Ladies We Love: Phyllis Diller

3.18.2011

By Ari Karpel

Phyllis Diller's been joking about being old for the past 40 years. "I'm at an age where my back goes out more than I do," the comedian used to crack in her groundbreaking stand-up act. For decades, she donned multicolored sequined minidresses and worked her spiked blonde wig and long cigarette holder on The Ed Sullivan Show, Laugh-In, and The Tonight Show, where she'd hold forth on the indignities of being a housewife who can't cook, long before Roseanne was cribbing from the same script.

Now that she's 93, Diller realizes that being "old" in her 50s was nothin'. "You have no idea what aging is -- you're just talking about it," says Diller, wearing a sparkly black dress, false eyelashes, and one of her trademark wigs on a rainy mid-February afternoon at her longtime home, in Brentwood, Calif. "You have no idea. Aging is one nasty thing."

Then she breaks out in the cackle that made her famous. "Aaah ha-haaaa!" she blurts, a little weakened by a persistent cough. But she continues: "You've lost so much that you sometimes forget what you've gained." And what is that? "You gain patience, you gain understanding of people, and I have never feared death. To me, it's never the big hoo-ha. It's just a dumb little thing that happens and could happen at any time."

Despite her long-retired act and the not-big hoo-ha that could be looming, Diller still goes out on the town. "Last night I had dinner at Spago for Valentine's Day," she boasts. "Tonight I'm going for a second Valentine's Day dinner." Avec qui? "I have a bevy of men," she declares. "And a lot of them are gay."

There's George Chakiris, who won the Academy Award for playing Bernardo in West Side Story; Rod McKuen, a 77-year-old poet and singer she met back in her radio days in Oakland, Calif., who recently sent her a beautiful orchid. "And I have a date coming up with a straight guy: Elliott Gould," she says excitedly of her dear pal. "He's so pure, and I've taught him to drink martinis and to play Diller gin, so I'm ruining him." Diller Gin is a penny-a-point, deuces wild competition of her own creation. "It's a gin game that you get hooked on. Men beg to play it," she says. And then she begs like a dog. "Aoop-aahoop!"

Diller loves nothing more than a good joke, but when the conversation turns back to aging she gets surprisingly serious. And yet, she never loses her stand-up comic's sing-songy cadence. "I would be all for Kevorkian," she says. "He's on the right track, and it'll have to come to that because there's too many old people right now. There's going to be a food shortage! I hate to scare you, but prices are going up!" (Her voice goes up.) "Food is getting less." (Her voice goes down.) "Can't people see the writing on the wall? I mean, how stupid can people be?" (Her voice can't go any higher now.) "Oh, oh, oh, oh boy. It's a terrible thing. I won't be here, but my children and their children will."

And when that happens, how does she want to be remembered? "For being funny," Diller says immediately. "Well, I should say being kind. I am a kind person. I'm kind to everybody. I treat everybody the same, and I'm proud of that. In fact, that's my religion."

As we say goodbye and shake hands, Diller's assistant, Carla, comes in to help her into the adjacent TV room to watch her friend Debbie Reynolds on Oprah. "Has she talked about the scandal yet?" Diller asks, as she settles into her chair.

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