Joan Rivers: ‘Death Is Like Plastic Surgery’
A whirlwind vector of outrage and hilarity, Joan Rivers was an old-school trouper, at her happiest performing and puncturing the inflated egos of Hollywood.
As someone with a shrewd eye for the absurd, it is entirely possible somewhere Joan Rivers is smiling right now. It seems ridiculous that the indefatigable Rivers, who has died aged 81, should do so after undergoing a reportedly minor endoscopic procedure to do with her vocal cords, during which she stopped breathing.
Inevitably, her family—her much-loved daughter, Melissa, principally—began considering a lawsuit, as doctors attempted to bring her out of her coma. She was even moved from intensive care to her own private room. Rivers was reportedly having her hair and make-up done, the room had been specially decorated, and her two dogs had visited her.
On Thursday, The New York State Health Department revealed it had opened a “full investigation” into Yorkville Endoscopy Center where Rivers had the procedure.
The comedian died the same day she was due to co-host a party at New York department store Bergdorf Goodman for her friend, the store’s personal dresser, Betty Halbreich’s memoir, I’ll Drink To That, A Life In Style, With a Twist.
When I interviewed Rivers in 2010 for the Times of London, I asked her how she felt about the prospect of death, and she was very clear about what she wanted and didn’t want on her deathbed.
Rivers’ friends, she said, were “dropping likes flies. I think about death constantly, you do at this age. Everything is fine and moving but at what point will it all be over? I’ll kill myself if the doctor says my condition is terminal. I would not want to live if I could not perform. It’s in my will. I am not to be revived unless I can do an hour of stand-up.
“I don’t fear it. With plastic surgery the general anesthetic is like a black-velvety sleep, and that’s what death is—without waking up to someone clapping and going, ‘Joan, wake up, it’s all over and you’re looking pretty’.”
I interviewed her again in July, when Rivers told The Daily Beast she thought about her own death, “Constantly. In your 80s, you’d be foolish not to think about that. I am definitely going to be cremated. I’ve left money so the dogs can be taken care of. I’ve said to Melissa, ‘Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions.’ I feel almost hysterical on that. I don’t want them to have a sense of guilt.”
Rivers told me in both 2010 and 2014 that, when thinking about dying herself, she fretted most about her daughter Melissa. “We’re very close. We have nobody else: she has me and I have her. I think it’s going to be very difficult when I die, very hard for her."
Rivers doted on her 13-year-old grandson Cooper, too. “I’m crazy about him. He’s turning into good kid. He’s 13. He broke his wrist—oh, it makes me cry—breaking up a fight between two friends. He’s such a good guy and he’s funny, thank you God. And we can laugh almost on an adult level. And it’s all due to Melissa, who is an amazing mother.”
Rivers told me she worried about dying and leaving Melissa alone, especially as the pair had endured and survived the suicide of Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers’ second husband and Melissa’s father, in 1987. “I want to marry her off, so I know she’ll be taken care of. I’m worried about her,” Rivers told me.
“Your child is never not your child. You can be 90 and your mother 120, but your mother is still worried about you. I worry about Melissa. I look at everyone who she dates and think, ‘That one’s not right, that one’s not right.’ She’s dating a businessman in his mid-40s who wants to retire to Bali. He’s made his money. But her career (as a producer) is going so well. You look and think, ‘Somebody’s going to have to make a compromise here.’ As long as she’s happy, I don’t care.”
Only the day before she was rushed to hospital, Rivers had—with her usual targeted, risqué snarks—laid into the celebrities on the VMA and Emmys red carpets on E!’s Fashion Police. That show bought her persona—the master-deflater of ridiculous Hollywood ego and flummery—to Rivers’ youngest audience.
Later that month, Rivers waded into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If New Jersey was firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out.” The Palestinians “started it,” she shouted. “Don’t you dare put weapon stashes in private homes.” She also suggested President Obama was gay and Michelle Obama transgender. She didn’t take kindly to be criticized for wearing fur.
