Melissa Rivers Is Definitely Her Mother’s Daughter But Also Delivers An Independence And Strength All Her Own
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Melissa appears unannounced, gliding into her bright spacious living room. I’ve been chatting with her gregarious publicist when she enters—and then halts. Our eyes lock, Melissa points to me, and proclaims robustly, “Dann with two ‘n’s’!”
Immediately disarmed and captured by her beaming spirit, the tone is set for our time together.
Arriving earlier at her secluded multi-level Normandy-style home in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades, I find an open gate. CBS crewmembers are breaking down lights and equipment on the curvy, inclined street. They just wrapped a segment with Melissa for CBS Sunday Morning.
I enter the well-groomed lawn area, surrounded by lofty bushes, stepping over apparatus and ring the front door bell. It takes several ding-dongs before her publicist, Howard Bragman appears, lively and friendly.
It’s no secret that Melissa’s mother, Joan Rivers [A&U, October 1996], carried the torch from Day One for those living with AIDS, then called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). Joan, along with Debbie Reynolds (note: this reporter had an interview date set with Debbie just several weeks after her unfortunate demise), Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], Shirley MacLaine [A&U, April 2000], Rita Moreno [A&U, October 2013], and Robert Guillaume were a handful of entertainers who stepped forward to offer their support. Other celebrities were petrified.
In March 1984, Joan hosted a black-tie fundraiser at the wildly popular disco, Studio One, L.A.’s take on New York’s legendary Studio 54. The event raised $45,000 for the newly established APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles).
Melissa, seated on the eggshell-colored tufted sofa opposite me, grabs her recently published book, Joan Rivers Confidential: The Unseen Scrapbooks, Joke Cards, Personal Files, and Photos of a Very Funny Woman Who Kept Everything off of a wood credenza. It is an elaborate collection of her mother’s life and includes impressive photographs, personal mementoes, and magazine covers featuring Joan, all magnificently displayed. Joan Rivers’ fans will go nuts! (Other books by Melissa, Red Carpet Ready: Secrets for Making the Most of Any Moment You’re in the Spotlight and The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation.)
Melissa dons her black non-descript reading glasses and then flips through the large tome, showing me the poster for the 1984 AIDS event at Studio One. “My parents had death threats…,” reveals Melissa, interrupting herself. She asks if I want anything to drink then calls out to Sabrina, her assistant, to bring coffee for her.
“My parents thought we’d all die together. I was going to school with bodyguards!” Nobody knew at the time what caused AIDS. Those inflicted were pariahs. Much of the public believed that merely touching someone with AIDS was an instant death sentence. It was mass hysteria!
At another event, attendees paid $1,000 a plate to see Joan and Elizabeth Taylor together. This was the beginning of amfAR. Around this time, Joan posed for a safe sex campaign ad, “Can We Talk?” (Part of Joan’s estate went to AIDS services.)
Melissa worked with her mother through the years on charities that included APLA, amfAR, GMHC, PETA, Make A Wish Foundation, Waterkeeper Alliance, Pediatric AIDS Foundation, LA Mission, Lili Clare Foundation, Bogart Foundation, Children Afflicted By AIDS, and God’s Love We Deliver (delivering meals to those who have life-altering diseases), one of Joan’s favorite charities. In 1994 she became a member of its Board of Directors. After Joan’s death, they renamed their bakery The Joan Rivers Bakery.
A synopsis from God’s Love We Deliver website is worth quoting at length:
“Joan demonstrated deep commitment, compassion and generosity. In 2009, Joan won over $500,000 for God’s Love on the NBC reality competition, Celebrity Apprentice. The final challenge had the contestants putting on a gala, and we remember Joan, getting down on her hands and knees to roll out the red carpet, making sure it was perfect for the event. That’s the kind of woman she was—devoted, hard working, strong and always fighting for what she believed in. Joan volunteered absolutely every Thanksgiving, bringing her daughter Melissa and her grandson Cooper with her. Each year, she delivered holiday meals to our clients, surprising them with jokes and their special feasts, bringing warmth and care and brightening the holiday for so many.”
