Edgar Rosenberg: The Public Ending of a Private Life : Suicide of Rivers' Husband Camw Without a Warning

Times Staff Writer

He was winding up four days of routine financial meetings in Philadelphia and had told his administrative assistant to confirm his return flight to Los Angeles. He had just finished reading Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and was looking for another good book. He was trying to figure out when he could reschedule dinner with actor Vincent Price. And, as he always did whenever he went out of town, Edgar Rosenberg kept in close telephone contact with his wife.

"I spoke to him the day before," comedienne Joan Rivers said Tuesday night, her voice filled with disbelief and anguish. "He said he had finished his business and was coming home.

"He was, indeed. On final business."

No one had any warning when the 62-year-old producer swallowed a fatal overdose of Valium in Room 425 of the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. Hotel security officers found his body sprawled on the bedroom floor of his $450 suite Friday morning after they were alerted by business partner Thomas Pileggi, who became worried when Rosenberg didn't answer the telephone. On the day he was to return to Los Angeles, Rosenberg was officially pronounced dead at 11:45 a.m.

In death, as he had been in life, Rosenberg put his family first, meticulous down to the last detail. So there would be no suspicion of foul play, no possibility of any misunderstanding, no chance of dying without saying goodby, he recorded three cassette tapes--one for his wife, one for their 19-year-old daughter Melissa and one for Pileggi.

Pileggi said the Philadelphia police played the tape earmarked for him just long enough to hear Rosenberg admit that he had taken his own life. Pileggi wept when he heard Rosenberg instruct him to personally deliver the other two tapes to Rivers and Melissa. On the recording, Rosenberg explained that his failing health, beginning with a massive heart attack in 1984, made him feel he was a "burden to the people he loved" and that he "couldn't go on," Pileggi said.

Breaking her public silence on her husband's death, Rivers haltingly tried to explain what she herself doesn't yet fully understand. "He had gotten very depressed. And since the heart attack, he never really came out of it. . . . His health just disintegrated and with it his mental health. . . . I don't mean to say that he was crazy . . . it's just that he was very upset."

Rivers was sitting shiva in her Bel-Air home this week as hundreds of VIPs and celebrities came by or called, following an emotional memorial service Sunday. Subdued, almost submerged by the enormity of her grief, Rivers sounded as if she had been forced underwater and couldn't get to the surface for air. And the man who for 22 years was her best friend, her business confidante, her source of strength is no longer able to throw her a life preserver.

She recited a long list of illnesses Rosenberg had endured recently, including some never publicly revealed. "Gout, a hiatal hernia, a bleeding ulcer, a growth taken off his mouth, a quadruple bypass, heart attacks. It can get you very depressed. . . . It's a bummer."

In public Edgar Rosenberg, though not a celebrity in show business terms, was known as a diligent but difficult businessman. In private, he was an intellectual who loved good conversation over caviar and crackers.

Rivers' fans knew him only as the impossibly put-upon husband in her jokes about her sagging breasts, falling buttocks and raging cellulite. "There was never a joke that was a put-down of Edgar," her secretary Dorothy Melvin noted. "All the put-downs were about herself."

Only after Rivers began hosting "The Late Show" on the Fox Broadcasting Co. network in October, 1986, did the public finally get regular glimpses of him. The bearded and bespectacled little man with the barrel chest and the self-conscious grin was the program's executive producer. Yet he squirmed shyly on camera one night as Nell Carter serenaded him with a love ballad.

To much of the Hollywood community, Rosenberg was yet another husband who managed his wife's career. Few in the industry knew about his years in TV and film production and public relations. "There was a whole Edgar whom very few people knew, which is a tragedy because he was such an extraordinary talent," explained prominent Los Angeles producer-screenwriter Peter Bart, who was a member of Rosenberg's inner circle of friends for more than two decades. "He shouldn't have let that happen. But his wife's career took off so fast, he ended up fostering it rather than fostering himself."

David Craig, a nationally known musical theater teacher, the husband of comedienne Nancy Walker, was another Rosenberg confidante. "Like many of us married to actresses, we tend to be shadowed by them," Craig said. "Edgar liked it that way. But he was a fascinating man in his own right."

Rosenberg--English-born, educated at the prestigious public school Rugby; a graduate of Cambridge--had his first success in the early days of television as the producer of "Omnibus," a hourly series in the 1950s devoted to people, ideas and the arts. "It was an intelligent man's guide to a variety show," recalled Craig, a regular viewer.

Rosenberg then joined the successful New York public and industrial relations firm started by Anna Rosenberg, once the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government who served as a persuasive administrator under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Though they shared the same last name, Anna and Edgar Rosenberg were not related. Nevertheless, recalled Craig, "Edgar was like a son to her."

Anna Rosenberg Associates served a roster of important and prestigious clients, including corporations, countries and even heads of state. Edgar Rosenberg, known as her right-hand man, became a valued news source to journalists nationwide in the 1960s.

Bart, a New York Times reporter at the time, recalled that when Rosenberg walked into the newsroom, "he'd be able to provide amazing insights into government and industry because of the extraordinary scope of his clients."

