Whether you screamed with delight at her unfiltered caustic commentary or found her a grating loudmouth, Joan Rivers was a unique figure who paved the way for other female comedians. “The Queen of Mean,” who died at age 81 on Sept. 4 in New York following complications from an outpatient procedure, always saved her harshest barbs for herself — her supposed lack of sex appeal, her obsession with plastic surgery, the endless indignities of aging.
Rivers grew up in Brooklyn and Larchmont, N.Y., and graduated from Barnard College in 1954. She got her break as a comic with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1965. When she attempted her own late-night TV show in 1986, however, Carson never forgave her nor allowed her on the show again. Worse followed: In 1987, Rivers’ husband, Edgar, killed himself in a Philadelphia hotel.
Rivers reinvented herself brilliantly. She launched a line of jewelry on TV, penned bestselling humor books, continued to perform for live audiences and established herself on the red carpet and TV shows like Fashion Police. And thanks to an award-winning 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, many reevaluated Rivers and her contribution to comedy. Piece of Work revealed a highly intelligent, self-aware woman with an unparalleled work ethic, a ferocious drive to perform, and a love for beautiful surroundings.
In an interview this June to promote her most recent book, Diary of a Mad Diva, Rivers was a raspy-voiced charmer on the phone. She chatted about her grandson Cooper and cooed to her dog. An avid reader, she was a big fan of Edith Wharton. As usual, she didn’t hold back on celebrities. On Girls creator and star Lena Dunham: “I expect beauty in my celebrities, not a chubby, unbeautiful body.” On the Kardashian sisters: “At least the Gabor sisters tried to be actresses — not like the Kardashians!”
And she reminisced about her days as a struggling actress cast in a play with another unknown, Barbra Streisand. Asked about her jokes about Anne Frank in her new book, Rivers insisted, “I make people remember through humor.” She also noted that she had a tattoo of 6M on her left forearm to commemorate the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Before heading off to a dinner engagement, she said, “I’ve had a 50-year career. I am what I am. I love my work — it’s writing and laughing. The whole thing about comedy is just to make people feel better.”
And for her many fans, she did just that.
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Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
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