Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa. | JOANRIVERS.COM
“Can we talk?” was the trademark mantra of Joan Rivers, who died at age 81 on September 4 of cardiac arrest in New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital. She had days earlier lost consciousness during an operation on her vocal cords and was placed in a medically induced coma and then life support.
Talk she did, during a 60-year career that spanned nightclubs, television, and film, first styling herself as a less than gorgeous Jewish girl from Brooklyn coping with career, disinterested men, and the rigors of marriage, and then, in the second half of her career, segueing into verbal attacks on celebrities that could be as vicious as they were funny.
Here are some of her classic insults:
Elizabeth Taylor's eating habits: She stands in front of the microwave, screaming “Hurry up!”
Donatella Versace: “That skin! She looks like something you’d hang off your door in Africa.”
Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.”
Rihanna: “She confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it's MY turn to slap her.”
Offensive to some, adored by many, there is no denying that she broke ground in the stand-up comedy field, traditionally a boys' club, where her indefatigable drive, professionalism, and comic chops gained her the respect of everyone in the business. In later years, she was looked up to as a true pioneer by younger funny women including Rosie O'Donnell, Kathy Griffin, and Sarah Silverman.
Enduring Comic Legend Joan Rivers, Dead at 81
“Oh, grow up!” was another Rivers riposte. Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky to Russian immigrant parents in 1933, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard with an English degree. Originally aspiring to be an actress, she worked in retail and temp jobs and was briefly married to her co-worker at Bond's clothing store, James Sanger. Stand-up comedy in small New York clubs was her way of financing her acting career and, eventually, she realized this was her true métier, changed her name to Rivers, and never looked back.
Her aggressive style was a problem early on, as with an important appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar, in which her ethnic jokes were deemed offensive. But, unstoppable, she joined Chicago's Second City comedy group where she honed her improvisational skills and, by 1966, was a regular on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was there, as a child in Hawaii, that this writer first became aware of her.
Johnny Carson was an important fan of hers and, when he began hosting the “Tonight Show,” she was a frequent guest, even filling in for him on many, many occasions. The ratings for her appearances soared and, in 1986, she was paid $10 million by the Fox network to host her own rival talk show. It turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing, as a deeply wounded Carson never spoke to her again, the show was cancelled and, in the sad aftermath of that, her second husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, with whom she had her only child, a daughter Melissa, committed suicide in 1987.
A career slump followed, but she reinvented herself in a variety of ways. Having herself directed and written a cult movie, “Rabbit Test” (1978), with Billy Crystal as a pregnant man, she made a film with Melissa, “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story” (1994). She created a lucrative sideline for herself, selling jewelry and clothing on TV shopping networks. In the mid-1990s, she made the leap into reality television, manning the red carpet at glitzy events like the Oscars and Grammys, and pioneering the current obsession with step-and-repeat styles by demanding to know who the various stars were wearing.
This she parlayed into her own reality show with her daughter, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best” in 2011, as well as “Fashion Police” in which she led a coven of fashion “experts” in skewering the worst-dressed and lauding the best-attired stars of the week.
I enjoyed a very agreeable acquaintanceship with Rivers, who was much warmer and more welcoming in person than her formidable, barb-tongue persona. Her penchant for plastic surgery was obvious, nay notorious, but up close, I almost could discern the reason for it. This was one obsessed woman, whether it was over her career, about which she worried if she had too many free nights not performing somewhere, or her face, in which even the hint of a wrinkle could send her back for more cosmetic alteration.
She wound up with a pristine look of sorts ––a blandly pretty, immobile wax doll, unrecognizable from the awkward, horse-faced comedienne on the Sullivan show, although that never stopped her from making herself the prime butt of her own jokes: “I've had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
For someone whose utterances could be so supremely vulgar, her personal taste was exquisite, whether it was her East Side triplex outfitted with the grandeur of Versailles or her own appearance, doused with Patou's Joy and sporting couture that was inevitably as elegant as it was uniquely flamboyant. I once saw her in a beautiful Zandra Rhodes chiffon blouse that she had made even more beautiful by customizing it with beading.
That was the night I found her sitting at a table at Joe Allen's restaurant, surrounded by society swells like Reinaldo Herrera and Betsy Bloomingdale. When everyone left, she sat there alone, with a look of shock on her face.
“Hi Joan,” I said, “What's the matter?”
“These people!” she spat. “I invited them to see my act tonight. They came and ate and drank their heads off. Afterwards I invited them for a drink here. They drank everything and ordered dinner again, and left me with the bill! Thank God we didn't go to Elaine's!”
Her longtime friend and collaborator, Henry Edwards, was there, and just chuckled, “She wants to hang out with high society, but I warned her!”
Up until the end, Rivers performed at small clubs like the Laurie Beechman at the West Bank Café, where she'd try out dicey material like her notorious 9/ 11 shtick, which imagined freshly financed widows greeting their miraculously returning husbands with “Nooo!” A favorite part of the show was always the call-out section, where people would yell the names of celebrities for her to eviscerate. I am proud to say I had the honor of stumping her –– perhaps the only time? After dishing to filth the likes of Katharine Hepburn ('That dyke!”) and other hapless supernovas, I shouted “Audrey Hepburn!”
She stopped dead in her tracks and went into a semi-trance: “I saw her once at Maxim's in Paris. She was wearing a Nile green gown. She was a vision. FLAWLESS!”