The comedy and fashion world received another devastating blow today when Joan Rivers died after a valiant battle from complications from throat surgery at Yorkville Endoscopy last Thursday. Suffering cardiac and respiratory arrest, Rivers was transported to Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan where she remained on life support before succumbing to her injuries this afternoon.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, Rivers held a fascinating array of jobs after graduating from Barnard College in 1954 with a B.A. in English literature and Anthropology, including tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a fashion consultant for Bond Clothing Stores, and writer/proofreader at an advertising agency.
After an agent named Tony Rivers recommended a name change, “Molinsky” became “Rivers” and she was off and running. One of her first gigs was a six week run in “Driftwood,” where she played a lesbian who has a crush on another character…who just happened to be Barbra Streisand (who was also just starting her career as well). Rivers then made a name for herself in Greenwich Village by doing stand-up at such iconic places as The Bitter End and The Gaslight Cafe.
Her first television appearances came courtesy of the Jack Paar-hosted “The Tonight Show,” and she went on to be a writer/actor for “Candid Camera,” wrote for puppet Topo Gigio, and had multiple appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” When Johnny Carson (whom she loved like a father) took over hosting duties from Jack Paar, Rivers returned to “The Tonight Show” for many appearances. Sadly, when she launched her own talk show (“The Late Show with Joan Rivers”) that would air opposite Carson (below), he never spoke to her again.
In 1983, Rivers became the first female comedian ever to perform at Carnegie Hall. She earned a Grammy Award nomination for her comedy album, “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?”, which made it to #22 on U.S. Billboard 200 chart. Her career continued steadily through the ’80s with books, comedy albums, and television appearances galore, including 1988’s “Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
In this 1989 clip from “The Joan Rivers Show” (which earned her a 1990 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host), you can see one of the most adorable interactions involving guest Pee-Wee Herman.
And as if THAT weren’t enough, Rivers co-wrote and starred in “After Sally Marr…and Her Escorts” loosely based on the life of stand-up comedian Sally Marr, a.k.a. mother of iconic “blue” comedian Lenny Bruce. After a 27-preview and 50-performance run on Broadway, Rivers was nominated for both a Drama Desk Award (Outstanding Actress in a Play) and a Tony Award (Best Actress in a Play) for her riveting performance of Marr.
Throughout her career, Rivers also appeared as a panelist/guest star on TONS of shows including “Hollywood Squares,” “The Howard Stern Show,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack,” “Celebrity Apprentice” (which she won), and of course, as fashion maven for TV Guide Channel and E!’s “Fashion Police” with her last appearance on August 26th discussing the fashion hits and misses from the Emmy and MTV Movie Awards red carpets.
Today, daughter Melissa Rivers issued this statement from her mother’s official website:
It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1:17pm surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother.
Cooper and I have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support, and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated.
My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.
Rivers will be remembered for many things, but the way I love to remember her is as the narrator of the Gene Wilder-voiced “The Adventures of Letterman” from the original incarnation of “The Electric Company.”
While saddened by her loss, I take comfort in imagining her at a “Welcome to Heaven” party with the likes of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Robin Williams, Buddy Hackett, and George Carlin.
Rivers was 81.
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