like a lampshade in a whorehouseMY LIFE IN COMEDY
Jeremy P. Tarcher/PenguinCopyright © 2005 Phyllis Diller and Richard Buskin
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-58542-396-3
A Quick Word ....................................................xiIntro "SHOCKING, ISN'T IT?"......................................1One THE FUNERAL-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB...............................5Two STANDUP NECKING.............................................29Three STEPPING IN MANURE........................................51Four BELIEVING..................................................75Five THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL...................................101Six LIKE AN EXECUTION WITHOUT THE BLINDFOLD.....................127Seven THE TRUTH ABOUT FANG......................................149Eight GLITZ AND HOPE............................................173Nine A DAME AND A DRUNK.........................................201Ten A CHANGE OF FACE............................................225Eleven THE MADONNA OF THE GERITOL SET...........................245Outro "GOODNIGHT, I LOVE YOU ..."...............................263Acknowledgments..................................................267
Chapter One THE FUNERAL-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB
In the fall of 1934, I arrived at Chicago's Sherwood Conservatory of Music to study piano, voice, harmony, and theory. Just seventeen years old, I was a model of wide-eyed naiveté I'd be well into my seventies before that would change.
Residing in a North Side apartment that had a fine grand piano on which to practice, I earned my room and board by serving as the governess of a little fella named Herbie Loseff. Herb's mother, Bessie, was studying to be a pharmacist, while his father, Sam, who already was a pharmacist, had some woman knocked up and in the hospital. He and another guy had both been screwing her-I suppose they were sharing the expense-but that evidently wasn't enough because the sonofabitch tried to rape me. He was a stumpy, revolting little bastard, and one morning as I was making the bed, he picked me up and began massaging my tits.
While he was titting me, I kept going on about his wife: "Just wait until I see Mrs. Loseff! If you don't stop, I'm going to tell her about this! Oh-ho, Mrs. Loseff won't like it!" Sweating like the pig that he was, Stumpy Sam didn't say a word, but after about a minute of me trying to squirm loose he suddenly saw sense and gave up. That was a pretty terrifying experience. I was still a virgin and I was really shaken up. However, when I called my parents and asked what I should do, their response was that I should do nothing. Nothing. Otherwise I'd have to talk to his wife and cause a whole upset.
Welcome to my world.
Right from the start my parents had left me to fend for myself. Apparently unaware that I was a kid, they invariably treated me like an adult, perhaps because they themselves were no spring chickens and perhaps because they'd never planned on having me in the first place. Indeed, when my mother missed a couple of periods and visited the Lima, Ohio, office of a Dr. Cavanaugh one icy-cold morning in November 1916, a cursory examination prompted the good doctor to conclude, "You have a tumor." A few days later she visited Lima Hospital to have it removed, and my father went along to watch-this was before television, so he didn't have anything else to look at.
"What's the excitement? Oh, an operation!"
"What do you want? A tonsillectomy?"
"No, I think I'll watch the tumor ..."
So, my father was in the operating room when Dr. Cavanaugh opened up my mother and said, "Uh, it's a kid. This tumor has legs, arms ... ugly-looking little thing!" Daddy was a really precious, darling man, and when the doctor asked him what should be done, he said, "Leave it in." Thanks to those three short words, I was born at home on newspapers about eight months later and christened Phyllis Ada Driver. (I still have a story on my butt, although now the print is much larger.)
You see, contrary to a widespread misconception, I am not Jewish. Diller (unlike Driver) is, for the most part, a Jewish name, many comics are Jewish, and at the start of my career I performed a huge number of Jewish benefits-since everyone assumed I was a Jew I'd always try to pass myself off as one ... until they would ask what synagogue I belonged to, and then I'd be up the creek. I'll never forget when I performed a benefit in Pittsburgh and was given the most beautiful set of eight tiny sterling-silver cups. I've since discovered these were for Kiddush-for the wine to be drunk with Sabbath dinner-but back then I didn't have a clue. As far as I was concerned, they could have been for washing my eyes.
On the day of my grand entrance into this world, July 17, 1917, Britain's royal household changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. Not only was the old moniker a mouthful, but worse still it was German, and this was at a time when the Hun wasn't exactly leading Europe's popularity polls. A little over three months since President Woodrow Wilson had declared America's involvement in World War I, it was fortunate that my own family's surname didn't betray our ethnic roots. Instead, the tumultuous events of that year, ranging from Mata Hari's execution to Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, just seemed to pass us by.
