In her July 23 appearance on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,“ female standup comic, jewelry hawker and “Celebrity Apprentice” winner Joan Rivers demonstrated uncharacteristic restraint as she revisited the angst she experienced from the former host of “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson, who snubbed her when she jumped ship to the Fox network after having received her TV start on his show.
He hung up on Rivers and “never, never, spoke to me again!” she said. With husband Edgar Rosenberg’s ashes in hand (he committed suicide in 1987), hyping her well-received, still playing documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” 77-year-old Rivers muted her usual mouth-without-borders salvos as she held Letterman at bay. When, alluding to the film, he asked about her lavish “Marie Antoinette” lifestyle, she diplomatically replied, “I use fingerbowls.”
In the film, which was directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, Rivers momentarily drops her bravado and laments, “I have no one to say, ‘Don’t you remember?’” That brought back a flood of “rememberings,” beginning with my first encounter with Rivers, in February 1966, when I was invited to appear as a guest on Virginia Graham’s “Girl Talk” TV show. The theme was “Women of Courage.” The other guest was film star Gloria DeHaven. Warming up the studio audience was a blond, zaftig comedian wearing a shapeless fringed black dress: Joan Rivers. We spoke briefly during the commercial break. We continued to meet over the years — including once at the one-time Polish folk art store Cepelia, on West 57th Street, where Rivers was trying on a multicolored sequined vest from the Krakow region for a standup event. It would take nearly two decades before Rivers’s items began appearing in my Forward column.
Among my Rivers roster of recollections: In April 1991, following a UJA-Federation of New York screening of “Reunion,” starring Jason Robards, at my mention of Rivers, Shirley Fuchsberg, wife of then-judge Jacob Fuchsberg, told me: “We knew young Joan Molinsky. We were neighbors. Joan’s mother was a very elegant lady who would invite Joan’s teachers and principal to her home. Because of that, I later followed suit.” But, Fuchsberg added: “When her mother wasn’t looking, little 6- to 8-year-old Joan would feed the cat on her mother’s best china. When I once asked Joan why she did it, she replied, ‘The cat has to eat nice, too.’”
Rivers’s then-Fox show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” aired on October 9, 1986. In the October 9, 1990, show, Rivers was touting her television offer of free plastic surgery to a lucky viewer and asked her guest, “Dallas” and “I Dream of Jeannie” star Larry Hagman, son of the late Mary Martin, if he had had “anything done.” A surprised Hagman replied, “When I was young, I had a bris.” Dumfounded Rivers exclaimed, “But you’re not Jewish!” “Not necessarily,” he said, smiling, “but I do live in New York.”
Then there was the unforgettable 80th birthday party that Cindy Adams threw in December 1990 for her husband, comedy maven Joey Adams (who supplied jokes to Ronald Reagan — copies of which he once sent me). Hosted by Leona Helmsley at her Palace Hotel, the event was dubbed by the media as the “If you are indicted, you are invited” bash, because the invitees included a number of guests with serious legal issues. There were many prominent lawyers, including the evening’s star and “Happy Birthday” singer, the Philippines’s first lady Imelda Marcos. Before giving Joey Adams a photo-op kiss, a rail-thin Rivers, in a spectacular off-the-shoulders black-taffeta gown, proclaimed: “If I had known so many felons would be here, I would have worn a striped dress.” Graham was standing nearby as a reporter asked what was her “secret for a long life.” Not missing a beat, Graham (who had beaten breast cancer decades earlier and died in December 1998) replied, “Not dying.” Nearby, Helmsley added, sotto voce: “Not lying. Not lying.” I never wrote down Rivers’s snappy retort.
At the September 15, 1995, Bialystoker Home for the Aged gala, held at Lincoln Center, Rivers went beyond the pale. With an audience full of Holocaust survivors, she handed a flowerpot to her “chosen bitch with the big ring” (an appalled woman in the first row) and remarked: “Anne Frank would have turned these flowers down.” But at the December 13, 2003, post-concert gala of American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, held at The Plaza and underwritten by AFIPO angel Lily Safra — Rivers’s mouth was on hold.
“A Piece of Work” includes a clip of Rivers standing in front of floor-to-ceiling card-filing cabinets with 30 to 40 years of jokes neatly cataloged according to topic. In 1991, the headliner during the July 4 weekend at the Concord, a grand Catskills resort of yore, Rivers had the crowd roaring with her monologue on gynecological plumbing and a description of a “Jewish porno film — a minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt.” Post-performance, besieged by fans, with her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Spike, in her arms, Rivers managed to have a brief chat with me — and a photo op. Spike, celebrated a “bark mitzvah” on Rivers’s TV show — complete with itsy bitsy yarmulke, floor-schlepping mini tallit and the audience clapping along to “Hava Nagila.” He died September 9, 2001. Rivers lamented that she never had a chance to mourn Spike because of the events of 9/11. She was, however, a high-profile mourner at Ronald Reagan’s June 11, 2004, funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
An antidote to the worst nightmare she showcases in the film — a blank, no bookings monthly calendar page — I last saw Rivers dishing four-letter expletives and Ruth Madoff zingers as the auctioneer at the November 10, 2009, Lighthouse International’s The Lighthouse Salutes the Arts gala, held at The Plaza. Hey, it’s a living.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is currently playing showing at several theaters in Manhattan, Queens, Long Island and New Jersey.
Scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the July 13 Citizens Summer Cocktail bash at the Central Park Boathouse, in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Citizens Committee for New York City, had the more than 300 guests arriving at 5:30 p.m. and staying till almost 10 p.m. Committee CEO Peter Kostmayer reminded the young professional crowd, “The organization was born during the city’s fiscal crisis in the ’70s. More than 30,000 New Yorkers responded to a call to volunteer to pick up trash, staff public libraries and conduct neighborhood safety patrols.” Benefit committee member Erica Weinberg, counsel at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, told the festive crowd: “It’s not all about money for [the committee]. In addition to the grants, they offer hands-on assistance for each project… give community groups access to computers and equipment…. Each dollar invested… means keeping our city a very appealing place to live.” Balancing the serious with fun, the event offered live jazz, gondola rides and a fun goody bag.
Benefit committee chair Morgan Bale, a partner at Weil, Gotshal, told the guests: “Last year, more than 3,000 inspired New Yorkers participated in 148 community-improvement Projects, thanks to micro-grants from the Citizens.”
Catherine Green, a first-time recipient of a grant to start Arts East New York, an emerging not-for-profit that seeks to tackle violence in Brooklyn neighborhoods, brought along 11-year-old Tilea Slade, whose first-ever public speech about the issues in her neighborhood and her delight in participating in Arts East New York was applauded.