Feb 2005 - Phyllis Diller Interview
This article ran in newspapers in Boston, Chicago, Delaware, SF, LA & Sydney by Jay Blotcher
While gay men love their preening divas, they also hold a soft spot for the underdog with the verve to transform pain into bellylaughs. Before Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Margaret Cho, there was Phyllis Diller. An unapologetic ugly duckling, Diller was a pioneer in comic stand-up when women were confined to the kitchen. Like her comic successors, Diller first found favor with gay male audiences who cheered on a fellow misfit and iconoclast.
In her new autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy (Tarcher/Penguin), Diller at 87 looks back on a half-century of show business with equal amounts of nostalgia and bittersweet candor. The comedienne heartily acknowledges the gay men who managed her and the gay audiences which jump-started her career.
"Gay men have the most wonderful sense of humor," said Diller, speaking on the telephone from her Beverly Hills home on a recent afternoon. "And they are willing to laugh. They appeal to me and I appeal to them."
In the mid-1950s, Diller was a 37-year-old beleaguered housewife from Alameda with five children. She took a break from advertising to work at the nightclubs of North Beach, the bohemian section of San Francisco humming with counterculture offerings: jazz clubs, strip joints, gay bars and beatnik hangouts. Diller made her debut at a North Beach club called The Purple Onion. When she came onstage in second-hand evening clothes, highlighted by a ratty fur piece and a cigarette in an elegant holder, the predominantly gay audience was immediately charmed.
Diller returned the favor. Her one-liners skewered her gawky looks and her domestic life, the latter which was in shambles thanks to an "agoraphobic sex tyrant" husband named Sherwood. But the Midwestern transplant from St. Louis never stooped to homophobic humor, even though gays were an easy mark during the McCarthy era.
"No, no, no, no," she said. "In fact, Joan Rivers and I both absolutely insist that we never would have got started without our gay audience. They were the first to actually accept us as funny women."
The nutty lady in the hand-me-down gladrags, speaking mockingly about the downside of marriage and suburban living, was quickly developing a following. Her first colleague was a local man named Lloyd Clark. "Suave, dark-haired, pencil thin, and overtly gay," as Diller recalls in her book, Clark helped Diller to develop jokes for her act for $5 per hour. A well-known Bay Area character, Clark had the elegant fussbudget demeanor of actor Clifton Webb. He also had a wife, an obese blonde who fussed over her queen of a mate, seemingly oblivious to his true nature. Diller did not judge Clark, whose transparent domestic arrangement was the rule rather than the exception in that era.
Diller's start at The Purple Onion was thanks to a man named Barrymore Drew. A tall, elegant man who always wore sandals, Drew was part owner of the club. In audition to manning the light and sound boards, he also selected talent. Drew played housemother to the roster of singers and comedians at the Purple Onion, and was enchanted by Diller's suburban housewife in an ill-fitting evening dress and rhinestone-accented high heels. She was hired to perform six nights in this dark, musty basement of a nightclub, playing the same stage as an aspiring dancer-actress named Maya Angelou.
Under Drew's tutelage, Diller developed new comic personas, from a fortune-teller to a gangster's moll, and played for both locals and crowds that arrived in tourist buses. She received $60 a week. Drew even shared his Sausalito houseboat with Diller, which offered her a nice respite from the spiraling career crises of her husband Sherwood. A perennial dreamer with grandiose airs and dead-end schemes, "Sherry" often found himself between jobs and unable to meet the rent. Phyllis Diller and Barrymore Drew became best friends, to the point that she would accompany him on nightly cruising of San Francisco's Fillmore district, since Drew had a sweet tooth for men of color.
"Oh, my precious Barrymore!," Diller said. "Well, here's a gay man who's just totally responsible for my first five years. Her took care of me as a father would. He gave of himself."
Throughout the book's narrative, gay men are remembered with great affection. One is Rod McKuen, the Stanyan Street poet-songwriter whom Diller met in the early 1950s, when she was a copywriter at radio station KROW. McKuen was a disc jockey.
