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For a certain kind of girl who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Joan Rivers was as daring as any female astronaut—traveling to the outer limits of what was permissible in stand-up comedy as surely as those spunky women in inflatable silver jumpsuits journeyed into outer space. It’s difficult from today’s perspective, what with the likes of Amy Schumer, Kathy Griffin, and Margaret Cho, to realize how ahead of her time Rivers was, blithely taking on sex and self-loathing, lookism and the false pieties we live by—always with the benefit of her bark of a laugh. She was ever and always politically incorrect and kept on being so right up until her demise at 81 while undergoing a botched endoscopy. For those who considered her a heroine of sorts, as I did, and for those who tuned into her only in her cosmetically altered, QVC-hawking last years, Leslie Bennetts’s biography, Last Girl Before Freeway (Little, Brown), provides a welcome investigation into the circumstances that shaped this influential, raspy-voiced comedienne who refused to take no for an answer.
She started out as “chubby and plain” Joan Alexandra Molinsky, the younger of two daughters of a debt-ridden, workaholic doctor and his socially ambitious wife. Although in later years Rivers would say she came from Larchmont, New York, she actually grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a home that her wealth-obsessed mother, Beatrice, decorated to the hilt “with damask and brocade.” Her family moved to Larchmont when Crown Heights “deteriorated” and Beatrice became focused, like Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, on launching her teenage daughters into “advantageous marriages.” From early on, Rivers saw the applause of a crowd as a way out: “Performing became a psychological need at age 14,” she observed in her first memoir, Enter Talking, “when I first experienced the intoxicating rush that happens onstage and all my fantasies were confirmed.”
Although Joan wanted desperately to study drama when she finished high school, her mother nixed the plan, and Rivers followed her older sister, Barbara, to Connecticut College. Unlike her more attractive sister, who dated Yalies, Joan seems to have been met with rejection from men, although it’s unclear in Bennetts’s telling whether she is simply picking up on Rivers’s undoubtedly exaggerated versions of what happened or whether the reality was truly as dismaying as all that. In any event, Rivers soon transferred to Barnard, where she felt more at home: “‘Every girl was very, very bright and very, very neurotic. It was wonderful.’”
In 1955 Rivers briefly detoured into a “hasty” marriage that was annulled on the grounds that her husband had neglected to inform her that he didn’t want children. After that, she was done with trying to go the conventional route and instead felt free to pursue her “compulsive need to transgress” and make people laugh by doing so. She was far from an instant hit, performing in cheap hotels and strip joints and often getting booed off the stage. Despite her lack of success and pressure from her parents (she was back living at home post-divorce) to give up on her dream of making it as a comedienne, Rivers persevered, changing her name at the suggestion of a theatrical agent and carefully honing a new, more idiosyncratic stage persona. Although she would continue to put off some audiences and to garner “withering” reviews, she found an appreciative outlet for her smart and often outrageous humor at the Cherry Grove Hotel on Fire Island, New York. “There has been nothing nicer than 500 gay faces looking up at me onstage,” she said.
Ater many false starts—she got booked on Jack Paar’s TV show only to be told she would never be invited back—and aha moments (watching Lenny Bruce perform at the Village Vanguard), Rivers would emerge triumphant, becoming an overnight star when she appeared (after seven or eight rejections) on Johnny Carson on February 17, 1965. “By the time she finished her appearance,” Bennetts writes, “Carson was wiping his eyes.” Her life was anything but a straight upward curve after that evening—Bennetts describes it rather as “a Dickensian saga of alternating extremes”—but her resilience and perseverance would see to it that she never was far from the spotlight again. She built her professional empire to the tune of a billion dollars and created the red carpet (for better and worse) as we know it today. See Joan run. And run. And run.