A few weeks ago, I told Joan Rivers I was scared about her dying. “I spend too much time thinking about this,” I admitted. “But you can’t die.”
“That’s very sweet,” she replied. “But it’s just part of the game.”
Sure, she was 81, but I had no reason to fear her passing. It was a July day — sometime around noon — and she’d been up since 4 a.m. filming an episode of “Fashion Police.” And yet she still seemed fresh. Her face was made up impeccably. She ranted about how Lena Dunham gets naked too much. She even discussed her own mortality.
“At this age, you’re stupid not to say, ‘Let me make sure all my ducks are in order,’” she told me. “If I walk out today and I’m hit by a car, nice things will be left for the people that were meaningful.”
Now, barely two months later, Rivers is gone after a seemingly minor outpatient procedure. But she made good on her promise, leaving something for me in her absence: hours of shared, thoughtful conversations that I will forever treasure. (Listen to a few excerpts here.)
Last month, after I interviewed her about her 12th book, "Diary of a Mad Diva," she wrote me a thank-you note calling me a "smart cookie." Maybe she only wrote it to be polite. After all, my editors have always cautioned me that the celebrities you interview are never actually your friends. "They're just trying to charm you," the wisdom goes. "It's all an act."
But it didn't feel that way. During the couple of times I sat down to interview her, I felt a kinship to her. I was fascinated by her messiness — how she was both tough and soft, mean and sweet, feisty and vulnerable. After she died on Thursday, my friends sent me consoling text messages as if a member of my own family had passed away.
This past July, I watched her film an episode of “Fashion Police” and then sat with her at the E! offices. After a 45-minute interview, her assistant said Rivers had to leave for lunch at the Ivy. (Where else?) Sensing I had more I wanted to ask, Rivers gave me the number of her office in New York, insisting I call her the following day. I did, and we talked for an hour as she packed for her annual “Grandma Week” with daughter Melissa's teen son, Cooper; this year, they traveled to Italy.
“We’re not going to go anyplace fancy, but you should see what I consider plain,” she said, trying to select the appropriate clothing for the trip.
The idea that she might not be able to keep up with a 13-year-old boy for a week in a foreign country didn't even cross my mind. She was the most sprightly octogenarian I’d ever encountered, enduring weekly bicoastal whiplash without complaint.
A New Yorker at heart, Rivers felt most at home in her opulent Marie Antoinette-themed penthouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. So each Wednesday, she would board a 7:30 a.m. flight from New York to Los Angeles to film her Web series “In Bed With Joan,” and “Fashion Police.” After a Thursday-evening dinner with Cooper, she would hop on the red-eye back to NYC. On Monday, she’d film a weekly spot to promote her QVC line and on Tuesday, she usually stopped in to perform stand-up at the Laurie Beechman Theater.
Her drive was a focus of "A Piece of Work," the intimate, critically acclaimed 2010 documentary about Rivers. The film detailed the numerous hardships she’d faced — the suicide of her husband, her tumultuous relationship with Johnny Carson, the struggle to remain relevant as she aged. In the film, she took the bad reviews of a one-woman show she’d hoped to bring to Broadway particularly hard. When her assistant read a harsh theater critique, she looked crestfallen.
She never voiced her disappointment aloud, but it was palpable — that force pushing her forward: book me, appreciate me, love me, remember me.
It was this raw need at her core that drew me to Rivers. Occasionally, her humor would rub me the wrong way. Was it really necessary, for example, to make fun of the star of “Girls” for being fat? What was so hilarious about that?
And yet despite her caustic barbs, I never felt like Rivers was truly mean. She was open about the fact that she had never felt pretty — “Never!” — insisting that she resembled “a balloon with a hair bow” as a girl. Of course, she went on to get plastic surgery to make herself feel better about her looks. Maybe there was a part of her that found it difficult to accept women who embraced their flaws in a way she never could.
According to Cindy Adams, the Page Six columnist and Rivers' longtime friend, Rivers had her hair and makeup done this week while she was on life support in the hospital. Apparently, a faux mink blanket covered her as the music from the musical "Oklahoma" played.
Which wouldn't surprise me, given the fabulous-ness of her New York penthouse. It was always my secret fantasy that I'd one day get to interview her there, surrounded by the furs that irked PETA and all her QVC costume jewelry. We’d pet her dogs and talk about how much comfort animals can bring. She’d force me to eat rugelach.
She, of course, would only eat Altoids and drink wine. That’s what she did every day after 3 p.m., saying she simply wasn’t hungry after breakfast and lunch.
Except when she was sad. That’s when she cut herself some slack.
“I call them 'weekend wallows,'” she explained to me. “Usually terrible things happen on Friday. That’s when you get fired. Usually, Friday’s the big day. And I think you’re allowed certainly until Monday to eat anything you want and just call everybody and cry and carry on. I call it Museum of Hurts. I make lists of my Museum of Hurt — of everything bad that’s happened to me. And then you just gotta move forward, otherwise you will get stuck."
The Altoids can wait until Monday. Let’s all go get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
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