Daddy was a balding guy of fifty-five when I was born, Mother was a gray-haired woman of thirty-eight, and all of my relatives were old. The "uncles" on my mother's side were actually my great-uncles, and while all of the aunts and uncles on my father's side were my real aunts and uncles, they were ancient-Daddy's eldest brother, Sam, had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, for chrissakes! My parents were forever taking me to fimerals because their siblings were all dying. We belonged to the Funeral-of-the-Month Club.
I'm from such an old family, it's been condemned. I am descended from a very long line my mother once foolishly listened to.
In our family's case, the Driver surname was a derivative of Treiber. My great-great-grandfather, Ludwig Treiber, didn't want to join the German Army-and who can blame him?-so he sailed for America and landed in Philadelphia on October 17, 1749. There he changed his name to Lewis Driver, married Anna Barbara Sprenkle, and, like numerous other German settlers of that era, moved from Pennsylvania down to Rockingham County, Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachians. Nestled between the Blue Ridge mountains to the east and Allegheny Ridges to the west, Rockingham sits in the Great Valley where the Shenandoah River flows along the eastern side of the mighty Peaked Mountain. A couple of centuries later, I'd buy a house on South Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood, California, but that (together with my DNA) is pretty much the extent of my genealogical connections.
The fifth of Lewis and Anna Driver's seven children was my paternal great-grandfather, Peter. He married one Dorothy Meyer, and the younger of their two children was my grandfather Benjamin. He was born exactly one hundred years before me. Ben and Dorothy had six boys and six girls, and my daddy, Perry M. Driver, was born second-to-last, in 1862. His middle name was just an initial-he'd later change this to Marcus.
As farmers in Rockingham County, the Drivers weren't rich but they also weren't dumb. They were solid, solid people, and the house that they built and all lived in is still standing. My father was very proud of saying, "I plowed a straight furrow." That's how he and his family were-they cared about what they did and they were honest. Years later, Daddy would reminisce about how they made their own clothing, how their mattresses were stuffed with straw, and how, with no running water, they would have to break the ice outside in the freezing cold of winter just to wash their faces. It was a different era.
My father attended the local school where his sister Elizabeth taught, and he stayed there through eighth grade-if anything went wrong in her class, he got it, because she didn't want to appear partial to her little brother. Growing up to be a handsome, curly-brown-haired man of about five feet eleven, he was a dandy, a beautiful dresser without an ounce of fat on him, and he had great physical coordination-at age seventy, he'd bowl 299 (the 300th pin would wobble but refuse to die)-and this bodily skill would be passed down to my children Perry and Stephanie, both of whom excelled at sports. At one time, my dad was an armed sheriff on horseback in Rockingham County; and his reputation was that "Driver shoots to kill," so he never had to shoot. I don't know how he earned that reputation-he was probably his own best press agent. However, it was in insurance sales that he eventually chose to pursue a career.
My mother, Frances Ada Romshe, was the daughter of John Romshe-more German blood-and a redheaded Irish firecracker named Frances Sellers. Mother had three older brothers: Loy, Clem, and Al, who were reduced to two when Loy fell out of a horse-drawn buggy and punctured a lung. Before long, my grandfather ran off and ended up having five wives-I guess if a girl leaned over a bed, he shtooped her. That left my grandmother with three children and the necessity to make a living, which in those days wasn't easy for a woman. Fortunately, however, she was a schoolteacher, so she bought a home next to a boys' school in Lima and helped make ends meet by housing and feeding the students.
At some point, Perry Driver called the house to make a date with a girl who was working for my grandmother, but Mother answered the phone and that was that. He never got away. She had the most fabulous voice, so warm and dramatic that it just drew you in, and it obviously did the trick on him-I know she wanted to be an actress. She played a couple of amateur roles in Lima, including that of Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding destroyer of booze joints who belonged to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Years later, I'd play the same role on my NBC TV variety show.
Mother was a teetotaler, and although Daddy drank whiskey and smoked cigars when she first met him, that soon changed. She was dominant. In fact, when the two of them began dating, she told him, "Either this is going somewhere or I don't see you anymore." That's why they got married, eight years before my birth.
