reaction,
when I first walked into her empty bedroom--before then, I just couldn't
bring myself to do it. And that's when I wept."
Despite the recent heartache, Bea and Betty are quick to point out
that, like their mothers, they owe a lot of their joy in life to their
children. Betty raised her husband's three children from his previous
marriage. Now they're all grown, busy with careers and settled elsewhere,
but they're still close to their stepmother. Martha, thirty-five,
is studying law in Boston; David, thirty-six, has a Ph.D. and is currently
working on a book in a Philadelphia; and Sarah, thirty-three, is a
San Francisco audiologist.
"I raised them from the time they were young teens," notes
Betty, "while at the same time trying to solidify a new marriage.
For me, an only child who had never really been exposed to children,
it was an interesting experience."
Bea's two sons are following in their parent's theatrical footsteps
in New York. Matthew, twenty-four, is an actor, a graduate of the
noted Neighborhood Playhouse, and Danny, twenty-one, is studying stage
design at Sarah Lawrence College. "They showed talent from the
moment they entered this world," notes Bea proudly. "Matt's
impatient with the beginning struggles every actor goes through, and
Danny's so eager to graduate this June. He interned last summer with
[top theatrical designer] David Mitchell and was raised from fifty
dollars to four hundred dollars a week." She starts to blink
back tears, "My God, I'll start weeping if I go on about my boys."
"I get the feeling you're a little fond of them," Betty
"I cannot control my emotions," says Bea. "Say something
funny, and I'll laugh til I wet my pants; something sentimental, I'll
"I don't know about the crying," says Betty, "but there
is something about enjoying the emotion of grief. Oh, I can fool people,
but I can't--well, do you know what I mean?"
As a matter of fact, no. Betty White's public persona is puzzling;
her wicked sense of humor wears an innocent smile. Is she always this
"Oh, I have a very quick temper." She laughs, snapping her
fingers. "I can really blow. I throw things. There's a hole in
my bedroom door where I flung the car keys. I break eyeglasses, and
I have a fork at home--from my good silver--that I bent double. Somehow,
God always puts that one at my place setting. Afterward." She
adds, switching to a tone of exaggerated sincerity, "I'm so-o
sorry, you know? I figure as far as bad moods go, why take them out
on other people? You might as well try to seem cheerful, and pretty
soon you'll become cheerful."
"At the same time," counters Bea, "everyone in L.A.
says, 'Have a nice day,' and it's so phony. Ugh!"
"But here in New York," replies Betty, "you can say
something like, 'My mother is dying,' and everybody says, 'No problem.'"
The past has been bittersweet, but what about the future? Would either
woman consider remarrying? "No way," says Betty, 'thank
you very much. I had the best; there's no use in trying to top that.
I do have a dear friend, though, whom I've known for thirty-five years
and see on a regular basis, Rudy Behlmer, the film historian."
"I have some friends who are also divorced," says Bea, "and
maybe there are a couple of others I haven't yet been formally introduced
to whom I'd like to go to bed with. Why not? Ask anyone. I've always
believed in free love. I think I was the first feminist without even
knowing it. At age four, I questioned why women marry.
"Marriage makes sex respectable," Bea continues, "which
then makes it unexciting. Everybody knows that, I think, but nobody
says it. A person gets bored with the same partner, and for me, there
has to be continual change. I guess I'm still into the truck driver
thing. You know, the people you sleep with are the people you'd never
bring home to the folks.
"I don't feel there's anything lacking in my life," she
continues reflectively, "but for a year, I didn't allow myself
to think about where I was going because of the situation with my
mother, I've never had a whirlwind social life. I've always been a
recluse--staying home in the big, beautiful house we built, cooking
Chinese food, gardening and keeping three dogs. I hate makeup and
dressing up, and I always go barefoot."
She pauses to frown, then starts to smile, "Come to think of
it," she says, raising her eyebrows, "I guess I'm happy.
Because I've never been bored or unhappy in my life. Maybe I'll have
to go back to an analyst about that."