My face time with Joan Rivers: Yes, she could talk

Joan Rivers speaks during a Jewish Federation of St. Louis event in June, 1970. Jewish Light file photo by Harold Ferman. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“My heart is torn in half. She was not done.”

Sarah Silverman on the passing of Joan Rivers

The entertainment industry, her countless fans and even her detractors were caught off guard by the sudden passing of Joan Rivers, the sharp-tongued Jewish comedian who blazed the trail for generations of female comics.  Rivers, 81, died Thursday, Sept. 4, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan,  days after going into cardiac arrest during what should have been a routine surgical procedure on her vocal cords.  Her devoted daughter Melissa Rivers and other family members were at her side.

Of all of the celebrities I have had the pleasure of meeting through the years, my absolute favorite was Joan Rivers. We met in St. Louis on June 14, 1970, when she was the featured entertainer at the Jewish Federation’s Campaign Finale, which was attended by 450 people at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. By 1970, Rivers was in the midst of one of the early peaks of her career, having been catapulted into the national spotlight by numerous guest appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Rivers’ many local fans eagerly awaited her stand-up comedy routine, which would come after numerous Federation leadership speeches, awards and a celebration of a record $2,668,014 for the combined Federation Campaign and Israel Emergency Fund.

My wife, Barbara, and I were sitting in the dinner audience eager for the speeches to stop and for Joan Rivers to take center stage.  Colman Kraus, then the Federation’s public relations director, tapped on my shoulder.

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“Bob, Joan gets a little nervous before her gigs and wanted to talk to some nice people to calm her down before she goes on to perform,” he said. “Would you and Barb like to meet Joan and her husband, Edgar?”

Of course, we immediately agreed and were shown to a waiting area outside the cavernous banquet hall.

I was not clever enough to ask Joan and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, “Can we talk?” which was to become Rivers’ signature line later in her career. What impressed Barb and me the most about Joan and Edgar was their “niceness.” 

The conversation we had with them was like talking to a typical well-mannered, educated Jewish couple who were completely down-to-earth. Rivers was petite with delicate features and possessed an obvious intellect. She had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Barnard College and was very concerned about the security of Israel at the time of her St. Louis appearance (and throughout her long career).

Rivers and her husband were proud parents of Melissa, who was then 2 years old, the same age as our son Scott (they are now 46). Rivers and Barbara compared notes on parenting a first-born child. Rivers made some clever comments about potty training and the daily miracles of parenting.

Rosenberg, who was his wife’s business manager, was soft-spoken and smiled gently when she told some jokes. Tragically, years later, he would blame himself when Rivers’ career took a sharp downward turn after her late-night TV show was canceled. In 1987, he took his own life.

In 1970, I wrote: “Joan Rivers, who entertained an appreciative audience for nearly 40 minutes, told the Light that ‘the only telegram I ever sent to a president was to Mr. Nixon on behalf of his selling planes to Israel – I never got a reply.’ Distinguished by a quick and often sharp variety of humor onstage, Miss Rivers is an introspective, sensitive and interesting woman in her off-stage moments.”

Onstage, Rivers kept her St. Louis audience in stitches throughout her monologue. She described how she tried to get Edgar to pay more attention to her by making him jealous of another lover.

“I would pretend to be talking in my sleep,” she said. “I kept saying ‘No, Tony it’s not right. No Tony, it’s not right!’ The next morning I found a note from Edgar on my pillow. It said, ‘Tell Tony it’s all right.’ ”

As would be the case throughout her long career, Rivers drew a laugh a minute and, when she was finished, the audience made it clear they wanted more.

I wrote: “She feels very deeply about her Jewish identity and her loyalty to Israel. Her parents were in Israel near the time of the Six-Day War. Her previous St. Louis appearance was a performance before the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation in 1968.”

Rivers was to return to St. Louis several more times in the following years, including as a speaker at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and for a one-woman show at the Fox.

What my wife and I remember most from her 1970 visit was just how nice and intelligent Rivers and Rosenberg were during a few minutes of quality face time.  

And yes, Joan Rivers really could talk!