Nicola Barry

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Joan Rivers


The wonderful Joan Rivers who died yesterday.

I am so sorry and sad to hear of the death of Joan Rivers. As a journalist, so often, you are forced to listen to people who imagine they and their lives are enthralling when they are not. But Joan Rivers was fascinating: outrageous beyond belief and wonderful to interview. We had the strangest of conversations, not so much a case of what she said but where she said it. Joan was sitting in her New York bathroom, which, she said, she used as an office. The apartment used to be a ballroom but now it is a beautiful home overlooking Central Park. In many respects Joan was whatever you wanted her to be: a comedienne first and foremost, but also an award-winning television talk-show host, a best-selling author, a jewellery designer, a business guru, and a real family woman. She absolutely adored her daughter, Melissa and grandson, Edgar Cooper.


When we spoke, Joan was heading for Scotland to give an annual farewell tour. She said she loved “the Scaats”, as she called us, and, above all, she loved Edinburgh, especially the Castle. In real life Ms Rivers had the gruff, husky New York voice which came to define her. Her words were punctuated every so often with snorts, usually at her own jokes. She was extremely funny, but endearingly so.  When I asked her about her reputation for being one of the hardest working women in the world, she quipped, “Yeah, if you don’t count the hooker on the corner.” Doesn’t she ever feel exhausted? “Gaad, no,” she rasped, “We’re all pals on the tour bus. We make a point of visiting historical sights or of having a great lunch. It’s so much fun. Last time we visited the home of the Brontes. Fascinating, and had lunch in an adorable English country pub.”


This delightfully dotty woman was born to Russian immigrants, in Brooklyn, “on June 8.  If you need the year, go find it yourself,” she famously added, probably with her trademark smirk. She was direct to the point of being rude, but you just knew by the humorous undercurrent that she wasn’t being nasty. Her age was and wasn’t a sensitive subject. Unlike many Hollywood stars, she didn’t lie about it.  A frequent and unapologetic user of cosmetic surgery, Joan became a popular guest on the series, Nip/Tuck. In one episode, she asked the doctors to let her see how she would have looked without all the surgery. When they showed her on a computer, she all but threw up. When we talked, Joan was preparing to leave for the UK to appear on the Jonathan Ross show and to make one more episode of Nip/Tuck. “I have always told the truth about my surgery,” she said. “It really annoys me when women lie about it. I’ve watched so many female actresses of my age grow steadily younger. They always swear they haven’t had surgery. For God’s sake, everyone has Botox. Even my dog has Botox.” When I asked her what she thought of women, she said, “On their own, they are wonderful. I love them. But the minute you bring a man into the equation, a lot of women can be treacherous.” She could have any man she wanted, surely? “Oh yeah, right,” she scoffed, letting out a vintage Joan guffaw. She has had her fair share of men, devoted ones at that. At 21, Joan married the owner of a big department store and the marriage lasted six months. “Six months longer than it should have done,” she mumbled. Her second marriage was to Edgar Rosenberg. It lasted 22 years and he was her manager. After Edgar, there was millionaire Orin Lehman but that, too, ended after nine years. One of the world’s funniest women, she has had her fair share of tragedies, most notably the suicide of Edgar, her second husband. “Edgar and I had agreed on a trial separation,” Joan explained. “Three years later, he took his own life. He just wasn’t coping.” These days, Joan lectures all over the world on suicide prevention and survival. When I told her a high number of young people took their own lives in this country, she said the States had the same problem. “Why?” she said. “Do you know someone once said that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem? And that is exactly right. People who feel so bad need help to realise that things do get better. If only I had known how ill Edgar was, I might have been able to help him give life and living a chance.  The trouble with suicide is that the aftermath is never over. The guilt. I still feel it. Families and friends are left reeling when someone takes their own life. I will never know what Edgar’s suicide did to our daughter, Melissa, but it was bad. I know that much.” She and her daughter were close. They spoke every day. She also adored her grandson, Edgar Cooper. “I am the granny from hell,” she confessed. “I’m the one who always lets him have dessert first. I just figure it’s what a granny is supposed to do.”


Joan began her comedy career by doing the rounds of sleazy agents, tawdry clubs and hostile audiences. “Custer did better at Little Big Horn,” she said. In 1965, a booking on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson finally turned her dream into a reality. Four months later, Joan met and married producer Edgar Rosenberg, and on January 10, 1968 their daughter Melissa was born. That year, Joan got one of the first syndicated talk shows on daytime TV. Subsequent guest hosting on Carson and appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show rapidly earned her an international reputation. In 1983, Joan became the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show and her star rose meteorically. She sold out concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, comedy albums, two best-selling books. Then, for some reason, she hit a rocky patch but managed to claw her way back up the greasy pole, proof of the gutsy woman she is, until she got her own syndicated daytime talk show in 1989 and won an Emmy and a much prized star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I asked her about her friendship with Prince Charles and Camilla. Joan was one of four Americans to attend their wedding. “I have never seen such a happy wedding party,” she said. “Usually, at weddings, there’s always somebody moaning. But theirs was glorious. I think the British public will end up loving Camilla the same way they did the Queen Mum.”


But that’s too serious for Joan Rivers. Back to business, does she have a funniest sketch?  “You always think your latest joke is your funniest,” she said. “We’ve been working on something for Jonathan Ross, about how incredibly stupid Americans are. For example, when you British had the London bombings, the police were out there straight away, tracking down the perpetrators. Yet, here we are, STILL looking for Osama Bin Laden. It’s unbelievable.” How about 9/11? Was she there? I could actually hear her shudder. “It changed the face of New York,” she replied. “It was so weird to see all these people coming out of the subways with white all over their faces. I remember,” she said quietly, “we went, immediately, to donate blood, but there was no need, because everybody was dead.” A grim silence. The question is was Joan Rivers as outrageous in real life as her stage persona suggested? Did she crack jokes about vibrators to people she met at a bus-stop? “With my close friends, yes, I probably am outrageous,” she agreed. “But the less I know someone, the more reserved I tend to be.” She and her daughter have become feared for their performance on the red carpet at major award shows like the Emmies. The scathing comments they make on the live pre-show, to some of the world’s top celebrities have sent viewing figures through the roof. Joan memorably told Bjork her dress made her look like a swan and Lara Flynn Boyle that hers resembled a tutu. “The Red Carpet is just a bit of fun,” Joan said. “Melissa and I are never going to upset real stars like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. The people who lack self confidence, they may get upset sometimes. But, honey, you can’t please everybody.”

I can hardly believe this really is her final farewell.