The Life and Death of a Clown

May 9, 2009

6 min read


The eternal value of cheering up sad people.

The only thing Phyllis Shlossman couldn't abide was sad people. That's why, whenever she ate at a restaurant with her husband and children, if she noticed that the people at the next table were forlorn or fretful, she reached into her purse for her weapon.

She furtively pulled out her special fork, swiftly extended its handle to its full, meter-long length, and deftly stabbed a French fry from a plate on the next table. As she retracted the fork with the pilfered French fry, the astounded diners would follow its course to see a woman with a twinkle in her eye asking, "It looked so good. Do you mind?"

The response was always the same: first, shock, then guffaws of hysterical laughter. Phyllis had succeeded once more in her life's mission: to cheer up people.

A total lack of self-consciousness enabled Phyllis to make friends with anyone -- of any age, race, or social status. She could not stand in a supermarket line without striking up a conversation with the people in front of and behind her. If a customer in the supermarket pre-Pesach asked Phyllis a question about matzah, she and her whole family would immediately be invited to the Shlossman Seder. Only once did her daughter Ruth see Phyllis embarrassed.

Their family had just moved to a new, upscale neighborhood. Ruth was in the second grade. Her mother always threw elaborate, themed birthday parties for each of her three children, inviting the whole class. Ruth's birthday party that year was to be a "make-it-yourself-ice-cream-sundae party," a sure bet to delight all the kids and, in the process, make them like the new girl in the class.

It didn't work out that way. The children sat there stiffly, picking at their sundaes in a mood of polite diffidence. Phyllis saw, to her dismay, that nobody was having a good time. She had to act.

Ladybug with her grandchildren

She took a can of whipped cream and started spraying the children and flinging maraschino cherries at them. The kids fought back, throwing ice cream, nuts, and sprinkles, until everyone was having a riotous good time. They were having so much fun that no one noticed when the designated time for parental pickup arrived. Phyllis, her beehive hairdo laced with cherries and sprinkles, was standing there about to lob a glob of ice cream at one of the kids when a pair of fashionable high heels descended the rec room stairs. The horrified mother's eyes locked with Phyllis's, and Ruth saw her mother's face turn bright red.

"I became instant friends with all the kids because of that party," Ruth, now a resident of Jerusalem, remembers. "I was the kid with the cool mother."

Phyllis and two of her friends opened up the first gourmet cheese store in Millburn, New Jersey. Phyllis always succeeded in business because she was so quintessentially unbusinesslike. Every customer became a friend—and even a helper. Phyllis often asked the customers, "Can you take the garbage out with you when you go?" One day a business executive came in and complained that he had forgotten that he had the garbage with him and accidentally took it on the commuter train.

Many of the women didn't lose weight, but they continued coming to the clinic because Phyllis made them feel so good about themselves.

After the family moved to Florida in 1972, Phyllis opened up a diet clinic. Its patrons adored Phyllis because she lavished so much love on them. While many of the women did not in fact lose weight, they continued coming to the clinic because Phyllis made them feel so good about themselves. They had wanted to lose weight to enhance their self-image; instead, their self-image blossomed under the sunshine of Phyllis's love, rendering a trim figure almost superfluous.


Phyllis was in her early sixties when she encountered her destiny in the form of a newspaper advertisement for the South Florida Clown School. One year and a certificate later, Phyllis became a professional clown, "Ladybug." She started by volunteering as a hospice clown, then at a camp for kids with cancer. Eventually she worked both professionally and on a volunteer basis. Ladybug's regular clown job was at a nursing home.

Phyllis took her clown job very seriously. She spent hours putting on her makeup. Unlike most clowns, she innovated a new costume every week, so her "clients" wouldn't get bored. She blew up balloons and collected jokes, such as: "What are the three days of the week that begin with ‘T'?" [Tuesday, Thursday, and Today]

And she broke all the rules. While the nursing home had strict regulations forbidding the staff to touch the patients, Ladybug hugged and kissed them all. If she couldn't get a particularly depressed patient to smile, she would climb into bed next to her and tickle her until she laughed.

