Pals and Confidants: The Golden Girls in (Mostly) Their Own Words

Writers write. Sometimes, actors also write. Sometimes, actors should just stick to acting. But some other times, when actors write, they allow us a look inside their personalities and processes which engenders an even better understanding of their acting work, a nice seasoning that enhances the flavor of the main dish. And at still other times, their silence speaks volumes.

People are pretty much always going to want to know more about their favorite actors, what they’re really like as people. When a group dynamic is introduced, public curiosity seems to heighten—people want to know not only about the actors’ individual lives, but if they get along as well off-screen as they do on. I’ll be the first to admit that public curiosity is not currently at its height concerning my chosen subject, the cast of The Golden Girls. Indeed, on first blush, my love for this show would make more sense if I were a menopausal woman (which, sadly, I am not). But aside from any personal maternal-TV crushes (which also apply to Roseanne Barr and Phylicia Rashād), The Golden Girls to me represents the last of the golden-age of the sitcom, showcasing the talents of a cast who helped build TV comedy and gave us one last hurrah with this traditional format before The Simpsons came along and began rewriting all the rules.

America’s current love affair with Betty White only reinforces this theory. White is a regular workhorse, not only being a constant television presence since the invention of the medium, but also the author of several books. And though her post-Golden Girls profile was not too high until that well-fated Super Bowl commercial a couple years back, White is regarded by many in this country as a national treasure, as the sweet yet sly grandmother we all wish we had one more of. And her writing does nothing to counter that at all.

Betty White is easily the most prolific writer of the cast, to date having published six books. Half of those are dedicated to her life-long love of and work with animals; the other three are more personal, though really, her love for the animal kingdom is so deep and abiding that one is inclined to think of books like Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo as being her true memoirs.

Regardless, for this piece, I read two of White’s books about her life in, on, and around TV: 1987’s Betty White In Person and 2011’s If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t). White claims in both that writing is her absolute favorite thing to do, even more than acting, and the care and kindness with which she writes absolutely bolsters this claim. White’s writing style is largely anecdotal, bordering on philosophical — not in any really deep sense of the word, but the way she bounces from subject to subject reminds me somewhat of the near-lyrical writings of Emil Cioran (stylistically speaking only, since Cioran is a total major bummer, whereas White couldn’t be less of one).

It is just this style that imparts to me the notion that Betty White is almost definitely the sweetest, kindest woman in show business. It’s difficult to believe that someone who takes the time to jot down her thoughts in longhand just about every day and then publish them without the merest hint of self-indulgence could be anything less than the gentle soul she portrayed as Rose Nylund (though far, far more intelligent). Admittedly, it might be difficult for me to remain objective, for I’m the type of person who would fistfight anyone who had a cross word for the woman. But again, I feel the text of her work supports this notion.

Lest there is any further speculation as to my own critical thinking on this subject, allow me to state from the outset that I have few kind words for Estelle Getty’s book If I Knew Then What I Know Now…So What? The title itself is the best part, indicative of that near-Buddhist quality I feel many artists share. But even that’s a bit misleading, since according to Getty as well as White and Rue McClanahan, the poor dear was nearly completely in the grip of fear of stage and of death the entire time she was in the national spotlight. It’s been claimed that Getty would not allow the writers of The Golden Girls to give her character any lines that make light of death, for she herself was so afraid of dying that she wouldn’t speak of it. To me, though, this tidbit has taken on the status of urban legend, since I seem to remember several jokes having to do with death on the show itself, especially in my favorite episode, “The Case of the Libertine Bell,” from the final season. In this episode (written by Joss Whedon’s dad, Tom), the girls go to one of those murder-mystery weekends, and so there are lots of jokes about death and killing, and Sophia is the punchline at least a couple of times.