Altruism is in Melissa’s DNA, for she continues her mom’s legacy with God’s Love We Deliver. Melissa is active as well in Guide Dogs for the Blind, Our House Grief Support Center, and Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services (dealing with a variety of issues, including suicide prevention).
“I was raised by two incredibly empathetic generous people who never lost sight of how lucky we were,” Melissa, an Ivy League grad, says in a gentle cadence. “My parents were firm believers in taking care of those close to us and our communities—without question—supporting service organizations, like Guide Dogs,” she specifies. “My father had terrible vision and was always fearful of going blind.” (Her father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987 when his daughter was eighteen years old.)
Melissa crosses her legs, resting her coffee cup on her thigh. “It was in their makeup to take care of everybody, and I was raised in this atmosphere.”
Melissa instilled the same values in her sixteen-year-old son Cooper. (Edgar Cooper Endicott is named after his grandfather. His father, John Endicott, a horse-trainer, married Melissa in 1998. They split in 2003.) Last Thanksgiving Melissa and Cooper were scooping holiday meals at the LA Mission, and, since Joan’s death in 2014, Melissa has donated many of Joan’s clothes and personal items for charity auctions.
“About a year ago,” asserts Howard, who’s perched on the other end of the sofa from Melissa, with only two largish crimson pillows between them, “she was cleaning out [her mom’s stuff] and called me. ‘What do we do with this?!’ she said. It was this coat that turned into a rainbow flag, designed by a really famous Broadway designer…” He can’t think of his name. Melissa can’t either. She calls out to Sabrina, who can’t think of the designer as well. Suddenly Melissa eagerly blurts, “William Ivey Long!”
Howard continues. “Melissa gave the coat to Family of Quality Council, where they auctioned it off and got a truckload of money. Along with it was this signed picture of Joan. It was beautiful.” Howard leans in. “When you work with the Rivers’, you’re part of their family. It transcends an employer-employee relationship.” Melissa shakes her head in agreement, “It does.” Howard began working with them in 2014.
The Melissa you see on the tube is the same Melissa you see in person—authentic, gracious, energetic, and compassionate. Growing up in your mother’s shadow, particularly when your mother is Joan Rivers, is daunting. Now that Joan is gone, a sense of peace surrounds her, almost cocooning her with Joan’s spirit. Though an accomplished producer, philanthropist, host, and author, we haven’t seen the best yet from Melissa.
Looking homey in her tight, torn jeans and black cut-away top, it looks as though she could have just taken a quick hike around the neighborhood, freshly kissed by a sunny breeze. Her very straight hair is shiny and her impeccable skin glows. Her cutesy coal-black loafer sliders, with a big rose painted on them, are designed by Alessandro Michele. “I’m in a moment of Gucci. Everything Gucci, including shoes,” announces Melissa, cheerily.
The epidemic was always a topic of conversation at the Rivers household. “Growing up, AIDS was never hidden from me,” Melissa reflects. “It was so prevalent in my parents’ social circle. I remember when it was called ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay pneumonia.’ It’s always been on my radar,” she says. “So many people who were close to our family have died. A lot!” She takes a deep inhale. “More than I think we even realized. There were a number of suicides, too.”
Deeply embedded in Melissa’s memory are hospital and hospice visits, and watching those she loved die. One of the family’s first losses was Jason Dyl, her mom’s long time hairdresser. In 1992, Alison Gertz [A&U, May 2016], who acquired HIV after having sex the first time, appeared on Joan Rivers’ talk show. Melissa became fast friends with her. “Ali Gertz and her family became a part of our world,” she informs, looking out a window that leads to her private patio deck and swimming pool, where just beyond the tops of the palm trees lies the Pacific Ocean, which is visible. Several months after Alison was on Joan’s show, she died. She was twenty-six. Her death was a jolt and left a deep scar on Melissa.
