Joan Rivers, the pioneering queen of comedy, who overcame tragedy and disappointment to transform herself in late life into a comic scourge of the red carpet, has died, according to her daughter, Melissa Rivers. She was 81.
She died today at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she was rushed after she stopped breathing during surgery on her vocal chords at an endoscopy clinic on Aug.28. She had been unconscious and on life support, in critical but stable condition. She was stable enough to be moved out of intensive care into a private room yesterday.
Her daughter and sometime sidekick, Melissa Rivers, who rushed from Los Angeles to be with her mother, issued several statements while she was in the hospital, thanking friends, fans and fellow celebrities for an outpouring of good wishes and tweets. She said Joan would have been touched and she asked for prayers.
Joan's popular E! Network show, Fashion Police, announced it would be on hiatus while she was ill, even during Fashion Week.
Rivers is survived by her daughter, 46, her partner in withering red-carpet fashion interviews and reviews, her producer on Joan's weekly YouTube series In Bed With Joan, and mother of Joan's grandson, Cooper Endicott, 13.
Rivers, who was actively flogging her latest humor book this year, was making headlines up to the last minute, raising eyebrows, as she had so many times in the past, with jokes and remarks viewed as insensitive, unfunny or politically incorrect:
She joked about the Holocaust and the Haiti earthquake, recently suggested Michelle Obama is "transgender" and stormed out of a CNN interview in a rage after seeming to misunderstand the questions.
Mostly, she didn't apologize, or only grudgingly. Rivers, who has more than 2 million Twitter followers, didn't believe she went too far. "Life is tough. Life is tough. I just think, 'Make them laugh,' " she told USA TODAY in a recent interview.
Before Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman, before Oprah and Chelsea Handler, before a zillion women comics, there was Rivers, the walking, talking, wise-cracking embodiment of just how much pop culture had changed in 50 years.
She started out in an era when not only could she not say the word abortion on TV, she could not even acknowledge that she was seven months pregnant while appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. A lone woman in a man's world, Rivers made it a point to break rules.
Rivers, born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, was one of the first and one of the few — women comics who made Americans laugh on stage, in comedy clubs, on TV variety and talk shows — starting in the late 1950s.
She turned her own insecurities, about her looks and abilities, into comic fodder, and despite ups and downs in her career, she never stopped working. A dozen humor books carry her name (her latest, Diary of a Mad Diva, came out this year), her Fashion Police show, was top-rated, she booked more than 100 comedy-club appearances a year, and she had steady work in roles in numerous films and movies over the decades.
When the documentary film about her, Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work, came out in 2010, it showed Rivers as a woman terrified of a blank datebook. She told USA TODAY that the queen of comedy had no intention of abdicating. She was 77 at the time, and speaking from the QVC greenroom where she was waiting to go on for one of her regular appearances selling her costume jewelry line.
To some people she was a joke — all that plastic surgery, all those red-carpet inanities — but she lived off that joke very nicely, thank you.
"I love what I do, why should I rest?" she said then. "How lucky am I, doing what I want to do? That's heaven."
For decades the most important man in Rivers' life, after husband Edgar Rosenberg, was the late, great Johnny Carson, who helped make her a comedy star at a time when most Americans had trouble thinking of women as gagsters. Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987 after 22 years of marriage, but her falling out with Carson, and all that ensued, was almost as painful.
Rivers made her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Carson 49 years ago, but she was on the show even before that, when Jack Paar was the host. "He didn't like me," she said. But Carson did, even hiring her as a writer.
By the 1980s, she thought of herself as Carson's daughter, and was his favorite guest host on the show when he was absent. But in 1986 it all came to tears. She announced she would host her own talk show on Fox in the same time period as The Tonight Show, thus becoming Carson's competitor. Somehow, she failed to warn him in advance.
He cut her off, never spoke to her again and banned her from the show, a ban that survived into the hosting terms of his two successors, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Only this year, when Jimmy Fallon took over, did she return for her first appearance in nearly a half-century. In one of her books, she later said she regretted not asking for Carson's blessing.
But she survived, and even thrived.
The documentary about her, which featured appearances by comics including Griffin, Jon Stewart, Denis Leary, Garry Shandling, Lily Tomlin and Bill Maher, provided a close-up look at Rivers' private dramas and vulnerabilities, and also the ruthlessness of the entertainment industry obsessed with youth and beauty.
No matter what, she was determined not to leave the stage until they carried her out on a stretcher, as her then-manager, Bill Stammeth, explained. "God help the next queen of comedy because this one is not abdicating — she'll leave nail marks on the red carpet."