R.E. has a glamorous kangaroo fur coat once owned by famous comedian Phyllis Diller. R.E. has wonderful provenance on this coat: Her sister was once a personal assistant to Miss Diller, circa the 1970s, and R.E. fondly remembers Miss Diller's 22-room Beverly Hills mansion, with its incredible closets. Both R.E. and her sister, and indeed their whole family, were guests of Miss Diller throughout the years. What follows is not so much an estimate of value — kangaroo is banned from commerce in California — but an exposition of provenance. Provenance can sometimes tell a story even if an object cannot be sold.
An article written by R.E.'s sister from the 1970s about the star notes all the rooms in her mansion had amusing names, as you might expect from Miss Diller. The front bathroom was the Edith Head room. The telephone room was John Wilkes Booth. She treasured her home, and R.E.'s sister writes she toured guests around before dinner.
R.E.'s sister mentions Miss Diller's love of fur coats; her collection was "mind-boggling." Many people today would not wear fur at all, especially in Hollywood. She collected all styles, types and colors and had a special wardrobe room for them.
As of 2016, California considers the sale of even antique kangaroo furs a misdemeanor, with specific exceptions. The value of fur is always problematic, and in this case, kangaroo is illegal to sell in California, although not across the U.S. However, that boils down to the same issue, as some fur types, such as kangaroo, cannot cross state lines for the purposes of commerce. A few of the skins that are additionally banned in California for commerce are polar bear, leopard, ocelot, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, sable, antelope, wolf, zebra, whale, cobra, python, sea turtle and vicuna. Rightfully so, of course, but at one point these furs may have been considered the height of glamour. R.E.'s coat's provenance is impeccable, and objects owned by celebrities have value, but the value here is in the story only. And what a story!
When Miss Diller bestowed this coat upon her assistant in the 1970s, things were different — the assistant was floored with so much glamour. Now you're thinking: Phyllis Diller, glamorous? Perhaps you will think so too after hearing the insider's scoop.
According to her personal assistant, her Brentwood home was beautifully and elegantly designed, full of roses, complete with two grand pianos, played often by the star. She trained as a concert pianist at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago, and she performed in concert. She was married for 25 years and had five children, and she loved to cook for her household and staff. She traveled with a large storage locker full of gourmet ingredients, custom hot plates and expensive cooking utensils, which she broke out in the hotel suite. She coined many a recipe and was a gourmet chef.
Her stage presence to the world was embodied in wearable kitsch, but her daily loungewear was white capris, a white shirt and white ballet shoes. She had her own designer, Omar, in Las Vegas. Those stones she wore on stage were often the real thing, and she had a vast collection of fine jewelry. Yet Miss Diller loved shopping sprees at local thrift stores. When she found things she liked, she bought in quantity; her designer fitted them no matter how many of the same she owned.
And Miss Diller was a collector of antiques, specifically antique glass bottles, especially those mini bottles airlines used to serve on board. Her assistant writes, "If you happened to have sat near her on a flight, she surprised you by asking for the little empties." Ms. Diller predicted quite rightly that glass would be a thing of the past for beverages.
As to her costumes on stage, she could not bear to toss them. She actually sewed patchwork pillows of these exotic fabrics, and gave them to friends with a note about the origins of the fabrics. She was born in 1917, so she went through the Depression in Ohio and learned to save. She loved her home life and tended to her kids about which she said, "Cleaning up the house before your kids leave home for good is like shoveling snow before the storm is over."
Thus, we have a coat that was treasured by a great entertainer that contains wonderful stories, and reflects the changing values of California culture today.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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