A few days after Joan Rivers died on September 4, I started reading one of her latest books, Diary of a Mad Diva. Saddened by the loss, I wanted to “hear” her voice again. And the year-in-the-life-of book definitely delivered—the quips come quick, the zingers sing with her brassy tone, and the oh-no-she-didn’t potshots made me shake my head as I laughed. Who can tell jokes about Anne Frank and Anne Hathway, AIDS and aging, and get a laugh? She could.
She took risks. That’s undeniable.
But—after having read her book, trawling the Internet for videos of her talk-show and stage appearances, reflecting on when I first saw her live (Syracuse, 1985: with my best friend, we were two gay boys giggling in the nosebleeds of the Landmark Theatre)—what strikes me is that she took risks for our reward.
Her comedy mined her own vulnerability, her own tragedies, and made us feel less alone. Her comedy punctured the shiny bubble of celebrity, and made us feel more special. She went over the top—as far as was needed to lift our spirits. She trailblazed—to light the way.
She took a risk early on, before it was fashionable, before it was red-carpet de rigeur—to support individuals living with HIV/AIDS. She was the first celebrity to host an AIDS benefit in 1982 and received death threats for her audacity. She cared for personal and professional friends, and family, when they took ill. She went on to support God’s Love We Deliver, GMHC (back when it was still called “Gay Men’s Health Crisis”), and the Chris Brownlie Hospice, among others. Priceless: On YouTube, there’s a video of a performance by Sylvester on Joan’s talk show; they chat afterward with guest Charles Nelson Reilly on the couch. What do they reminesce about? How all three of them together participated in an early AIDS benefit.
When she sat for an A&U cover story interview in 1996, she shared her thoughts with writer Glenn Gaylord. When asked what she was most proud of regarding her participation in the fight against AIDS, she answered: “Maybe I have had a little something to do with making people aware of it. By making people aware of it, maybe a little more money has gone into research. Maybe by a little more money going into research, it is prolonging lives. I helped make America more aware, that’s all.”
She was eager to do the interview, “honored” to be on the cover of an AIDS magazine. Later, when she found out that the issue was going to be distributed at the National AIDS Candlelight March in October 1996, she was glad to be featured in a magazine that was seen at such an important human rights event.
Her support of HIV/AIDS never ended. Until the end, she donated her time and energy (with daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper) to God’s Love We Deliver, a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides home-delivered, diet-tailored meals and other nutritional services to tri-state residents living with HIV/AIDS and other life-altering illnesses. She served as a member of its Board of Directors since 1994. She helped deliver Thanksgiving dinners. She won over $500,000 for the organization when she competed on Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. She was an eternal cheerleader at the finish line of Race to Deliver, the non-profit’s annual race. She designed a fashionable wrap and a bejeweled bee brooch, among other accessories, for its fundraising shop. She chaired numerous events. In her honor, God’s Love We Deliver has named its new bakery in its expanded building in Soho after her: The Joan Rivers Bakery.
About God’s Love We Deliver, she said (in 1996), “We serve 2,100 hot meals, twice a day, delivered to homebound patients.” Fast forward to May 2014. Joan attended a recent event in Brooklyn to celebrate God’s Love We Deliver’s delivery of its fifteen-millionth meal, which she helped prepare! No one would balk at the suggestion that Joan’s twenty-five-year involvement with God’s Love We Deliver added that special something to its recipe for success.
The curtain call came too soon. What are we to do?
In the A&U interview, she had some thoughts about “bouncing back” (the title of her most recent book at the time), about surviving: “Push forward. Move ahead! Know what you can change. Know what you can’t change. If there is something that might be changed, keep trying till the end. Judy Holliday said once, ‘It’s only humiliation.’ What that means is try. Try another drug. Try another cure. Try another way. Try another job. I’m not just talking about being ill. Try!”
Wise advice from someone who will be forever remembered for cracking wise. She was there for the AIDS community from the beginning. I hope she knew we were there for her at the end.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.