When television fans think of Betty White, they might recall the dimbulb she played on "The Golden Girls" or the hilariously mean Happy Homemaker on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Few viewers are likely to know that she's a TV pioneer, first on one of television's original daytime talk shows and then as producer and star of "Life With Elizabeth," an early sitcom.
White is one of several women who, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, defined television standards that, for better or worse, became commonplace. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of "Seinfeldia," pays tribute to four of these trailblazers in "When Women Invented Television."
The title slightly overstates their contributions, but their achievements were huge. Gertrude Berg was "radio's favorite meddling mother" on CBS' "The Goldbergs" before she demanded that network chair William Paley move her show to TV. He agreed, and thus was born one of the first sitcoms.
Irma Phillips "had conceived of the soap opera" on radio, then moved "The Guiding Light" to television, where it became the "longest-running scripted program in broadcast history," much-derided organ music and all. She did this while raising two adopted children as a single mother.
Hazel Scott was an accomplished jazz pianist long before "The Hazel Scott Show" made her the first Black host of a national prime-time program. And then there's White, who helped invent the daytime talk show with "Hollywood on Television": 5 ½ hours a day of live TV, six days a week, and without a script.
The book's strongest parts describe the challenges the women faced, from figuring out "how to balance the expectations of family life with their passion for their work" to sponsors' demands that performers listed in "Red Channels," a journal of supposed Communists in the entertainment industry, be fired, an ultimatum with tragic results.
For someone who "grew up with the television on," Armstrong is surprisingly unfamiliar with many shows. She writes that when Berg was a mystery guest on CBS' "What's My Line?" in 1954, the blindfolded panel "quickly determined who she was." Anyone who has seen the show knows it took a comparatively long time. And the inclusion of minor details, such as how Berg liked her eggs, feels like filler.
When Armstrong sticks to her subjects' achievements, the book is exceptional. Among many memorable stories are Scott refusing to play a Texas concert after learning the seating was segregated, and White forgetting the word "faucet" during a live commercial and calling it a gizmo, leaving her colleagues helpless with laughter.
"When Women Invented Television" will be catnip for TV fans and is a welcome addition to the literature of television history.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kirkus Reviews and BookPage.
When Women Invented Television
By: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
Publisher: Harper, 352 pages, $27.99.