Date of Birth: 8 June 1933, Brooklyn, New York, US
Birth Name: Joan Alexandra Molinsky
Nicknames: Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers, was best known for her acerbic, backbiting humour. Tiny and sharp-boned with candyfloss blonde hair and talon-like fingernails, she started her routines with her catchphrase “Can we talk?” and maintained that she only asked “the questions that truly obsess America”.
She insisted that she got most of her source material from the notorious American publication the National Enquirer (“I never go to the bathroom without it”), and often used headlines such as “Who chooses the Queen’s clothes?” as the basis for her insult-laden comments.
Described by fellow comics as having a “karate-like attack” and a “knee to the groin” delivery, Joan Rivers’s stage persona relied heavily on the quick-fire insult (“Mosquitoes see Liz Taylor and shout 'Buffet!’”) combined with an endless stream of self-deprecating satires (“I’m the tackiest person I know, and I haven’t forgotten Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter”). She claimed that she drew her inspiration from Lenny Bruce, whom she first saw in the early 1960s: “He confirmed my ideas about comedy, of using personal pain and insight to generate comedic material.”
Dismissed by some critics, who saw her masochistic routines (“Men who look down my dress usually compliment me on my shoes”) as a throwback to the 1950s, Joan Rivers nevertheless proved successful with audiences. After spending 15 years playing what she described as “mafia-owned strip joints”, she emerged as America’s most highly paid comedienne. In 1983 she became the first woman regularly to host the Tonight Show when presenter Johnny Carson was on holiday, establishing her firmly in the pantheon of the nation’s television entertainers. In 1986 she defected to Rupert Murdoch’s recently launched Fox Broadcasting Co to star in a rival to Carson’s programme.
Similarly, when she was signed by London Weekend Television for a series of six programmes (Joan Rivers: Can We Talk?) in 1986, the early shows attracted some 11 million viewers, but by the end of the series the public was expressing a preference for alternatives such as Gardeners’ World and One Man and His Dog.
Later, after the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers returned to the cabaret circuit, touring extensively in both the United States and Britain. Following an appearance as a presenter of the 1987 Emmy awards and seasons at Las Vegas, she became a regular guest on ABC’s Hollywood Squares game show.
She was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8 1933, the younger daughter of Dr Meyer Molinsky and his wife Beatrice. Both her parents were Russian-Jewish refugees, and Rivers recalled that her mother never fully adjusted to life in the United States (her family had been responsible for supplying the Tsar with furs in pre-Revolution Russia). “She had a pathological fear of poverty,” Rivers recalled. “She spent her time talking about her childhood in Russia and forcing my father to pay for maids and governesses.”
She also remembered her childhood as being “full of domestic tension”. As a “fat, ugly child”, she felt that she could never fulfil her parents’ expectations, and that she was “outshone” by her elder sister. “It made me a manic overachiever,” she said. “I wanted to be better, smarter and thinner than my sister at any cost.” In later life, her horror of being fat and unattractive manifested itself in chronic dieting and plastic surgery.
Joan Rivers said that her earliest hopes were of becoming a serious actress after playing “the Healthy Tooth” in a production at kindergarten. She immediately encountered serious opposition from her parents, who considered acting an unsuitable profession for a girl. Her mother’s antipathy continued throughout Joan’s childhood and adolescence. At her private school, Joan took elocution lessons (though she would never lose her strong Brooklyn accent), and also learnt to play piano and violin.
Still against her parents’ wishes, at school Joan became involved in drama. Aged eight, she had sent a photograph of herself and her personal details to the casting department of MGM; and at 17 she landed a small part in the film Mr Universe. Threatened by her family with being cut off from her family and friends, she capitulated, agreeing to attend Connecticut College and later Barnard College, where she studied English and Anthropology.
On completing her course she turned down both an opportunity to study at Rada in London and an apprenticeship at a local drama company. This was to placate her mother, who was eager that she should marry and settle down. After working for a time as fashion coordinator for a large chain store (and taking the surname Rivers), in 1957 she married the boss’s son, Jimmy Sanger. The union was annulled after only five months. “We tried marriage guidance,” Joan Rivers recalled, “but the counsellor took one look at us and said 'No way’.”
Six months later she returned to her original plan of becoming an actress. As previously threatened, her parents disowned her, and Joan was forced to find work as a temporary clerk to finance her embryo acting career. But she discovered that she could earn $5 a night as a stand-up comic at a local club (50 cents more than she was earning as a clerk), and made her professional debut in 1960.
Now seeing herself as a primarily as a comedienne, Joan joined an improvisational theatre company in Chicago. A year later she returned to New York where, unable to find work, she began performing for nothing at a number of clubs in Greenwich Village, among them the Showplace.
By the early Sixties Joan Rivers had developed her confidential style of performance, saying that she wanted to speak “directly and personally to the audience”. After an unsuccessful year in the comedy trio Jim, Jake and Joan, she returned to solo performance in 1964 at The Duplex, where she was spotted by Roy Silver (who had earlier launched the career of Bill Cosby).
