The year was 1986 and Joan Rivers was playing sold-out shows all across America. Her new book, Enter Talking had just been released and she was a permanent guest host on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. After decades of hard work, she had finally become a superstar.
She couldn’t know that in the coming years, her shining life in the spotlight would take a tragic turn, stripping her of it all. She had fame and fortune, the job of her dreams, a loyal husband, a loving child, and a lavish estate. Not only had Rivers succeeded as a comedian, but she had made history on the newly launched FOX Network as television’s first and only female late-night talk show host.
In May 1987, the First Lady of Comedy was fired from her job, and publicly humiliated. Her husband, Edgar was unable to bear his own failure as her manager and producer and sadly, took his own life. They’d been married for 22 years.
The worst was yet to come for Rivers. Reeling with grief and rage, she discovered she was broke. After earning millions of dollars and living a life of baroque luxury, she was unaware her husband had squandered her wealth on bad investments. She was $37 million in debt, and her opportunities for making more money had vanished.
Their daughter, Melissa, blamed her mother for his death and at the Bel-Air mansion where five telephone lines once buzzed relentlessly, the phone never rang. Nobody wanted to hire her as an entertainer. Suicide wasn’t funny, and her husband’s tragic death turned her into a professional pariah. Even her social life evaporated. No one invited her to anything.
As her 55th birthday approached, she couldn’t see any reason to keep on living. It was hard enough for young women to succeed in show business, but for an aging has-been, the prospect of resurrecting a ruined career looked hopeless. She told the Daily Beast she contemplated suicide eight months after her husband’s death.
“Melissa wasn’t talking to me, my career was in the toilet, I’d lost my Vegas contracts, I’d been fired from Fox … I thought, ‘What’s the point? This is stupid.’”
She credits her Yorkie, Spike, for saving her life, when he jumped into her lap, and she realised that no one would care for him. “I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun. I thought, ‘No one will take care of him.’ He wasn’t a friendly dog — only to me. I adored this dog. He was theoretically a Yorkie, his mother cheated. His name was Spike. He was the way you want your dog to be – devoted only to you.”
Rivers decided it was time to pick up the pieces and rebuild her life. Faced with personal tragedy and humiliating professional defeat, she didn’t give up. Instead, she reinvented herself, and by the 2000s, she had returned to the centre of the conversation — bigger and better than ever.
She began by making a TV show out of those dark times, as a form of therapy. In 1994, Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, teamed up to publicly reckon with Edgar’s suicide with a TV movie. Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, with the pair playing real-life versions of themselves as they come to terms with Edgar’s death.
“It was very therapeutic for Melissa and me,” she said. “Edgar’s death was so raw. So we bonded tremendously.”
In 1990, Rivers began her long-running association with the QVC channel, where she sold her own line of bedazzled jewellery, clothing and accessories. She made the decision to start hawking her wares to debt. “In those days only dead celebrities went on [QVC],” she told the Staten Island Advance in 2004. “My career was over. I had a lot of bills to pay. I have a very large family and we all take care of each other.”
The Joan Rivers Classics Collection would turn into an enormously successful venture, amassing over $1 billion in sales and becoming one of QVC’s top-selling lines. Moreover, her appearances on the shopping channel, became yet another venue to make people laugh.
Throughout the process of building her career back up, she was finally able to get a grasp on where things went wrong and come to terms with what happened.
“When I was fired, he [Edgar] knew it was his fault [he was her manager], and he committed suicide. I always think of Samson pulling down the temple. Edgar just took all the columns away and pulled it down. We were all down in the rubble, and he didn’t want to dig himself out. I understand it, and feel terribly sorry for him, but I wonder if I’d be sitting here today talking to you, if he had not killed himself, if we wouldn’t have ended up just a very bitter couple in a house on the hill somewhere.”
“I understand it, and feel terribly sorry for him,” she adds. Her life experiences have enabled her to reach out and help others.
“I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it’s going to change and you push forward. I look back and think,‘Life is great, life goes on. It changes.’”
In an interview for the Daily Beast, she said “After he died, because there was nothing, I had to strike out again. A friend of mine at his funeral said, ‘He’s freed you.’ I thought that was very interesting. And in a way he did, because I had to really start again, thank god.”
By 2014, Rivers had been the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, authored nine more books and was routinely performing clubs across the country. She had made it back on top.
She had recreated herself as a cultural icon, a vastly influential trailblazer, and a business powerhouse who built a billion dollar company before dying in 2014 following a minor diagnostic procedure for her larynx. She was 81.