Last Girl Before Freeway: The Lives, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers
By Leslie Bennetts
432 pages, $28
In 2010, I saw Joan Rivers at the Seneca Niagara Casino. I had seen her several times over the years and she never failed to entertain. Manic, irreverent, saying the unthinkable, she was a pioneer in comedy – the first woman to truly compete with men on their terms. From the start, audiences and critics didn’t know what to make of her cringe-worthy, self-deprecating-on-steroids comedy:
“I knew I was not wanted. I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth.”
But this night was different. There were some very funny bits (including Rivers simulating checking her cellphone during sex), but instead of directing her vitriol at celebrities as was her custom, she targeted the audience, addressing senior citizens, overweight people, every ethnicity, the disabled, gays and lesbians, each attack replete with scathing comments tailored specifically to each group, telling them to “Get out!” of the audience.
Suddenly, the audience knew exactly how Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie and Lindsay Lohan felt being directly in Joan’s line of fire. We waited for a punchline at the end – some way in which she was going to explain that the whole thing had been shtick. But no, she just stomped offstage at the end leaving her loyal followers a bit shell-shocked. It was off-putting, embarrassing and frankly, pretty depressing. She would probably say, “Oh, grow up!” but the redeemingly funny sarcasm was absent. This was just plain mean.
But it makes sense after reading Leslie Bennetts’ new biography “Last Girl Before Freeway: the Lives, Loves, Losses and Liberations of Joan Rivers.” Bennetts, a longtime Vanity Fair and former New York Times reporter, provides new insight into the comic’s later life, captured with such pathos in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” the 2010 documentary in which she explained her need to work.
The book begins with accounts of the comedian’s early life, much of it excerpted from Rivers’ autobiographies “Enter Talking” and “Still Talking.” Those who have read those works will find only a few things new here.
A disturbing theme in the book is Rivers’ obsession with her appearance, some darkly ironic hubris that contributed to her death as a result of malpractice during cosmetic surgery in 2014. Bennetts recounts an incident from “Why We Laugh: Funny Women” was released in 2013, a year before she died.
The documentary opens with a quick take in which Rivers admitted that her own priorities remained, at 80, what they had been at 20.
“If I had to choose between being funny and beautiful – beautiful,” she said. Then she gestured dismissively, waving her perfectly manicured hand as if to banish her words so they wouldn’t be overheard by the other comics who were interviewed for the film.”
“She was such a trailblazer, but she was very old fashioned, and she felt resentment at the ones who were making it who were fat, or not pretty,” said the comic Judy Gold. Rivers was openly hostile to Lena Dunham for appearing nude on “Girls,” although Dunham was full of praise for Rivers on Twitter: “Watching Joan Rivers do stand up at 81 was incredible: athletic, jaw-dropping, terrifying, essential. It never stopped. Neither will she.”
The big revelation is the recounting of her betrayal of Johnny Carson and her banishment from “The Tonight Show.”
Bennetts reveals that the final straw that prompted Rivers’ acceptance of the offer to host her own late night talk show on Fox was a leaked memo that outlined 10 possible hosts after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Although she was the permanent guest host at the time, Rivers’ name was not on the list. This reawakened her lifelong fears of failure – if she did not have a future at NBC, she’d better carve out another path.
Bennetts reports that when Dorothy Melvin, one of Joan’s friends, ran into Peter Lassally, the former executive producer of “The Tonight Show” a year after Joan’s death, the conversation turned to her acrimonious departure from NBC.
“I said ‘if it hadn’t been for the memo,’ and he said, ‘What memo?’ … Peter was in shock … He said, ‘Dorothy, there was never such a memo.’ ”
Henry Bushkin, Carson’s attorney and confidant (who wrote his own controversial Carson tell-all) also disputes that such a list ever actually existed:
“Carson Productions owned our version of ‘The Tonight Show’ so nobody at NBC was telling us what to do. The fact that Joan became the permanent guest host had nothing to do with NBC; it was a decision of Carson productions. And there was never one moment of consideration of who would succeed Johnny Carson because Johnny Carson was not ready to stop. This list makes no sense to me.”
Melvin contends “the entire sequence of events was set in motion by (low level NBC executive) Jay Michelis, either as outright sabotage or as a disastrously misconceived joke.” Bennetts leaves open the question of whether River’s husband Edgar Rosenberg knew the list was fake, as his role would be greatly enhanced with his wife’s move to Fox.
Rivers’ feud with Carson was life changing and not just because it led to her decades-long banishment from “The Tonight Show.” Her Fox show was short-lived, after executives grew tired of dealing with Rosenberg, whose micromanaging and ridiculous demands quickly became news in Hollywood. After the show’s cancellation, and the resultant problems in their finances and marriage, Rosenberg committed suicide.
Although Rivers had deferred to Rosenberg, their marriage had not been a happy one. He was a socially conscious Brit and Joan’s friends and business associates contend that much of her success later in life came as a result of ventures he would never have approved – especially her relationship with home shopping channel QVC where she has sold more than $1 billion in merchandise.
Bennetts writes admiringly of Joan’s legendary loyalty to her family and friends – especially to daughter Melissa, whom Joan wanted to make sure had a career of her own. Rivers agreed to be a contestant on Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” only if the show would include her daughter. When Melissa was “fired,” Joan was livid, even though she was eventually the winner and received $500,000 for her charity “God’s Love We Deliver.” Joan’s relationship with Trump was tested by the experience, especially after he told her he wished he could have gotten O.J. Simpson as a contestant on the show. (Trump’s former sister-in-law Blaine was a close friend of Rivers and is the source for a number of the anecdotes in the book.)
As Rivers got older she actually became more fearless, and there was no avenue she would not attempt, including Broadway where she received a Tony nomination. She even had an emotional return to “The Tonight Show” on Jimmy Fallon’s first night as host, which caused her to break down when she entered the stage door.
One of her forays into television would have lasting impact. Her obsessions with appearance and celebrities and her proclivity for ad-libbing made her the perfect red carpet host for award shows on the E! Entertainment network. With Melissa, she originated the “Who are you wearing?” and went on to do the “Fashion Police” shows critiquing celebrity’s outfits, often brutally.
Fittingly, the book has some celebrity dish of its own -- how Elizabeth Taylor rendered Joan speechless after years of being her punching bag and her feud with Kathy Griffin, which culminated in Griffin reportedly offering to replace Joan on “Fashion Police” while she was in a coma.
It also covers Rivers’ unlikely romance with Orin Lehman, and her reported fling with Robert Mitchum. But at its core, it never forgets that what made Joan Rivers an icon was her one-liners; many are included, though most are not reprintable here.
“Last Girl Before Freeway” accurately reflects the conundrum that was Joan Rivers. Fat-shaming feminist, who trash talked everyone in Hollywood but quietly donated millions to charity and took loving care of her staff and friends. A girl from Long Island who lived in one of the most luxurious Versailles palaces in Manhattan, who dressed in Chanel and sold bumblebee pins on QVC.
The book ends with Joan’s instructions for her funeral (“I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents.”) and its memorable “locker room talk” eulogy by Howard Stern.
But, as always, Joan Rivers gets the last laugh, courtesy of a friend who chats with Joan through a psychic:
“(Joan) was at the funeral, and she said she had no idea how much she was loved. But…she made a joke that she could have written Howard Stern’s speech better … That’s so Joan!”
Kathleen Rizzo Young is a frequent contributing critic for The Buffalo News.