As the brilliant 2010 documentary about her, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, made clear, staying working, staying in the game, was incredibly important—life-saving and life-giving—to Rivers. She did the reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? There were Web series like In Bed With Joan and the newly minted Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls. “A few bad shows, a few failures, and I could be sleeping on the street,” she once said, not joking.
The outrageous behavior of participants demanded by producers of reality entertainment fitted Rivers like a glove: in 2009 she won that year’s Celebrity Apprentice.
And, as the documentary illuminated, she worked, worked, worked—even if it meant going to the back-of-beyond venues. “I’ve always been salaried, I’ve never owned anything,” she told me. “I’ve done very well, lived very well. Sweetheart, I’m still working at Indian casinos in Omaha,” Rivers told me. She hymned the delights of Twitter (where she had 2.15 million followers) and Vines. “It’s so exciting now. On In Bed With Joan I can say anything, there’s Twitter and Vine. This is what it was like when we went from radio to television. I feel we’re absolutely in the Wild West. It’s great. I love Vines. You make this 6.4-second drama, and you can reach 6 million viewers, and make people laugh. I find it so fabulous.”
You seem terrified of not working, I said to her. “With comedians, you’re as good as your last joke,” she said. Where does the fear come from? I asked. “It being over, and I can’t get a job in Macy’s selling hats.” You could live off your money, I said. “I don’t have money to do that,” Rivers replied. “I could pull my living in and live OK, but I don’t want to live OK. I’m very happy to live in my penthouse, very happy I can pick up a check, very happy to have a great life, and be able to spread my wealth a little bit.”
I asked if she would ever retire. “Ha. Never. Do what? What fun is this, to wake up and say, ‘I don’t have a minute free today?’ It’s fabulous. I had dinner last night with Barbara Walters, who’s an old friend, and looking forward to retirement. I said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
When Rivers heard that families of 9/11 victims—Melissa lost three friends—were getting $5 million in compensation, she said to me in 2010, “Doesn’t it make you look around the table at Thanksgiving and think, ‘Well, if it is fast and painless, who could I get $5 million for in this family?’ People are so frightened of death. My way is to joke about it.”
Was anything off limits? Her mother’s death for a while, but it made Rivers “crazy” if she couldn’t hear the audience laughing. “I knew from the start I wasn’t the most talented, the prettiest or best, so I had to work much harder: the immigrant mentality.”
Rivers grew up in Brooklyn: her father, Meyer C. Molinsky, was a doctor, her mother, Beatrice, a housewife; and she had a sister, Barbara (Waxler, who died last year). “I’m not sure if I was happy,” Rivers told me about growing up. “I was the class wit, not the class clown: an important difference.” Her parents were “loving, academically oriented,” she said. “The children went to private school, weekends were spent at the country club.”
Rivers’ father threatened to have her committed when she told him she wanted to be an actress. “If I had said I wanted to be an astronaut, they would have been like ‘Do it’,” Rivers told me. “Every time a prostitute came into my dad’s office she called herself an ‘actress’. They didn’t have a clue.”
Her parents were horrified by her friends: Woody Allen, Richard Pryor (“that crazy black child”), Lenny Bruce and Lily Tomlin. “My parents were in shock. I would be too if Melissa brought those nutjobs to the house.” But her mother “understood that in showbusiness you are never walking on concrete, always mud”, and her father, “the minute I became a hit, seven years after I started, said ‘I always knew she would’.”
Rivers’ first marriage was in 1955, to James Sanger, the son of a clothing store manager; the marriage was annulled after six months as Sanger did not want to have children. Rivers focused on her career: she appeared in comedy clubs, worked as a gag writer on Candid Camera, and then—through the 1960s and 1970s—began appearing on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as comedy, variety, and game shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares.
Her big break, she told me, was becoming a guest, then co-host, on Carson’s Tonight show. However, when she left to front her own Fox late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, in 1986, Carson never spoke to her again. “It was terrible,” she told me. “He saw me as a rival and I never heard from him again, not even after Edgar killed himself. When his son died, I sent a note saying how sorry I was and I heard nothing, it was like spitting in the wind.”
