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Betty White, TV’s perennial Golden Girl, has died. She was 99.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas tells PEOPLE in a statement on Friday. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”
White was gearing up to celebrate her 100th birthday on Jan. 17. Ahead of her centennial year, in January, White opened up to PEOPLE about how she was feeling about turning 100 years old.
“I’m so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age,” said the veteran actress. “It’s amazing.”
According to White, being “born a cockeyed optimist” was the key to her upbeat nature. “I got it from my mom, and that never changed,” she said. “I always find the positive.”
A warm and popular presence on the small screen, White’s career dated back to the early days of the medium and spanned decades. Long before her hilarious turns on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s and The Golden Girls in the ’80s, in 1952 she appeared in the I Love Lucy-like Life with Elizabeth, a show she also produced.
In 2010, at age 87, she enjoyed an awards-laden resurgence, when, after starring on a Snickers commercial during the Super Bowl, polls and petitions overwhelmingly named her the public’s choice to host Saturday Night Live, emcee various awards shows and even be a sergeant’s date at a Marine Corps ball.
After that, she went on to star and steal scenes on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, even scoring an Emmy nomination — her 17th, including seven wins. In May 2012 she also debuted on the NBC comedy reality show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a kind of geriatric Punk’d. As always, she proved a favorite.
Of course, the iconic actress also cracked a joke about the secret to her long life, telling PEOPLE: “I try to avoid anything green. I think it’s working.”
Born Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty Marion White, an only child, moved with her parents, traveling salesman and electrical engineer Horace White and homemaker Tess Curts White, to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Camping once a year in the Sierra Nevadas with the folks fueled a love of animals. “We wound up with 26 dogs once,” White told PEOPLE in 1999.
As a child, she fantasized about becoming a forest ranger or a writer, only to fall in love with performing when she took the lead in the high-school senior play that she wrote. She skipped college, but before launching an acting career she married twice: first to Dick Barker, a WWII pilot she wed in 1945 (the marriage lasted only a few months once he took her home to an Ohio chicken farm), then in 1947 to agent Lane Allen, who wanted her to give up showbiz.
When that marriage ended in 1949, she and an L.A. deejay named Al Jarvis got their feet wet together on local TV, which eventually paved the way for her first sitcom, the nationally syndicated Life with Elizabeth. Despite its low budget and minimal sets (indeed, the show was a series of domestic skits featuring White’s daffy Elizabeth and her exasperated husband Alvin, played by Del Moore), the show earned White her first Emmy.
Other series came and went in the ’50s, and by 1961 White appeared as a celebrity player on the daytime game show Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. A widower with three children, he proposed marriage to the actress in 1963, and she accepted that Easter. He sent her “this adorable fluffy white stuffed bunny,” she later told PEOPLE, “and in its ears were gold leaves with ruby, diamond and sapphire earrings.”
Ever after, White referred to Ludden as the love of her life. “The secret to our marriage was enthusiasm,” White said. “When I knew Allen was coming home, I would freshen my makeup and put on a new blouse.”
Ludden, 63, died of stomach cancer in 1981. They had been married 18 years, during which White triumphed from 1973–77 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show thanks to some image-busting casting. She played TV station WJM’s “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens, a relentlessly man-hungry careerist.
Though she bravely carried on after Ludden’s death, White admitted, “If one more person said, ‘Oh, you’re so strong,’ I would have decked them.”
White’s career in entertainment began in the 1940s after she graduated from high school. She began working in radio and later got her own show, called The Betty White Show. In 1949, she became co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily variety show Hollywood on Television in Los Angeles.
After Jarvis left the show in 1952, White began hosting by herself, working five and a half hours of live ad-lib television six days a week for four years. She was nominated for her first Emmy Award in 1951 as best actress on television. It was the first award and category in the new award show designated specifically for women in television.