I was the world's ugliest baby. When I was born, the doctor slapped everybody. My father asked the doctor, "Is it a boy or a girl?" The doctor said, "No." He said it was the first full-term miscarriage he had ever witnessed. I was thirty years old and my mother was still trying to get an abortion.
Mother wanted everything her way because she was convinced that her way was best. She wanted to run everything and pretty much did. Still, Daddy wasn't submissive, so he and Mother would always argue until she wore him down. And if she didn't, she would go and visit a relative for a couple of days. That happened throughout my childhood. Daddy and I would be left to ourselves whenever she took off, and he'd be so down. At other times, when she got real mad at him, she'd go in the bedroom, shut the door, and sing hymns.
You see, not only could Mother play the piano and sing, but she was also a fanatical Protestant who believed every word of the Bible as written. If it said Jonah was in a whale, then kiddo, he was in a whale. Even as a child I couldn't buy that, and neither could my father. Nevertheless, what those two had was a love affair-believe me, they were meant for each other. They both had the same kind of work ethic and pride in what they did, they were both very, very bright, and they also had a terrific sense of humor.
I'm a combination of the two, having inherited my mother's fiery nature as well as her frugality. She was so frugal, most of my clothes were either hand-me-downs or homemade-fortunately, she was a fine seamstress. She made her own housedresses and did all her own housework, even though she was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of twenty. Her hip rheumatism was so bad that many people considered her a cripple, but that never entered my head. They'd say she had a gimpy leg-and she did have one leg shorter than the other-but she was always running, so you couldn't tell.
For his part, Daddy was a quiet, gentle soul with great social skills and a terrific personality. People adored him. Those were the days when a handshake was a contract, and he was honest. This is what I inherited from him, in addition to being a people person. I'll never forget the day I was with him on the street as a little kid, and he had a long conversation with some guy. Afterwards I asked, "Who was that?" and he said, "I have no idea." Years later, Bob Hope and I were standing on a street in Burbank and we were talking to someone who turned out to be a total stranger. Afterwards I said, "I thought he was your friend." Neither of us knew the man, but we'd both just stood there, wailing away. It was the same deal. Like my father, I have a sliding personality, where I can talk to the President or a bum and everybody in between. It's a wonderful thing.
When my parents were first married, Daddy commuted between the Lima office of the National Life Insurance Company of Montpelier, Vermont, and a dear little bungalow that he'd bought way out in the sticks. He left Mother there to sit outside and watch the squirrels and rabbits all day, but that wasn't for her. Besides, she also didn't trust what he might be getting up to at work. So, she saw to it that they traded the bungalow for a fifty-five-acre farm within the Beaverdam city limits-or make that village limits, because there were only nine hundred inhabitants-while renting an apartment nearby in downtown Lima to house both them and his office. That way she didn't have to worry about a secretary hitting on him. Instead, she became the secretary and bookkeeper, and from then on the routine was that she'd do the books and have a migraine.
Not that Mother had things all her own way. Located at the junction of the Lincoln and Dixie national highways, the Beaverdam property had seven beautiful oak trees, so she wanted to call it the Seven Oaks Farm, yet the name that ended up being emblazoned across the barn in huge letters was the P. M. Driver National Highway Farm. This was run by a neighbor, Mr. Reigle, whose colorful language concerned my parents when I was around, and who oversaw the raising of cattle and sheep for the market.
Shearing and lambing were times filled with excitement for me, and one of my fondest memories is of an operatic concert that I performed for those sheep one sunny afternoon when I was about five years old. Sheep are a great audience, they love music, and the whole flock faced me and was transfixed by my high soprano and strange language. In the Bible it's referred to as "speaking in tongues," and in this case it certainly was unintelligible not only to the listeners but also to the singer. I made it all up, yet it was very dramatic and the sheep just couldn't get enough.
Once a year we'd have "farm day," when my parents would play their part in the threshing process with a couple of mules named Fanny and Queen. How can I ever forget the sight of my little mother leading one of those strong, stubborn creatures by the nose? Never mind that she was five feet tall with a gimpy leg-nothing could hold her down. She loved it there, and so did my dad, whose astute farming sensibility stemmed from growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of, as he called it, "Ol' Virginny." Strolling in the great outdoors, he'd sometimes forget about the butting instincts of our one male sheep, Fifty-Four, and have to bolt over a fence in order to save his beautiful ice-cream suit. Daddy, you see, was never out of that suit, for it was in Lima that he made his living and where we spent all of our time.