Rosenberg eventually took a leave of absence to start a movie production company, Telsun Foundations, under the aegis of the United Nations, which made five films starring such top names as Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Omar Sharif. Telsun led Rosenberg to a friendship with actor Peter Sellers and a joint movie deal. Faced with a screenplay that needed rewriting, Rosenberg saw Rivers in her comic debut on the "Tonight Show" and hired her. They flew to Jamaica to work on the screenplay.

After a whirlwind courtship of four days, Joan Rivers and Edgar Rosenberg were married on July 15, 1965. "Edgar came back and called me at the paper," Bart recall. "He said, 'This is not for publication. But you wouldn't believe what I did last weekend.' "

Rosenberg's own brand of humor was very British. Jokes as dry as martinis. Wit that was rapier-like. "Not too many people understand English humor, but he would break me up every day," says Late Show research director Steven Jongeward. But it took Rivers' anything-goes, the-Emperor-has-no-clothes kind of comedy to soften Rosenberg's starched European formality. Only Rivers seemed able to pierce the armor of seriousness that went along with the three-piece suits and the professorial intellect.

Rivers was attracted to him right from the start because not only was he the smartest man she'd ever met, he was also the classiest. "He was a Cambridge man--and he talked like one," Bart added, on subjects that ranged from literature to food to fine art. Vincent Price, noting Rosenberg's collection of Russian Imperial Court objects, said had he started earlier in his life, "he could have had the world's largest collection of Faberge eggs."

Books were Rosenberg's passion, particularly as he grew older and his health failed. Intimates say both he and Rivers, also an avid reader, would routinely finish as many as six or eight a week. "Edgar was one of those few people you know who really does read every good book that comes out," Bart said.

Although known around town for their museum-quality art and antiques, their formal place settings complete with finger bowls, their full staff of indoor and outdoor servants, Rosenberg and Rivers would be more likely to invite their inner circle of friends--Price and his wife, Coral; Bart and his wife, Leslie, and Roddy McDowall--for more informal get-togethers. "Edgar loved to have us all sitting in the kitchen, eating leftover caviar and crackers and talking about literature and our lives," Price said. "He loved Faberge eggs all covered with diamonds but also loved perfectly cooked rice pudding. That was the dichotomy of his character."

As a couple, Rosenberg and Rivers were "joined at the hip," in Price's words, personally and professionally. Rosenberg's show business was his business because it was her business. By all accounts, their working relationship was a total partnership, at its best interdependent, and worst symbiotic. But never parasitic. She wouldn't make a move without him.

They were known to speak as often as nine times a day when apart, always talking over everything. Rosenberg would read everything Rivers wrote, listen to any new material she wanted to try out, even criticize what she wore on stage.

"He was Joan's watchdog, trying to make sure the light shone as bright as possible on her," Jongeward said.

When the "Late Show" failed, he was willing to take the knocks no matter whether deserved or not. "When people said bad things about him, he just took it in stride. That was the charming thing about him," Jongeward said.

Because of that, the Hollywood establishment assumed Rosenberg was trying to carve out his own career. Not so, his friends and associates agreed. When Rivers chose to make tracks where no woman had dared tread in the industry, Rosenberg was out in front protecting her, making the journey harder for him if it meant it would be easier for her. "He was a warrior and he should have been applauded," Craig noted. "But the people in the industry never gave Edgar the professional respect that was his due.

But the pressure took its own toll. "In point of fact," Bart stated, "the Edgar of 20 years ago was a very upbeat and witty and influential person. And the Edgar of recent years, because of the battering of this business, I think became a much more somber and acerbic person. All I can say is that I wish the people who found him difficult to do business with had known him 20 years earlier."

What is well-known is that the failure at Fox probably hit Rosenberg even harder than Joan Rivers. "To talk about it now seems to be insignificant compared to the significance of his passing," a high-ranking source at Fox said. "It would just be in bad taste."

By all accounts, Rosenberg had been tentative about his health. Following his massive heart attack in 1984 and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery, Rosenberg quit a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit and went on a diet. "I think it scared the daylights out of him," said Price. "From then on, he tried not to become excited."

But given the nature of the business, that apparently proved impossible. By the end of his tenure at "The Late Show," Jongeward said, Rosenberg "would look tired at the end of the day. The man had had a massive heart attack and it affected him physically, which tormented him."

In late July, Rosenberg's health went into a tailspin. Rivers went to do a TV show in England and the couple had planned to travel around Ireland, a place Rosenberg had always loved. But the visit was cut short on the third day when Rosenberg developed gastrointestinal bleeding. "He wasn't one to complain," his secretary said, "and apparently he had been feeling this way and didn't want to say anything."

Bart saw the couple the week before they left for Europe. "He just didn't look well. He didn't seem to be following his doctors' diet or exercise regime. He looked like a man in fading health."

An undercurrent of sadness seemed to color everything, Bart added. "He seemed to be fighting depression." There were moments when he would emerge from out of the fog, Bart said, like when he talked with passion about a book he had just read.

When Bart learned of Rosenberg's suicide: "I said to myself, the Edgar that I knew 20 years ago would have thought up a better third act."

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