Joan Rivers, the legendary comic and one of the most ubiquitous figures in American pop culture history, died yesterday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. She was 81.
Rivers, who had gone into cardiac arrest after undergoing what was described in news reports as a routine procedure on her vocal cords at a Manhattan clinic, was rushed to the hospital Aug. 28, where she was placed in a medically induced coma.
Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, said in a statement Tuesday that her mother was on life support, adding Wednesday that she had been moved out of intensive care to a private room.
The New York State Health Department is investigating the circumstances that led to her death after the procedure at Yorkville Endoscopy.
Melissa Rivers announced her mother's death in a statement: "It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends . . . My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."
Reaction to her death was emotional and instant, expressed on Twitter and elsewhere. "My heart is torn in half," said Sarah Silverman, who had long credited Rivers for her career.
Barbara Walters, in a statement, said: "She was a brassy, often outrageous, and hilarious performer who made millions laugh. In private, she was the picture of elegance and class."
On Thursday night's "Late Show," David Letterman said of Rivers, "She would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard . . . but it was hilarious. . . . The force of her comedy was overpowering."
'Can we talk?'
With a scalding, often take-no-prisoners style that was influenced by figures as diverse as Lenny Bruce and Borscht Belt comics like Jack Carter and Morey Amsterdam, Rivers blasted her way through American culture, beginning on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the early 1960s. She coined no fewer than three classic catchphrases -- "Can we talk?" "Grow up!" and "Who are you wearing?" -- and was once considered as possible heiress to the "Tonight Show" seat held by Johnny Carson.
A prolific author who was very nearly a genius at keeping herself and her humor in front of an American audience for half a century, she also embraced a distinctly American trait -- reinvention -- and she used television to that end, most recently as host of E!'s long-running show "Fashion Police."
No fewer than 10 TV series had her name in the title -- most were short-lived, one a fiasco and another an award-winning daytime talk show. She was an omnipresent figure on "Hollywood Squares" in its various incarnations over the decades.
In the 1980s, at the height of her fame, Rivers seemed to be everywhere on TV, from late night to daytime, and also on the stage, where she remained a major draw.
Rivers had been a home shopping channel staple for years, too, selling fashion items on QVC.
When her career soured after an ill-fated gamble on a late-night show for Fox -- which also destroyed her once-close relationship with Carson -- she discovered cable, specifically E!, where she became a red carpet fashion cop who skewered the sartorial choices of the most famous people on the planet.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933 as Joan Alexandra Molinsky, she later changed her name to Rivers at the suggestion of her agent, who had the same last name. She was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants Meyer Molinsky, a doctor, and Beatrice. She grew up in Larchmont in Westchester County and, after graduating summa cum laude from Barnard College in 1954, she bounced around various day jobs -- including one as a fashion consultant at a men's clothing store -- while at night working the club circuit in Greenwich Village. That would lead to an appearance on Jack Paar's "Tonight," and later a series of appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Her "Tonight Show" run began on Feb. 17, 1965. She appeared 72 times over the next two decades, becoming one of Carson's most frequent guests and often his stand-in host. She spoke of a nearly father-daughter relationship with him, and the fondness certainly seemed reciprocal, until 1986, when she launched "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" for the then-new Fox network.
Infuriated, Carson banned her from "Tonight," an exile that continued long past the end of Carson's tenure in 1992. She didn't appear on "Tonight" again until Jimmy Fallon took over hosting duties this year.
Explaining the genesis of the feud, Rivers later said that NBC had dragged its heels on signing her to a new contract, and then Fox called, promising "everything you want, plus a five-year guarantee and $15 million, which was just over-the-moon money."
Fox executives urged her to keep quiet because of the long lag time between leaving NBC and the show's launch, but she insisted on calling Carson with the news the day before the official announcement.
"He hung up on me," she said. "Then I called back and said 'Johnny . . . .' and he clicked down again."
"The Late Show With Joan Rivers" struggled even before the network's official launch on April 5, 1987, because some Fox affiliates declined to carry it. Ratings were abysmal, and Rivers was fired within a month.
Rivers later said she had refused Fox's demand that she fire her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, as producer, which led to the breach. (Rosenberg committed suicide in August that year.)
Rivers would later go on to host a daytime talk show, and after its cancellation she said, "I was very frustrated. I couldn't get arrested."
It was then that her daughter, who worked at E!, proposed that together they host a preshow from the red carpet at various awards ceremonies, beginning with the Golden Globes in 1994. "Everyone would say to me, why do I want to go out on the red carpet?" she recalled. "What am I going to do? Sit at home?"
The red carpet run was to become her great second act -- and a characteristically combustible one. She insulted people, to their faces or behind their backs, about their style selections, earning her fans as well as detractors. She never apologized.
In recent years, Rivers declined to slacken her pace. She was a contestant on "The Celebrity Apprentice" (she won) and remained a frequent presence on the standup circuit.
In addition to her daughter, Rivers is survived by a grandson, Cooper.
A funeral is planned for Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. With AP