JOAN RIVERS was the ultimate control freak. She didn’t let a little thing like being out of body inhibit her masterful staging of her own funeral.
It was a glorious Sunday morning, unlike the previous day, which had been overcast, humid and gloomy. Joan was off to a good start.
Entrance to the perimeter of Temple Emanu-El was tightly and smoothly controlled by the attractive and efficient staff of Preston Bailey, the highly regarded event planner and designer who had been an intimate collaborator of Joan’s for many years.
I later learned that even Richard Osterweil, the notorious auto-inviter, who has crashed every celebrity funeral in the past thirty years, was unable to penetrate the iron cordon. His only previous failures were Leona Helmsley and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
I turned the corner alongside TV hosts Hoda Kotb (great skin) and Kathie Lee Gifford (shorter than Hoda, with a nice smile). Both seemed chipper, not somber. Joan would like that.
Just inside the massive portal, scrutinizing every arrival, lurked Cindy Adams, pencil and pad in hand, daggers in her eyes, trolling for celebrity gossip.
The Whoopi sailed past in a black schmatte, over a breezy chic white blouse. I’m guessing it was made for her by Ralph Rucci, the genius couturier who often outfits Miss Goldberg. Then I saw the amiable Chuck Scarborough. Mr. Nice Guy.
Inside the colossal sanctuary, one of the largest on earth, the lanterns and sconces were dimly lit, the better to lead one’s eye to the altar, where white orchids and white gardenias and white blossoms of every phylum littered the stage like snow drifts in Siberia. The message: Joan was going out in style, to hell with the cost.
I took a seat in the same row as John Waters and Bob Colacello, both of whom I have known since the 1970s, and Paul Wilmot, the spiffy p.r. man who was such a good sport when he was humiliated on camera by Sacha Baron Cohen posing as the screamer fashion fiend Bruno. As I broke out my note paper and began scribbling, Waters and Colacello gazed periodically, not to say disdainfully, at my frantic stenography.
Sweeping down the aisle, sheathed in black, with luxuriant blonde mane and black sunglasses against the darkness, was Diane Sawyer. Not only is she brainy, she’s more glamorous than any screen star of the present day. Then along came Barry Diller, who was president of the nascent Fox network in 1986 when he lured poor Joan away from guest-hosting The Tonight Show, precipitating the epic estrangement from Johnny Carson, which led to disaster and the suicide of Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg. “If you can keep your head when all around you others are losing theirs…etc etc”. Joan kept her head.
At 10:43, seventeen minutes before the scheduled start of the service, the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus appeared and began a soothing chant. This seemed entirely appropriate, since Joan had long been a prominent and generous benefactor of God’s Love We Deliver, even herself delivering meals to homebound AIDS patients on Thanksgiving.
The chorus segued into a muted version of “And I Say to Myself, It’s a Wonderful World”. The crowd murmured. Then the party really began with a medley of “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, “Hey Big Spender” and “That’s Entertainment.”.
Did Joan choose the playlist? It looks that way. Joan’s good buddy Blaine Trump told me Miss Rivers had given “general guidelines” and her team knew what to do. Indeed they did.
A well-spoken youngish rabbi named Joshua Davidson noted that Joan, writing about her funeral in her last book, said, “I don’t want some rabbi rambling on.”. He averred, wisely, “I will not be that rabbi.” Invoking Joan’s love of life, he recalled her saying,”I still get excited every time they send a limo.”.
Melissa was quoted as telling the rabbi, “I was toppled from the pedestal the day Cooper arrived. Joan’s grandson became her closest confidant and friend.”
Broadway deity Audra McDonald glided onto the stage. She purred, “Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking…that’s the time you must keep on trying; Smile–what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”
A frisson circuited the temple. Joan was speaking to us, through Audra. Telling us good-bye but to keep up the good fight. Many who had yet to acknowledge that Joan has gone were glimpsing a finality, a closure.
Leave it to Howard Stern to break the spell. His first words were, “Joan Rivers had an extremely dry vagina.”
Gasps all around. A titter here and there. Continued the shock jock, “How do I know that? She told me so, on my radio show. She said when she took a bath, her vagina was like a sponge–it soaked up all the water in the tub. But there was an upside–she didn’t worry she’d end up drowning like Whitney Houston.”
“Ah, Joan”, said Howard, “the only person on earth who could talk about her vagina on the radio one day and have tea the next with the Queen of England.”
Then Stern got serious: “It wasn’t Joan’s time. Two months ago she was on my show and she was on top of her game. She was 81 but she was too young to leave us.”
“When she and I were together on the radio, we looked at each other and we knew we were dancing, making magic on the radio. Her line was “Can we talk” but let’s be serious–Joan did all the talking. We did the listening. I hope Joan is somewhere right now chasing Johnny Carson with a baseball bat.” [This statement drew the biggest applause of any speech.] “Joan was a troublemaker, a trailblazer, a pioneer for comics everywhere. Joan really didn’t care what people thought–she was crazy. Jimmy Kimmel said, ‘What a loss for the world. More importantly, what a loss for QVC.’ No one reinvented themselves more times than Joan Rivers. And she invented more things than Thomas Edison: The red carpet. The TV Guide Channel. Fashion reviews. She was the first woman TV host. In the 1960s, on the Ed Sullivan Show, Joan wrote lines for Topo Gigio [the Italian mouse puppet]. She went on Celebrity Apprentice–and won! Rest in Peace, you brilliant star and wonderful friend”.
