Phyllis Diller isn’t feeling so hot right now. She’s flung herself back in a black stretch limo, forcing deep breaths in and out of her mouth, weakened from a recent bout with pneumonia. Just two hours ago, things were not looking so dire for the comedy pioneer, who just published her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. Diller had joined her friends General Hospital’s Anne Jeffreys and socialite Louise Danelian at the Colleagues Spring Luncheon, an annual charity fashion show in Beverly Hills, where the median age hovered around a very tight-skinned 80. The well-preserved posse gossiped about the diamond-dripping donors between sips of Perrier and discussed AARP-friendly topics like menopause, the perils of driving, and the difficulties of falling asleep in old age. Clad in a self-designed, Pepto-Bismol-colored, machine-washable, zigzag-hemmed dress, Diller, 87, eagerly flashed a toothy smile (all real!) to photographers who’d tired of snapping Betsy Bloomingdale and Mr. Blackwell.
Just after cocktails, Diller announced she felt weak and had to leave. She rang for Eugene, the elderly and chivalrous driver who has been chauffeuring her around on and off for decades, and headed to her Brentwood mansion.
Back in the limo, her breathing is loud and labored. ”I’m not as well as I used to be,” she whispers. ”Or as I thought I was.” Her eyes close and it’s silent for several minutes as Eugene races down Wilshire Boulevard, often looking in the rearview mirror to check on the comedy legend in the backseat. And then Diller begins to stir. ”Hey, what are those Sex and the City shoes?” she mutters. Manolo Blahniks? ”Yeah, I got one,” she says, her eyes still closed, her limbs limp. ”Those Manolo Blahniks. Do they come with crutches?” She starts to straighten up in the seat and opens one eye to see the reaction. ”No, wait. Do they come with a walker? Which one’s better? I like walker. Crutch is an ugly word.” She kicks up her skinny legs and coughs out a robust ”Ha!”
Before she emerged as the most celebrated female stand-up in history, before she traveled the world performing beside Bob Hope, before she became so legendary that her name alone could sell canned chili, Diller was an impoverished 37-year-old mother of five who knew two things: She made her friends laugh and she had an ugly mug. ”If you were a girl and you wanted to be funny, there had to be something wrong with you,” she says. ”I had crooked teeth. I broke my nose. I had a pointy face. I knew nothing about makeup. In other words, I looked terrible. I realize now it was all such a blessing.”
In 1955, the owner of San Francisco’s old Purple Onion nightclub took a gamble on Diller, who had quit her job as an advertising copywriter, and offered her a substitute spot one night. ”When I went on, the room went totally quiet and I knew that I had this magnetic thing that you had to be born with,” she recalls. ”You can’t buy it or even learn it.”