Betty White's Lasting Love Story With Allen Ludden: Why Her Third Husband Was Her One and Only

After two failed marriages, Betty White had lost faith in holy matrimony—until Password host Allen Ludden started proposing and refused to stop.

By Natalie Finn Jan 17, 2023 5:50 PMTags
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When it came to love, the third time was certainly the charm for Betty White.

The legendary entertainer, who would've turned 101 on Jan. 17, had married Army Air Forces pilot Dick Barker in 1945—and divorced him that year, too, after he tried to bring the Beverly Hills High School graduate home to roost on his Ohio chicken farm. "A nightmare," she called that experience.

Then, in 1947, she tied the knot with Lane Allen, an actor turned talent agent. Their union lasted barely two years, White beating her retreat when he wanted her to stop working so much, though they remained friends.

Her career in radio and TV subsequently took off in the 1950s, highlights including starring in and producing the sitcom Life With Elizabeth, for which she won a Los Angeles Area Emmy for Most Outstanding Female Personality, and hosting her own eponymous talk show. While she had boyfriends, the legally unattached life seemed to suit her.

So by the time a 39-year-old White met Password host Allen Ludden when she started appearing on the CBS show, one of many game shows that welcomed her as a favorite celebrity guest through the years, she may have felt a spark right away, but she was in no rush to connect for the long haul.

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Not least because she was seeing another man and Ludden, 44, was newly widowed, having lost his first wife (and mother of his three children) to cancer just weeks after Password premiered on Oct. 2, 1961.

He was "never too busy to say a warm good-bye after the last show finished," White, who made her first Password appearance in the show's third week on the air, once shared.

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And then their agents—"you know how they are," White quipped during a 1997 interview for the TV Academy Foundation—booked them to star together in a 1962 summer stock production of Critic's Choice, a comedy about a theater critic whose wife writes a play and he's unsure of whether he should give her an honest opinion, at the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod.

Ludden later said he fell in love with White on opening night.

"We were up there for three weeks and pretty soon he didn't say hello, he'd say, 'Will you marry me?'' White recalled to the TV Academy. "It was a joke! I'd laugh it off, he'd laugh it off. And then pretty soon I came back home. I was going very steadily with someone!"

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And her boyfriend, Phil Cochran, was a little perturbed by a lengthy kiss White and Ludden shared in the play at one point. "It went on and on," she remembered of the night Cochran, who served as a fighter pilot during World War II, came to see the show, recalling a loud "ahemcoming from the audience.

"Everybody thought it was hysterically funny, except Phil," she said. "Phil didn't think it was funny. He said, 'I don't like that guy.'"

White returned to Los Angeles (and, for a little while longer, Cochran), while Ludden, who was based in New York, got busy pining away—and proposing for real. "That went on for a year," White explained. "And finally it wasn't a joke anymore and I'd get mad. I said, 'No, no way.'"

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Undeterred by her initial refusals, he bought a ring—"a beautiful gold wedding ring with diamonds all around"—and for three months he wore "that damned ring on a chain around his neck so I couldn't miss it," White remembered in her 1987 memoir Betty White in Person. "It got full of soap and suntan oil, but he vowed he would only take it off for one reason."

But "in love as I was, nonetheless," she recalled, "marrying and moving east was still not in the equation."

Still, he'd use up all his time off from Password to visit her in California and repeatedly ask for her hand.

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Ludden finally got to slip that ring on his beloved's finger after Easter in 1963, when his gift of flower-shaped earrings studded with diamonds, rubies and sapphires pinned into the ears of a fluffy stuffed bunny proved too much to refuse.

"So when he called that night," she told the TV Academy, "I said, 'OK, yes.' And afterwards he said I'm the only woman in the world who said yes to marrying him not for the earrings, but for the stuffed bunny."

Reflecting on why she did fall for him in the end, White said on Larry King Live in 2010, "What got us together was his enthusiasm. He was interested in everything. There wasn't anything that he didn't want to know more about and hear about. That's fun to live with." And, she also said, "What you saw was what you got. He was one of the nicest, dearest people."

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"They just connected on all levels," Jeff Witjas, White's longtime friend and agent, exclusively told E! News. "From what I remember from talking to Betty, Allen was very charming and he loved Betty dearly, and he was a very passionate man.

"He pursued Betty for awhile, until she said yes to getting married. So you've got to give him a lot of credit, he knew what he wanted—and Betty knew what she wanted. She just wanted to be super careful in the beginning, and it was probably one of the best moves she ever made in her life."

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They tied the knot on June 14, 1963, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, honeymooned in Laguna Beach, Calif., and settled for a time in Chappaqua, N.Y. White admitted that she was nervous about becoming a stepmother to Ludden's then-14-year-old son David and daughters Martha, 13, and Sarah, 10, but the family of five—plus poodles Willie and Emma—lived fairly harmoniously, the usual teenage growing pains aside.