Rivers had married Rosenberg in 1965, and he became her manager. Melissa was born in 1968. Rivers told Howard Stern in 2012 she had had affairs while married to Rosenberg, including a one-night stand with Robert Mitchum.
It was the cancellation of Rivers’ Fox talk show in 1987 that led the 62-year-old Rosenberg to commit suicide in May that year, Rivers told me. “He was upset, we both were, but I had no idea he was feeling like that.” Rosenberg had called Melissa the day before and told her he had to meet her the next day.
When Rosenberg committed suicide, Rivers was in Chicago. “In the middle of the night at an airport 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 [Rivers’ longtime friend] got Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia for me. Edgar killed himself in Philadelphia and I couldn’t get the body out of there. My daughter 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.”
I said, “I can’t get Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia.” She 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.”
“You don’t get over it,” Rivers told me in 2010. “The survivors of suicide are the most damaged. The anger stays with you. He was a motherfucking bastard for doing that. If he was alive I’d kill him.
“He left me and Melissa high and dry, he took the easy way out. But when you’re so self-absorbed in pain, you don’t think about the effect on others.” How did Rivers feel? “Well, I didn’t buy the party shoes. It was rough. You don’t have time to be in pain, you have to push on or you could kill yourself and leave your child with nothing.”
About eight months after Rosenberg died, Rivers contemplated suicide herself. “Melissa wasn’t talking to me, my career was in the toilet,” Rivers told me in July. “I’d lost my Vegas contracts, I’d been fired from Fox. Carson and had put out such bad publicity about me. I was a pariah. I wasn’t invited anywhere. I was a non-person. At one point I thought, ‘What’s the point? This is stupid.’”
What saved her was her dog jumped into her lap. “I thought, ‘No one will take care of him.’ It wasn’t a friendly dog—only to me. I adored this dog. He was theoretically a Yorkie, his mother cheated. His name was Spike. He was the way you want your dog to be, devoted only to you. I was sitting in this big empty house in Bel Air, with a phone with five extensions which we no longer needed. I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun.
“I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it’s going to change and you push forward. I look back and think, “Life is great, life goes on. It changes.”
I asked Rivers why she thought Rosenberg had taken his own life. “When I was fired, he knew it was his fault [he was her manager], and he committed suicide,” she told me. “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. He would have said, ‘That’s it, they can all go to hell, and we’ll just pull ourselves in.’ After he died, because there was nothing, I had to strike out again. A friend of mine at his funeral said, ‘He’s freed you.’ I thought that was very interesting. And in a way he did, ’cause I had to really start again, thank God.”
After her violent rejection from Hollywood, the mainstay of Rivers’ later career was to be its thorn in the side of its celebrities, from their style to their sex lives.
“The ones who aren’t upset are the smart ones who laugh at it and know it’s silly,” she told me in July, after the publication of Diary of a Mad Diva had bought the threat of legal action from Kristen Stewart.
“Miss Rivers wrote this diary as a comedic tome, not unlike Saving Private Ryan or The Bell Jar…” a note reads at the beginning of the book. “Anyone who takes anything seriously in this book is an idiot.”
Rivers told me she made so many jokes “about poor Russell Crowe, he once knocked on my dressing room door and told me he wanted to go out on this chat show we were on to laugh with me. Now he’s ruined it. I can’t make another joke about him. Cher would get upset if I took her out of the act. She would come to see me in Vegas, and ask, ‘Why am I not in the act?’ She understood that you’re only in the act if you’re relevant. I see the Kardashians at E! I always say, “Stay famous, or I’m going to lose seven to ten minutes of my act.”
Rivers thought family matriarch Kris Kardashian was “the smartest woman in world: She took the entire family, and now the next generation, and made them celebrities for doing nothing. I think that’s brilliant. I want to sit at her feet and take notes. I begged Melissa to do a sex tape. I said, ‘I’ll even hold the lube.’ Melissa is such a princess. She said, ‘What will the thread count of the sheets be?’”
