The Shmooze

Joan Rivers, Jewish Irreverent Comedian, Gone At 81

By Masha Leon

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I first met Joan Rivers — who died at 81 on September 4th —  as a zaftig comedienne in a fringed black dress as she warmed up the audience at an April 1966 Virginia Graham TV Show on which I was a guest along with Gloria de Haven. A few months later we met at the Polish folk art store Cepelia on W. 57th Street where she was trying on a sequined vest that is part of a Crakow folk costume. “Will it do for black tie? “ she asked me. “Only if you’re willing to dance the Krakowiak in high heels,” I replied.

Without scruples as to whom she might insult, she kept her fans roaring. At an October 9, 1990 airing of her TV show she offered plastic surgery to a lucky few and asked guest Larry Hagman, aka J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” if he had had “anything done.” Without blinking an eye, Hagman replied, “When I was young I had a bris.” A rarely dumfounded Rivers exclaimed: “But you are not Jewish! “Not necessarily,” he said. “I live in New York.”

At the December 30, 1990 “If you’re indicted you are invited” party hosted by Leona Helmsley for Cindy Adams’ husband Joey Adams’ 80th birthday party attended by among others Imelda Marcos, Marla Maples, Donald Trump, NYC mayors Abe Beame, John Lindsay and David Dinkins, a very bony Rivers trumpeted: “If I had known that so many felons would be here, I would have worn a striped dress.”

Joan Rivers and Masha Leon // Photo by Karen Leon

Her almost unprintable monologue at a 1991 Concord gig on gynecology/plumbing ended with “a definition of a Jewish porno film was “one minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt” had the huge room roaring. And as the Concord’s July 4, 1995 headliner, she was at the height of her irreverent brilliance with such side-splitters as: “If God wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.” As for “balabostehood” (super housewifery) she said “I spit on cooking and cleaning — no man comes home and exclaims, ‘Oh, sweetheart, look how immaculate the floor is, then says, “lie down bitch!” As for her favorite foil — intellectual girls — ”No man will put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.” Undeterred by good taste and sensitivities, she got a mixed reception—and roars- with “Anyone who would want John Kennedy Jr. as a lawyer would use Ted Kennedy as a chauffeur.”

Award recipient at the 2006 National Osteoporosis Foundation Silhouette Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria which also honored HRH the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker Bowles), River cautioned: “Stress those bones….Eat your dinner. The fatter you are the less likely you are to have osteoporosis.” Designated by NOF as their ambassador, Rivers joshed that her “bones were clicking like dolphins.” Ranting at having “a disease I can’t spell,” she mused: “I always thought if I ever get an award it would be for plastic surgery.”

Every time I see a Yorkie Terrier in a carrier or on a leash or in someone’s arms, I think back to the long ago elevator ride with Rivers as we descended in a elevator decorated with a huge poster announcing her dog’s “bark mitzvah.” In her arms, her Yorkie, Spike, a miniature yarmulke balanced on his head.

Nominated for a Tony Award for her one-woman socko performance in the 1994 “Sally Marr and Her Escorts” there was wall-to-wall applause for her bravura performance as Lenny Bruce’s mother. At the post opening night performance (which was for the benefit of American Friends of Assaf Harofeh Hospital) I asked Joan how she managed two daily TV shows plus a solo stand-up emotionally wrenching performances a week. A fragile looking Joan smiled and replied: “I take care of myself.”


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