I Was There: Inside Joan Rivers’ Funeral
If Joan Rivers’ memorial service at Temple Emanu-El on New York’s Upper East Side was all about tears and laughter—loud, raucous laughter as she would have loved—it was nowhere better crystallized by Broadway star Audra McDonald singing “Smile,” with the lilting heartbreak that song demands, immediately followed by Howard Stern opening his oration with the observation that: “Joan Rivers’ only problem was that she had a dry vagina.” From muted snuffling the congregation roared as one.
Stern was the first of many talkers who looked, with an apologetic shrug at the utterance of an imminent swear-word or porny, gross image, to Rabbi Joshua Davidson. Sorry, the shrug said: This is who Joan was. Rabbi Davidson smiled and laughed, gamely.
It wasn’t immediately obvious, stepping out of the N train stop at 59th and 5th—sadly, fortune’s wheel meant I was one of the few guests not arriving by limousine at Rivers’ memorial service—that one was approaching a true, brassy, big-performance, no-holds-barred Hollywood-New York high society funeral. She had died, aged 81, too soon after a medical procedure that is now the subject of an official investigation. Eighty-one may seem old, but her death—by common consensus—was too soon.
Walking past The Pierre hotel, nothing seemed that unusual: a typical Sunday, tourists moseying, Upper East Siders loping to fancy brunch, the horrific heat of Saturday thankfully receded.
And then, you got to a checkpoint: a printed out invite and identification were required, and then—satisfactorily screened—you walked down the flank of Temple Emanu-El, and you were confronted by the crowds thronging barriers on 5th Avenue and Central Park. They seemed five rows deep, an excitable wall of noise, cops in front of them, and you smiled: this was the “Hollywood all the way” funeral Joan Rivers absolutely wanted.
A family representative has asked that I make it clear I had been invited as a friend: an interview I had done with Rivers in late July emerged as one of her last major ones, and she had liked it a lot apparently. We talked—between drinking chilled Chardonnay and her desperately trying to get me interested in caviar—about sex, death, mortality, suicide, her career, her family, and what so many people saw as her rudeness, which she saw as “telling the truth.” She sent me an unexpected, funny and graceful note after the interview was published.
Once inside the Temple, it was hushed and many people were dabbing their eyes even before the service began, or walking with heads nestled into partners’ shoulders. But underneath the sobriety, it was also utterly showbizzy: John Waters, dapper in a gray suit, Sally Jessy Raphael signing the guest book: “Great show Joan.” Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford came in together and greeted and consoled friends. Barbara Walters was there; so were Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Griffin, Andy Cohen, Kelly Osbourne, George Kotsiopoulos and Guiliana Rancic from Fashion Police, Donald Trump and Whoopi Goldberg.
Bernadette Peters was there, as were Marlo Thomas, Steve Guttenberg, Judy Collins and Mario Cantone. On the back of the Order of Service were three of Rivers’ quotes: “Can we talk?” “Who are you wearing?” and “…Because I’m a funny person.”
The gathered mourners wanted to know—would Rivers get her other big, don’t-stint-on-the-diamonds funeral wishes, stated very clearly on the second page of the Order of Service: Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents, and a wind machine blowing into the casket so her hair was “blowing just like Beyoncé’s.” The last, at least, could not be executed: Rivers had already been cremated.
What was immediately apparent were the white lilies, thronging the front area of the temple, and draped like a carpet all around, as designed by Rivers’ good friend, the designer Preston Bailey, whose marriage to partner Theo Bleckmann Rivers had officiated in 2013. The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus filed on to the stage, and—irritatingly—people carried on talking as this wonderful group sang softly while stragglers took their seats. Then, their voices rising (and rude, moronic talkers hushed), they launched into “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” “Big Spender,” and “That’s Entertainment.”
In his remarks Rabbi Davidson recalled Joan politely and soberly: He piercingly noted that she was there in the room as her grandson Cooper was born, and he was there in the room when she died. The devotion she felt for her daughter Melissa was superseded only by the love she felt for Melissa’s son: tours, events, anything-s, were reorganized around him.
Then McDonald sang, note-clear and strong, “Smile,” and the dabbing of eyes and sniffs increased. And so when Stern said his “vagina” line, the laughs were a relief; a reminder of the crudeness, directness, and vigor Rivers executed in her own humor. Stern—a wonderful speaker, combining warmth, ferocity, profanity, insight, precise memories, and the larger scope of Rivers’ career and her cultural import—reminded the congregation of the astonishing trajectory of her life: the parents who wanted her to be a doctor, her determination to be a comedian, the suicide of her husband Edgar, her return to fame, her support of gay equality, her indomitable spirit.
She had supported Stern when his own career had first been in gestation and then later in free-fall. He could imagine her chasing Johnny Carson around Heaven with a baseball bat, he said, referring to the estrangement that occurred after Rivers had left the Tonight show to host her own, ill-fated talk show in the 1980s. Stern said more than once, voice clogging, that he couldn’t imagine a world without Joan Rivers.
This resonated. Today, there are many snarky voices, there are many quick voices, and would be joke-tellers—but there is nobody like Joan Rivers, working in the mainstream and skewering celebrity in the way that she did. And she was 81: her death marks a shaming lack of bravery and innovation on the part of younger comics.
The former Today co-host Deborah Norville spoke after Stern. Hers was a warmer, less profane speech, again in memory of a much-missed buddy. She recalled Rivers and her group of friends going to a reception at Buckingham Palace, Rivers asking them to block her from view, and how she then put a bag of ashes of a dear, departed friend in a Palace vase. “I don’t know deep a clean they do at Buckingham Palace,” said Norville. “He could still be there.”
