It just doesn’t seem possible … last year at this time I was looking forward to Phyllis Diller’s annual Dustbiter’s reunion. The first one she had was on her birthday, July 17, but she quickly realized that everyone was showing up with presents which had not been her intent, so she changed the reunion, decreeing it would always be on the third Sunday in August. In 2012, that was August 19.
As it turned out, I was on vacation in mid-August. I’d gone with my friend, Lois, to the country home of her brother & sister-in-law in rural Washington. I would get back to Las Vegas just in time to fly down to L.A. for the weekend. There was so much to do in Washington — golfing, hiking, river rafting, wine tasting and shopping in the quaint town of Winthrop — that checking my e-mails went by the wayside. It wasn’t until two days before we left that I climbed the stairs to the loft where the computer was kept.
That evening during Happy Hour, someone said, “Robin, are you okay? You are awfully quiet.”
“I just got an e-mail that Phyllis Diller’s son has cancelled the Dustbiter’s Reunion.”
“He didn’t say. Just that it was cancelled.”
There was silence as we all sipped our Lost River Cabernet (www.lostriverwinery.com) and contemplated the mountains across the way.
“How old is she?” someone asked.
“Ninety-five. She just turned ninety-five last month.”
I knew the reason the party was cancelled — or was pretty sure I did. I’d talked to Phyllis’s secretary, Karla, about a month before. Karla had recently moved to Las Vegas and commuted to L.A. every week. We’d gotten together a couple of times. The last time I talked to her, I asked “how’s Phyllis?” For the first time, Karla hesitated. “Not well,” she finally said. “She’s forgetting a lot of things.”
“Well, we all do that.”
“No, this is different.” Karla wouldn’t go into details, but she said, “I’m worried.” Now I was worried, too. Karla had said Phyllis was looking forward to the Dustbiter’s Reunion. “She loves seeing you all,” Karla had assured me, “but she’s not doing well.”
I suppose we all knew the day would come when she just wasn’t up to it. Phyllis had lived a very long, very successful and I think mostly happy life. The first part of her life had not gone well with a husband who couldn’t or wouldn’t work and five children to support. But once Phyllis hit her stride, she enjoyed life immensely. She was determined to put the bad things behind her and relish her success — not for it’s own sake, but the security it provided for her and the kids. She loved her big house in Brentwood; she loved having parties and at least while I worked with her, the success was still new enough that she was maybe just a little star-struck. Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, and Cloris Leachman all lived in the same neighborhood. When I was with Phyllis on the set of “Love, American Style” she nudged me and said, “Look! There’s Ricardo Montalban!” Yes, indeed, Phyllis loved her life, her lifestyle and all that fame brought her. I was sick inside to think it was all coming to an end.