"He was an 18-year-old child and here I was a 33-year-old woman, a housewife," she said. "We absolutely bonded instantly because, you know, talent and creativity. He was a musician and a poet and a scholar. And I considered myself the same. And we simply loved each other and became just excellent soul mates. And it has lasted a lifetime." The two shared a cruise to the south of France just two years ago.
Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse maintains a disarming level of honesty. Doublecrossing people whom Diller encounters on the way up -- managers, fellow comics, greedy relatives -- are dispatched with biting assessments and an epithet or two. She acknowledges the sad tale of one daughter with brain damage, who is institutionalized. Husband Sherwood receives more than a quick drubbing; his avarice, eccentricity and emotional torture of wife and children are recorded for the ages.
Another man bears an ample portion of Diller's fury. Warde Donovan was Diller's second husband. A tall, robust and handsome actor with a seductive baritone voice, Donovan offered a tempting alternative to the increasingly troubled Sherry. It was the summer of 1962 when they met in a Chicago revival of Wonderful Town. Diller's star was on the rise; she had a part in the movie "Splendor in the Grass" and appeared on the Jack Paar show. Bob Hope was a big fan and her stage act was now booked in major clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Miami. (She was even given the key to San Francisco on June 7, 1963, which was declared Phyllis Diller Day by Mayor George Christopher.) More films, television series and a tour of Vietnam with Hope lay ahead.
Diller and Donovan began to carry on energetically, even though both were married. When Donovan's wife died in 1965, Diller happily gave Sherry the boot and the two finally married. They moved into a twenty-two room mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, where neighbors included Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Cloris Leachman and Judy Garland.
Warde Donovan was everything that Sherry was not: attentive, ambitious and sexually satisfying. He was now the opening act to her stage show, which was being booked overseas. But Donovan was also bisexual, a reality that Diller had tried her damndest to ignore. But the last straw comes during a trip to Australia, when Donovan had a romp with a limousine driver and returned to the hotel, as Diller writes, "with the smell of semen on his breath. The marriage of three months is soon over.
Diller retired officially from show business in 2002, at the age of 84, with a farewell concert at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Comedy royalty turned out for the event, including Lily Tomlin, Rich Little, David Brenner, Don Rickles, Roseanne, Ruth Buzzi and JoAnn Worley. The event is captured in a touching documentary by Gregg Barson called "Goodnight, We Love You". Calling herself the Madonna of the Geritol set, Diller displays the same self-mockery that made her famous. But she also fires off some topical gags: "I went to a gay wedding and I caught the jockstrap," she observes, adding, "In San Francisco, a mixed marriage is a man and woman." "Goodnight We Love You" has been screening at film festivals around the country, most recently the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
At the height of her comic career in the 1970s, Diller switched gears and toured as a classical pianist, drawing on a formidable talent that first flowered during her St. Louis childhood. Today, nearing 88, she no longer plays. ("God, that's work. I'm very lazy.") Instead, Diller is a celebrated painter, working in "acrylic, water and spit," she said, her signature horselaugh filling the phone receiver. At the behest of friends, she holds an exhibition in her Beverly Hills home four times a year and people come to snatch up her vivid tableaus which suggest the work of Matisse.
When not painting, Diller keeps lunch and dinner dates with her inner circle of friends, which includes former governor Pete Wilson and his wife, as well as old Hollywood luminaries: Dolores Hope, the widow of Bob, and June Haver, a dependable gin buddy and the widow of Fred MacMurray. There is still fan mail, which Diller answers personally with an autographed glossy. Coming to the end of her list of daily activities, Diller stops, adding, "Jesus, I'm busy."
While her memories of eight decades chronologically hopscotch about the pages, Phyllis Diller's recall is impressive. Asked how she refreshed her memory, Diller demurs.
"No, no, I didn't read anything," she said. "It's all there; I just have to shake my head and it comes out."
But looking back, she said, provided Diller with a powerful perspective on her comedy: ultimately, the self-ridicule and stinging one-liners were a marvelous coping mechanism for a challenging adult life.
"It took me to be over 80 years old -- beyond that age -- to realize that my act was actually very therapeutic."
Jay Blotcher is a longtime freelancer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Advocate and in six queer anthologies.