The Roots Recipe for Betty White
Betty White, now 96 years old, graced us all with her presence at the Emmys. Mischievous and beautiful as ever, she was honored for her remarkable eight-decade career in show business which includes classic series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls.
But it was one of her more recent shows — Hot in Cleveland — that puts me most in mind of her own life. In it, White played a wisecracking, Midwest caretaker of a house a trio of Los Angelistas landed in upon impulsively fleeing their California lives. An Illinois native, White moved to Los Angeles while still a child, so this series was a version of her life in reverse.
Though born in Chicago in 1922, Betty Marion White was already residing in a neighborhood ensconced between Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles by the time of the 1930 census. Her father, Horace L. White, a WWI vet and electrical supplies salesman, seems to have been doing fairly well in spite of the nascent Great Depression, as the family owned their home and — perhaps more importantly for Betty’s future career — a radio.
That only-child Betty was close to her parents, Horace and Tess, can be seen in this 1954 California Voter Registration in which the then 32-year-old Democrat shared the same address as her Republican parents. This same year she had a self-titled show on NBC and was voted honorary mayor of Hollywood.
Both Horace and Tess were raised in Chicago with a single sibling of the opposite sex and Canadian-born mothers (thank you, Canada, for sharing yet another comedic talent with your Southern neighbor). Both also had immigrant fathers, meaning that all four of White’s grandparents were born outside of America, but the specifics are surprising.
It turns out that the ethnic brew that created Betty White is one-quarter Danish, one-quarter Greek, one-quarter Canadian, one-eighth Welsh and one-eighth English. Her Canadian portion sports branches that meander back not only through Canada, but also New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to the early days of the United States, and eventually back to England, so in fairness, her English percentage should be rounded up a bit.
Perhaps what’s most striking is the Danish-Greek combination. Her Danish grandfather, Christopher White, came to America as a young man and bounced around Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois working as a salesman dealing in everything from hats to rubber. It’s possible that his wife Ettie was the quasi-namesake for Betty.
White’s other grandfather, Greek-born Nicholas Cachikis, also came here as a young man and worked as a salesman, but of one item — ice cream. For decades, he sold ice cream off a wagon, but it was apparently a hand-to-mouth existence as he was sadly buried in a potter’s field when he passed away.
So Betty White will always be Hot in Cleveland and a host of other places, but it’s Chicago, Denmark, Greece, Canada, England and Wales that should be hot to claim her.