Celebrities like Stewart reacted against Rivers’ jokes. “I love when they say I’ve crossed a line,” Rivers told me. “On the scale of 1 to Osama bin Laden, I didn’t blow up buildings. I made a joke about Sharon Stone. I think sometimes celebrities believe their own publicity—that they really were a pizza waitress rather then being ‘discovered’ on their knees in front of some producer. No one says no to them because they’re so spoilt.”
For Rivers, comedians were “in the trenches, the ones that get out of the trenches are ones in trouble. You cannot have dinner with Oprah and then do a joke about her and Gayle, so you’d better choose what side you’re on. I have no cosseting and protection, nor am I invited to the same parties. I’m always shocked when I get an invitation. People are always shocked when they see me at a party.”
Rivers’ pleasure was in the delight she gave to her fans. “It’s good to have people all day long saying, “You make me happy, you make me laugh,” she told me.
In New York she lived in a palatial penthouse just off Central Park with its own ballroom, cream pillars, richly embroidered drapes, cushions and regal red and gold color scheme. As she told me when I interviewed her there in 2010: “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she’d had money.” She showed me a set of drawers, revealing a meticulously kept filing system of all her jokes.
Rivers had a butler who delivered us brownies on a silver platter, and a grandfather clock that played whimsical Scottish tunes on the hour, which Rivers couldn’t name beyond “Bonnie bonnie, Tam o’ Shanter.” She cherished her photographs the most: of Rosenberg, Melissa, and Cooper.
In her book-packed study—stuffed to the gills with biographies and history books—were cushions with homilies such as: “Never economize on luxuries” and “It’s lonely at the top. You just eat better.”
The biographies Rivers read were of Republican icons such as Abraham Lincoln, Colin Powell, and Richard Nixon—at times she said she was Republican; at others, Democrat—and there were art books on de Kooning, Seurat and Manet. She told me she had a therapist on speed dial. Did she get depressed, I asked? “Of course, that’s the business!” she replied. “There is incredible insecurity in this business. I have friends who won Oliviers and Baftas (prestigious British theater and TV film awards) who aren’t working and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s good for you. It keeps you on your toes.”
Anger motivated her. “I don’t know where mine comes from, but thank God it’s there,” she said. “Anger at the stupidity of everything around you.”
Last year, her sister Barbara died. She told me in July, “There goes your link to your childhood and she was the memory bank of our family. I have no one to call up and say, ‘Do you remember that time Daddy punched out our neighbor?’ ‘Do you remember the time that Mummy bought the mink coat and didn’t tell Daddy?’ I am trying to be a good ‘mother’ to her children, but they’re in their 30s. We weren’t very close, but we were sisters. We fought, we made up. I miss not having “my sister.”
As for Rivers’ face—close-up it didn’t look that odd, just immensely scuplted and smooth. I asked her in 2010 what she had had done exactly. “A lot of little things at different times,” she said. It began because she had always felt unattractive. “The first thing was get rid of the bags under my eyes, I had my nose thinned and my chin done and my neck done twice. I have Botox and Restylane once every few months by the best doctor in New York, Pat Wexler.
“In her waiting room I’ve seen the Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City girls. At Pat’s 50th birthday party they came up to me and said, ‘Haven’t had anything done, she’s just a friend’, but when it came to blowing out her candles no one could because their faces were so frozen. I’ve never regretted it; in this business you have to look fresh and clean on camera.You don’t want to see Clint Eastwood with a turkey neck or Julia Roberts looking like she needs a wash.”
In 2010, Rivers told me about the relationships she had had since Rosenberg’s death. She said she had been single since a relationship ended two-and-a-half years before with [banker and socialite] Orin Lehman. She liked going out with businessmen, “because they’re not in showbusiness so there’s no competitiveness. He was liking me more and I was liking him less. We’ve not stayed friends, I’m not a friend-stayer.”
Of the break-up with Lehman, Rivers told me in July: “He cheated on me. His accountant called me. The lady he had been seeing had been making purchases using his money. The accountant thought it was me and was calling to tell me to go easy. I finished with him the very same day, which was stupid. He called me every single day for a year, but I was so hurt and so betrayed.”