Deborah Norville, the television personality, followed this schtick. It wasn’t easy but she did a good job: “Joan called my husband and I Ken and Barbie. [One does see a resemblance, especially with the wealth manager Karl Wellner]. Joan’s jokes were never meant to be hurtful–they were a comedic commentary on what the world was interested at the moment. One time we were in France, up in the Forbes balloons, when something went wrong and for a moment it appeared we might crash. Joan eased the tension by screaming, ‘Ohmygawd, I think I’ve lost the baby.”
“Joan had a dear friend, Tommy Corcoran, a New York businessman, who died a few years ago. Sometime later, she and I were in London, at Buckingham Palace, at a dinner for the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation, which Joan supported, as did we. Well, the dinner was actually in the Throne Room. At one point during cocktails, Joan asked Karl and me to come over and stand in front of her, shielding her from view. We did so. Joan opened her purse, took out a little baggie of ashes, opened it and dumped some into a magnificent old vase. ‘Tommy always wanted to be in Buckingham Palace,’ she deadpanned. The next day, at a luncheon at Highgrove, Prince Charles’s country estate, Joan dumped some more ashes under a rose bush and then actually announced to Prince Charles what she had done. ‘Oh, reeeeaaaallly? Oh, reeeeaaaallly?’ said the prince. He didn’t know if she was kidding. She wasn’t.”
A blonde lady with big black sunglasses named Margie Stern got up and said, “I was Joan’s best friend and she was my best friend.”. She told of an occasion when she hurt her hip and called Joan to cancel a dinner date. Joan didn’t believe her and said she was coming up to Connecticut to see her, even though she protested. Joan said, “If you’ve had your face done, I’m going to fucking kill you.” [Mrs. Stern turned to Rabbi Davidson and sheepishly said, “I told the rabbi I was going to use her exact words and he didn’t say anything so I did”.] So Joan insisted on coming up: “I sent out for surgical bandages and wrapped my entire head. But Joan one-upped me. When I opened the door, she was leaning on a walker.”
Margie Stern continued, “Joan and I had dinner every Sunday at Sarabeth’s. One time I arrived with my husband and when we walked in, everyone was staring at us with horrified faces. Joan stood in the back, waving her arms and screaming, ‘Hello, darling. It’s me, Joanie. Come back here.’. People kept glaring at me. Later I found out that before we arrived, she had announced to the room that she was dining with Ruth Madoff–this was right after Bernie’s arrest. Joan had told all the other guests, ‘Ruthie’s very shy so when she walks in please don’t stare at her.'”
Then, ever so ceremoniously, Cindy Adams mounted the podium. She began by recycling an old joke her late husband Joey had used in in the Borscht Belt in the Eisenhower years. Then she got right to her specialty–toilet humor. Dear Cindy. She likes to talk dirty but she lacks Joan’s wit. And Joan’s class.
Melissa was the last speaker. She read a letter she had written to Joan when her mother was her houseguest in L.A. It was a riff on their “landlord/tenant arrangement”. Something about late on the rent. That kind of thing. Melissa said her mother had been amused by the letter. Melissa showed remarkable composure and fortitude following several difficult days orchestrating this complicated and dramatic production.
Hugh Jackman closed the show and created the only tear-jerking moment, with an unlikely song by his fellow Aussie, Peter Allen. “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage” is from “The Boy from Oz”, the 2004 musical about Allen’s life, for which Jackman won a Tony. It was written about Judy Garland, but it eerily evoked Joan. Jackman suggested Joan had requested he do this song at her funeral.
It goes: So put your hands together and help her along… Stand for the ovation, give her one last celebration. Quiet please, there’s a lady on stage. Conductor, turn the final page. And when it’s all over, we can all go home. But she lives on–on the stage alone.
Jackman started quietly, then built. And built. People stood. They clapped. Then, overcome, they cried. It was the perfect coda to this consecration of the life of Joan Rivers. You could feel her spirit in the room. Joan had wanted an upbeat mood. For the most part, it was. The only convulsive sobbing that I saw was by Kelly Osborne, who sported a purple Mohawk for the occasion.
The NYPD Emerald Society pipes and drums corps appeared and played “Amazing Grace”. A Christian hymn in a Jewish synagogue. Ecumenical, like the crowd. They went into” New York New York” and piped the mourners up the aisle.
Melissa and Cooper. Joan’s beloved and devoted staff. Close pals Dennis Basso and Scott Currie. Donald and Melania. Aileen Mehle. Peter Duchin. Carolina and Reinaldo. Mario Buatta. Steve Forbes. What remains of the old guard. Not bad for a girl who grew up on the Eastern Parkway.
Outside, on the sidewalk, Blaine Trump said she and Joan had seen “The Boy from Oz” together three times. Each time Joan would say “Isn’t this the greatest”, then take a catnap.
Someone remarked that Joan saw every Broadway show, but often dozed off a bit. She could sleep at the drop of an eyelid. Someone once told Joan, “You sleep so easily, you’ll never die.”
Not exactly. But she did go out with a bang. Just the way she would have wanted.