Betty White poses for photographers on the red carpet before Comedy Central's 'Roast of William Shatner' Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006, in Los Angeles. Picture: AP Photo/Rene Macura
Betty White poses for photographers on the red carpet before Comedy Central's 'Roast of William Shatner' Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006, in Los Angeles. Picture: AP Photo/Rene Macura

Betty White's fans feared her death for years, but she wasn't afraid of dying

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jan 2, 2022

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By Timothy Bella

Whenever Betty White was asked if she was afraid of dying, the legendary comic actress pointed to the teachings of her mother and the comfort she had in finding out "the secret."

Death became a popular topic for White, who found new generations of fans on social media that defended her from viral Internet hoaxes regarding her alleged passing and worried about her any time her name trended on Twitter in the past decade. But White, who died Friday at 99, maintained for years to anyone who asked that she was "not at all" afraid of dying.

"My mother had the most wonderful outlook on death," she told Katie Couric on "CBS Sunday Morning" in 2011.

"She would always say, 'Nobody knows. People think they do - you can believe whatever you want to believe what happens at that last moment - but nobody ever knows until it happens.' Growing up, whenever we'd lose somebody, she'd always say, 'Now they know the secret.'"

Her death was confirmed by friend and agent Jeff Witjas.

She died at her Southern California home and no specific cause was cited.

White died less than three weeks before what would have been her 100th birthday.

Her upcoming birthday had landed White on the cover of People magazine this week before she passed.

"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," Witjas said in a statement.

The Internet was flooded with tributes to White - from actress Carol Burnett and actor Ryan Reynolds to President Joe Biden, who called her "a cultural icon." Amid the New Year's Eve celebrations, CNN's Anderson Cooper and Bravo's Andy Cohen drank shots of tequila in Times Square in her honor.

But some devastated fans initially questioned whether "The Golden Girls" star had actually died - a side effect of years of online hoaxes and false alarms on social media involving White, who had become a queen of the Internet that fans wanted to protect at all costs.

"Please let this be a hoax," one fan tweeted.

As she morphed into one of the most endearing and enduring faces on television, White acknowledged in her 1987 autobiography that her "list of fears keeps growing until I begin to wonder if I have always been chicken."

Among her deepest individual fears was dying, a topic, she wrote, that was handled gracefully by her parents.

The way her parents first handled the loss of White's pet made the death of her grandmother "a little easier to comprehend," she wrote in "Betty White In Person."

"Fear of death is not one of my problems . . . only of the dying. The how, not the when of it," she wrote. "Getting there is not half the fun, and the fear of doing it badly could be of concern if I wanted to waste time thinking about it. I don't."

She added: "I figure I will improvise when the time comes . . . some things are better without rehearsal."

While the Internet gave White a late-in-life resurgence in pop culture, on several occasions, social media was used to fan rumors about her demise.

In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, White was asked about an Internet rumour a couple years earlier that she had died.

She urged fans not to believe everything they see online and brushed off the rumour in her own comedic way.

"Tell them that at 90 there's no need to get impatient," she told the outlet. "I'm hurrying as best as I can."

The topic came up again in interviews with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni and Larry King. After Bruni asked her at a Times event in 2014 if she felt anything was difficult about getting older, she smiled and assured the crowd she felt no dread about what awaited her at the end of life.

"I'm happy as a lark to stay around as long as I can," she said in 2012.

White told King in 2014 that she had grown even more curious as she got older about what awaited her when she died.

"What if it's nothing?" asked King, who died in 2021 at 87.

"I won't know that," she replied. "It's a win-win situation."

The cockeyed optimism she adopted from her mom would come in handy in the years to come, as White would again be connected to a viral death hoax.

In 2014, the satirical website Empire News ran a fake story with the headline, "Actress Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully In Her Los Angeles Home." The pun used in the headline for the fake story about White coloring her hair fooled nearly half a million people who thought the actress had died, The Washington Post reported.

"Betty White is not dead - and if she had a dollar for every time someone falsely tweeted that she was, she'd be a wealthy even wealthier woman by now," wrote reporter Caitlin Dewey.

From then on, rarely a year went by without fans worrying about White's well-being whenever she was a trending topic on Twitter. Internet rumours and hoaxes involving White kept, which has served as the Internet's myth-busters, busy in recent years.

Toward the end of 2016, a year that saw a series of high-profile celebrity deaths, a man set up a tongue-in-cheek GoFundMe titled, "Help protect Betty White from 2016." The fundraiser raised more than $9,000 not for White's protection but for a theater in Spartanburg, S.C.

When she was told by Couric of the fundraiser on her 95th birthday in 2017, White was left both grateful and perplexed: "How were they going to perpetuate me with money?" But White acknowledged she was awestruck by her fans wanting her to be immortal, according to Vanity Fair.

"They spoil me rotten," she told Couric. "Really, it's terrible and I enjoy every minute of it and make the most of it."

As the news of her death broke before the new year, fans on social media thanked White for being a friend.

She had told People just days before that she was "so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age."

"I wish this was a hoax, but unfortunately it's not," one fan tweeted.

Despite all the questions she would be asked about death throughout her life, White emphasized in her autobiography decades earlier that she "enjoyed exploring a path I rarely travel, and have no idea where it leads."

"I'll be dying to find out," she wrote.

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