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I loved Joan Rivers — and judging by the outpouring of the last several days, I am not alone in that. Millions of people loved Joan. But I was privileged to have that affection returned. She called my husband and me Ken and Barbie.
Joan was my friend for nearly 25 years. It was an unlikely friendship perhaps. When she first went on Carson, I went into first grade. But years later, after she’d skewered me in jokes during my Today show tribulation, she had me on her talk show and mentioned how everyone had made jokes at my expense. She said, “Even I made jokes about you.” And I leaned in and said, “And you’re sorry now, aren’t you?” And she said — “Yes, I am.”
Joan’s jokes were never meant to be hurtful — they were meant to be relevant, a comedic commentary on what the world was interested in — long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert did it on Comedy Central.
Our friendship really began at a house party hosted by the Forbes brothers in France. It was a large gathering where everyone, it seemed, was somebody, but nobody knew anybody — so in many ways it was like those awkward first moments at summer camp where kids are sizing each other up to pick friends.
Boy, did I end up in the right tent!
In the unreality of this moment, I am — as I know all of you are — flooded with memories of my adventures with Joan. Some are simple: unzipping her gown after a glamorous evening in London. Others exciting: like evacuating the Capitol during the scare at President Reagan‘s funeral; sailing in the Grenadines; hiking in the Adirondacks as Joan did arm exercises with her strength band. We snatched plates at a polo match, sipped tea at the Pierre, spent weekends in Connecticut, and celebrated Passovers and christenings and weddings and births, new TV shows and books.
And now that’s over.
I remember the time we were in France — with the Forbes — ballooning. Our landing was not exactly textbook. We crash-landed in a field in which the local cows had spent a great deal of time. As we slid through the cow droppings, Joan had exactly the right words for the moment: “Oh my God — I think I lost the baby!”
It is a perfect example of why not only Karl and I, but the entire world, fell in love with Joan. She was always on the lookout for a way to make people laugh, to make things better, because she knew people who laugh — are happy. And the root of everything our dear friend did — was to make people happy.
The Joan who was my friend was there through thick and thin. When I needed career advice, she freely gave it — and it was good. When a dear friend recently had a personal crisis, she was on the first red eye so she could bring comfort. When another pal had heart surgery, she flew to the clinic in Cleveland — where as only Joan could do, in her 5-inch stilettos, she tripped over some of the medical equipment and unplugged some important machine. That move left the patient going “Arrrgh!” Quickly the thing was plugged back in, the friend lived, no real harm done. Joan simply proclaimed, “Ha. It wasn’t his time.”
And when it was a friend’s time, well, she was right there. After her dear friend Tommy Corcoran passed away, Joan kept him close to her heart. Really close. Like in her pocketbook. Tommy had been cremated. A few months later we were all together in London as guests of the Prince of Wales in Buckingham Palace. It was a beautiful evening, with cocktails in one gallery and dinner in the throne room.
Well, during cocktails, Joan says to me and Karl, “Cover me.” “What?” She says, “Just stand there and cover me, block the view.” So we stand where she tells us to — and Joan lifts up the lid to an urn that probably belonged to Queen Victoria — pulls a little baggie out of her bag and dumps what sure looks to be ashes into the urn. “Tommy will be so happy that he is in Buckingham Palace,” she said with a huge grin.
The next day she put the rest of the baggie’s contents into Prince Charles‘ rose garden at Highgrove. You should have seen the look on Prince Charles’ face when she said, “Sir, you know my dear friend Tommy Corcoran died.” He said “Yes, I’m so terribly sorry.” “Well, I put him over there,” she says, pointing to a rose bush. “That’s him in your garden.” “Oh really,” the future King of England said haltingly.
You could tell the prince didn’t really know what to think!
Joan was incredibly generous: She entertained in a way that was so elegant that it could put presidents and royals to shame. I never had fingerbowls in a private home — except at Joan’s. She saved the leftovers from dinners out — but gave away her jewelry. When she went to Africa, she took with a whole bunch of her bee pins. It was pointed out to her that Massai women don’t wear blouses. That didn’t stop Joan, who handed ’em out anyway making a comment I won’t repeat here in the temple about how they could be used for “support”!
Once I commented on the lovely watch she was wearing. She took it right off and put it on me. It was one of her Joan Rivers watches. This is it. So the next time we have lunch, she’s wearing her wonderful Faberge egg necklace. I complimented her on that too. She didn’t move a muscle — she just said, “You sleep with the right guys, you can have one too!”
But of course that’s not how Joan achieved her success.
Joan had more inventions than Thomas Edison. But hers were harder — because each of her inventions was a new Joan.
