By EW Staff
Updated August 20, 2012 at 08:35 PM EDT
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Comedian Phyllis Diller died today in her Los Angeles home. EW’s Jessica Shaw profiled “the most celebrated female stand-up in history” in 2005 when the actress was still breaking ground at 87: She had penned a new memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, and landed a role on a fall TV pilot, The Book of Daniel. Diller’s wit was as sharp as ever, despite her failing health.

Phyllis Diller isn’t feeling so hot right now. She’s flung herself back in a black stretch limo, forcing deep breaths in and out of her mouth, weakened from a recent bout with pneumonia. Just two hours ago, things were not looking so dire for the comedy pioneer, who just published her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. Diller had joined her friends General Hospital‘s Anne Jeffreys and socialite Louise Danelian at the Colleagues Spring Luncheon, an annual charity fashion show in Beverly Hills, where the median age hovered around a very tight-skinned 80. The well-preserved posse gossiped about the diamond-dripping donors between sips of Perrier and discussed AARP-friendly topics like menopause, the perils of driving, and the difficulties of falling asleep in old age. Clad in a self-designed, Pepto-Bismol-colored, machine-washable, zigzag-hemmed dress, Diller, 87, eagerly flashed a toothy smile (all real!) to photographers who’d tired of snapping Betsy Bloomingdale and Mr. Blackwell.

Just after cocktails, Diller announced she felt weak and had to leave. She rang for Eugene, the elderly and chivalrous driver who has been chauffeuring her around on and off for decades, and headed to her Brentwood mansion.

Back in the limo, her breathing is loud and labored. ”I’m not as well as I used to be,” she whispers. ”Or as I thought I was.” Her eyes close and it’s silent for several minutes as Eugene races down Wilshire Boulevard, often looking in the rearview mirror to check on the comedy legend in the backseat. And then Diller begins to stir. ”Hey, what are those Sex and the City shoes?” she mutters. Manolo Blahniks? ”Yeah, I got one,” she says, her eyes still closed, her limbs limp. ”Those Manolo Blahniks. Do they come with crutches?” She starts to straighten up in the seat and opens one eye to see the reaction. ”No, wait. Do they come with a walker? Which one’s better? I like walker. Crutch is an ugly word.” She kicks up her skinny legs and coughs out a robust ”Ha!”

Before she emerged as the most celebrated female stand-up in history, before she traveled the world performing beside Bob Hope, before she became so legendary that her name alone could sell canned chili, Diller was an impoverished 37-year-old mother of five who knew two things: She made her friends laugh and she had an ugly mug. ”If you were a girl and you wanted to be funny, there had to be something wrong with you,” she says. ”I had crooked teeth. I broke my nose. I had a pointy face. I knew nothing about makeup. In other words, I looked terrible. I realize now it was all such a blessing.”

In 1955, the owner of San Francisco’s old Purple Onion nightclub took a gamble on Diller, who had quit her job as an advertising copywriter, and offered her a substitute spot one night. ”When I went on, the room went totally quiet and I knew that I had this magnetic thing that you had to be born with,” she recalls. ”You can’t buy it or even learn it.”

Diller, famous for jokes about her pathetic husband ”Fang” and self-deprecating digs about her less-than-glam appearance, quickly became a favorite on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Laugh-In, and visited war-torn countries to cheer up the troops with Hope, her mentor and best friend.

”I remember seeing her on Bob Hope’s show when I was just a kid and loving her right away,” says Roseanne Barr, one of Diller’s direct comic descendants. ”I didn’t understand then that she was plowing new territory. She was the voice of the Everywoman — the beleaguered, put-upon, regular American woman. But aside from all that message crap, she worked a room and worked a joke better than anyone. To a lot of us, she was better than Bob Hope.”

The better life got professionally for Diller, though, the worse it became personally. Her first marriage fell apart when she became successful; the second imploded even quicker. She lost a newborn, didn’t know how to care for her schizophrenic daughter, Sally, now 60, and watched three television shows crumble over creative battles and bad management. Oh, and the canned dinner? Philly Dilly Chili ran out of gas, though Diller claims Campbell’s stole her idea to use large kidney beans in the recipe. (A Campbell’s spokesman laughed at the allegation: ”I’m not trying to say Phyllis Diller is a crackpot, but millions of Americans have their own versions of chili and I can assure you nobody here was copying hers.”)

She chronicles many of these stories in Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. ”I really didn’t want to do a biography before,” she says. ”It was just too painful to remember. My whole idea in life is to cheer people up. Happiness is a habit. That’s one of my lines.”

Phyllis Diller always speaks in short, quippy lines. As if. She’s still. On stage. Early in her career, a talent scout told her that the rapid-fire punchline style would squash her chances at success. ”He said, ‘You’ve got all these bits. Bit. Bit. Bit. You should eloooooongate,”’ says Diller, who still writes one joke a day. ”He was wrong. I ended up the one-line queen. I was in the Guinness Book for 12 laughs per minute.” She belts out her trademark eardrum-popping ”HA ha ha HA” cackle. The one that her father compared to a ”laughing hyena.” The one that impressionist Rich Little calls ”a car where the battery’s going dead.” (That testimonial appears in Goodnight, We Love You, a documentary about Diller, currently making the film-festival circuit.)

