June 8, 1933– Joan Rivers:
“People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”
Hey, you might not have been a fan, but she never did a photo shoot with a fake severed head, although she unabashedly wore fur.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky’s death, sudden and unnecessary, continues to shock me two years later. I have been a fan for 50 years and I must admit, I miss her very much. A true comedy pioneer, Rivers was transgressive and transporting, brash and bold. The first time I saw her was on The Tonight Show in 1965 and her shtick was the message that I needed to hear as a little gay child:
“Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s even tougher. I’m in nobody’s circle. I’ve always been an outsider.”
Rivers was never afraid of controversy in the service of her comedy. That is just one of the many reasons that I love her. I am not going to write about that current comedienne who brought down the wrath of the masses on social media, but, for me, speaking a truth, saying out-loud what most other people are thinking, is the very essence of what is funny. There is a gasp… and then there is the laugh. Rivers:
“I am thrilled that Anderson Cooper finally came out of the closet, because this explains why he never tried to date me. I saw him as the perfect package. I would have loved Gloria Vanderbilt as a mother-in-law. This explains everything.”
For six decades Rivers changed how women were to be considered when they tried careers as stand-up comics. From her first appearances with Johnny Carson to the Fat-Fingered Vulgarian’s Celebrity Apprentice television series (which she won and gave a boost to her career) to the E Network’s Fashion Police, Rivers continued to lambast the sexual double standard. She was an Emmy Award winning talk show host, Tony Award nominated actor, bestselling writer, jewelry designer, and a balloon popper of the pompous and the phony.
I always anxiously waited for her wrap-up of any award show best and worst dressed. I laughed and wondered at the brilliant and brutally honest documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010), again with a gasp and then the big laugh. This documentary follows one year in the life of Rivers, with her calendar full of engagements, sometime several each day, working to support her opulent lifestyle, and to bolster her own sense of self-worth. Rivers was a basically insecure person who is better known now for her overuse of cosmetic surgery rather than her own work as a comedy professional. She worked that full schedule up until the day she was killed.
I loved Rivers because she unapologetically skewered everyone and everything that came in to her orbit. She injected crass and controversial cracks into the world of buttoned-up, male-dominated network television shows and the boys’ only world of comedy clubs.
It might surprise some of my friends to know that she was one of my writing idols, even though I try to keep my humor smaller and with a gentler touch. She did inspire me to be unafraid to say ANYTHING.
In 1989, Rivers became the host of The Joan Rivers Show, the first woman to host a late show. She won her Emmy Award, which famously got her barred from appearing on Carson’s TheTonight Show where she had served as permanent guest host. After a decades-long shut-out, Rivers was invited back to The Tonight Show in 2014 by Jimmy Fallon.
In 2013, Rivers launched In Bed With Joan, a weekly Web series of interviews with celebrities. Rivers even got cozy with World Of Wonder stars RuPaul and James St. James.
Rivers continued to cook up controversy in the last year of her life. She stormed out of a CNN interview after being asked whether there should be boundaries on her jokes, particularly when it affects public figures. But, maybe she tore down women to help them grow thicker skin. She was a complicated feminist.
“Life is very tough and if you can tell a joke to make something easier and funny, do it.”
Rivers ignored the whole notion of “too soon”. Days after her the funeral of husband Edgar, who had committed suicide, she claimed that she’d scattered his ashes at Neiman Marcus, so she could visit five times a week.
Rivers always wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. She stated that comedy was her fall-back profession when she had trouble finding work on the stage. In 1959, at the very start of career, she was cast opposite a then unknown Barbra Streisand in an Off-Off-Broadway play in which the pair of future Gay Icons played lesbians and had a kissing scene.
“This was before she was singing, before anything. I knew she was talented, but you never know what someone will be. She was a fabulous kisser, that’s what I knew.”
Rivers was also one of show business’s most vocal supporters of LGBTQ equality. She was speaking out, having gay guests on her television shows and serving on the board of the HIV services organization God’s Love We Deliver from its very start.
“My gay fans have been wonderful from day one. I remember when I was working at the Duplex in Greenwich Village at the beginning of my career and the only ones who would laugh at my jokes were the gay guys. I think if I had started out in straight clubs & bars I never would’ve gotten anywhere.”
I am acquainted with several people that knew or met Rivers and they all claim that she was a most generous and loving friend. My buddy on The Facebook and Instagram, the handsome and talented David Dangle, a three time Emmy Award winning designer, was Rivers right-hand-gay and is CEO of her QVC brand. He suffered a terrible loss at her passing and has praised his dear friend’s generosity and spirit.
At her Fifth Avenue palace, Rivers had a pillow and stitched on it was the phrase: “Don’t Expect Praise Without Envy Until You Are Dead”. Rivers had long stated that when she left this world she would be sanctified just like her hero, Lenny Bruce. That adage proved to be true. After her passing in early September 2014, the praise came from friends and foes, all naming her as a trailblazer and a force of nature.
Even in death, Rivers still delivers a wallop. Christie’s auctioned off her collections a year ago. Her world class Fabergé collection, plus pieces from Tiffany, Chanel and Harry Winston were all available for bidding.
Rivers’ apartment, a gold-gilded showstopper that would have make POTUS and his wife jealous, contained such items as a Tiffany silver dog bowl with “Spike” engraved on it, estimated to be worth $800, and a Chinese black lacquer 12-panel screen with an estimated value of $10,000. Because we are talking about Rivers, the auction had the sort of objects that would put Liberace to shame: Two candelabras decorated with porcelain lions and ornamental metal flowers and grape leaves ($5,000); a silver palm tree centerpiece with dangling cut-glass inserts ($1,500); and an ochre gown by Oscar de la Renta, featuring leather and sequin adornments and enough fabric to upholster a sofa $2000). The auction brought more than two million dollars for River’s favorite charities and her grandson’s college fund.
Her apartment sold two years ago for $28 million. When it had been on the market briefly in 2011, Rivers stated:
“Qaddafi wanted to rent it for that whole U.N. thing. People said it is blood money. I said, ‘Oh, I can easily wash blood off dollar bills.’ But they didn’t like it. It was too close to a synagogue”.