Over the course of her five-decade-plus career, comedienne Phyllis Diller, who died Monday at age 95 in Brentwood, California, was famous for many things: an eccentric wardrobe, an acid voice, and a rapid-fire stream of one-liners that made her both a success in her own right and an inspiration to the female comics who followed her into the spotlight.
Less well known: Diller’s connection to the legal community via her longtime relationship with Paul Hastings founding name partner Robert Hastings.
As The New York Times noted in its Diller obituary (without mentioning Hastings’s firm affiliation), the couple dated from the mid-1980s until Hastings died in 1996. In her 2005 memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, Diller is effusive when describing Hastings, calling him “the love of my life” and remarking on how compatible they were despite coming from very different backgrounds. According to Diller’s book, they were introduced by a mutual friend, Jeffie Pike (the daughter of artist Marion Pike), who told the comedienne, ” ‘Boy, do I have a guy for you.’ ” Diller ‘s response: “ And was she ever right.”
When Diller and Hastings met, she was 68 with two divorces behind her. He was a 75-year-old widower whose wife had died four years before. He “was the most fabulous gentleman,” Diller writes. “[A] refined, immaculately dressed bon viveur who knocked me out from the moment we first set eyes on each other.”
Hastings’s colleagues at the firm have fond memories of the couple’s time together. Tollie Besson, now senior counsel in Paul Hastings’s Los Angeles office, recalls that they were “constant companions” throughout their decade together.
In those years, Diller was still an active performer, one who averaged 125 nightclub engagements a year into her seventies. She also frequently performed on cruise ships, with Hastings typically appearing at her side, according to her book. While they never lived together, they did jointly spend weekends in one or the other’s home, cooking, listening to music—including Diller’s own piano playing—and enjoying each other’s company. They also went on the occasional nonworking trips, one of which Diller describes as akin to their “honeymoon”—a visit to San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara to stay in the cottage where John and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned in 1953.
Besson says that they were often guests at social functions with other Paul Hastings lawyers, including Besson’s own wedding party. As might be expected, Diller was a coveted dinner guest, though she never broke into her stand-up routine after hours.
“She wasn’t putting on a show,” Besson says. “She was just a very engaging, outgoing, and very down-to-earth person. She was interested in talking to people about what they were doing.”
Paul Grossman, a partner in the firm’s Los Angeles office, has similar memories. “The real Phyllis Diller on a social occasion is so different from the wacky comedienne; it’s just mind-boggling,” he says, recalling a dinner party at Hastings’s English Tudor–style home in Pasadena at which Grossman says he had the pleasure of sitting next to Diller. “She was a beautiful and cultured lady.”
Grossman says that as a teenager growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, he frequented the Purple Onion, the club where Diller got her start through regular stand-up performances (and where Grossman says all the local teens went for “a hot date.”) “Never did I dream I would come in personal contact with her.”
Diller’s memoir mentions how much she enjoyed meeting Paul Hastings lawyers and getting a glimpse of the legal community, which was previously unknown to her. “I was out of my mind, awed by these people’s knowledge and intelligence.”
Hastings’s pedigree was impressive. A Los Angeles native, he earned an undergraduate degree from Yale, where he served as the captain of the tennis team, and a law degree from Harvard. As Diller puts it, “Having been a great beauty in his youth he still had that look of intelligence and authority.” He was also an Anglophile and published authority on Winston Churchill. Grossman says Hastings had one of the largest personal collections of Churchill artifacts and knew members of British royalty. “He just moved in those circles.”
After law school, Hastings became a generalist corporate lawyer, cofounding the law firm that would become Paul Hastings in 1951 with Harvard classmates Lee Paul and Leonard Janofsky. By 1962, they had joined up with Charles Walker, and the firm bore the name Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker until 2011, when the moniker was shortened to its current two-name version. Over the years, Paul Hastings has expanded to some 880 lawyers with offices around the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Hastings died on his birthday, May 23, 1996, just days after collapsing in the airport on his way to accompany Diller on yet another cruise. Diller writes in her memoir that she went on the trip because she was booked to perform and asked Hastings’s daughter, Susan Mallory, to care for him. Reached this week at her home in Tennessee, Mallory politely declined to comment on her father’s relationship with Diller, whom she described as a private person.
That may be so, but Diller doesn’t hold back when describing her feelings for Hastings in her memoir: “That man,” she writes, “was something else.”