Before Lehman, she told me in 2010, was a nine-year relationship with a guy with one leg: “My Heather Mills,” Rivers called him. She said she would like a partner: “It would be lovely to come home after the party and say, ‘Would you like a sandwich?’ or ‘Can you believe what that bitch said?’ Or stay home and read and watch TV.” As for sex, she rolled her eyes: “Old people talking about sex puts everyone off. Sex is tied to love for me. My generation was one for romance.”
Talking about remembering (or not) one’s partners, Rivers said, “I can’t really remember what Edgar was like. I lived with [Lehman] for eight years, and can’t remember what he was like. You remember them but they all become fuzzy and wonderful. You no longer miss their sharp wit, you miss an idea. It changes tremendously and probably for the better.”
In July, Rivers told me she wasn’t interested in relationships. “The hotel is now closed completely. I look so bad in a bathing suit I kick sand in my own face. I’ve reached the point in my life where you think, “That’s it. You look at yourself and say, ‘How can you get a minus-44 dark room, pitch black and then some. Maybe if Stevie Wonder called I’d say ‘OK.’ It’s not worth it. Old men have too many physical problems. And with younger men, as my mother always said, ‘You need to be the good-looking one.’ But I’m not bitching. If life is 100 percent, I’ve got 90.”
Men still flirted with her, Rivers said, “and it’s the most disgusting thing when they say to an older woman, which I am, ‘How’s my gal doing?’ Go fuck yourself, I’ve had more good times than you’ll ever know, so don’t you dare patronize me.”
Rivers wasn’t interested in acting her age; she luxuriated, for jokes, for banter, in that day’s pop-culture news. When I asked her which actress gave her her most material, she cackled. “Oh well, Gwyneth Paltrow, my little Gwennie-Wennie, and her two children, what is it…Apple and Sardine? Everything she says is wrong, and the arrogance… The Kardashians are the gift that keeps on giving. Just Kim’s wedding… I said I’d caught Kim’s bouquet, the first thing I ever caught from Kim that I didn’t have to get a shot of penicillin for. And Beyoncé and Solange. Solaaannnggge. And Shia LaBeouf. I want to introduce him to Amanda Bynes… they’d get married but couldn’t hold hands during the vows because of the restraints in their jackets.”
In 2010, I asked her what was left she wanted to do. “A regular TV sitcom, a Broadway show and a meaty movie role,” Rivers said. “I’ve never been in a ‘real’ movie. That bitch Meryl Streep gets all the parts, it makes me so angry.” She laughed that raspy laugh of hers.
But like Streep, she had been a standard-bearer, I said to her, imagining Rivers as a feminist trailblazer—in her case for comics such as Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler. “No, I was too busy pushing forward,” Rivers said, and she was absolutely serious; “although,” she added, ever ready with the zinger, “it would be nice if they gave me 3 percent. I don’t want thanks, send a check.”
I asked the same question—what would she still like to do?—of Rivers in July. “Everything. I want to bring back [her 1994 Broadway show about Lenny Bruce’s mother] Sally Marr… and Her Escorts. I was nominated for a Tony for it, but lost out to Diana Rigg, that slut-whore-tramp who happened to do Medea, and I had no children to set on fire. Everyone kept telling me they’d voted for me. I really thought I was going to win. Bill Blass made a dress for me. But I say the same to everyone else now. Nobody’s going to vote for me now, I’m never going to win anything. I’m too abrasive. I’ve not been invited to the Vanity Fair [Oscars night] party. The woman who cleans my toilets gets invited to the Vanity Fair party. It’s hilarious. But I think comics should be on the outside. If you’re on the inside, it’s over.”
Rivers denied, as I suggested, she’d been rude to so many people. “I told the truth. I don’t think it’s rude. I haven’t been invited to the White House since the Reagans were there.”
Rivers told me she didn’t know why she was still the outsider, but she made a snoring sound when reciting the questions asked of stars in the late-night talk shows: “Did you have fun on set?” and such.
If she had a show now, Rivers said, it would be in the late-late-late slot, between 3 and 4 a.m. “I’d call it, Nobody’s Watching At That Time, So Go Fuck Yourselves.”