JOAN Rivers – the acid-tongued, controversial comedienne and TV host – died yesterday aged 81. One of the world’s most prominent female comics, Rivers had been in hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest last week.
In a statement, her daughter Melissa said the star passed away surrounded by family and close friends. Ms Rivers said that she had been “humbled by the outpouring of love, support and prayers from around the world”.
She added: “My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know that her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”
Rivers was taken to hospital in her home city of New York last week after she fell seriously ill at a Manhattan doctor’s office following a routine procedure on her throat.
Tributes began pouring in last night after news of the icon’s death was announced.
British-born best-selling novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford said: “Aside from her humour and comedic talents, she also made her friends laugh in private. Hospitable and generous to a fault, she was loyal and always there for all of us. She will be terribly missed.”
Funnyman Ricky Gervais Tweeted: “RIP the mighty Joan Rivers. Funny & fearless. Truly one of a kind.”
US actress Whoopi Goldberg wrote: “My friend Joan Rivers has passed away. There are no words. Bon voyage Joan.”
Rivers was renowned for her caustic, fearless wit that spared no-one, not least herself. Comedy was not only her calling but her therapy, as she turned her life inside out for laughs, mocking everything from her proclaimed lack of sex appeal to her own mortality.
“I have never wanted to be a day less than I am,” she said in an interview last year. “People say, ‘I wish I were 30 again’. Nah! I’m very happy HERE. It’s great. It gets better and better. And then, of course, we die.”
Aware of her tendency to find mirth in any situation, Rivers used humour as a coping mechanism. “The trouble with me is, I make jokes too often,” she said, just days after the death of her older sister. “I was making jokes yesterday at the funeral home. That’s how I get through life. Life is so difficult – everybody’s been through something. But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller.”
She had faced such a crisis in the mid-1980s. Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 23 years, took his own life in 1987 after she was fired from her Fox talk show, which he produced. The show’s failure was a major factor, Rivers said.
Rivers had originally entered showbusiness with the dream of being an actress, but comedy was a way to pay the bills.
Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn to Russian immigrants Meyer Molinsky, a doctor, and Beatrice, Rivers had a privileged upbringing but struggled with weight – she was a self-proclaimed “fatty” as a child – and recalled using make-believe as an escape.
She went to work as a department store fashion coordinator before turning to comedy clubs.
In the early 1960s, comedy was a man’s game and the only women comics she could look to were Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller. But she worked her way up from local clubs until, in 1965, she landed her big break on The Tonight Show whose host Johnny Carson was moved to comment: “God, you’re funny. You’re going to be a star.”
Controversial to the last, Rivers caused an outcry last month when she said that Palestinians involved in the Israeli-Gaza crisis “deserved to be dead”. She said: “When you declare war, you declare war. They started it.”
Earlier this year, despite her age, she got a half-inch tattoo, “6M,” on the inside of her arm representing six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
In her own words
“My face has been tucked in more times than a bedsheet at the Holiday Inn.”
“All I ever heard when I was a kid was, ‘Why can’t you be more like your cousin Sheila?’ And Sheila had died at birth.”
“A man can sleep around, no questions asked. But if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.”
“People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”
“I wish I had a twin, so I could know what I’d look like without plastic surgery.”
“I’ve learned: When you get older, who cares? I don’t mince words, I don’t hold back. What are you gonna do to me? Fire me? It’s been done. Threaten to commit suicide? Done. Take away my show? Done! Not invite to me to the Vanity Fair party? I’ve never been invited!”
“I don’t exercise. If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.”
“The fun of working on the road means stealing from hotels. I’ve been doing it for so long, I have a set of towels from the Ark.”
“I must admit I am nervous about getting Alzheimer’s. Once it hits, I might tell my best joke and never know it.”