There was nobody like her. Some people are knockoffs or imitations of other, stronger, more vivid figures, but there was never another Joan Rivers before her or while she lived. She was a seriously wonderful, self-invented woman.
She was completely open and immediately accessible. She had the warmth of a person who found others keenly and genuinely interesting. It was also the warmth of a person with no boundaries: She wanted to know everything about you and would tell you a great deal about herself, right away. She had no edit function, which in part allowed her gift. She would tell you what she thought. She loved to shock, not only an audience but a friend. I think from the beginning life startled her, and she enjoyed startling you. You only asked her advice or opinion if you wanted an honest reply.
Her intelligence was penetrating and original, her tastes refined. Her duplex apartment on the east side of Manhattan was full of books in beautiful bindings, of elegant gold things on the table, lacquered boxes, antique furniture. She liked everything just so. She read a lot. She was a doctor’s daughter.
We met and became friends in 1992, but the story I always remember when I think of her took place in June 2004. Ronald Reagan had just died, and his remains were being flown from California to Washington, where he would lay in state at the U.S. Capitol. A group of his friends were invited to the Capitol to take part in the formal receiving of his remains, and to say goodbye. Joan was there, as a great friend and supporter of the Reagans.
That afternoon, as we waited for the plane to land, while we were standing and talking in a ceremonial room on the Senate side, there was, suddenly, an alarm. Secret Service men and Capitol police burst into the room and instructed us to leave, quickly and immediately. An incoming plane headed for the Capitol was expected to hit within minutes. “Run for your lives,” they commanded, and they meant it. Everyone in the Capitol ran toward the exits and down the great stairs. Joan was ahead of me, along with the television producer Tommy Corcoran, her best friend and boon companion of many years.
Down the long marble halls, down the long steps . . . At the bottom of the steps, in a grassy patch to the left, I saw Joan on the ground, breathless. Her high heel had broken, the wind knocked out of her. I’m not going any further, she said to Tommy. Keep going, she said. I should note that everyone really thought the Capitol was about to be attacked.
I stopped to ask if I could help, heard what Joan had said to Tommy and then heard Tommy’s reply: “I’m staying with you.”
“Run!” said Joan. She told him to save himself.
“No,” said Tommy. “It wouldn’t be as much fun without you.” He said if anything happened they’d go together. And he sat down next to her and held her hand and they waited for the plane to hit.
Needless to say it didn’t; some idiot flying an oblivious governor had drifted into restricted airspace. I don’t know if they ever had any idea how close they’d come to being shot down.
But that was a very Joan moment, her caring about her friend and him saying life would be lesser without her.
* * *
I was lucky to have known her. I owe it to Steve Forbes, the publisher and former presidential hopeful who, with his family, owned a chateau in France near the Normandy coast. It was the family’s custom once a year to invite friends and associates for a long weekend, and in the summer of 1992 I went, and met Joan. Talk about a life force.
We all stayed in beautiful rooms. Joan amused herself making believe she was stealing the furniture. It rained through the weekend, which Joan feared would make Steve and Sabina Forbes blue, so she organized a group of us to go into town to a costume-rental place so we could put on a show. All they had was French Revolution outfits, so we took them, got back to our rooms, and Joan and I wrote a play on what we announced were French revolutionary themes. Walter Cronkite, another guest, was chosen by Joan as narrator. I think the play consisted mostly of members of Louis XIV’s court doing Catskills stand-up. It was quite awful and a big success.
The highlight of the weekend was a balloon lift, a Forbes tradition—scores of huge balloons in brilliant colors and patterns would lift from the grounds of the chateau after dawn and travel over the countryside. It was so beautiful. I stood and watched, not meaning to participate, and was half pushed into a gondola. By luck Joan was there, full of good humor and information on what we were seeing below.
We held on hard as we experienced a hard and unplanned landing on a French farm. We were spilled out onto a field. As we scrambled and stood, an old farmer came out, spoke to us for a moment, ran into his farmhouse and came back with an old bottle of calvados. He then told us he hadn’t seen Americans since D-Day, and toasted us for what America had done for his country. No one was more moved than Joan, who never forgot it.
* * *
I last saw her in July. A friend and I met her for lunch at a restaurant she’d chosen in Los Angeles. It was full of tourists. Everyone at the tables recognized her and called out. She felt she owed her fans everything and never ignored or patronized an admirer. She smiled through every picture with every stranger. She was nice—she asked about their families, where they were from, how they liked it here. They absolutely knew she would treat them well and she absolutely did.
