It was July 17, 2005, Phyllis Diller’s 88th birthday. The butler pushed open the doors of the formal dining room. “This room was always off-limits when I worked here,” Carole Beams whispered as the butler stood aside and motioned for us to enter. The table was beautifully set with antique silver, elegant china and crystal wine goblets. Linen napkins and place cards marked every place. The tall candles in the center were lit even although it was the middle of the day.
Phyllis had invited a select group of former secretaries, whom she dubbed her “Dustbiters” for the first of what would become many annual reunions. (She later explained her name for us on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, “they worked for me as long as they could stand it, then they bit the dust!”).
This was the first time in nearly 30 years I’d been back. The house had not changed, but it was very strange to be there as a guest. Since I now live in Las Vegas, Karen invited me to stay with her at her home in Burbank, only a hop-skip-and-jump from Phyllis’s home in Brentwood. We had been greeted at the door by a maid who directed us to sign the guest book and the butler who offered us champagne from a silver tray. Phyllis was seated in the loggia — the small reception room at the end of the entryway — with a glass in her hand. Although she didn’t get up, she welcomed each one of us with enthusiasm.
What I didn’t know at the time, although some of the others did, was that Phyllis had just gotten out of the hospital the day before. She’d had a serious heart attack and had a pacemaker put in. She should still be in the hospital, but she’d already set the date for this party and was not going to cancel. She insisted the doctors release her and they did, reluctantly, on condition that she not overdo. Surprisingly, Phyllis did follow doctor’s orders. I say surprisingly because when she’d had her facelift (first of many), she was sent home with strict orders to stay in bed, to drink no alcohol, and rest. Ha!
Phyllis did NOT stay in bed, she DID have a gin and tonic (or two or three) and as soon as she felt strong enough, she got up, got dressed and went to a party — puffy face, black eyes, stitches and all. That was how she was.
So when I later found out that at this reunion she was recovering from a massive heart attack — had actually died on the operating table — I was stunned. Partly because she shouldn’t even have been home, but also because she was actually behaving! I think that heart attack really got her attention. So at this party she was determined that we would all have a good time. And we did.
First of all, we had to get acquainted with each other. I knew Sandy Beach (really), my immediate successor and Ingrid and Karen with whom I’d worked, and Magician Mercer Helms, Phyllis’s good friend who had been her opening act for the last 20 years of her stand-up career. Somewhere over the years I had met Carol Eschler who came after Sandy, but I’d never met Heidi, Phyllis’s last secretary, nor Carole Beams who was somewhere in the middle of the “maybe 40” secretaries Phyllis admitted to having over the years. But the most intriguing for me was Corrine, Phyllis’s first secretary. In my mind I dubbed her “Corrine the Perfect” because she was the ideal. Everyone at the house had loved Corrine. She could do no wrong, it seemed. I definitely had mixed emotions about meeting her. I had built up this image in my mind of someone who practically walked on water and was probably the world’s biggest snob. She turned out to be a delightful woman and I found it impossible not to like her. In fact, we sat and chatted for quite a while, comparing notes and reminiscing about the days we had worked for “The Queen”, as Phyllis sometimes called herself.