Larry was an Alzheimer's patient who wanted to marry Ladybug. To humor him, she arranged a mock wedding, conscripting the nurses to act as bridesmaids and another patient to be the Justice of the Peace. They would act out a wedding to Larry's consummate joy. But because he had Alzheimer's, he would totally forget the grand occasion; a couple weeks later they would have to re-enact the nuptials.

Phyllis's grandchildren Lauren, Jason, Daniel, and Jeffrey were part of her act. She would dress them up as clowns and take them with her to perform. With all her concern for the world at large, Phyllis's primary devotion was to her family. She spoke to her grandchildren on the phone every day. They considered their grandmother their best friend.


The only stage Phyllis couldn't conquer was the stage 4 lung cancer with which she was diagnosed in July, 2005, at the age of 73. Nevertheless, Ladybug continued to act as a clown, lifting the hearts of others less sick than herself, until the effects of the chemotherapy made it impossible.

The disease progressed rapidly. Five months after the diagnosis, Phyllis succumbed.

Phyllis and her husband Bob

Or perhaps she never succumbed. Witness this scene just three weeks before she died: Phyllis, accompanied by her husband Bob, son Stuart, and daughter Ruth, was in the basement of the hospital, where she had just undergone the painful process of having her lungs drained. She was lying on a gurney, waiting her turn to be X-rayed to make sure that all the fluid was gone. Phyllis noticed a woman in her forties standing next to a gurney some ten yards ahead of them.

"Ruth, that woman is in distress. Go make her happy," her mother instructed.

"Mom, I'm not like you," demurred Ruth. "I don't know how to go over to a stranger and make them happy."

Despite her pain, Phyllis was not about to abandon her life's mission.

Despite her pain, Phyllis was not about to abandon her life's mission. "Okay, then tell her to come over to me."

Ruth shyly approached the woman. "Excuse me," she said. "My mother would like to talk to you."

Perplexed, the woman glanced down at her daughter in the gurney, then made her way over to Phyllis.

"Hi, how are you?" Phyllis greeted her with a warm smile.

With the magic that only true clowns can invoke, she opened up the stranger's heart. The woman poured out her whole story: how her daughter was sick with kidney stones, and how they had not been able to remove them, and how worried she was.

"I have just the thing for you," Phyllis responded. With effort, she pulled out of her bathrobe pocket a set of index cards, on which she had written her favorite jokes. "I don't have my glasses here, so I can't read these. Would you read them for me?" she appealed.

The erstwhile stranger read the jokes out loud, and everyone within hearing distance laughed riotously, including the woman herself. Another mission accomplished.

Two weeks before her death, Phyllis's family brought her to a hospice. In her wheelchair, Phyllis's first item of business was to meet everyone on the floor.

In the room across from hers was a woman in her sixties named Jeannie. Jeannie was not suffering from a terminal illness; she was simply post-surgical. Jeannie's children and other family members did not live in Florida, and no one ever came to visit her. This distressed Phyllis greatly. She had to do something about that sad situation. So she sent Jeannie her own visitors. Every morning when Phyllis's children Linda, Stuart, and Ruth came to visit her, she would admonish them: "What are you doing here? Go visit Jeannie!"

Until her death, Phyllis never complained of pain. A week before the end, seeing her mother's suffering, Ruth asked her if she wanted some aspirin.

"No," came Phyllis's staunch reply. "I'm going to save it for when I really need it."

The Talmud tells of a sage who was walking in the marketplace with the Prophet Elijah. He asked the prophet who, among all the throng, had a place in the World to Come. At first Elijah could find no one. Then two people entered the marketplace. The prophet identified them as persons worthy of the World to Come. The sage wondered what important, exalted activity they were engaged in. He approached them and asked.

"We're jesters," they replied. "We go to cheer up those who are depressed." [Taanis 22a]

More than 400 people attended Phyllis's funeral. At its conclusion, a man who worked across the street from the funeral parlor approached and inquired: "I've never seen so many people here. Who died? Was she a big movie star?"

No, she was someone eternally more important than a movie star. She was a clown.

For the aliyat neshama of Phyllis Shlossman, Tziporah bas Avraham, on her first yahrzeit.

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