When a visitor was shown into Phyllis Diller’s mansion, in Brentwood, the other evening, Diller rose carefully from a settee. “Have a Martini,” she said. “You have to look at the art, and it helps.” She was wearing one of her trademark yellow fright wigs, and her right hand sported a large yellow ring that somewhat resembled a snail. “Do you like my ring? I call it ‘the golden turd.’ ” Her laugh is a raucous Ha!, as if an “H” and an “A” had collided in midair.
Diller moved into her house, a ten-thousand-square-foot stucco affair, in 1965, after leaving the first of two unhappy marriages. She was America’s most famous female comedian, a fixture in Bob Hope movies and on television specials, where she often played a kooky, gaudily costumed housewife. In those days, Judy Garland lived just up the street. Then came the “Gong Show” years, and, as Diller’s bookings dried up, she began to paint. Late at night, she’d throw on a pink smock, put some Gershwin on the stereo, and work up an ink or acrylic sketch of a castle, a few daisies, or Alex Trebek. In 2003, when she was eighty-six, she began holding “art parties,” several times a year, to sell the work, along with her outfits and her costume jewelry. She explained, “I’m only leaving here toes up—I’m not going to any home for little old ladies—and I’m not taking anything with me! Word gets out, and people get on the list to come. I don’t know them from Adam, but I seem to be the queen of the gay people. I’m witty, I’m bright, I’m loose, and I wear feathers.”
One of Diller’s assistants, Karla, conducted a tour, beginning with a few dozen of Diller’s canvases outside the Bob Hope Salon. After a detour to the guest bathroom, the Edith Head, the tour proceeded to the Gallery, a hallway lined with Diller originals, including a portrait of Meg Ryan ($400). The Boutique showcased Diller’s Bo Derek wig, seen on “The Hollywood Squares” ($500), along with a brocaded red velvet cape she wore on “The Love Boat” ($1,000) and a Plant Costume heavy with plastic ivy ($2,000). Downstairs, in the entrance hall, was Diller’s chef d’oeuvre, “And Now . . . ,” a joyful painting of a spotlight on a curtain. “That’s two hundred thousand,” Diller said, looking up from her Martini. “It’s an oil and it took longer.”
Diller led the way to dinner, humming “Plaisir d’Amour.” She passed through the Scarlet Scullery and into the Antoine Dining Room, settled into her chair, and rang a silver bell. Another assistant, named Shelley, appeared, to serve the meal that Diller had prepared.
“The shrimp,” Diller said. Shelley returned with plates containing three roasted shrimp each. “Usually, I see only rich older women who like me to amuse them,” Diller observed. “Last night, it was this woman who’s petite, a philanthropist, depressed—I don’t know whathappened to her husband, she may have done him in herself—and looking for excitement. She took me to the Peninsula Hotel to hear Tony, the pianist, and we saw this hooker! She had long black hair all down her back, and this great, phony white fur coat that I wanted to rip off her body. She’d clearly missed her connection, because she kept running around, in her high heels, like a decapitated fowl. She must charge three thousand dollars a night. In my mind I could just see the guy she was supposed to meet, an old C.E.O., bald, married to a woman who’s at home reading the Bible, not even embracing evolution. Whereas I embrace the fact that I come from a worm.” She drank her Martini and shook the bell: “The salad.”
“If only women could understand that men—they’re here to screw, their minds never leave screwing. Men have to do it with hookers because their wives wear curlers and won’t tickle them with a turkey feather.” After a moment, she added, “There’s a joke I consider current: The best contraception for old people”—she held her visitor’s eyes—“is nudity! Ha!” She rang the bell. “The truth, the blessed truth!”
“The ice cream.”
“Don’t think small!” Diller declared suddenly. “Onward and upward, that’s why we’re here. Did you see my grand pianos?” Her house has two, along with a harpsichord. “Liberace told me to use the piano in my act, and I ended up playing with a hundred symphony orchestras. Nowadays, I could break my arm just brushing my teeth. Ha!”
After dinner, she took her visitor’s elbow. “Did you see my wardrobe? Oh, good. I invented the see-through hatbox, you know.” Her smile was bright. “Happiness keeps you from dying from a lot of terrible things. Ain’t I a happy broad?” ♦
(Source: The New Yorker, 2010 “Diller at 92”)