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Joan Rivers Always Knew She Was Funny

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There will be plenty of grist for argument. “Everything she does in the house gets me crazy,” says Rivers of her daughter. “The way she lives—very California. Have a sandwich over the sink? Excuse me?”

The way that Rivers lives is very old-fashioned and extremely formal, with her live-in butler and stiff dinner parties with finger bowls. “It comes from the way my mother was raised,” she says. “She came from very rich Russians who had servants. When they came here they were dead broke, but my mother remembered that from childhood. She always lived very formally, or tried to.” I tell her that people are surprised when they see the film by how grandly she lives—this foulmouthed comic in her gilded palace. “This business is such a mess. Nothing is set in stone. As I say in the movie, ‘You are standing on mud.’ So the formality, the rigidness of sitting down to a beautiful table, it’s a ritual. My bed is turned down every night. But that’s because I’ve just come from hearing someone say, ‘If you’ve always hated Joan Rivers … !’ I want things to look pretty. I should have been Martha Stewart. Martha Stewartvitz.”

Earlier this year, apropos of nothing, Rivers sent me an e-mail while she was out in L.A. visiting her daughter. “Just bought Melissa three hundred dollars’ worth of new place mats. God she must hate me.”

“That is a perfect example of what our relationship is like,” says Melissa. “So, my place mats are a little worn out! We all get busy. But my mother had the car stop on the way from the airport to my house. And showed up with all sorts of new place mats and napkins. Without asking me. That’s stepping over the line a little. I can’t take care of myself?” She laughs. “But luckily I needed the place mats.”

All this talk of proper homemaking reminds me of something Rivers said to me years ago. She was talking about the scene in one of her favorite movies, Rebecca, when Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine realize that their relationship is not what they thought it was. “Bad things can happen,” said Rivers, “even in a pretty house.” When I mention this to her now she says, “Sure did on Ambazac Way”—where they lived in L.A. “We were in Architectural Digest.” Pause. “Edgar still jumped.”

Joan Rivers will turn 77 on June 8. “Age is so frustrating,” she says to me in her study in New York. “I make deals with God all the time. ‘Give me ten more good years and I’ll call it a day.’ Age is the one thing that is absolutely coming at you. And right now, thank God, everything is working. I have my checkups and the doctors always say, ‘I can’t get over it!’ But I am pedaling as fast as I can. My manager was just here today. He said, ‘There’s very little left, timewise.’ But I can do it! I can do a radio show from anywhere! I just have to keep the pot churning. You cannot stop.”

People always ask Rivers why she doesn’t just retire, enjoy her old age. “But they don’t get that I love it,” she says. “All I ever wanted was this. I’m lucky, you idiots.” Here, she imitates her society-lady friends. “ ‘We’re going to the Kentucky Derby and then taking cooking lessons in Venice and then we are going on so-and-so’s boat and then perhaps five fun days with a group to the Galápagos!’ And you go, Why? I’ve done all that crap. That’s not retirement to me. That’s death.”

When I ask her how she fell in with that crowd, she says, “Sort of by mistake. I got friendly with C. Z. Guest and through her I met Jerry Zipkin and I had no idea that if Jerry and C.Z. said, ‘This Jew is okay,’ you were okay. You got in. Immediately. And it’s all very glamorous at the beginning. Going to the Metropolitan Opera, taking a table here, being on a committee there. Going out all the time all dressed up.”

She levels me with a look. “And then I got bored to death. Nobody tells you the truth. I once asked one of the ladies, ‘Did you ever have an affair?’ And she stared at me like I was crazy. ‘Why would I tell you?’ she said. Another time, someone had just bought an apartment and I said, ‘How much?’ And she said, ‘That is really none of your business.’ And I thought, Fine. Then we are not friends and I don’t want to spend any more time with you. I was friendly with one couple who I no longer see at all. They would always say, ‘We’re such good friends.’ And then I found out that their daughter had a complete nervous breakdown. For a year, I was always told everything is wonderful. Well, then what are we wasting our time here at Elaine’s or Mortimer’s or Swifty’s? I don’t want to sit in Swifty’s and not say anything about anything. I just totally stepped away. Blaine Trump is one of the few people I am friends with out of that period. She’s honest. She will sit there and say, ‘Life is crap.’ All I want you to do, if we are sitting down and it’s after 6 p.m., is tell me the truth. Because we’ve all lied to each other all day long in business and we’ve all had these lunches and we’ve all ass-kissed to the point where I carry Chapstick. If I am going to sit down and eat with you, just tell me the truth and let me say to you, ‘Things are lousy and I’m sad.’ ”


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