A few years ago, a friend of mine and I took my mother and grandmother to a nice seafood lunch for Mothers’ Day. My grandmother has a delightful personality: she’s full of anecdotes and quick to laughter. She also expressed sincere concern for the live lobsters in the tank that were soon to end up on our plates. My friend had never met my grandmother before, but she was instantly charmed by her.
Betty White has certainly charmed America all over again this past year or so. White has had a phenomenal career in television, which began at nearly the same time the medium did, but recently her star has begin to shine brightly again in pop culture. Her famous Snickers commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl got her invited to host Saturday Night Live after a successful grass-roots Facebook petition to Lorne Michaels and NBC. And now she is starring in yet another ensemble sit-com, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland.
Even given TV’s notoriously fickle nature and its seeming love affair with “comebacks” and “revivals”, it seems that in White’s case, it’s popular culture rediscovering its own fascination with one of its own honorary grandmothers. If you will, Betty White is America’s bonus grandma.
Being in my early 30s, I am most familiar with White’s work on The Golden Girls. In retrospect, it seems odd that this show would have proven so popular in the ’80s, a decade obsessed with youth and vitality. To have a show starring four middle-aged/elderly women, and to depict their characters as vibrant, funny, and often impulsive seems almost like an anomaly. But perhaps it was just that anomalous quality that invested the show with such relevance that it is still enjoyed by TV audiences to this day.
And speaking for myself and others near my age, it was something of a peek at the private lives of our own grandparents, people who were not simply doddering old men or perpetually-homemaking old women, but people with wants, desires, and personalities as real as those of the Pepsi generation. White, as the last surviving member of the cast of that show, has become representative to many younger people of that vitality in old age; she serves as a tremendous example of how one can age with grace and wit.
White’s fifth book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), is something of a bonus itself. One gets the impression from the title of her second memoir, Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, that White was herself somewhat surprised that her career had achieved such longevity by the mid-’90s. At that time, White had reached not the end of her career, but a certainly a major milestone, after the extremely popular Golden Girls had signed off for the final time just a few years prior. And so this title of her latest book implies a certain gratitude and humility that audiences are still interested in her and her life.
Given all of this, the book does not really have any overarching structure or narrative. It’s basically a grab-bag of anecdotes and observations by White. The book is not a complete mess in that regard, but since the majority of what she is discussing mostly tends to cover the past 15 years (a drop in the bucket for White’s career), there is not a whole lot left unsaid. While she will often draw on past experiences on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Golden Girls, the majority of what she talks about is her current work.
White has a deep respect for the written word, going so far as to say that writing is her favorite thing to do. This love for the medium permeates each page and really, it seems, everything White does. Without leaning too heavily on sentimentalism, it’s extremely difficult not to feel close to such a sweet old lady, even through her written memoir.
The book is divided into sections, and each chapter is at most six or seven pages long. Each section is on a different topic—“Body and Mind”, “Hollywood Stories”, “Love and Friendship”—but it seems like White would write a few pages on whatever struck her fancy that day, and then her editors culled each piece into this loose amalgam of thoughts and observations.
It’s also rife with photos: White’s parents; White herself at various stages throughout her career; White with her late husband, game-show host Allen Ludden. White is a life-long and vocal animal lover, and it would take a cold heart indeed not be warmed by the many photos of White posing with her pets as well as with the pets of fans.
After the aforementioned Mothers’ Day lunch, my friend and I went back to my mother’s house with my mother and grandmother. My mother and grandmother sat in the living room and talked about my aunts and cousins and my sister and about real estate and other subjects that concerned them. My friend and I went into the other room and watched The Sopranos for a few hours. And in that same vein, after reading White’s book, I was charmed, happy, and really looking forward to reading something else with more depth to it. I love to visit with my grandmother, but after a nice lunch, perhaps a coffee, it’s time to get back to my own pursuits, intellectual or otherwise.
In sum, White’s book is endearing, entertaining, but in no way indispensible. If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) is a perfectly sweet distraction with which to pass a few hours, an easy way to pay a visit to your ‘bonus grandma’.