Her publicist contacted me out of the blue. Could Joan Rivers [who died Thursday, age 81] come up to the women’s magazine where I had been working to meet? Ms. Fashion Police? Ms. Can We Talk? The first woman to have a show on late night television, whose self-deprecating humor, lacerating wit and raspy voice made a New York Jewish woman like me proud and defined generations of female comedians to follow?
I jumped at the chance, then quickly began to brainstorm ideas for projects she could contribute to the magazine. The editor-in-chief wasn’t entirely sold that Joan and her brand of blue jokes would be a good fit for our sanitized rag, but I insisted she give it a whirl.
When the day arrived, Joan showed up, not a minute late, her voice echoing down the hall. I think most staffers attended the meeting out of curiosity. What did she look like up close? How short was she?
I can tell you she seemed far taller than her actual height of maybe 5 feet. Her face didn’t look like a masque up close. Her stiff platinum hair, however, was her coat of armor. Her makeup was part war paint, part glam. But underneath it all, I saw a woman who had endured great highs and deep lows, who had persevered in that feisty way of hers, who could be unguarded in that trademark “can we talk?!” fashion.
As she took her seat at the conference table between me and the rest of the magazine’s staffers, I clocked the faces of my coworkers. Those in their 20s treated her like a dirty old grandma, blushing each time Joan used a word like “cocksucker.” Those of us in our 30s and 40s, with kids and in long-term marriages, doubled over knowingly each time she made a crack about her boobs or vagina, and listened intently as she talked about recalling her friend’s back-alley abortion and those “motherfucken’ asshole right-to-lifers in the Republican party who should have been aborted.”
She had flown in from Los Angeles on a red eye to shoot “Fashion Police” from New York Fashion Week. She seemed unstoppable, not missing a beat as she discussed this designer’s collection and that celebrity’s streetwalker style, then talking about her grandson Cooper and boasting about her daughter Melissa – the intrepid producer-creator of “FP” – like a typical Jewish mother.
I mentioned how my family’s idea of Shabbat was watching “FP” after we lit our candles and ate our challah and chicken soup. She let out a cackle. Later on, as she discussed turkey necks, frown lines and other joys of aging, I mentioned how my postpartum varicose veins had me beg off skirts.
She leaned over like the bubbe I never had and whispered hoarsely, “I got something for you!”
I thought she meant the name of a fancy surgeon who could zap the New Jersey Turnpike right off my left calf. But less than a week later, I got a package from Ms. Rivers.
There was a handwritten thank-you note, three sheriff badges with the words “Joan Rangers” for my kids, and a tube of her own The Right to Bear Legs vein concealer for me.
How did she remember in between her book tour, hosting three television shows (two for E!, one for QVC), being a devoted mom and doting grandma, and everything else?! And if that’s how she treated me, a total stranger, imagine how generous and loving she was with her friends?
There was something quintessentially Jewish about Joan – the least of which was her salty humor, her love of diamonds, furs, nips, tucks and injectibles, and her ability to, first and foremost, laugh at herself. She was frank and uncensored, a trait that made me call her a few months later when I had to book a domestic violence campaign.
Our first project consisted of Melissa and Joan’s tips on getting along with family during the holidays. Because they lived and worked together, they weren’t exactly at a loss for advice or stories. One of Joan’s anecdotes that didn’t make it in print was about the time she visited Melissa in hospital after her boyfriend left her black and blue.
Because I didn’t want to overextend myself, I pursued other celebrities first. But so few were willing to commit to a televised public service announcement, I found myself reaching out to Joan again. Without hesitation, she agreed. Of course, having to bleep out the many times she uttered words like “that fucken’ bastard” was another challenge.
As I heard the news on Thursday that Joan had died, I had to wonder – does heaven have censors? I sure as hell hope not.
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