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Thursday, September 4, 2014
Joan Rivers, Comedian and Talk-Show Host, Dies at 81
Joan Rivers, a talk-show host, actress and red-carpet critic who rose to the top of comedy's ranks while unapologetically skewering everyone and everything she passed along the way, died Thursday in New York following complications from a medical procedure. She was 81 years old.
"She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends," her daughter, Melissa Rivers, said in a statement.
One of comedy's most recognizable faces—thanks in part to a series of plastic surgeries she made fun of as much as her detractors did—Ms. Rivers rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s on the talk-show scene, injecting crass and controversial jokes into the buttoned-up, male-dominated network shows.
After first appearing on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson " in 1965, Ms. Rivers started a talk-show career that included stints on "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" on Fox in 1986. When she launched the rival program, she said Mr. Carson, her mentor, never spoke to her again.
Ms. Rivers become a permanent fixture on TV after that, most famously as a critic of celebrity fashion.
Her reign on the red carpet began in the 1990s, when she started working for the E! Network, attending award shows to comment on who looked fabulous, who didn't and—by way of learning who designed each look—"who" everyone was wearing. She was currently hosting "Fashion Police" on the network at the time of her death.
Her takedowns earned her many fans, and more than a few enemies in Hollywood. "He looks like he ate the Dixie Chicks," she once said of an overweight Billy Joel. Bad outfits were sometimes said to be picked by the blind singer Stevie Wonder.
Ms. Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, the youngest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Barnard College in 1954, she worked in the fashion industry before appearing on the stand-up comedy circuit, with a brash and unabashed style echoed in the routines of current comedians such as Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin.
One of her early jokes: "I blame my mother for my poor sex life. All she told me was, 'The man goes on top and the woman underneath.' For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds."
Ms. Rivers was often joined on TV by her only child, Melissa Rivers. Ms. Rivers once said: "My daughter and I are very close. We speak every single day, and I call her every day and I say the same thing, 'Pick up, I know you're there.' "
Ms. Rivers was married twice, first briefly after graduating from college and in 1965 to Edgar Rosenberg, a producer who would become her manager and business partner before committing suicide in 1987. Ms. Rivers and her daughter addressed the suicide in a made-for-TV movie seven years later, playing themselves in "Tears and Laughter."
Ms. Rivers, who lived in Malibu and Manhattan, wrote 12 books, ranging from humor to autobiography and self-help. She appeared on Broadway several times, and in 1994 received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play for "Sally Marr…and Her Escorts," about the life of comic Lenny Bruce's mother.
Ms. Rivers's businesses extended beyond acting and comedy to include a fashion and jewelry line on the QVC home-shopping network.
More recently, Ms. Rivers appeared in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," a celebrated documentary that provided a candid look at the star, including inside the many drawers of jokes she kept organized by topics from "cooking" to "Christmas cards" to "Tony Danza."
Ms. Rivers is shown throughout the film doing stand-up shows in smaller venues across the country—showing some of the unglamorous work she did to keep her empire afloat, and the work ethic that kept her holding a microphone until just last week.