How Nancy Reagan Helped Joan Rivers Get Her Dead Husband’s Body Back

When Joan Rivers’s husband killed himself in 1987, and Rivers couldn’t get his body released, she called Nancy Reagan in the middle of the night to intervene.

03.07.16 7:55 PM ET

The contrast between how Nancy Reagan, who died at age 94 on Sunday, faced crises affecting two family friends—Rock Hudson and Joan Rivers—was stark.

One was ignored, the other embraced.

As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner reported, when Hudson was dying of AIDS in 1985, Nancy Reagan turned down a request by his publicist to help with an urgent Paris hospital transfer.

This despite her husband calling Hudson, a onetime friend, by phone to tell the actor that he was in his and Nancy’s prayers.

On Oct. 2, 1985, Hudson died. Ronald Reagan, much condemned for his and his administration’s failure to address the AIDS pandemic—and the vicious homophobia and ignorance that swirled around it—would give his first major public address on the disease on May 31, 1987.

Almost 2½ months later, on Aug. 14, 1987, Joan Rivers’s husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs in a Philadelphia hotel room.

Rosenberg was 62, and—Joan Rivers told me in her final major interview—depressed over his wife being fired from her Fox talk show.

“When I was fired, he knew it was his fault, and he committed suicide. I always think of Samson pulling down the temple. Edgar just took all the columns away and pulled it down.

“We were all down in the rubble, and he didn’t want to dig himself out. I understand it, and feel terribly sorry for him, but I wonder if I’d be sitting here today talking to you if he had not killed himself, if we wouldn’t have ended up just a very bitter couple in a house on the hill somewhere.”

At the time, Rivers, told me, she was desperately trying—and failing—to get her husband’s body released by the Philadelphia authorities and returned to Los Angeles.

“Fame is so wonderful,” she told me. “It gives you friends.”

At one end of the scale, fame meant that at Chicago airport “in the middle of the night someone told me they had lit a candle for me. How wonderful is that? Fame makes the whole world your neighbor. Fame gives you a great card to live your life and make it easier. Nancy Reagan got Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia for me.”

Rivers said it so matter-of-factly, I stammered, “What?” and asked her to elaborate.

“Edgar killed himself in Philadelphia and I couldn’t get the body out of there. My daughter [Melissa] was going mad. I thought, ‘I’ll call the White House.’ It was 2 a.m. there. I said, ‘It’s Joan Rivers and it’s an emergency. I must speak to Mrs. Reagan.’ They woke her up.”

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This seemed such a crazy showbiz scenario, all I could manage was “Seriously?”

“You don’t forget this, honey-bunny,” Rivers told me.

“I said, ‘I can’t get Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia.’ She [Nancy] said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’

“The next day, his body came back to L.A. You don’t ever forget that, especially when the chips are down. She’s older now. I’m going to California next week, and I’ll see her.”

The two women had a longtime friendship: Rivers noted that she had not been invited to the White House, “since the Reagans were there.”

In a 2010 interview I did with Rivers for the London Times, she told me that while she thought Barack Obama—then in his first term—was “doing a weak job and making us a second-class nation,” Rivers herself was not a Republican.

She said she was “very friendly” with Nancy Reagan. “I think she was amazing [as first lady]. I’m crazy about her.”

Really? With her astrologers and AIDS-ignoring husband, I questioned—Rivers was not only known as an LGBT advocate, but also a strong supporter of the brilliant God’s Love We Deliver, whose volunteers shop and make meals for those with HIV and AIDS (and now other serious illnesses).

“They got there in the end,” Rivers said to me of the Reagans and HIV. “Everyone was in the dark about AIDS. I did the first benefits.”

Rivers went on to reveal that Nancy Reagan had been critical of the Obamas.

“The last time I saw Nancy,” Rivers told me, “I asked what she thought of Michelle Obama going to Spain in the summer and she said, ‘I would not have gone.’ You don’t go with two busloads of friends to Spain when the country is in the state it’s in. You stay in America. It was a bad move.”

Rivers and Reagan then talked about the Obamas holidaying in Nantucket that year rather than spending more time on the Gulf Coast, site of the disastrous BP oil spill.

Nancy Reagan, Rivers said, “thought: ‘Go to exactly where you’re telling the world to go.’ They should’ve gone to the Gulf and stayed there longer, to show their support.”

Rivers herself died, aged 81, on Sept. 4, 2014. If there is an afterlife, quite a few old friends may be getting reacquainted.