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Joan Rivers: Almost Too Busy to Talk

This article is based on my 1997 interview with Joan Rivers in her palatial apartment (“Versailles in the Sky,” one pundit called it) not far fromthe Fifth Avenue Syna­gogue, where she would sometimes show up. Just a few weeks before her death, she famously stood at an airport and told TMZ report­ers exactly and precisely–and with a huge amount of courage from someone in Showbiz–that Isra­el had every right to defend itself from terrorists who want everyone dead and rockets. She was very ex­plicit in her remarks, as always, and criticized, by name, those who were against Israel.

Her funeral service took place on Sunday at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and supposedly in­cluded an iconic red carpet. Many people were wont to dismiss her as a coarse and bad example of a Jew­ish woman. Yes, she had a potty mouth and said shocking things– she sure had a pisk–and as time went on, media changed and de­manded more coarseness from everyone on TV and she continued to be a star by being outrageous, saying things she said everyone was thinking but didn’t have the whatevers to utter out loud. Some­times you would just want to throt­tle her. But the Joan Rivers I met in her New York was elegant, balab­atish, a real mensch…and it turns out, one of those baalat tzedakah no one knows about.

Joan Rivers was something else. She was a strong, brassy and bold woman who didn’t let life bulldoze her. It almost did and some people would have liked it better if she had caved in. Too bad. From Day One, she just kept on truckin’.

A Barnard Phi Beta Kappa born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Joan never gave up. She had rubber tush syndrome–every time life knocked her on it, she bounced back up–even when teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and playing hardball with the big guys or dealing with a nuclear family meltdown. The suicide of her husband of 22 years, Edgar Rosenberg, (Edgar was a flee case from Germany, a child survivor of the Holocaust) resulted in a break with her only child, Melissa. The split was repaired years later, with the family dynamic visible to all of America on their reality show Melissa and Joan: Joan Knows Best?

Between the show, doing stand-up, QVC, writing books, and developing her Red Carpet personality with Melissa, she had enough media attention to give even the most jaded performer satisfaction. She played dive bars in New York and God-knows-where in the boonies, Windsor Palace in London and the White House in Washington. For about eight years, she even found a suitable male companion, Oren Lehman, a financier and New York’s former parks commissioner who lost a leg fighting the Germans during World War II. He spoiled and inspired her until she found out he was cheating. He was gone the next day.

She was all about work, and at a loss to even imagine life without work. She did not have millions socked away. She worked to maintain her way of life, with generosity beyond the pale for those in her circle. She was even a Hadassah Woman of the Year and supported Jewish and other causes, especially In God’s Love We Deliver.

Joan was a people person. Not for no reason was she Johnny Carson’s guest host for 20 years. When we talked, she took over the interview because she wanted to know about me as much as I wanted to know about her.

Joan’s story inspired women all around the nation, in small towns and big cities. People watched her with interest. She showed women they have options; they can overcome whatever life throws at them. And you had to learn to laugh at life. At 81, on the night before she went into a coma, she was doing standup in a NY club.

She was an NBC tour guide, a standup comic, a talk show host, a playwright, a Tony-nominated Broadway star, a movie star, a movie director, a movie producer, a TV docudrama producer, director, star, and author. She wrote five or six best sellers, some that got her in trouble and disinvited from the inside-crowd parties. Always an outsider, always the acerbic and honest observer. She reinvented herself more times than Madonna, because the business demanded that you always looked great and had that energy level that pulled in fans.

DROP CAP Everything in Joan Rivers’ East Side apartment was elegant. The library was clearly used by an avid reader. The shelves held classics, bestsellers, psychology, and philosophy books. The window overlooked Central Park. My hostess arrived a few moments later, breathlessly apologetic and tiny. Size 4. I feel like a blimp (I was huge at that time), and she asked, “Who is fatter?”

“Oh, please! I couldn’t get my fist through your armhole if I tried,” I said.

A quick call to Melissa, and we settled ourselves on opposite sides of a beautifully appointed table with refreshments presented exactly the way my mother insists it be done. Joan took a deep breath, relaxed and talked to me as she played with one of the three little doggies that trotted in to greet her.

She got her energy and drive from her parents. “It’s all that immigrant mentality,” she said in her unique voice. “All that immigrant drive. My parents came over as young children and had that tremendous drive–that work ethic that they absolutely instilled in me.”

