Joan Rivers, a pioneering female stand-up comic and the queen of "Can We Talk?" gossip, has died, her daughter, Melissa Rivers, said Thursday. She was 81.
Rivers was undergoing surgery on her vocal cords at a clinic in New York City on Aug. 28 when she stopped breathing and had to be transported to Mount Sinai Hospital. Melissa Rivers and Joan Rivers' 13-year-old grandson, Cooper, who live in Malibu, California, rushed to her bedside.
"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers said in a statement. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."
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Raspy-voiced and brassy, Rivers was always self-deprecating, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect. A master of reinvention, she endured in show business because of her tenacious work ethic — which she credited to her "immigrant mentality."
Comedians typically push the edge of the envelope, but Rivers proved time and again that she didn't even see the envelope. To her fans, she was as shocking as she was endearing.
"The way she is funny, she tells the truth according to herself," the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2010. "She hates some people. She has political opinions. Her observations are so merciless and her timing so precise that even if you like that person, you laugh. She is a sadist of comedy, unafraid to be cruel — even too cruel."
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No topic was off limits. From Elizabeth Taylor to Queen Elizabeth to even Anne Frank, Rivers loved going after public figures.
"I mock everybody, regardless of race, creed or color," she told the Toronto Star in July. "Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about."
Four years earlier, she explained her no-holds-barred approach to The Times of London: "If you laugh at something, you shrink the dragon."
Her favorite punching bag, though, was always herself. "My mother used to look at me and say: 'Looks don't count. Now, get out of my sight, you big lump.'"
Rivers was the first to mock her facelifts and other plastic surgeries. Her grandson "calls me Nana New Face. And when he was younger, the joke was he had never seen me without bandages. So one time, we saw 'The Return of the Mummy,' and he ran to the TV set and he went, 'Grandma, Grandma.'"
A famously hard-working dynamo, she was nowhere near close to retirement. She worked the red carpets for the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys near the end of August and had been scheduled to appear at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on Aug. 29. She co-hosted "Fashion Police," starred in WE TV's reality series "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" and hosted two online shows, "In Bed With Joan" and "Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls."
A lifelong fashionista, Rivers, with her daughter, began doing the awards red carpet circuit in the mid-1990s on shows for E! and later TV Guide. Her love of all things couture led her to coin another well-known catch phrase: "Who are you wearing?"
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The comedian also embraced social media, and that, of course, brought its share of controversy. In 2012, Rivers used Twitter to tell R&B star Rihanna not to go back to Chris Brown after a domestic violence incident, in her own special way: "Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it's MY turn to slap her."
"I love the Internet, and I love that you can say whatever you want," Rivers told The Boston Globe last November.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, to Russian immigrants, Rivers spent her childhood in Brooklyn until her parents moved to upper-class Westchester County, New York. She believed she inherited her sense of humor from her father, who was a doctor. Her mother was a housewife.
"I'm not sure if I was happy. I was the class wit, not the class clown — an important difference," she told The Times of London in 2010.
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Because her father threatened to have her committed for being an actress, Rivers studied at Connecticut College and Barnard College, where she earned degrees in English and anthropology. Although her true love remained performing in theater, she worked in retail and fashion after college.
After her first marriage to James Sanger ended in annulment after six months, Rivers decided to become a serious actress. She studied drama and appeared in a few plays, but she was advised by an agent that she should be in comedy. He also advised her to change her name.
Rivers landed her big break in 1965 on "The Tonight Show: Starring Johnny Carson" and released her first comedy album shortly thereafter, "Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories." In 1983, after frequent appearances on Carson's "Tonight Show," she was designated the first permanent guest host, a prestigious role that broke down barriers for women in comedy.
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Married to British TV producer Edgar Rosenberg at the time — after a four-day courtship — Rivers continued to find humor in her own life, making fun of herself as a "fat kid" or a flat-chested housewife. Eventually she landed her own vehicle, "The Show With Joan Rivers," in 1968 — the same year her only daughter, Melissa, was born. The show lasted two years.
In 1972, Rivers moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote a book, "Having a Baby Can Be a Scream," starred in a feature film, "Rabbit Test," and co-created a TV series, "Husbands, Wives, and Lovers," for CBS. She was living in a mansion in Bel-Air and headlining shows at Carnegie Hall, and she was the highest-paid entertainer in Las Vegas.
By then, her "Can We Talk?" catch phrase was known throughout America. She was on top of the world until Fox offered Rivers her own talk show airing opposite "The Tonight Show" in 1986. Carson never spoke to her again and banned her from the show. Jimmy Fallon was the first person to allow her to return during his first episode as host this year.
Her Fox show, "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers," was short-lived. The network fired Rivers and her husband when she challenged the decision to fire him from his job as a producer on the show. Then, in 1987, Rosenberg committed suicide, devastating the comedian. Rivers became bulimic and estranged from her daughter, and she contemplated suicide herself.
"I had no choice but to come out of it, because of Melissa," Rivers told The Sunday Times in 2006.
A year later, she moved to New York City and landed a role in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound," for which she received rave reviews. In 1988, she launched "The Joan Rivers Show" with her co-host, her little dog Spike. In 1990, she won a Daytime Emmy for Best Talk Show Host.
In the next decade, Rivers continued to experiment with other TV show formats and began selling jewelry on QVC. She reconciled with Melissa, and the pair starred in a movie that dramatized their lives and sparked their partnership on E! as red carpet and fashion commentators. Rivers also won a Tony Award for her role in "Sally Marr and Her Escorts."
Since then, Rivers appeared on several TV shows, such as "Suddenly Susan" and "Nip/Tuck" and "Celebrity Apprentice," headlined in Las Vegas and wrote 12 books. Her last, "Diary of a Mad Diva," was published this year.
"I'm terrified if it looks like nobody wants me," Rivers told The Toronto Star in July. "How long will that go on? Forever. In our business, you never know. ... And it's not the money. I joke about that enough but that isn't what drives me. I love the performing. I love the work."
In recent years, death came up a lot in Rivers' interviews and jokes as she coped with the loss of good friends. The night before she was hospitalized, Rivers did an hour of stand-up at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City, where she joked, according to the New York Daily News: "I'm 81 — I could go at any moment. I could fall over right here and you all could say, 'I was there!'"
She told The Times of London four years ago that she "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."
First published September 4 2014, 11:57 AM