Coincidentally, that laugh earned her another piece of unused advice. ”A guy came into the Purple Onion and told me to knock it off,” she says of her guffaw. ”The first time I did Vegas, I laughed and the entire audience applauded.” The lesson she took away: ”If you’re the genius, don’t go to the serfs for advice.” Hmmm, she’s tweaking the line. ”Wait. If you’re the court jester, don’t go to the serfs. See, I just rewrote that. The court jester is closest to the king. I like that more.”

You may not call Phyllis Diller by her first name. She doesn’t particularly like Ms. Diller, either. She prefers Madame, as in ”Madame, will you be having your red drink?” Karla Thomas, her nurturing assistant of almost three years, quickly emerges from the candy-apple red kitchen carrying a Virgin Mary. The rules chez Diller are many: Guests must sign in. (Even son Perry, 55, a banker, logged a recent visit with ”Great food, fun + you win! Love you. P Diller.”) The card game of choice is ”Diller gin,” a penny-a-point, deuces-wild contest (instructions are available next to the card table). And heaven forbid a visitor try to embrace Madame. ”I must have been hugged 8 million times and 80 percent of them were from strangers,” Diller gripes. ”I’m a handshaker. It’s such a wonderful, civil thing to do. Hugs are highly overrated.”

It’s not that Diller is icy. She’s kindhearted, endearingly crass, and loves a good gossip session about Julia Roberts. On a recent visit, she was answering her mail, including a letter from former First Lady Barbara Bush. ”I wrote her saying I noticed she was wearing four strands of pearls instead of three,” Diller says. ”And she wrote back, ‘Three strands no longer cover the neck wrinkles. Looking for eight strands next.’ Funny, funny woman.”

Though she gave up her stand-up career three years ago, Diller knew she couldn’t just hang around on the backyard deck smelling the Phyllis Diller rose, a bright yellow bloom that a California-based flower distributor is formally dedicating to her in 2006. Instead, she’s kept busy with guest appearances on shows like Life With Bonnie, 7th Heaven, and The Bold and the Beautiful. In January, Diller played a crazy old aunt on Fox’s Quintuplets. As exec producer Mark Reisman recalls: ”We had to pre-shoot Phyllis’ part and she said, ‘I would really like to play it in front of the audience.’ So we decided, fine, to satisfy her we’ll pretape it but then we’ll do a run in front of the audience. The pretape was okay, but as soon as she was in front of an audience, she sensed it. She didn’t miss a beat. It was unbelievable.”

Lately, Diller has begun selling off her life in occasional open houses. A roomful of fabulous sequined dresses have tags. The wig room with the zebra-patterned ceiling boasts more than 200 ‘dos, from a Carol Channing pageboy to Bo Derek cornrows. Then there’s a walk-in closet of Crayola-colored boas and a narrow room full of Louis Vuitton luggage, some still tagged for flights on National Airlines, which went out of business a quarter century ago. Diller’s best sellers, by far, have been the remarkably good paintings and sketches she’s created over the last 19 years, which are on display (with price stickers ranging from $100 to $20,000) on most walls of the house. (”Connie Stevens bought a painting!” Thomas notes.) ”Eventually my art could turn into big money,” says Diller, whose pastel pink smock hangs idle on the studio doorknob. ”I hope to leave something for my children when I’m gone.”

Several days after the Colleagues luncheon, Diller is still having a hard time breathing. She just pulled out of an independent film and a couch spot on The View to promote her book. Now, as she dims the lights in her bedroom, the oxygen tank kicks in with an irritatingly loud hum. She adjusts a tube into her nose and covers her eyes with a faded navy blue sock.

Diller thinks back on her all-time best stand-up performance, in Chicago about seven years ago. ”The room was round. Red velvet. Sunday matinee. A lot of gay people. From hello to goodbye, the most perfect show I ever did. The audience was breathing with me. We were one. A wonderful high. You have power. Your metabolism goes up. Your pulse goes up. It’s top of the world.”

Lately, Diller’s world has seen its ups and downs. Though weeks after this interview she’d feel well enough to shoot a role in NBC’s fall pilot The Book of Daniel (thanks to an impromptu meeting with Larry King’s cardiologist, who switched her meds), she fell out of her bed April 18 and at press time was recovering from surgery to repair fractured neck bones. On this particular afternoon, Diller is definitely in the dumps. ”Did you know children laugh 200 to 400 times a day and if an adult laughs 15 times it’s a record? Look at Bob Hope. Look at Milton Berle, George Burns. Look how long they lived. Seeing the funny side of things keeps you alive.” She rests after each line. ”Today I feel old. Maybe oxygen will bring my energy up a little. I thought I didn’t need it, but I guess it serves a purpose after all.”

And then it comes to her, the joke of the day: ”I should give this one to George Carlin,” she says, removing the sock from her eyes. ”If they call this the living room, what are the rest of them? Dead rooms?” She lets out a raucous, vibrant laugh that, for a moment, completely overpowers the buzz of the oxygen tank.

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