She grew up Joan Alexandra Molinsky in the least likely neighborhood: post-war Crown Heights, when it was a changing neighborhood. Second-generation American Jews, including her family, were leaving for the suburbs; Holocaust survivors and their families were moving in. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was already in 770 Eastern Parkway, but Chabad was in its infancy. It was a European-oriented community that tried to rebuild what had been lost. The Molinsky family was no different. Her parents came to America as children well before World War II.

After they married, her parents established her father’s medical practice on Eastern Parkway, where he treated Holocaust survivors for a dollar a house call and 75 cents a visit. His wife made sure that her two daughters lacked for nothing and raised them in a style that reflected her European values and tastes. In her eyes they were always the best, the brightest and most beautiful.

“My father worked in a factory when he was a baby. Seven years old and they overpaid him by a nickel and my aunt made him turn around and walk a mile and a half all the way back to return it. That strength and honesty and ruggedness all comes from them. …

“The minute I could put a sentence together, I wanted to be an actress. There was no question about it. I just knew that was where I belonged. I remember in kindergarten, wanting to be a pussy cat in the play. One day I read the papers and saw a call for head shots, so I took my picture out of the frame on the piano and sent it to MGM. I was fat and flat-chested. It didn’t stop me. Maybe they need a fat kid? You don’t know. Maybe they would say ‘We need her to play someone’s sister.’”

She told me her parents were not enthusiastic. “Any time a prostitute would come into my father’s office, they would never say ‘Doctor, I’m a prostitute.’ They would use euphemisms: ‘I’m an actress’ or ‘I’m a model.’ So when I told father I wanted to be an actress, he got crazy.

“But my parents were also wonderful. We’re going back now to the late 50s, early 60s, and my sister and I were encouraged to be anything we wanted to be. She wanted to be a lawyer, and she had their blessing. If I said I wanted to be a pilot or teacher, they would’ve said fine and would’ve said fine to anything involving more study. If I wanted to be a surgeon, they would’ve said, ‘Of course. We don’t care how long it takes you.’”

In Larchmont, Joan learned more about what made girls popular, and began to develop the biting satire that pokes fun at the mores, attitudes, and people who shaped the way we think about ourselves and each other. She invented Heidi Abramowitz, the prototypical man hunter who made Fran Fine on The Nanny look like a rank amateur.

“When I said I’m leaving now and I’m going to be an actress, we had a big fight, a tremendous argument and they just ignored me. So I left and went from agent to agent looking for work.”

She also went through a short bad marriage but didn’t let that stop her either. “I became a comedian because I was going to agent’s offices and trying to make the secretaries laugh so they would remember me. And they did. When one of them told me you can make $6 a night being funny out on Long Island, I used that as a means to becoming an actress.”

The nightclubs she worked in were hardly the glamorous casino showrooms she plays now.

“I am talking really raunchy. Scuzzy … But looking back, of course, being here now, nice and happy in New York City, I could see it was a great experience. I’m glad I did it. It taught me so much. Boy, you realize what else is out there, how lucky you are. I also learned my craft. I learned how to work a microphone, I learned to appreciate it when an audience likes you, because there are so many audiences that don’t like you. It took seven sad years before things really turned around for me.”

In 1966 she was on the Carson show and became his first and only permanent guest host. When Fox offered her her own show, she took it after waiting for a Tonight Show contract for two years. The rest played itself out in front of the American public. Carson cut her dead. And her husband sank into deep depression and did himself in. At one point, she almost joined him, but looking at the dog sitting her lap, on top of a loaded gun, made her wonder who would take care of the dog if she was gone. It was a terrible time.

“Carson opened doors, and if Carson liked you, New York, Chicago, LA liked you, the intellectuals liked you. But Ed Sullivan was the one who really opened the doors because if Ed Sullivan put his arms around you, the whole country liked you. The Sullivan show in those days meant instant success.

“What it proved,” said Joan, “was that you needed a little luck. Johnny Rivers, the singer, was to be the guest, but Sullivan had a touch of Alzheimer’s, went on the air and said, ‘Next week, little Joanie Rivers.’ My mother-in-law called me up and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you are going to be on next week?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’

“He announced the wrong name so I got on television! That was terrific. And then I got a lot of work, constantly working nightclubs, constantly working on new routines. I mean it’s a lot of work, the whole business is work. It is a lot harder than straight stuff, much harder–95% comes from rage. When you’re happy, there’s nothing funny. It’s when you’re upset about something that you cover it with comedy.”