The breadth and length of Joan’s career is stunning. There was Joan the struggling comic in the early days. The joke writer. The bait on Candid Camera. The actress. The Tonight Show guest host. The producer. The screenwriter. The Vegas stand-up act. The bar mitzvah entertainer — especially if it was “Vegas money.”
There was Joan the best-selling author. The lecturer. The Tony-nominated playwright. The first woman host of late night. The Emmy-winning talk show host. There was Joan the businesswoman, whose empire spanned cosmetics, clothes and, of course, jewelry.
There was Joan the creator of an entirely new genre of television — red-carpet commentary. And the star of another category, reality television. And just for good measure, she was a digital trailblazer as more than 80 stars got In Bed With Joan for her web series.
As exhausting as that list is, Joan it seems was indefatigable. And every one of those opportunities was one she created for herself. No one gave Joan Rivers anything — and so she indeed deserved every beautiful thing in her life. And all the accolades she’s receiving now.
The world thinks of Joan Rivers as brash and coarse. Well, my friend was thoughtful beyond imagination. Before Melissa‘s wedding, Joan called to ask what Karl and my favorite song was. I thought that was a weird question, but I told her. As it happened, Melissa’s wedding fell on our anniversary — somehow Joan knew this — and she made sure “our” song was played during the reception.
In the last few days, I have asked myself: What was it that made Joan so special? Was it her talent? Yes, she was uniquely gifted — but a lot of people have talent. Was it her work ethic? God knows that was exceptional — and we could all follow that example.
No. I think what truly set Joan apart was that she made people better. She made the people around her better. Being around Joan made you funnier. It made you more clever. It made you more interesting and alert. If you were around Joan, you upped your game. Because Joan was all these things and more. And even if you weren’t physically present, if you were with Joan through her stage performances or TV shows, or shopping channel presentations — she made you better.
The laughter she prompted made your own troubles seem less oppressing. Her candor as she scoffed at her own challenges — her husband’s suicide, her career imploding, the financial woes — and the determination with which she came back from all of them — made all the rest of us, whether you lived in a penthouse in New York or a house trailer in Alabama, believe that we could get through it, too.
Because Joan did. And her struggle was a lot tougher.
And yes, she laughed at death too. It was not something to be feared — especially after a life so well lived. We’ve all heard that wonderful excerpt from her book on how she wanted her funeral to be: Paparazzi — check. Broadway stars — check! Tears? You bet! We have shed lots of them. And while Meryl Streep‘s not here shedding them in five different accents, my husband can in eight different languages!
But my God — she goes out on top! Every page in her calendar book is filled for months and months ahead.
In the end, while the world mourns a comedienne, I believe we have lost a great teacher: a woman who taught us to go through life with gusto and a “What-the-‘blank,’ who-cares” attitude; a woman who taught us to live elegantly and beautifully because we all deserve it; and a woman who taught us what truly devoted love is — because she shared her love for her darling Melissa and Cooper on TV.
Melissa, I know how devastating and surreal this all is. I hope you and Cooper are able to find solace in the jaw-dropping outpouring over your mom. God knows she would have loved it! And I am pretty sure up there in heaven she’s having a blast watching the coverage. And whenever the dope at the New York Post who didn’t give her the full front page arrives, well — good luck to him when he runs into your mother!
Melissa, you know your mom departed this world absolutely satisfied she’d done it all. And she had. But she also could depart because she knew she had raised a spectacular daughter. A woman who inherited her intelligence and her wicked humor, but also her kindness and compassion. A woman who like her mother is also a teacher. Your strength and grace during these past few days has been exemplary and is admired by so many of us. I speak for all of your mom’s friends in thanking you for allowing us to be by your side and your mother’s side during this crisis. It meant so much to be able to say goodbye.
I have long believed friends are the family you choose — and your mom chose us. So remember. We are your family too. You and Cooper are not alone. We are here for you.
It’s been said that music soothes the savage breast — but I know Joan believed that laughter mends a broken heart. And though our hearts are broken — Joan would want us to laugh.
A couple of weeks ago, Joan finally did the ice bucket challenge — fully clothed, hair and makeup — and she dunked herself twice just because it was funny. And so I would like to propose the “Joan Rivers Challenge.” To all of you here — and to those who loved Joan:
Go out there and make people laugh. Do something. Say something. Wear something that makes someone else chuckle.
Take a video, put it on Facebook with the hashtag: #JoanRiversChallenge
Honor our friend by going out there and making someone laugh, so that the laughter Joan Rivers lived for — never dies.
Deborah Norville is the anchor of Inside Edition.
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