Rivers saved some of the ashes, and put the rest of “him” under a rosebush of Prince Charles’ country home, Highgrove.
And there was the time, during a botched balloon landing the pair had taken part in, that Rivers had shouted, as their basket was dragged across the ground, that she was concerned for the safety of her unborn child. She was 76 at the time.
Rivers’ accountant gave a very funny, sweet speech, in which he noted that Rivers’ spending did not abate even when her career was in the doldrums. The first-class travel continued, the clothes and gifts. Once, she told him she wanted him to send all the money she had in her account to her. Why, he asked. Just so I can touch it, she replied. He, like others, remembered Rivers’ generosity. She gave jewelry away, gifts, and was one of the most attentive, caring friends. When his father was ill in hospital, Rivers arranged for a TV to be installed in his room to watch the Lakers play in that year’s playoffs.
Margie Stern, Rivers’ close friend, said the biggest disappointment now was to have no one to battle with: they always tried to one-up each other with jokes. She remembered the time walking into their favorite restaurant, and the whole place falling silent, looking at her. What the hell was going on, she thought. Rivers, it had emerged, had told them she was Ruth Madoff in disguise, and not to speak to her or approach her when she walked in.
Or there was the time Stern had broken her hip, and Rivers, who demanded to be allowed to visit her, told her that if it turned out she had had plastic surgery she would kill her. Stern and her husband decided to dress Stern up in facial bandages to goose Rivers, but when they opened the door to Rivers she was faltering and falling, as if she had broken her own hip. She had beaten them at their own japes.
Later, Stern was walking on crutches. She was crossing the street one evening, after another supper with Rivers, when two men had suddenly lifted her up and carried her to the other side. What the hell are you doing, she screamed at them. “Joan Rivers told us you couldn’t walk and to carry you across the street,” they told her.
By this time, the service, as wonderful as it was, was nearing the hour and a half mark. When Rivers’ friend, the gossip columnist Cindy Adams, approached the microphone, she had the best opening line: the occasion’s duration had far exceeded Rivers’ 81 years.
Like the other speakers, Adams recalled a dedicated friend, and one who was always dressed to the nines. A visit to the country didn’t mean dressing down in jeans, but rather a dramatic gown, jewelry in spades, and a big feather boa. Once, Rivers was wearing a black eye-patch and Adams asked how she had got it: Rivers said it was the result of spending a night with Al Roker.
The final speaker was Melissa Rivers. She thanked everyone for the outpouring of love and concern that had been shown toward her and Cooper. She didn’t seem wan, just restrained. It had been an awful, taxing week, and her contribution was not to speak extensively about her feelings about her mother’s death, but to relate a story of a letter she had written to her mother about her behavior sharing their home.
It was affectionate, gentle humor: There was to be no more taking Cooper to the cinema in the middle of the day, skipping school—especially when the movie was Last Tango in Paris. There was to be no more taking Cooper to gentleman’s clubs, no more raucous parties, leading to complaints from neighbors.
Melissa’s tone reciting this jokey shopping list of frustration was gentle, and loving. It reminded me, keenly, that Rivers had talked to me of their closeness, and how devastating her death would be for Melissa, after the two had weathered the trauma, and subsequent estrangement, that had followed Edgar’s suicide.
Rivers had wanted “a big showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action,” and so Hugh Jackman, at his shamelessly scene-stealing best, then sang, and danced—and had us up on our feet clapping—through Peter Allen’s “Quiet, There’s a Lady on Stage.”
After the closing prayers, the Pipes and Drums of the Emerald Society, New York City Police Department—after the Gay Men’s Chorus, another wonderful, totally Joan Rivers thing to happen in a Jewish temple—massed on stage and with the goosebump-provoking sound of bagpipes and bass drum to the fore, launched into “Amazing Grace.”
Then—and here the congregation laughed again—this sturdy, butch band let loose on “New York, New York,” filing out of the temple into the bright Fifth Avenue sunshine, where, as per Rivers’ wish this be a total performance, they carried on playing for the crowd as mourners emerged from the event. Many of Rivers’ friends and loved ones, including her Fashion Police co-star Kelly Osbourne, were visibly upset, leaning on and holding one another close as they left the service.
Today and tomorrow Melissa Rivers is sitting shiva at her mother’s New York home, a few blocks from the temple, before returning to Los Angeles to do the same on Thursday for two days. In lieu of flowers, the Rivers family has asked for donations to be sent to three chosen charities: God’s Love We Deliver, delivering food to those with life-altering illnesses, Guide Dogs For The Blind, and Our House Grief Support Center.
Stern’s words proved the most resonant as mourners stood outside on the sidewalk, watching the crowds opposite and the wonderful Pipes and Drums. He had spoken about Rivers in the truest, most knowable way to her friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
Rivers herself felt resolutely that she was not, as some have said, cruel and vindictive, but a truth-teller—at least the truth as she saw it, and one that could be crafted into a zinger. She was a trailblazer, not just for female comics but all comics, who was utterly herself, beholden to nobody, willing to go absolutely to the edge and even over it for a joke, who never apologized, and who also was the one of the warmest, most devoted and most loyal friends those close to her could have wished for.
It felt appropriate that the last thing I saw as I left the Temple was Whoopi Goldberg clambering into, then standing and waving to the sunshine-bathed crowds from the doorway of, her people cruiser. They went wild, watching another performer who is utterly herself, who does things her own way, who delights in making a crowd smile and whoop in a firecracker moment. Rivers, watching from above chasing Johnny Carson with a baseball bat, would have loved it.