The Late Joan Rivers

Born Joan Alexendra Molinsky on the 8th of June 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, she was one of two daughters to Russian Jewish immigrants.

“I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”

Prior to entering show business and changing her name, Rivers graduated from college in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and Anthropology. She then worked as one of NBC’s tour guides at the Rockefeller Centre, was a writer and proofreader, a shoe buyer; as well as a fashion consultant with Bond clothing stores where she met her first husband.

JoanBefore delving into the world of stand-up, Joan appeared in a play called Driftwood where she portrayed a lesbian with a crush on a little known Barbra Streisand. Shortly afterwards she began performing in several different comedy clubs in and around The Big Apple under the stage name “Pepper January”, and also as half a comedy team called “Joanie and Bill” during the early 1960s.

Learning the comedy ropes and honing her funny bone proved to be invaluable, when eight years after making her start on the stage she was asked to make her very first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1965; she was the only stand-up that never did a stand-up routine during her time there. It was here when Carson first uttered the words that would make Joan Rivers a household name… “You know, you’re going to be a big star”.

For three years Rivers was also the first ever guest host to be chosen as a permanent fixture, during which time she also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and was a regular performer on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar which led to a paid gig, writing jokes for Candid Camera. She also hosted several other talk shows, wrote material for Topo Gigio the puppet, released at least two comedy albums, and acted alongside Burt Lancaster in the 1968 film The Swimmer.

The aforementioned ‘Queen of Comedy’ then went on to become the first ever woman to host her very own late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on the rival Fox network. Unfortunately, this move proved emotionally disastrous as long time friend and comedy comrade Johnny Carson, never spoke to her again; he passed away in January of 2005. According to Joan –

“Everybody left the show to go do their own shows. Bill Cosby. Dale Brenner. George Carlin. Everybody. I stuck around for 18 years and they finally offered me my own late-night show. The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me – and never ever spoke to me again. And then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out.” … “But I think it was a question of, ‘I found you and you’re my property’. He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him.”

Despite the feud, Rivers was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Comedy Recording in 1985, and won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1990 for best talk show host. She was then nominated for Broadway’s 1994 Tony Award as Best Actress for portraying the character, Sally Marr, in “Sally Marr… and Her Escorts.”

In between the praise, she was also recognised for all the achievements and awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7030 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on July 26th, 1989.

Joan was also nicknamed the Queen of the Barbed one-liners and as a few other little known tidbits; she collected faberge eggs, was a vegetarian, a Republican, a national spokeswoman for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, hosted a daily talk show on WOR-AM radio in New York City from 1997 for about five years, and was one of the final guests to appear on the Wayne Brady Show in 2002.

If that wasn’t enough, she was also an accomplished author who wrote several candid autobiographies, including “Enter Talking”, and “Still Talking”. She penned several self-help books, including “Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything… and I Mean Everything… and You can Too!” as well as several comedy books, starting with “Having a Baby Can Be a Scream!” and “Diary of a Mad Diva”, which was published in 2014.

James Sanger, a Bond clothing store heir, became husband number one for Joan at the tender age of 22 while attending college, but the marriage was annulled only 6 months after exchanging vows. She very rarely discussed her first marriage and neither did she incorporate her first spouse into any acts, but once joked:

“he never had dinner cooked when I got home; he forgot little things, like getting out of bed in the morning; he was always lying there figuring out how to retire before he even started work.”

In 1965, Joan married producer Edgar Rosenberg until his untimely and highly publicised death in 1987, when he committed suicide by overdosing on valium in his Philadelphia hotel room. He served as her manager for most of the union and also co-produced her late night talk show, until Fox fired both him and Joan a few months before he took his own life. In her acceptance speech for winning a Daytime Emmy for the hugely successful Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years, she thanked her husband:

“Two years ago I couldn’t get a job in this business. I could not get a job. My income dropped to one-sixteenth of what it was before I was fired. And people said I wouldn’t work again. And my husband had a breakdown, and it’s so sad that he’s not here, because it was my husband Edgar Rosenberg who always said, ‘You can turn things around’. And except for one terrible moment in a hotel room in Philadelphia when he forgot that. This is really for him, because he was with me from the beginning and I’m so sorry he’s not here today.”

But perhaps the most controversial of all the lifelong struggles that shadowed her career and defined Joan Rivers as a comedian, was that of her well known addiction to plastic surgery which started at the age of 32, when she had her very first cosmetic procedure. Following the eye-lift in 1965, the majority of her reported 739 ‘touch-ups’ was performed by the surgeon famous for his work on Michael Jackson’s nose.

“Every weekend I just go in and I do something new. I get a 10th one free. It’s a little life coffee you just keep going.”

Ironically, and perhaps her best punchline yet, was that she died doing something she loved. The self-confessed diva was rushed to hospital after experiencing complications during throat surgery at a New York City Clinic on the 28th of August, 2014.

“The only thing that’s saving me is my age because I don’t care. I’ve been up, I’ve been down. I’ve been fired, I’ve been hired. I’ve been broke. What are you gonna do to me? Not like me? I don’t give a damn.”

She passed away just a few days later after going into cardiac arrest on September 4, at the age of 81; only one month after long time friend Lauren Bacall also laid to rest. Her body was cremated at the Garden State Crematory in Union City, New Jersey and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.

“My husband wanted to be cremated. I told him I’d scatter his ashes at (the department store) Neiman Marcus – that way, I’d visit him everyday.”

According to a detailed statement from the New York City medical examiner representative Julie Bolcer stated: “OCME [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] has completed its investigations. The cause of Ms. Rivers’ death is anoxic encephalopathy due to hypoxic arrest during laryngoscopy and upper gastrointestinal endoscopy with propofol sedation for evaluation of voice changes and gastroesophageal reflux disease. The manner of death is therapeutic complication.” In layman terms… brain damage due to lack of oxygen.

While residing in Malibu, California with her only child and daughter, Melissa Rivers, as well as Grandson, Edgar Cooper Endicott, they filmed the very funny and often absolutely outrageous – Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best, television series.

It ran for four seasons, from January 2011 until May of 2014, giving us a sneak peak into the world of Joan Rivers and Co., and the ups and downs that come with family living, negotiating a healthy work life balance, battling your own demons… and doing it all in the surreal world of celebrity.

Joan’s thoughts on childbirth: “Knock me out with the first pain, and wake me up when the hairdresser arrives.”

According to reports Joan passed her estate on to Melissa, worth an estimated $100 million made up of cash, investments, and antiques from her New York apartment. Her Grandson will also apparently receive a very large multi-million dollar trust separate form his Mother’s inheritance.

The funeral was attended by an estimated 1,500 people and the guest list included many celebrity friends, public figures and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus singing old show tunes. Talk show host Howard Stern, who delivered one of the several very moving and appropriately comedic eulogies described Rivers as “brassy in public [and] classy in private… a troublemaker, trail blazer, pioneer for comics everywhere [who] fought the stereotypes that women can’t be funny.

“There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl.”

 

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