Things started to move. There were very few female standups at the time, just Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller. Rivers came to Greenwich Village right behind Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. Lenny Bruce was her comedic hero, who broke all the barriers and made you face the truth. Later in her life, Joan was nominated for a Tony for the play she wrote, directed, and starred in about Lenny Bruce’s mother.

“I wasn’t making it as a female comedian because it was so hard–very hard… Almost all of the standups were men. Now every third comedian is a woman. But women’s liberation really messed up female comedians for years because you weren’t allowed to say ‘I want to be pretty’; you weren’t allowed to say ‘I’m a single, I’m looking for a man.’ I got through the door right before that happened. I was very lucky. Right behind me came this wave of women who couldn’t talk about normal things. And if you really look, there were practically no female comedians between Lily Tomlin and me. There was a 10-year gap until the emergence of funny young women on Saturday Night Live. Everyone else just ran away.”

At one point, she decided design costume jewelry to sell on QVC and quickly learned the business in order to survive a hostile takeover by corporate bottom feeders. Her designs earned compliments from fashion mavens–at the office, at cocktail parties, at weddings and bar/bats. Her company generated millions of dollars a year; but Rivers couldn’t give up her first love–standup comedy. She was doing gigs in Atlantic City and in major venues across the country. Besides all that, she gave her time and energy to charitable causes and was the first performer to come out and do benefits for people with AIDS in 1982. She had a huge gay fan base and tried to help LGBT teens whose parents had thrown them out.

What else was she working on? “Pediatric AIDS. I worked very hard for suicide prevention–very big into that and it’s not so much about preventing suicide, as it is about the survivors. I tell them not to neglect their lives. I worked very hard for juvenile diabetes because a friend of mine has a child who has it and it’s awful. And there are the guide dogs for the blind. I do these things because we are supposed to do the right thing and do some good in the world, to help people.

“But I’m a very strange Jew,” she said. “I don’t think God is going to kill me if I have a nibble on Yom Kippur. If I get up to heaven, God is not going to worry that I ate at 3 o’clock, he’s going to worry if I threw a widow out of an apartment.”

Everyone knows that the essence of Joan Rivers was her Jewishness. It radiated with her sense of what Judaism is and provided her with a sense of justice, of what is right, and girded her loins with righteous indignation that she turned into rapier sharp wit. And she wasn’t guilt stricken about it. She told me a story.

“I had a taxi driver yesterday who was Jewish. And he said, ‘I became Orthodox and you know the Torah. If you read the Torah, it tells you things. You should read the Torah 100 times a day.’

“I said I’m Reform. He said that’s nothing. It’s not nothing. I respect what he does and he should respect the way I keep my beliefs. Do you think when I die and go up, God will say I can’t come in because I didn’t go to an Orthodox synagogue? That’s no good. That’s intolerant. Just enjoy, truly enjoy every day. Be a good person and respect other people.”

Joan was raised at a time when movies like Pillow Talk defined relationships, when a woman without a man was not only not a fish without a bicycle, but a freak. A girl’s parents would have wondered why their daughter wasn’t married by 21. At 30, you were considered an old crone. Gone. History. There was lots to poke fun at, like rescue fantasies (Prince Charming wakes up Sleeping Beauty and they all live happily ever after). On the other hand, Hugh Hefner and his publications and night clubs were making a different kind of statement about women.

Then Joan looked at me, and I saw a little gleam in her eye and she said, with relish (this was in 1997), “You know what? It’s gone so far, you don’t have to look to comedy for comedy. You have to look to Dick Morris for comedy, O.J. Simpson–that they can live like that and get away with it. Life is so insane, that’s where the comedy is. That’s why I watch biographies. Biographies are so interesting. What is happening in your friends’ and in my friends’ lives… I have one friend who is a nice Jewish girl from Great Neck who ended up as a Dowager Countess, with a Manor house and Milady this, Milady that…. You can’t make that up–it’s fabulous. And I have another friend who ended up a bag lady in Larchmont–a bag lady!

“People tell me to read Jackie Collins. I don’t have to. I have my life. It’s so incredible!”

In the end, Joan Rivers loved living, and until the very last moment, she appreciated everything.

Baruch Dayen Emet. May the trailblazer rest in peace. She went mercifully fast, and didn’t suffer. That is a blessing, and she was a blessing that made us laugh. I will miss her.

By Jeanette Friedman

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