“Did Phyllis always wear a wig?” The question came after one of my recent talks. I’ve had a great time visiting book clubs and other groups telling about my time as personal secretary to Phyllis Diller in the early 70s.
“Yes, she pretty much did,” I answer the wig-question lady. One of Phyllis’s trademark looks was the wild hair which she teased to stand on end. That, along with the dresses that stopped at her knees and the boots which came just past the ankles gave her a decidedly awkward look — exactly what she wanted.
She had started by teasing her hair until she realized that she was doing real damage, then she took to wearing wigs. At first the wigs were just for her stage act, but eventually she realized it was much easier to put on an already-styled head of hair than to set and style her own all the time. And, of course, when you have a really good professionally styled wig, it looks pretty darn good.
“I heard her first husband used to appear on stage with her.” Um, no. Her second husband, Warde, was her opening act for a short time, but the first husband, Sherwood (not the fictitious Fang) was rather reclusive. He certainly had no part in her public life.
“Phyllis was Jewish, you know, and lived in New York.” That really took me by surprise. “Um, I don’t think so. Phyllis was from Lima Ohio although after she was married they did live in New York for a time. Her mother was a Bible-believing evangelical Christian and Phyllis went to Sunday School when she was a little girl.” “No, I’m sure of it. I know her cousin. She was Jewish.” Oh-kay, we’ll let that one alone. I don’t know Phyllis’s cousins. I didn’t know she had any — Phyllis never talked about her family.
“In your book [I love to hear that!] you say she always traveled with a kitchen bag. Why is that?” Oh, that’s easy. Phyllis was raised during the Great Depression and even after she was married, the pickings were slim. Phyllis always wanted to have access to food. She didn’t just carry crackers and cheese, but cans of soup and packages of pasta, pots, plans and a hot plate. There would always be food. In addition to the food, Phyllis found cooking relaxing so sometimes it was a form of therapy. She loved to cook.
“I heard Phyllis liked martinis.” “Oh, yeah! Phyllis concocted a drink that a bartender in Toronto dubbed The Killer Diller. It’s half gin and half champagne.” (“Ewww” from the audience.)
“What do you think Phyllis would say about all the comedians today who use foul language and dirty jokes?” “How did Phyllis learn all her material?” “Did she ever marry again?” “Where are her children now?” “Was she friends with other comedians and actors?” The questions go on and on. There are smiles and nods when I talk about her stage show and TV appearances. Nobody has ever said anything bad about her, that they didn’t like her, that her show wasn’t funny.
She stopped performing 8 years ago so I shouldn’t be surprised, but always am, to find there are people who don’t remember her. But then I come across younger people who I think won’t know who Phyllis Diller was and hear, “Oh, yes, when I was a little kid whenever she was on television we always watched. My mom loved her and my dad would laugh right out loud. I remember Phyllis Diller.” And there’s always a smile and sometimes a chuckle.
Everyone loved Phyllis Diller.