She's a sharp one

Special to The Times

Even though she began doing stand-up in Greenwich Village clubs 45 years ago, Joan Rivers says she is such a wreck before she goes onstage for her weekly set at Fez that she won't allow anyone in the dressing room with her.

"I will still be so nervous, so ... nasty, everything will upset me," says Rivers, 70. "And after I go on, if it's a bad night, I'll start to stutter. Nothing changes."

Nothing changes? Please. Can we talk? In fact, we are talking, in a book-lined study next to a roaring fire in Rivers' palatial duplex overlooking Central Park, an apartment she boasts was once owned by J.P. Morgan's daughter. A white-jacketed butler named Kevin serves tea sandwiches from a silver salver. It is two weeks before the Oscars, where the Joan Rivers most people know will take to the red carpet for the eighth year with her daughter, Melissa, 36, and skewer some of the biggest stars.

But later this night, the Joan Rivers most people are too young to remember will appear at Fez, a club just blocks away from the nightspots Duplex and the Bitter End, where she spent more than six years as a struggling young comic, often eclipsed by a group that included Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield and Lily Tomlin.

She did not get her big break on the "Tonight" show until 1965.

Rivers has returned to the Village clubs throughout her career to try out new material. Tonight, wearing a Carolina Herrera sequined jacket and black Galliano pants, she does a 50-minute set touching on everyone from "that whiner Princess Diana" to the "greedy" widows of 9/11 before a mostly young, gay male crowd, with a smattering of Upper East Side women. Fashion designer Donatella Versace is just one of her targets. "Doesn't she look like something you'd find hanging on a wall in Africa?"

Rivers gets big laughs and frequent applause during her set, about half of which is improvised.

But she admits some things have changed since she first played the clubs.

"I'm queen of the walk down here now," she says after the show, huddled in the cramped dressing room. "It's fun to get that love. But then you still get the audiences that hate you. And you just plow through anyway."

On Sunday, she will assume her battle station on the red carpet, where, thanks to her two-hour pre-Oscar show on E! Entertainment Television, Rivers has become, if not loved, then grudgingly accepted by some of the Hollywood elite -- an obligatory rite of passage for the career-minded celeb. While E!'s brand of coverage -- specifically the shows "Celebrities Uncensored" and "It's Good to Be" -- has ruffled some in Hollywood, Rivers actually seems to enjoy a certain cachet.

"She's become this hip, cool icon," says publicist Bumble Ward, who represents Sofia Coppola, among others. "It's become a badge of honor to go up to talk to her." Says Stan Rosenfield, who counts Robert De Niro and George Clooney among his clients: "She can be a little caustic, but on balance she's fun and she's popular. My clients like her."

She's clashed with celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor, Rosie O'Donnell and Kelsey Grammer, who was upset over remarks she made about his wife. (Grammer and Rivers have since made up.) Her most famous feud, of course, was with her onetime mentor Johnny Carson, who reportedly stopped speaking to her after she left his show to host her own late-night show on Fox.

Rivers bristles at the stars who snub her.

"Diane Keaton said no to me at the Golden Globes after I'd written a chapter for her stupid clown book for free," she says. "Maybe she was worried about the eczema on her hands. I don't know." Despite such cutting remarks, she doesn't see herself as truly mean.

"I don't regret anything I've ever said," says Rivers. "I don't think I've ever said something to hurt someone. I also never go after someone who's not terribly famous."

It's a safe bet, however, that most of the actresses she interrogates don't know how much she yearns to trade places with them. Her website features a large cartoon of her holding an Oscar and the words, "I'd like to thank the academy ... and I will when they nominate me." It turns out Rivers has always wanted to be an actress, in the Stockard Channing mold. But the woman who makes her living sticking a microphone in celebrities' faces says she lacked the confidence to pursue serious acting. "Comedy was garbage," she says. "In those days a girl didn't want to be a comedian. A comedian was the lowest."

Still, over the years, Rivers has done as much straight acting as she could. She earned a Tony nomination for the 1994 Broadway play about Lenny Bruce's mother that she wrote and starred in, "Sally Marr and Her Escorts." But she's been most successful at playing the part of Joan Rivers, the self-deprecating loudmouth. She recently performed in an episode of the ABC-TV series "I'm With Her," but she only got the part because she agreed to play herself on the red carpet. (ABC, which broadcasts the Oscars, doesn't exactly shy away from cross-promotional programming during awards season.)

