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Remembering Phyllis Diller

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Following the death of Phyllis Diller at the age of 95 yesterday, Paper's Kim Hastreiter and Mickey Boardman, who were friendly with Diller, share a few anecdotes and stories about the comedy legend and artist. 



kimbyphyllis01.jpgPortrait of Kim by Phyllis Diller


From Kim:

We were doing a Las Vegas-themed issue and had gone out there to shoot a story in which Phyllis Diller and Mickey pretended to get married at a drive-through chapel. We couldn't believe she agreed to do it. It was summer in Las Vegas and like 120 degrees, and they told us she could only stay and do the shoot for 30 minutes because it was so hot out and because she had an art opening later that night. The whole photo shoot was set up, we had like 30 people there to participate in the fake ceremony including threeAsFour, Heatherette, Ruben and Isabel Toledo, Peter Davis and Paige Powell, who had borrowed animals from the local animal shelter to be in the shoot. All we needed was Phyllis. So Mickey and I went and picked her up in this giant Escalade -- we had been given five Escalades by Cadillac to get around in while we were in Las Vegas. Phyllis was staying with one of the McGuire sisters, Phyllis McGuire, who used to date a gangster and had a giant, 40-foot-tall Eiffel Tower replica in her living room. We had such limited time with Phyllis that everything had to happen on schedule, and Mickey and I got into this big fight on the way there because he went the wrong way and got us lost and I was screaming at him and he was screaming at me. We finally get to this giant mansion in Las Vegas and we go up and ring the door bell and we're like, "Hi, we're here to pick up Ms. Diller." We go in, we look at the Eiffel Tower, and then Phyllis comes out and we take her to this Escalade outside and she's like, 'I don't know why I agreed to this. It's so hot. Who are you, anyway?' That was the first thing she said to us. She chewed us out a little bit, but she was OK, and she gets in the car and I'm like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I'm in an Escalade with Phyllis Diller and Mickey. We're making small talk with Phyllis Diller in an Escalade.' The whole thing was absurd.


4wedding2.jpgFrom Paper's 2003 "Last Vegas" issue.

We get to the wedding chapel and we take her into this little room in the back so she can change into this Heatherette wedding dress we had for the story. Isabel Toledo helped me get Phyllis dressed and her wig kept coming off while we were trying to get the gown on. But we got the dress on and she was such a good sport, standing there in a Heatherette wedding dress, and she's like, 'Alright, let's get this thing over with.' The photographer, Carlos Serrao, was amazing. He had everything planned and set up. We had the car with the streamers that said 'Just Married' and everyone had confetti. So we bring her down, and she's eager to get everything going, and she's kind of standing there grumbling to herself. And then the photographer was like, "OK are you ready, Ms. Diller? One, two, three!" And Phyllis, who had been standing there, so not feeling any of what was happening around her, just became totally animated. She did this beautiful pose and gave this huge smile. We literally took like three shots, these photos of her with this huge, huge smile. She really put it on for the camera. She was like, 'Did you get it? I gotta get go. I gotta get to my art show.' And then Isabel had to help her with her wig and the dress again. The whole thing was over in the blink of an eye and the photos were just magnificent. And that's how I first met Phyllis Diller.

Kim Phyllis Mickey.jpg Kim, Phyllis Diller and Mickey.

Then, after that, I was in L.A. doing PAPER's L.A. Project. Cameron Silver and his boyfriend Jeff told me they were going to Phyllis Diller's house for tea and invited me along. She loved gay boys and she really loved Cameron and Jeff. You'd go to her house, it was this classic old Brentwood mansion with a giant portrait of Bob Hope, who she loved. You'd sit with Phyllis and have a couple martinis and talk. And then after a little while of chatting, you'd go and look at her art and at her room where she kept her amazing dresses and wigs. They kept telling me that Phyllis was an artist and loved to sell her art, but I had never seen her work. I was riveted. The art was so crazy and fabulous. She had these sales every year and opened her house to the public and people would be lined up out the door to buy her stuff. There would be a painting that was $30,000 and then next to it there would be a painting that was $100.00. I was like, 'How do you decide the prices?' And she goes, 'Well, the ones I don't want to sell I just make really expensive.' The best painting in the whole house was the first one you saw when you walked in. It was a stage, with a big spot light on the curtain and an empty stool. That one was $30,000.

After that visit, she sent me a portrait of myself in the mail as a gift. It's the best. I'm so lucky to have that.