While Silver tried repeatedly to get her a booking on the Tonight Show, Joan wrote for television shows such as Candid Camera and The Ed Sullivan Show, and producing material for Zsa Zsa Gabor and Phyllis Diller. By 1965, agents had begun to dismiss her as “too old” to make a success as a solo comic, but after eight auditions Silver finally secured her a spot on the Tonight Show. She was an immediate hit, and was offered bookings in all the leading comedy clubs; she was placed under contract by NBC, and recorded her first comedy album for Warner Brothers (Joan Rivers Presents Mr Phyllis).
After a five-year engagement at Upstairs at the Downstairs in Greenwich Village, and a cameo role in the Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer (1968), she was offered her own show by NBC. That Show was screened every morning and included Joan Rivers’s monologues and ad lib conversations with the audience.
Throughout the Seventies, Joan Rivers continued to gain popularity, despite occasional flops such as the Broadway comedy Fun City (1971). In 1971 she was the first woman to host the Tonight Show for a full week; in 1973 she wrote and produced the hugely popular television film The Girl Most Likely To…; and in 1978 she made her directorial debut in Rabbit Test. Although this film was panned by the critics, it made a profit and enabled her to set up her own production company, Shafta Productions.
She also wrote a thrice-weekly column for The Chicago Tribune from 1973 to 1976, and published her first book, Having a Baby Can Be a Scream (which she described as a “catalogue of gynaecological anxieties”) in 1975.
By the early 1980s Joan Rivers was established as one of the most popular comediennes in the United States, enjoying sell-out tours. She appeared as guest host of Saturday Night Live and released another album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?, which won a Grammy. In 1983 she was made permanent guest host on the Tonight Show, a slot she filled for the next three years. She distinguished herself from other chat show hosts by routinely insulting her guests.
On one occasion she claimed that she “had Victoria Principal [the Dallas actress] hysterical” when she inquired about the star’s proposed marriage to the Bee Gee Barry Gibb; Victoria Principal dismissed the rumour, at which point Joan Rivers claimed that Victoria had earlier shown her the engagement ring.
By now Joan Rivers was appearing on magazine covers; addressing the National Federation of Republican Women; and commanding fees of $200,000 for a five-night booking at Las Vegas. Her first novel, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz, topped the bestseller list for 18 weeks. In 1984 she made her first appearance in Britain, in LWT’s An Audience With.
In 1986 Joan Rivers published an autobiography, Enter Talking. It was also the year she fell out with her mentor Carson over the Fox Network’s The Late Show with Joan Rivers. This was in direct competition with Carson’s Tonight Show, on which Rivers frequently guest hosted. As it turned out, the Rivers show was soon cancelled after dropping in the ratings; the critics had complained that Joan Rivers was “too kind” to the guests on her show. She fared little better when she came to Britain for Joan Rivers: Can We Talk?
Carson, meanwhile, hurt that Rivers hadn’t consulted him about her plans, banned her from appearing on his show. She responded in an allusion to Carson’s numerous divorces that she was “the only woman in the history of the world who left Johnny Carson and didn’t ask him for money”. The prohibition lasted until earlier this year, when the current host Jimmy Fallon finally invited the comedienne back. “The last time I was on the show, Melissa [her daughter] was in diapers,” Rivers joked. “Now, I’m in diapers.”
Joan Rivers believed that the cancellation of her talk show was what led to her husband’s suicide in 1987. Rosenberg had served as executive producer on the show and had been suffering from heart trouble. “The guilt never goes,” Rivers said in 2002. “For years and years I would suddenly stop and find myself thinking: you son of a b----! How could you?” She surprised some of her fans by embarking on what she called “a merry widow tour”, performing in clubs in Europe and the United States. It drew mixed reactions: in Los Angeles she was booed after telling gags about her husband’s death (“I couldn’t identify the body, I hadn’t looked at him for years. I said, 'I think it’s him, let me see the ring’.”) She also confided to friends that her relationship with Rosenberg had been a “total sham”, and complained bitterly about his treatment of her during their 22-year marriage.
The performer threw herself into her various business projects. As she entered her seventh decade there was no sign that her energy was flagging. She recalled that her aunt Alice used to say that “the person who is happy is the person who gets up wanting something”. In Joan Rivers’s case, the mixture of excitement and anxiety involved in making money, and avoiding penury, drove her on.
She was intermittently successful: her Joan Rivers Worldwide Inc business, selling opulent costume jewellery on television shopping channels, turned over more than $25 million a year at its height. However, that all went wrong when a partner in the business absconded with $37 million. “I used to wake up thinking of that number,” Rivers recalled. The partner went to jail but Rivers had to sell her name and jewellery designs to stave off bankruptcy.
In 2010 a warts-and-all documentary, Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work, showed a workaholic Rivers at 77 performing her one-woman show in the UK and being chauffered to gigs. It opened with alarmingly close shots of Rivers’s surgically enhanced face without make-up.
Joan Rivers’s career experienced an upswing during the last years of her life. She continued performing both live and on television. Recently she stirred up controversy by making tasteless jokes about the Israel-Gaza crisis. When a reporter told her that 2,000 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, she raised her hands in mock shock and said: “They were told to get out. They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you are an idiot.”
She enjoyed collecting antiques (“If Louis XIV hasn’t sat on it, I don’t want it”) and described her offstage persona as “shy, introverted and bookish” “That awful, vulgar, loud woman on stage, that’s not me. I wouldn’t want to be her friend.”