To Rivers, the red carpet is just another gig in a sometimes improbable career that she has kept afloat often by sheer will. She's had dream jobs, like when she was named the first and only permanent substitute host for Johnny Carson in 1983, and work she has taken out of desperation, like being the center square on "Hollywood Squares" in 1987. "Some of us have just said no, we're not going away, you'll have to shoot me first," says Rivers. "But as you get older, you have to work much harder. It gets tough and becomes more of a do-it-yourself career." Rivers and her daughter don't have a contract at E!, and while the show gets good ratings, she says the network's executives don't exactly fawn over her.

"They took me out to a lovely lunch recently," she recalls, "and said to me, 'You know, you're getting older.' Meanwhile, I bring them the young demographics. It's all about keeping you in your place. So I just have to be better."

("We love them," says Gary Snegaroff, vice president of original production for E!, who has worked with Rivers and her daughter for several years. "Typically, their show is our highest-rated show of the year.")

Rivers, who has frequently admitted to having cosmetic surgery, thinks her big contribution is telling the truth in a town besotted by celebrity spin.

"What the entertainment industry feeds the public and the public accepts is insane," says Rivers, who is only too happy to name several major actresses who claim they haven't had face-lifts. She knows otherwise, she claims. "You see actresses from five years ago and you see this metamorphosis and they say, oh, she's much more secure now. Or she does yoga. Please."

How does she feel when she looks in the mirror?

"I think I look old," she says, slowly. "I always felt I looked old. I was 18 years old in college telling my roommate I was seeing crow's-feet. I never felt like the fresh young thing. I never felt attractive. But I think I look good for my age. I'd like to see what I'd look like without all this."

Rivers is often as blunt about herself as she is with celebrities. She doesn't mince words about her husband of 21 years, Edgar Rosenberg, who killed himself in a Philadelphia hotel room in 1987 three weeks after Rivers was fired from her late-night show at Fox after Rosenberg, who guided her career, lost a power struggle with Barry Diller.

"I'm still angry at him," Rivers says of Rosenberg. "I don't blame myself. People say you're going to get to heaven and see Edgar. I say no I'm not. I never want to see him again. He knew what he did; he destroyed my career that had taken 20 years to build." Rivers calls Rosenberg's suicide the "ultimate abandonment." Rivers and her daughter were estranged for a time after Rosenberg's death because Melissa blamed her mother.

"I think I'm much more at peace now about my father than she is," says Melissa Rivers. "I just realized recently how angry she is. I don't think she's completely dealt with it."

Since Rosenberg's death, Rivers has weathered more betrayals. After the jewelry company she founded in 1990 went public, a business associate took off with $37 million in bad bonds. She lost the company, worked to buy it back and is still paying off the debt. The company, called Joan Rivers Worldwide, now also includes a skin care line.

Asked if she feels she might unconsciously create some of the drama in her life, Rivers shrugs. "Probably," she says. "I work best under stress. I love pressure. I'm good in a crisis." Her life took a turn for the better in 1993 when she met a millionaire banker, Orin Lehman, whose family founded the Lehman Bros. financial empire, one night at a dinner party. She says he was the great love of her life.

"I wrote in my diary that night that I would have walked right off into the sunset with him," she says. "It was a great love affair. So never think it's over. Life is full of amazing surprises."

It ended badly after almost nine years, as things sometimes do with Rivers. She says two "Eurotrash ladies" moved in on her beau and she broke it off out of pride. "It was devastating," she says.

When asked if she is seeing someone now, Rivers' face sours.

"I have two people I don't like," she says. "It's sad. I sort of see them when I'm desperate, when I think, oh, I can't stand another minute with a gay man." Not long ago, Rivers joined the Jewish online dating service jdate.com.

"I wouldn't give my real name, I just said I was a successful writer," she says. "I didn't want to post my picture, so I tried to use a photo of Nicole Kidman with a line through it, but they wouldn't accept it." Rivers is no longer on jdate, but she is not shy about wanting to find a good man. "If you know anyone," she says. "I'm available."

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