Screen shot 2012-08-21 at 6.37.55 PM.pngScreen shot 2012-08-21 at 6.39.04 PM.png

Phyllis Diller and Jeffrey Deitch; "Nude Juggler" by Phyllis Diller.

The next time I was there, I took Mickey. And of course Mickey died. Her house was to die for. She would tell these dirty jokes and these stories about Bob Hope. We'd drink martinis and she'd serve little old lady hors d'oeuvres like Ritz Crackers and we'd chat. She always made time for us. Another time I took Jeffrey Deitch, who is the director of MoCA, and he was really excited. Her dream was to always have a museum show and she got extra dolled up for Jeffrey and just charmed him. I don't think she thought of herself just as an actress or a comedian, I think she thought of herself as an artist. Doing TV and movies were not her only world. Jeffrey brought a self-portrait of hers and she made a big point of telling him that she never sold self-portraits but that she was willing to make an exception for him. I brought a painting of a nude juggler and she was like, 'Which balls do you watch?' and then cackled. She had this amazing cackle, this throaty 'Eh, eh, eh!' I never stayed for more than an hour or so when I came to visit, but this time she asked Jeffrey and I if we'd like to get a bite to eat.  So we get in her car, which was like a 1989 Lincoln Continental, with her assistant Carla driving. Jeffrey and I were in the back seat of this giant car, which was really low to the ground, while Phyllis held court and pointed out the sites of Brentwood to us. They drove us to this beach restaurant near Santa Monica that was an old gay bar that also served bad Italian food. We get there and the restaurant is empty except for a few people and all of these old gay waiters. She was like, "Hi, fellas!" They all knew her.

diller3photo.JPGdiller2photo.JPG

Joey Arias with a portrait of Phyllis Diller in Diller's home; Kim and Joey next to a portrait of Bob Hope in Diller's home.

The last time I saw her was New Year's Eve last year. I was in L.A. playing with Pink Martini and Thomas Lauderdale was dying to meet her. She was slowing down and not feeling well and I had asked her to come see the show but she wanted us to come to dinner instead. So me, Thomas and Joey Arias went to her house and ate chili with her in her kitchen. She was also a musician and played the piano and had a couple of pianos in her house. I knew she wasn't feeling well, she was quiet and wasn't herself, so I suggested that Thomas and Joey play a song for her to cheer her up. So we went into the library and we played Pink Martini for her and she loved it. Joey sang to her and it was sweet and beautiful. A friend of Phyllis' who was also there was blown away and was like, 'She should do a duet with Pink Martini.' So Thomas took his recording equipment over there a month later and they did Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." I told Thomas to record her laugh, that great "Eh, eh, eh!", and have it at the end of the song, but he wanted to keep it pure and left it out. It's still a beautiful song. [Ed note: Listen to the song below.]


Phyllis with Mickey and portrait.jpgPhyllis Diller, her portrait of Mr. Mickey and Mr. Mickey


From Mr. Mickey:

For some people a jaunt to Los Angeles means a trip to Disneyland or to have drinks at the Chateau Marmont. For me, the highlight of any trip to the City of Angels was always a visit with my almost-wife Phyllis Diller. Phyllis lived in Brentwood in a gorgeous old house, the oldest on the block from around 1910, and the hallways were filled with her paintings, all conveniently marked with price-tags for easy shopping. Earlier this year I had a reunion with some college friends in LA and although Ms. Diller was well into her 90s, she didn't hesitate to have us all over for a visit. It always started with cocktail, or in my case a mocktail, and a little tour of the house. My friends and I tried on Miss Diller's hats in her hat closet, drooled over her old costumes and gathered up piles of old 8 x 10 publicity shots for her to sign. Naturally we all picked at least one painting. Over more drinks, Miss Diller told us stories about Bob Hope as she signed everyone's paintings and 8 x 10s. She was one of the most entertaining hostesses I've ever come across. A favorite moment came on my first visit there with Kim. After seeing the gorgeous new landscaping in the backyard, Kim said, 'Miss Diller it's so lush back here. Do you get much wildlife?' Without missing a beat Ms. Diller earnestly responded, 'I have a gorilla that comes at night and fucks me.' She threw her head back and let loose with the signature killer Diller cackle.

Bob Mackie Headdress.jpgPhyllis Diller's Bob Mackie headdress.

Screen shot 2012-08-21 at 6.42.19 PM.png
The wig room.


Ed note: Below, Phyllis Diller and Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini perform "Smile." This is just so sweet, it'll make your heart hurt.





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