On a chilly March night in San Francisco 50 years ago, a suburban housewife stood in the spotlight at the avant-garde Purple Onion night club and rapid-fired jokes about managing a household with five children and an indolent husband she called Fang.
Female standup comics had never made the big-time, but Phyllis Diller beat the odds, paving the way for Lily Tomlin, Roseanne, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and others who followed. Diller did it despite a squalid marriage and recurring poverty. Even as she was attracting notice at the Purple Onion, she and her family were evicted from their home for nonpayment of rent.
Diller relates her saga in her new memoir, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” written with Richard Buskin. Don’t let the sassy title — the punch line of a joke — fool you. Although the text is interspersed with some of her best one-liners, the book is really a moving account of a woman who dealt with many obstacles: two disastrous marriages, a schizophrenic child, the struggle for a career in the man’s world of comedy.
She recently told The Associated Press how she came to write the book:
“All my life people said, ‘You got to write a book.’ I never wanted to. Why? I don’t know. No. 1, I’m not good at sitting down on long-term deals. I gave up standup in 2002, and book offers started coming in. And I really wasn’t that busy. Then they started offering me cash; that always gets my attention.
“Finally, I accepted an offer, and we started working. It was painful. There were things that I kicked under the rug and tried to forget. I brought them out for the book; otherwise, there wouldn’t be any truth in it.”
Misses the laughterDiller was interviewed at her Brentwood mansion, 10,000-square feet on one acre that she bought 40 years ago. At 87 she looks much younger — she was the first celebrity to acknowledge publicly to a face lift. The white-blond curly wig was in place, and the Diller laugh still seemed capable of stopping freeway traffic.
She quit performing three years ago after several incidents in which she had to leave the stage because she feared a fainting spell. She now wears a pacemaker.
Does she miss performing?
“I don’t miss the travel,” she says. “I miss the laughter. I do miss the actual hour. I don’t want to sound like I’m on dope, but that hour is a high; it’s as good as you can feel. A wonderful, wonderful happiness, and great power.”
Diller claims she has never been so busy in her life, including promoting a documentary about her final show; the film won first-prize at the San Diego Film Festival and was shown at Aspen.
“And I have an active social life,” she brags. “Next week, five dinner parties! And I have things to wear. I love clothes. God, do I love clothes.”
Her years on the road had lows as well as the highs. There was the time she faced a late-night audience of four at a New York club. She played her whole act for them. Her very worst date was at a basement club in Washington, D.C.
“The audience was made up of traveling salesmen and hookers,” she recalls. “I was bombing with my precious jokes about irony and children. And Bob Hope came in.
“He saw through the whole thing. He saw a person not giving up, not blaming the audience, getting on with the material, sailing through it just like it was working, bowing and leaving the stage.”
Hope, who had seen Diller on Jack Paar’s TV show, told her she was great. That encounter led to three movies together, 22 television specials and many personal appearances, including a trip to Southeast Asia to entertain U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
When she was 68, Diller finally found the man of her dreams. He was Robert P. Hastings, 75, co-founder of a prestigious law firm with offices on both coasts, a widower educated at Yale University and Harvard University. They were introduced by a mutual friend and the pair immediately clicked. They never married, but they became steady companions. He died of a stroke in 1996.
Diller was hit with more tragedies: two of her children died, another was institutionalized. Through all her travails, she sought refuge in a book she first read in 1951: “The Magic in Believing,” by Claude M. Bristol. The book, she says, showed her how to tap into the power of imagination and self-belief.
Throughout her lifetime, whenever she had a setback, challenge or tragedy, she countered with the mantra, “Give me strength.”