Unlike most of Rivers’ friends, she was savvy about the epidemic. “Sex didn’t scare me…I was educated,” utters Melissa evenly. Though she was regularly checked for illnesses, she was careful when it came to sex. “I was in relationships where I would not have unprotected sex until they were tested—and brought home the papers!” states Melissa proudly in a demanding tone.
Regarding the present generation of young people, Melissa is distressed that they have
such high rates of HIV infection. “Because it’s gone from a death sentence to a chronic illness!” she reasons vehemently. “… And that’s a problem.” Melissa scoots up on the edge of the sofa. “Everyone became too comfortable. This has led to a lackadaisical attitude towards prevention. It’s not the big scary word anymore. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of ambivalence and ignorance.”
Melissa goes on. “There’s a risk and it’s preventable. There are steps you can take to protect yourself.” She ponders, slowly rotating her glasses in her hand. “As to abstinence, two hormonal teens are going to think about abstinence first! Yeh, right,” Rivers mocks, as her expressive big brown eyes roll.
Melissa notes that some of her friends keep a bowl of condoms available for their teenagers. “I don’t know if I could do it,” she questions, with a slight wince. “I’m willing to buy them to protect my son in any way I can.” Cooper, who is sixteen, spends most of his extracurricular time playing lacrosse. “If he’s sexually active,” she says, “he hasn’t told me. We’ve only had the first girl and the first girl kiss because that we talked about.
“A little bit of fear is not a bad thing to keep kids safe. They should be scared when they do something wrong [like not stay on top of their sexual health].” Then Melissa points out, “You know, he’s a teen, he doesn’t want to hear this from mom. It’s embarrassing and it’s gross. He just wants to cover his ears!”
Melissa mentions that her boyfriend read an article recently about the difference between the Millennials and Cooper’s generation (Centenials?). “It seems Coop’s generation is definitely a backlash against the Millennials. They don’t have interest in learning to drive. They grew up with Uber,” she reports, rattling off from memory. “They’re not terribly interested in rushing into sex or relationships. They’re civic-minded; they’re not a lazy generation.” She pauses. “I look at Cooper and his friends and they have an occasional girlfriend or whatever, but there’s a lack of intensity.”
Melissa turned fifty in January and the irrepressible lady feels blessed, attributing her grit to her father, who was German. “I was Daddy’s girl,” she lovingly proclaims. From her mother, who was Russian, Melissa gets her drive. “That’s a hell of a combination,” she enthuses of her parents. “It means I’m stubborn and have a bad temper.” She grins, but means it.
Though Melissa considers Joan her mentor, her godparents also influenced her. They included a close female friend of her parents, Roddy McDowall, and Vincent Price and his wife, Coral Browne. Their framed photographs are displayed behind Melissa, on an elegant eighteenth-century chinoiserie secretary made of fine iron-red and black lacquer. Another photograph in the group catches my eye. An in-motion photograph of Melissa, dressed in equestrian garb, high jumping with her horse. Rivers is a skilled rider.
“It’s interesting…,” she hesitates, perusing the photographs, “I didn’t realize how great an impact some people had on me until some time had passed.” Melissa briefly fiddles with her gold Cartier watch, her nails colored a vampy dark red. “My love of art came from Vincent Price, and Coral was a second mother to my mother. She was the chicest…woman…alive.”
On the far side of the living room is a podium that supports a book, open to a page that’s written in bold type, “Melissa Rivers.” It’s from The Fabulous Photography of Kenn Duncan. One page has a full-length black and white photograph of five-year-old Melissa, already a fashionista, swathed in an elegant gown topped off with a long flowing bow. She looks like a little princess. On the opposite page there’s a smaller picture, a tender pose of mother and daughter head-to-head, Joan holding part of Melissa’s twelve-year-old head.
