Today marks the 90th birthday of one of America's greatest comedic treasures: Phyllis Diller. It is always scary to meet one's heroes - what if they are cold, colorless and disappointing? Thankfully, Phyllis is one of those celebrities that is every inch what you imagine and about 20 times more.
First off, she is much more beautiful in person than I'd expected. With all that plastic surgery, I was worried about getting close up and getting a scare like I do when I see Meg Ryan at a distance. Not at all. "The trick with the surgeries is knowing when to stop," she told me. "I once had the best plastic surgeon and then he up and died on me ... the NERVE!" Phyllis looks great - realistically an attractive older woman but not at all plastic.
Secondly, I quickly became aware how sharp her mind is. Nothing escapes her - politics, social issues, geographies, the arts - and she is never bored. While talking in her living room, Phyllis became distracted by her cat, Miss Kitty, chasing a fly. "Oh, look! She gonna get it! Look at her!" she squealed. "Now then, where was I?" Meanwhile, I'm thinking, 'God, I love this woman.' Phyllis lives very much in the moment and does not suffer fools.
I'd once made the mistake of complaining about my age in her presence when I was 36. "HA!" she blurted, and then came up and poked me in the chest with every word: "I hadn't even been on stage yet when I was your age!" And then again for good measure, "HA!" Made me realize how long life could be and how much I could get done and how I wish I had a quarter of her talent and as much ambition.
This is a woman who, after birthing five - FIVE - children, became the world's first female stand-up comic ... in 1955. She was 37 years old. Apparently, her husband, Sherwood, couldn't keep a job and it was the only way she could support the family. (He was, however, hot in the sack.)
I asked her once if she knew she would become famous. She sighed and, for once, was quite serious, "Yeah, I knew." Diller is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for delivering 12 punch lines per minute - a record that still stands today. Watching her act or listening to her old comedy albums is like witnessing lighting - it's so quick, so natural, so powerful. It lights up the room in one bright flash after another.
On top of all this, Phyllis also became an accomplished concert pianist and has performed with over 100 symphonies across the U.S. Her arthritis keeps her from playing these days so now she paints, whenever she's not the voice of "Mother Tucker" on TV's "Family Guy" or making other appearances. She once let me photograph her famous "Wig Room" and take a look at her many, many paintings. As I came down the stairs, she looked up, "Well, whattya think?" I shook my head, "I think that there are about 30 very average people walking around right now - I think you've hogged enough talent for all of them." She laughed her famous laugh and enjoyed that theory very much.
Phyllis is also a big-time foodie and adores cooking. When touring, she'd bring all her own food, cookware and hot plate and make gourmet dinners for her staff after each show. During one conversation, I asked her what she liked to make. She excitedly grabbed her shopping list so she could list off preferred ingredients. On the list was three flavors of Jello-O. "I LOVE Jell-O," she declared.
So when her birthday rolled around that year, my father urged me to send her a giant box filled with Jell-O packages. She sent me a long thank-you note (Phyllis is quite the formal corresponder) "I laughed so hard! Thanks for giving me a gift I could really use."
When I last spoke to her earlier this year, it was post-martini time - she has one every night. Her secretary initially apologized to me in mousy chirps, "I'm sorry but Ms. Diller doesn't talk to anyone after 8:30 p.m. ... " and then I heard Phyllis grab the phone and shout enthusiastically, "Heather, DARLING! You KNOW that come June, I think I'll be running out of my stash so .... " I took the hint and sent her another big box yesterday.
Happy Birthday, Phyllis! Just walking the earth same time as you is a terrific honor.