Joan Rivers: Mother of Invention

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My Facebook feed lit up around 2 p.m. yesterday with the news of Joan Rivers‘ passing. The customary RIPs were ubiquitous, the race to post them all too familiar in a summer that saw funnyman Robin Williams leave us suddenly, too.

I didn’t exactly feel sad about the legendary comedian’s death. I didn’t wrinkle my brow with gutting indignation about the senselessness of suicide, say, as I’d done when I’d learned of Williams’ death, our melancholy clown, taking his own life. With Rivers, I winced a little at the details. I grimaced at how absurd her ending was, this abrupt silencing of a woman who made her name talking, all but killed during a routine procedure on her vocal chords. No tears of empathy on my part, nope. No distant, abstract mourning, the way we do with warmer, fuzzier celebrities. Instead, I found myself quietly, respectfully saluting her as one would a fallen woman in uniform—if one can officially salute a member of that honorary guard, E!’s “Fashion Police.”

Let me be clear: I’ve never been a great fan of Rivers’ brand of humor. She stood for much that I’m fully against: dysmorphic plastic surgery, snarky (oh, let’s just say it: mean) commentary, and jokes so acerbic they not only took no prisoners, they burned down everything to the ground in site of the punch line, too. (A real gem about Heidi Klum: “The last time a German looked this hot, they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”)

Still, she appealed to me for being a total feminist punk. (Not that she’d describe herself this way … but still.) Joan Rivers was maybe the mother of invention when it comes to the rebel yell. She defied stifling gender roles in a “Mad Men” era of skirt-chasing and overt sexism. She broke glass ceilings and smoky stages where women had never before dared to stand and tell filthy jokes. She spat in the face of political correctness, even as it grew increasingly dodgier to do so in our blue state-red state, oh-so-touchy divide. She refused to bow down to ageism, and in her own (some might say, warped) way, she even redefined standards of beauty. (Who had higher cheeks bones, even if they were likely surgically inserted?) She said and did exactly what she wanted to say and do, and how many women can you name who truly walk the talk? Truly? (I can think of only one: Chelsea Handler, who ironically had an ongoing feud with Rivers.) 

It’s my opinion that all women can look to Joan Rivers for inspiration, and I’m not talking about dissing each other’s tacky outfits, on or off the red carpet. She was madly, authentically true to herself. She spoke her mind, fearless in the face of media scrutiny and the occasional backlash. She picked herself up and would not be broken when her career took a nosedive in the mid-Eighties, when Johnny Carson snubbed her, when her husband killed himself, when no one wanted her. She was a devoted mother through it all. And she reinvented herself in late middle age when many of us are bemoaning the effects of menopause and quietly drifting toward that great night. At 81, she was still doing work she loved. She performed a show the night before a botched procedure took her down. Most important, she did it all on her own terms, critics be damned. 

What woman wouldn’t want to live a life like that?

I remember spotting her once in Turks and Caicos. My husband and I had just vacationed there, spending a much-needed week away from it all, splashing and floating in those crazy-blue waters. We were waiting to board our plane back to JFK. It was February 2002, just before the islands’ building boom made the place a too-busy touristy hub. The tiny Mom and Pop airport was not much bigger than a rec room. So it was pretty hard to miss Joan and her strangely altered face sitting a few feet away from us, surrounded by her bags of luggage.

She sat alone. No minder or companion hovered near her that we could spot. If she was 81 on the day of her death, she must have been about 68 nearly 13 years ago. Made up, coiffed, primped, and waiting for her plane.

She caught me staring at her; I couldn’t help myself. That face! It wasn’t altogether human anymore, even then; she’d had so much work done. She glanced my way, caught my gawk, and her dismissive expression flicked me off like a fly. I was no one, after all. And likely a hater, too, she must have surmised, what with my incredulous inspection of her obvious eyebrow lift, her severe cat eyes, all that rouge…

And why would she bother answering my impolite gaze, even with an annoyed return stare of her own? She was a legend. She was Joan Rivers! She knew exactly who she was. And that’s what made her exceptional: she always did.