“I miss just talking to my mother!” exclaims Melissa, adjusting her glasses that have fallen slightly off her head onto her forehead. “I didn’t have to explain the back story to her. She knew it.” Melissa and I touch on the subject of death. What does she believe happens after we die? She takes a break, then a long sigh. “I don’t know. I can’t answer that,” she laments sincerely, then speedily adds, “I certainly hope you can eat without gaining weight and not have to go to the gym.” Right there. Right there in that subtle moment, her mom was present!
In 1994 the two women portrayed themselves in a TV docudrama Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story. They hosted E!’s Fashion Police, interviewed celebrities on the red carpet, and had a reality show called, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, which also featured Cooper.
An award-winning producer, Melissa has a unique way of dealing with grief. She’s kept her mother alive—by becoming her. Let me explain. In the 2015 Jennifer Lawrence film Joy, directed by David O. Russell, Melissa portrays her mom. It’s the true story of Joy Mangano, the Miracle Mop inventor, who was on Joan’s QVC show. Russell asked Melissa if she’d play her mother. She was honored to do so, but her initial reaction was fear. She says the biggest challenge was not to make Joan a caricature.
“Melissa is a natural actor,” says David O. Russell, “who honored her mother’s memory by channeling her impeccably. She was literally a joy to work with, as she and [actor] Drena DeNiro performed on [the QVC] stage together.”
Melissa raises awareness through her public speaking and by her appearances on talk shows. She’s a board member on several organizations concerned with health and social issues, a spokesperson for PETA, and is ambassador for Our House Grief Support Center.
I ask Melissa to sum herself up in one word. In a soft monotone voice she replies, “Good.” She sits back and shoots off a contented smile. “My life is good; my son is good; emotionally I’m good; knock on wood, my career right now is good; and so is my personal life. I try to be kind, to be a good friend, a good parent—and above all, I try and do good.”
With the current political storm surrounding budget cuts, increasing healthcare costs, and the lack of empathy from the current administration, it’s refreshing to know that the Rivers family is a force that rides the waves of discord, ultimately landing onto buoyant seas.
Seven Questions for Melissa
What’s your favorite food?
It depends on the day. Today I’m feeling like a little Mexican.
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Anywhere I can sleep without my phone ringing! [She guffaws loudly.] Every August, Cooper, my mom, and I would go for two weeks to Wyoming. Nothing fancy. You’ve never heard of the place. There’s an old dude ranch in a tiny town called Saddlestring. [She takes a beat.] Then during the winter, Cooper and I take a week off to ski in Jackson Hole.
Have you ever been starstruck?
[Melissa replies instantly] Peyton Manning!
What posters did you have on your wall as a teen?
A was a huge Star Wars fan! OH MY GOD! [She takes a beat and waxes infatuation.] When I was little I wore my Mark Hamill Star Wars T-shirt everywhere. I remember meeting Mark Hamill. It felt like I had died and gone to heaven!
Besides your mom, whom do you consider a hero in the epidemic?
Mathilde Krim [she answers urgently].
Where are you dying to travel?
My father was raised in South Africa and I want to go there. My mother went a few times and saw the devastation of the epidemic. After Cooper graduates from high school, I want to take him on one of these National Geographic-like trips. We keep a running journal of places we want to go.
What comes to mind when I mention these few people who’ve touched your life: Howard Stern, Courtney Love, Oprah, and Margaret Cho?
Howard Stern is warm, caring, generous, and just…lovely. As to Courtney Love [there’s a slight lull when Melissa becomes emotional, taking a hard swallow]…She is awesome! Awesome! Awesome! I spoke to hear after mom passed and she had great humor and—she got it! We had never met before. And Oprah, can I just have a little bit of what she’s got??! Finally Margaret Cho, well, of course, love. Love.
For more information log on to: melissarivers.com.
Styling: Cary Fetman/Sean Black
Hair: Frankie Hernandez
Makeup: Denika Bedrossian
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor at A&U.