Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Joan Rivers liberation

Books


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Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts; Little, Brown and Co., $28.

It could easily have been a scene out of a movie. The first lady of comedy Joan Rivers had been fired as television's first and only female late-night talk-show host at the new Fox network. Her husband Edgar, unable to bear his failure as her manager and producer, had killed himself. Her daughter Melissa blamed her for her father's death. Rivers discovered through Edgar's mismanagement on bad investments that she was $37 million in debt. Nobody wanted to hire her as an entertainer.

She sat on her bed with a gun in her lap contemplating suicide. Her Yorkshire terrier Spike jumped onto her lap and sat on her gun. Then Joan thought, If she ended her life, who would take care of the cute but mean and spoiled Spike? Putting the gun away, in the words of longtime "Vanity Fair" writer Leslie Bennetts, Rivers "accomplished over the next quarter of a century what would be a stunning achievement by anyone, but for an aging woman in an unforgiving sexist entertainment industry it was unprecedented." Despite being a pariah professionally, she would go on to recreate herself as a cultural icon and a business powerhouse, building a billion-dollar company, arguably the greatest comeback in showbiz history. When she died in 2014 at age 81, she would be rich, unstoppable, and at the top of her game.

No one was expecting great things from Joan Molinksky, born in Brooklyn in 1933 of Jewish parents: a stingy, successful physician father, and an extravagant mother who idolized her attractive daughter Barbara and castigated the "ugly" Joan. Moving to Larchmont in Westchester, her parents weren't supportive of her acting/comic aspirations, threatening to cut her off financially, even at one point attempting to stop her by having her committed to a mental institution. They wanted her to marry a rich boy, and Joan would later joke, "As I'm the last single girl in Larchmont, my mother is desperate. She has a sign up: 'Last Girl Before Freeway.'"

Years of desperate struggling (including taking her agent's last name as her own) led to her big break appearing on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" in 1965, which made her a star. That year she also married Edgar Rosenberg (she had a brief marriage a year out of college, but soon divorced), and he became her manager. She continued to work regularly on Carson, and in 1983 became his permanent guest host. Having seen a leaked NBC memo listing possible successors to Carson's job with her name not on it, she accepted Fox's offer, but didn't tell Carson she would be competing against him, which he interpreted as betrayal. He never spoke to her again. Edgar's unceasing meddling and poor ratings doomed the show.

This catastrophe would be the prime motivation for Rivers' remaining years. She never felt she reached the top again, despite writing 12 bestselling books, success on Broadway, her popular QVC jewelry line, an Emmy-awarded daytime talk show, a plethora of stand-up comedy gigs, a well-received documentary on her career, winning Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice," and her hit cable-TV series "Fashion Police," insulting the famous on their red-carpet clothes and looks ("Who are you wearing?"). Her August 2014 vocal cord biopsy went horribly awry, leading to brain death. Melissa eventually settled a wrongful death suit for millions in May 2016 against Yorkville Endoscopy. At her celebrity-studded funeral, people eulogized how groundbreaking Rivers was. She received the recognition she never got while alive.

Bennetts manages to convey the roller coaster spectacular triumphs and crushing failures of Rivers' life, as well as her contradictions. Boundary-breaking woman performers like Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Chelsea Handler owe her a great debt. She was the first Jewish American woman to break the glass ceiling of comedy to become a superstar and talk about taboo topics like sex ("Before we make love, Edgar takes a painkiller"), abortion ("I knew I wasn't wanted when I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth"), gynecology ("An hour before you come in, the doctor puts his hand in the refrigerator"), even the Holocaust. Nothing was off-limits. Although a feminist by being careerist, she didn't like the label, remaining traditional by allowing her incompetent husband full rein over her business affairs. She ridiculed the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women, but she followed them herself by starving herself to the point of bulimia (living only on Altoids) and having cosmetic surgery so excessive she was almost unrecognizable.

Yet Rivers was angry and could be cruel, moving in her career from victim to oppressor by ridiculing other women (inventing the terms fat- and slut-shaming) who didn't meet her standards of beauty, weight, or were promiscuous, her most famous target being a plump Elizabeth Taylor ("Elizabeth wore yellow, and 10 schoolchildren got aboard"). Taylor got even in a practical joke in one of the best incidents in the book. Having lost weight and looking beautiful again, she surprised Rivers by accompanying uninvited George Hamilton to her dinner party, being charming, discomforting and silencing her. Rivers was a very early supporter of LGBT rights (gay men adored her) and the first celebrity to do an AIDS fundraiser. She had extramarital affairs while married to Edgar, could throw a fax machine across a room when riled, had ornate taste (her Manhattan apartment looked like Versailles), and promoted the talentless Melissa, happy to coast on her mother's fame. She had an ambitious drive and voracious work ethic, believing stamina was more important than talent.

Can we talk? The book is dishy, though it is hard to tell whether Bennetts likes Rivers or not. Melissa didn't cooperate with her. Organized by topic, the book is not linear. Events are raised but not fully discussed until a later chapter. The final chapter is a spectral update of Rivers from the afterlife. Still, Rivers would probably have liked this biography. While candid, it is also fair. For all her insecurity, Rivers was the poster girl for resilience. Her greatest legacy was to help liberate women to tell the truth about their experiences. Rivers did indeed help change the world.






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