Anyways, Getty’s stage-fright has definitely entered Golden Girls lore much more concretely, which again runs somewhat counter to Getty’s public image as a sassy ol’ gal who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, or of much else. If I Knew Then, published in 1988, was clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of Getty’s character of Sophia Petrillo. A co-writing credit goes to Steve Delsohn, who is largely known as a sportswriter, receiving another co-writer credit on defensive lineman John Matuszak’s auto-bio Crusin’ with the Tooz in 1987 (To be honest, I’m making a bit of a leap of faith here that this is the same Steve Delsohn. If anybody can correct me on this, by all means).

If I Knew Then is a cute book, but of very little substance. And whereas the cuteness of Betty White’s writing derives from her candid and disarming demeanor, the cuteness in Getty’s book is ripped almost whole-hog from her TV alter-ego. Getty does get to talk about her husband and children, her career, her abiding show-biz family (she remained very close to her Torch Song Trilogy co-star Harvey Fierstein, apparently becoming a very real mother-figure to him off-stage after playing his mother on Broadway). But mostly, the book is a lot of warmed-over Sophia-esque observations on life and all its little foibles like airplane travel and dieting and zzzzzzzz…

So was Estelle Getty at all like Sophia Petrillo? Her autobiography sure works hard to put that across, but I remain dubious. I certainly hate to speak ill of Getty at all, but when you come right down to it, her character always was kind of the weak link in the show, bless her heart. I’m sure she was a lovely woman and all, but as a fan, I would have much preferred a book that gives some real insight into the person behind the old-lady make-up.

Fortunately for me, Rue McClanahan wrote My First Five Husbands…and the Ones Who Got Away. Holy Lord, I love this woman. Though not my most favorite Golden Girl, she comes a very close second, and I will admit I do feel a certain affinity with her sex-crazed character. (Quick aside: I and two of my buddies took a writing class together years ago, and one of our classmates forwarded to us her Golden Girls theory of friendship: in any trio of friends, they each take the role of either the nice one [Rose], the smart one [Dorothy], or the slut [Blanche]. Chuck bristled at being tagged the Rose, and Rochester didn’t think he was that smart, but I really had no counter-argument at all. End aside)

So, yes, My First Five Husbands is easily my favorite Golden Girls book. Getty’s book is really not much more than a quick cash-in on her character’s popularity; White’s books are sweet and heartfelt, but don’t hold to a unifying structure. McClanahan’s book is an honest accounting of on actress’ life from her own perspective, beginning with her very earliest childhood memories right through to the dusk of her life. Her writing style is as engaging and southern-comfortable as her Golden Girls character, but far from as narrow-minded and shallow. With complete candor, McClanahan discusses her many loves, her early days in show business as a single mother, her triumphs on Maude and The Golden Girls, and her lifelong struggle with a crippling phobia of the dusk and nighttime. McClanahan’s confessionals never come off as Hollywood indulgence, that tell-all attitude that seemed to get really popular back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If anything, McClanahan tells her story so candidly if only to act as a cautionary tale.

Her tales of marriage are particularly harrowing. Some of her husbands were outright bastards, and some were just ill-suited for healthy relationships. But in each and every case, McClanahan defers to her own naiveté or simple unwillingness to look before she leapt. A recurring theme, one that she hammers on time and again, is stop and think. McClanahan lived with few, if any, regrets, but if she can impart one thing to the reader it is to love yourself and do not allow anyone else to emotionally bully you. Also, she talks a lot about sex.

As McClanahan was wont to do when compared to her character, Blanche Devereaux, she says herein: “Blanche was a glamorous, oversexed, self-involved, man-crazy Southern belle from Atlanta — and I’m not from Atlanta!” But if anything, McClanahan is a real-life Blanche, a person with much more depth than any sitcom character could handle. Just as Betty White is not nearly as dopey as Rose Nylund, neither is Rue McClanahan as self-centered as Blanche. But damn if she didn’t seem like she’d be about as much fun to hang out with.

As much as I love crazy ol’ Rue, Bea Arthur will always be my favorite Golden Girl. I might be the slut in my group of friends, but oh, how I fancy myself the smart one. Arthur’s deadpan delivery and impeccable sense of comic timing never got a better forum in which to shine than they did in The Golden Girls, not even on Maude (however classic a show that is). Sadly, Arthur never took pen to paper to tell her life story, and I don’t think it would be erroneous to suggest that this was so because she felt her work spoke for itself.

