Betty White's former home
The Golden Girls pilot script
In 1945, when Betty White started in television, L.A. stations beamed their broadcast signals through the clear-blue California air. By 2019, when she logged her final TV appearance — on a streaming service — White capped a career of more than seventy years. But even her hundreds of credits and dozens of awards were outmatched by the love of her admirers. Betty White died last New Year's Eve — two-and-a-half weeks shy of her 100th birthday — leaving behind a legion of fans. And not a little bit of stuff.
The most personal of her possessions — engraved wedding bands, needlepoint embroidery, autographed scripts and an actual piece of her house — will hit the auction block during a three-day gavel-banger in Beverly Hills beginning September 23. Seagoing fans got a sneak peek when some of the items were displayed aboard the Queen Mary 2 during a transatlantic voyage in August.
"Typically, these types of estate auctions are done for movie megastars like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day," says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien's Auctions, based in Gardena, California. "But Betty was just as big a star in her own right. When you turned on the TV in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s... Betty White was there somewhere. We grew up and we grew old with her. She didn't fade away, out of sight in her golden years. She continued to work with relevance."
One of her greatest triumphs, in fact, came in 2010, when — at eighty-eight — she hosted Saturday Night Live, becoming the oldest person to do so. That appearance brought her a whole new generation of fans — and her final Emmy, as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. "It was like, 'Oh my God, she's still great!'" says Ray Richmond, author of Betty White: 100 Remarkable Moments in an Extraordinary Life. "She became a national treasure."
Via the auction, admirers will get a glimpse of the real woman behind such beloved characters as "Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, St. Olaf Butter Queen runner-up Rose Nylund of The Golden Girls, and mob-tied landlady Elka Ostrovsky of Hot in Cleveland.
"She wasn't the star of just one beloved classic show, she was the star of several giant beloved sitcoms," says Jim Colucci, author of bestseller Golden Girls Forever. "Betty fans are particularly loyal because she continued to surprise and delight us with every new project and every facet of her talent. She really was the person you loved on screen."
Betty-bilia on the block will include photographs, artwork, paper ephemera, board games (White was as skilled a player in her own game room as she was on Password) and furniture including an owl-patterned director's chair that she needlepointed for her third (and favorite) husband, game show host Allen Ludden. There is a ticket to a 1954 installment of The Betty White Show and one for a 1977 Mary Tyler Moore taping. Autographed scripts from The Golden Girls are expected to fetch at least several thousand dollars apiece. Fans will also find engraved gifts that the Golden Girls cast gave to the crew.
"She had nice things in her life, but there are no Monets or Picassos," Nolan says. "This is not an elitist auction." But few, he promises, will be disappointed by the assortment of approximately 1,500 items from White's two homes.
For collectors looking for bragging rights, there are such high-ticket items as a nineteenth-century oil painting of a King Charles spaniel (expected to go for $10,000 to $20,000), White's mahogany grand piano ($3,000 to $5,000), her mother's gold wristwatch ($1,000 to $2,000) and wedding bands belonging to her and Ludden (his is engraved "6-14-63 I really do") that should fetch thousands. A vintage Van Cleef & Arpels gold flower brooch dotted with diamonds and sapphires that the actress wore on several occasions to the other White House — the big one in Washington, D.C. — is expected to bring $14,000 to $16,000. There also will be gowns she wore to gala events as well as photographs of her in them.
"People want to own collectibles that are just images of TV shows and TV characters," Colucci points out. "But it's more special when it's something that the person used or was inspired by. For fans who want to feel a communion with Betty, what better than something one-of-a-kind and never to be reproduced, something you can touch and realize she touched it, too?"
That includes perhaps the most unusual item — the bright yellow front door from White's Brentwood, California, home, with its brass cat-shaped knocker. The 3,029-square-foot, Colonial-style house, built in the L.A. suburb in 1952 and purchased by White and Ludden in 1968, sold in June for $10.6 million, despite prospective buyers not being allowed inside.
Charming but dated, the home is expected to be torn down. "We thought it would be a pity to let that yellow door go," Nolan says. "It pulls on people's heartstrings. Somebody may decide to have that door as their front door, and so it will live on." The door is estimated to fetch at least $2,000 to $3,000, but likely will go for more because of its significance.
"Having been to Betty's house in Brentwood, I thought it was such a physical manifestation of her personality," Colucci says. "It felt like going inside Betty's psyche because it was all sunshiny and cheery." Her front door is especially desirable, he adds, because "She went through it every day — to play Sue Ann Nivens, to play Rose Nylund, to fly to New York to do Saturday Night Live, to head off to the zoo. It was something Betty touched every day. You can't get more intimate than that."
Evoking such feelings of connection was Nolan's goal as the auction curator.
"People know her from her shows," he says. "But we try to weave in the real-life Betty."
The Julien's team did so by spending weeks in White's two houses, assembling the collection and photographing it for the auction catalogue.
"We asked ourselves, who is this person we're working with?" Nolan recalls. "What did Betty White represent? What will people want from the estate? You work to present a well-rounded auction that represents her personal life and her career. People who see the catalogue will see how she really lived."
Although the funny lady spent her last years in Brentwood, White also had a modern beach house in Carmel, California, which she and Ludden built shortly before his death in 1981. It sold in April for $10.7 million, nearly $3 million above the asking price."
"Like the unveiling of a gravestone, the Julien's auction will make it clear that the beloved actress is truly gone, and that may spark sadness. But Nolan assures that the proceedings will have a "feel-good factor." He says, "It's going to be a fun event, and an opportunity to celebrate an amazing lady."
Funds received from the auction were expected to go to a good cause, though at press time, Julien's did not say which one.
"My job is to deliver the proceeds to the estate of Betty White," Nolan says. "She'll have instructions in her last will and testament as to where it should go. The estate will execute that."
But he and others expect that much of the earnings will benefit White's favorite animal charities. Because of that, Nolan is counting on the auction — like the actress herself — to continue to generate a lot of warm feelings. As he says, "It's Betty White!"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2022, under the title, "Knocking at Her Door."