Asked later in life if she ever regretted not having children of her own, White said she was "blessed" to be that trio's stepmom—and she had no regrets. "I'm so compulsive about stuff, I know if I had ever gotten pregnant, of course, that would have been my whole focus," she told Katie Couric for CBS News in 2012. "But I didn't choose to have children because I'm focused on my career. And I just don't think, as compulsive as I am, that I could manage both."

Ludden would leave love notes around the house for White to find, one of which she credited with helping her finally see, no pun intended, that it was time to get her eyes checked. In her 2011 book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), she shared that one night he left a card under her pillow that read on the front, "If you can't see I love you..." and on the inside said, "SQUINT!"

She had a good laugh, but also made an appointment with the eye doctor the next day. And she saved every single one of those notes.

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White made dozens of appearances on Password, which taped in New York, until it was canceled in 1967, and then again when it was revived as a Los Angeles-based production from 1971 until 1975. Ludden hosted both incarnations, after which he helmed Password Plus, which also welcomed his wife as a guest whenever she was available.

At the same time, White—though she insisted that photographers call her Mrs. Ludden on the red carpet—had reached a new level of fame when she landed the role of the lascivious "happy homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a performance that earned her supporting actress Emmys in 1975 and 1976.

"Well, she was the neighborhood nymphomaniac," White recalled fondly to Couric. "And they'd ask my husband, Allen Ludden, they'd ask, 'How close to Betty [is] Sue Ann?' He said, 'Well, they're the same except Betty can't cook, of course.'"

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Ludden continued to host Password Plus until 1980, when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and took what he hoped would be a temporary break to focus on his health.

But he never ended up going back to work. Ludden died at the age of 63 on June 9, 1981, five days shy of his and White's 18th wedding anniversary. He was laid to rest in his native Wisconsin.

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White did admit one regret to Oprah Winfrey on OWN's Where Are They Now? in 2015: "I spent a whole year—wasted a whole year—that Allen and I could have had together, saying no, I wouldn't marry him. I wasted a whole year we could've had together, but we made it. We finally did."

And though White continued to reach new heights in her career after losing Ludden, 17 more Emmy nominations and three wins still in her future, she felt she had already peaked as far as love was concerned. Her iconic Golden Girls character, guileless Minnesota native Rose Nylund, was a widow who played the field to great comedic effect, but the actress herself wasn't searching for another partner. 

"When you've had the best, who needs the rest? It was special. It was very special," she told Couric of her third marriage in 2012. "But that doesn't keep you from having fun with somebody and going out and having dates. And Robert Redford never calls."

Not that she didn't miss being one-half of a pair. 

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"You go out with a couple, let's say," White explained. "And all of the sudden you see one or the other reach over and, or just, you know [pat on the shoulder], something like that. Those are the things I miss. It's just that level of personal affection, it has nothing to do with sex. I'm talking about just the personal contact, that's an empty feeling."

But throughout the rest of her life, her great love affair with Ludden would remain an inspiration to seemingly everyone who heard about it.

"In fact, my castmates from Hot in Cleveland seemed so curious about him—and asked so many questions about him!—that I finally had to wonder aloud, 'Why do you ask me so many questions about Allen?'" White shared in If You Ask Me. "The answer was simple: 'We love the look you get on your face when you talk about him.'"

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Calling their tale "an old-fashioned love story," Witjas told E! News, "There was never a time that I'm aware of that she ever thought of marrying anybody else. They had something really special that is not easy to find in two people. They connected on all levels and it was wonderful. It's sad it didn't last longer than it did."

After White died on Dec. 31, 2021, at the age of 99—still a gut punch to her legions of fans despite her near centenarian status—Witjas said, "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."

Word got around about that.

With tributes pouring in from every corner of the globe, Bob Saget wrote on social media of White, "She always said the love of her life was her husband, Allen Ludden, who she lost in 1981. Well, if things work out by Betty's design—in the afterlife, they are reunited. I don't know what happens when we die, but if Betty says you get to be with the love of your life, then I happily defer to Betty on this."

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Saget died suddenly just days later, unaware that his sweet, hopeful words would provide some solace to grieving fans twice in less than two weeks.

White's faith in what awaited her on the other side seemed to still be intact when she passed. Vicki Lawrence, who worked with her on The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family, told E!'s Daily Pop in a Jan. 3, 2021, interview that Carol Burnett had informed her that White's assistant—who was by the entertainer's side at the end—had shared that "the last word out of her mouth was 'Allen.'"

"[Burnett] said, 'How sweet and loving is that?'" Lawrence relayed. "I said, 'It's so sweet and so loving and, god, I hope it's true.'"

As White told Larry King in 2010, her marriage to Ludden was simply "the best. He was the love of my life." King ventured that she never got over him, and she agreed. "Never," she said. "I never will."

(Originally published Jan. 17, 2022, at 4 a.m. PT)

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