The only people who didn’t recognize Joan were the people who ran the restaurant, who said they didn’t have her reservation and asked us to wait in the bar, where waiters bumped into us as they bustled by. Joan didn’t like that, gave them 10 minutes to get their act together, and when they didn’t she left. But she didn’t just leave. She stood outside on the sidewalk, and as cars full of people went by with people calling out, “Joan! We love you!” she would yell back, “Thank you but don’t go to this restaurant, they’re rude! Boycott this restaurant!” My friend said, “Joan, stop it, you’re going to wind up on TMZ.”
“I don’t care,” she said. She felt she was doing a public service.
We went to a restaurant down the street, where when she walked in they almost bowed.
She wouldn’t let a friend pay a bill, ever. She tipped like a woman who used to live on tips. She was hilarious that day on the subject of Barack and Michelle Obama, whom she did not like. (I almost didn’t write that but decided if Joan were here she’d say, “Say I didn’t like Obama!”)
She was a Republican, always a surprising thing in show business, and in a New Yorker, but she was one because, as she would tell you, she worked hard, made her money with great effort, and didn’t feel her profits should be unduly taxed. She once said in an interview that if you have 19 children she will pay for the first four but no more. Mostly she just couldn’t tolerate cant and didn’t respond well to political manipulation. She believed in a strong defense because she was a grown-up and understood the world to be a tough house. She loved Margaret Thatcher, who said what Joan believed: The facts of life are conservative. She didn’t do a lot of politics in her shows—politics divides an audience—but she thought a lot about it and talked about it. She was socially liberal in the sense she wanted everyone to find as many available paths to happiness as possible.
* * *
I am not sure she ever felt accepted by the showbiz elite, or any elite. She was too raw, didn’t respect certain conventions, wasn’t careful, didn’t pretend to a false dignity. She took the celebrated and powerful down a peg. Her wit was broad and spoofing—she would play the fool—but it was also subversive and transgressive. People who weren’t powerful or well-known saw and understood what she was doing.
She thought a lot about how things work and what they mean.
She once told me she figured a career was like a shark, either it is going forward or it is dying and sinking to the ocean floor. She worked like someone who believed that, doing shows in houses big and small all over the country, hundreds a year, along with her cable programs, interviews, and books. She supported a lot of people. Many members of her staff stayed for decades and were like family. Because of that, when I visited the hospital last week, I got to witness a show-business moment Joan would have liked. A relative was scrolling down on her iPhone. “Listen to this,” she said, and read aloud something a young showbiz figure who had been lampooned by Joan had just tweeted. She said it was an honor to be made fun of by such a great lady. “Joan will be furious when she sees this,” said the relative, shaking her head. “She won’t be able to make fun of her in the act anymore.”
It was Joan who explained to me 15 or 20 years ago a new dimension in modern fame—that it isn’t like the old days when you’d down a city street and people would recognize you. Fame had suddenly and in some new way gone universal. Joan and a friend had just come back from a safari in Africa. One day they were walking along a path when they saw some local tribesmen. As the two groups passed, a tribesman exclaimed, “Joan Rivers, what are you doing here?!”
She couldn’t believe it. This is Africa, she thought. And then she thought no, this is a world full of media that show the world American culture. We talked about it, and I asked, beyond the idea of what might be called Western cultural imperialism, what else does the story mean to you? “It means there’s no place to hide,” she said. They can know you anywhere. At the time, the Internet age was just beginning.
Her eye was original. Twenty years ago, when everyone was talking about how wonderful it was that Vegas had been cleaned up and the mob had been thrown out, Joan said no, no, no, they are ruining the mystique. First of all, she said, those mobsters knew how to care for a lady, those guys with bent noses were respectful and gentlemen, except when they were killing you. Second, she said, organized crime is better than disorganized crime, which will replace it. Third, the mobsters had a patina of class, they dressed well and saw that everyone else did, so Vegas wasn’t a slobocracy, which is what it is becoming with men in shorts playing the slots in the lobby of the hotel. The old Vegas had dignity. She hated the bluenoses who’d clean up what wasn’t mean to be clean. No one wanted Sin City cleaned up, she said, they wanted to go there and visit sin and then go home.
* * *
Joan now is being celebrated, rightly and beautifully, by those who knew and loved her. They are defining her contributions (pioneer, unacknowledged feminist hero, gutsy broad) and lauding the quality of her craft.
But it is a great unkindness of life that no one says these things until you’re gone.
Joan would have loved how much she is loved. I think she didn’t quite know and yet in a way she must have: You don’t have strangers light up at the sight of you without knowing you have done something.
But we should try to honor and celebrate the virtues and gifts of people while they’re alive, and can see it.
She was an entertainer. She wanted to delight you. She wanted to make you laugh. She succeeded so brilliantly.