Arthur was a very intense and private person by pretty much all accounts, and though she was regarded as a kind woman, it also seemed she could be as short-tempered and impatient as the strong female characters she often portrayed. After Arthur’s death in 2009, both McClanahan and White spoke publicly of Arthur’s apparent dislike of White. This comes as a blow to a TV kid like myself, who has been operating under the assumption for years that all these people live and laugh and love in the little box in my living room. But at the same time, it really kinda makes sense. As McClanahan says, White is the outgoing, flirty type, whereas Arthur was the picture of the consummate professional. Four disparate personalities will make for entertaining television, but the notion that all of the Golden Girls would be able to live together in real life without really wanting to strangle one or the other is pretty far-fetched.

Take, for example, a story White relates in In Person. She talks at length about food and diet and admits that she is far from adventurous when it comes to matters of the palate. She tells of how she would order the exact same thing for lunch every day, and it drove Arthur absolutely up the wall. This is obviously an innocuous little anecdote, but to me it speaks volumes: how the smallest difference between two people can elicit such differing reactions.

To her credit, Arthur seemed well aware of this aspect of her personality. As she said in one interview, she felt like one giant, exposed nerve. She felt everything. This was indispensible for an actress of her caliber, but it could also make personal relationships difficult. McClanahan tells of once when someone on set made an off-hand remark that Arthur took very personally, and burst into tears. McClanahan said, “That was not seen very often, but those emotions were right under the surface.”

(Also, to White’s credit, she has claimed that the feeling was not mutual and that she loved Bea, and even attended Arthur’s one-woman show three times.) (God, I want to hug Betty White right now.)

Lest we think of Arthur as completely cold and impersonal, when it came to important and/or traumatic events in the lives of those around her, she showed a much different side. McClanahan tells in her book of how she returned to Los Angeles after her mother’s funeral and felt completely alone and hollowed out by her loss. It was Thanksgiving Day, a day of celebration and family, which could only have made McClanahan’s sadness that much more acute. So, as she says, “I picked up the phone and called the strongest person I could think of.” Bea Arthur ordered her: “You’re coming out to my house. Right now.” The intensely private Arthur was having dinner with her own family and friends, but in McClanahan’s time of dire need, she brought her over, fixed her a plate, and tucked her into bed. After Arthur’s death, this was the story McClanahan repeated most fondly of her co-star, and how her strength and kindness in that terrible time returned to McClanahan her own strength to continue with her life.

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, when asked of how Arthur thought of herself and her place in the culture, McClanahan said, “I tell you what meant something to Bea: Acting, performing, playing comedy and doing it well.” The work is what was important to Bea Arthur, not the accolades that followed. At the end of one interview, when she is asked what she wants to be remembered as, Arthur pauses for a moment to think and says, “An artist.” She pauses again, and then adds, “An important artist.”

We may never get to know Bea Arthur, the woman, any better; she never seemed to shy away from interviews, but even at her most relaxed in that environment, one gets the distinct feeling she is holding back. But Bea Arthur, the artist, left behind a body of work of such quality and love that few people will ever achieve. In that way, Arthur assured that that is how she will be remembered; in that way, she never held back.

So. Were the women of The Golden Girls anything like the characters they portrayed? Boy, you’d better believe it. It only makes sense that good actors pour themselves into their roles, especially roles that they played for seven years or more. But, as hard as it may be to believe, these women in their individual and personal lives were likely even funnier and even more full of joie de vivre than their characters. Though biographical information on all four of them may be less than complete, the record will show that Betty White, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Bea Arthur were exceptional people, extraordinary ladies, and the world of comedy (and, dare I say it, the world at large) is that much richer for them.

Jimmy Callaway lives and works in San Diego, CA. He is the underboss of Criminal Complex and overboss of Attention, Children and Let’s Kill Everybody!.

Pals and Confidants: The Golden Girls in (Mostly) […]