The last time I saw Joan Rivers was three months ago. She was performing standup to benefit Gods Love We Deliver, one of her favorite charities, at the Laurie Beechman Theater, a cabaret on West 42nd Street. It's named for a rising musical-comedy star who died in 1997, way too young at age 44. Joan Rivers, a comedy legend, died today, way too young at age 81.
Millions know Joan from her non-stop appearances on TV, from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, In Bed With Joan, The Celebrity Apprentice, and countless hours on QVC selling her jewelry and face creams. But hard-core fans preferred her uncensored stand-up act. In a typical performance, she would weave in a macabre joke about her old age and how she could pop off at any moment—and how lucky the audience would feel if it happened that night.
Rivers had a filing cabinet filled with jokes. Her latest book—her tenth—was titled Diary of a Mad Diva and filled with one liners. But she will be remembered by historians for breaking barriers. In a period when women comics rarely performed alone (think Gracie Allen and George Burns), Rivers ditched her male partners and went solo. Phyllis Diller joked about her imaginary spouse Fang, while Rivers shocked audiences with jokes about gynecology. In an era when Totie Fields, a Borscht Belt favorite, ended her set with a song in order to appear less threatening, Rivers—influenced by Lenny Bruce—chose to offend everyone—First Ladies and leading ladies, holocaust heroines and Middle Eastern dictators—reserving her most stinging, and funniest, insults for herself.
Perhaps her most influential and controversial act was remaking her own appearance, one nip and tuck at a time. In the '70s, "Jewish comediennes were expected to be unattractive and make jokes at their own expense," said Marilyn Suzanne Miller, one of the orginal writers for Saturday Night Live, in the documentary Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women. Rivers joked constantly about the ravages of aging as she morphed from homely to pretty to glamorous to ageless. She wasn't the first comedian to try plastic surgery but she was the most honest about it, admitting to small procedures as frequently as every six months after having a face lift, eye lift, and nose job. In 2005, when I profiled her for Allure, she gave Steven Hoefflin, her plastic surgeon at the time, permission to read me his notes. Nothing was off limits, not even the revelation that she was recovering from liposuction when she learned her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, had committed suicide.
Rivers brought attention to cosmetic surgery when most people preferred to keep it a secret, and her audience was free to make their own judgments. Some asked their doctors to make them look like Rivers and others asked them not to. To Rivers, it wasn't about vanity, it was her effort to correct the inequitable distribution of youthfulness and beauty. She was well aware of how her surgery was perceived. "I became a big advocate of it, then I became the poster girl for it, then I became the joke of it," she said matter-of-factly in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary about her career. In June at the Beechman Theater, I went backstage after the show, as I always did. Joan and I talked about her irridescent pink leather Versace jacket—she told me she found it at "this incredible boutique" on Sixth Avenue around 56th street. She died, I'm told, in full makeup, every hair in place, thanks to her daughter who brought in the appropriate artists—as Joan would have wanted.
Published September 4, 2014