Joan Rivers was born in 1933 to middle-class Russian-Jewish immigrants. According to The Guardian, she grew up in Westchester County and attended Barnard College, where she studied English literature and anthropology. After graduating, Rivers worked as a buyer in a department store where she met her first husband. The marriage was short-lived, however, ending in an annulment after six months.
PBS reports that Joan Rivers "started off as a serious actress on Broadway" before clawing her way up through the male-dominated stand-up scene. She got her big break in 1965 thanks to "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," but she fell out with the legendary host after she decided to stake out on her own, eventually landing "That Show with Joan Rivers" in 1968. Of course, Rivers then became one of the hardest-working stars in Hollywood, with 14 books, reality shows, jewelry lines, a documentary, and her infamous "Fashion Police" style critiques.
Rivers was best known for her razor-sharp put-downs, self-deprecation, and plastic surgery procedures. But, she was also a mom to daughter Melissa and a loving wife to second husband Edgar Rosenberg, who tragically took his own life in 1987. Joan Rivers was an open book, joking about her private life and even Rosenberg’s passing. However, following her unexpected death in 2014 from "therapeutic complications" (via CNN) during what should have been a minor procedure, it became apparent the iconic performer still had secrets. Here are some of the strange things we learned about Joan Rivers after she died.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Matt Lauer found a formidable foe in Joan Rivers
Melissa Rivers released a touching memoir following her mom’s death, explaining in the press release that she "wanted to write a book that would make [her] mother laugh." In "The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation," Melissa reveals the pain and anger she felt over losing her mother, and the negligence lawsuit she filed against Yorkville Endoscopy, where Rivers suffered complications during a routine procedure to examine her throat. She later died in the hospital. The suit was settled in 2016. But Melissa also shares a multitude of sweet, poignant, and downright hilarious anecdotes — including the time Rivers and Matt Lauer duked it out over an Elmo doll.
According to Melissa, Joan once appeared with Lauer on a "Today" segment about "the hottest, impossible to get kids’ toys of the year." That year, it was the "Tickle me Elmo" doll, which had sold out immediately and apparently could not be found anywhere in "the New York metropolitan area." Except there was the one in the studio, and Joan was determined to snag it for her look-a-like grandson, Melissa’s son Cooper. The problem was, Lauer also had his eye on the prize.
"Matt and mom both fell to the ground, wrestling each other to get to the doll," Melissa writes, claiming Joan eventually feigned a damaged hip to trick a concerned Lauer into helping her, then, "with ninja-like reflexes, she grabbed the doll and ran."
Joan Rivers was the most opulent hostess with the mostest
Joan Rivers was open about her luxurious tastes, once joking, "People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made." At the time of her death, Rivers was worth an estimated $150 million and left behind a wealth of over-the-top treasures.
Following her death, Christie’s held an auction, "The Private Collection of Joan Rivers." The items included "Harry Winston, and Chanel to a Tiffany dog bowl and silk pagoda dog bed" in addition to Louis XVI style furniture and a number of Fabergé pieces. According to Art Daily, the auction made $2,495,250. "She was always adamant that even your finest things should be used and loved and not just in the bank vault or storage," Melissa Rivers told People magazine.
Rivers didn’t just keep her luxurious tastes to herself. She was also known as being "the most marvelous hostess," who shared her lavish apartment’s precious possessions with her circle of friends. "She kept an eye on the table to make sure people were laughing and participating in the conversation," Marjorie Stern told Christie’s, adding, "She loved to set a formal table which included finger bowls, of course. I never missed an opportunity to tell her they were ridiculous in today’s world!"
No, Joan Rivers was not a feminist
Joan Rivers was a trailblazer, forging a hugely successful career in the mostly male-dominated comedy world. Not surprisingly, she was hailed by many as "a groundbreaking feminist icon," with Time claiming, "Rivers blazed trails for other women in the comedic industry by bringing taboo topics like abortion to light onstage. Without her, there would be no Sarah Silverman or Chelsea Handler or Amy Schumer."
But, Rivers often came under fire from feminists for her scathing critique of women’s weight, appearance, and sexuality. HuffPost shot down Time’s "feminist icon" label, claiming the magazine "all-too-blithely glosses over the fact that her humor was frequently predicated on tearing women down — and viciously so. Let’s not forget that her comedy shtick was rooted in deeply misogynistic ideas about women." HuffPost went on to list a few of Rivers’ caustic jibes, including, "Elizabeth Taylor’s so fat she puts mayonnaise on aspirin" and "Kristen Stewart got a whole career by being able to juggle a director’s b***s."
Four years after her mother’s death, Melissa Rivers told V magazine that Joan never considered herself a feminist and that "she wanted to do everything she wanted to do and wanted a man to open a car door for her." Melissa added, "She thought men should treat women great. She still wanted to be treated like a lady."
Joan Rivers had more — or less — plastic surgeries than you think
Joan Rivers was incredibly open about the plastic surgery procedures she underwent during her life. In her usual self-deprecating manner, Rivers often made her ever-changing appearance the butt of her jokes. The Hollywood Reporter published some of her best plastic surgery quips — including, "I saw what’s going on under my chin. I don’t want to be the one the president has to pardon on Thanksgiving," and "I’ve had so much plastic surgery when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware."
Rivers never went public with the exact number of procedures she had, though, keeping the public guessing. Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, somewhat confusingly broke the secret in her memoir, simultaneously claiming her mom "didn’t have as much work as people think she had," while also putting the number of procedures at a whopping 365 times. Melissa shares in "The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation" that Joan’s obsession with plastic surgery stemmed from her lifelong insecurity about her looks, but that towards the time she died, she had finally "gotten to a place where she knew she looked good."
"I find comfort in knowing that all the plastic surgery jokes she made about herself — and that were made by others at the expense of herself — she did what she needed to do to feel better," Melisa writes. "On her eightieth birthday, she said to me, ‘You know what? For eighty, I don’t look so bad."
The weird thing Joan Rivers did with used Milk Dud boxes
Joan Rivers had more than her fair share of quirks and unusual ways of doing things. That was apparent when it came to Rivers’ unconventional use of Milk Dud boxes. In Melissa Rivers’ memoir, she shares that her mom would stash her cash in emptied-out Milk Dud boxes whenever she jetted off somewhere. "They’re the same size as paper money," Melissa writes, "so in case someone rifled through her purse, they’d overlook it."
Unfortunately for Melissa, it was a secret she learned following her mother’s death — after she had cleared out Joan’s apartment to auction off her belongings and prepare the property for sale. She spoke with People about her mother’s unusual piggy banks, with the outlet noting that Melissa knew Joan "liked to stash away fun money around her house, mostly in ones and fives." So, she had been careful to rifle through any "books and magazines" to check for hidden cash, but she hadn’t looked in candy boxes lying around the apartment before trashing them.
Milk Dud boxes weren’t the only staple of Rivers’ handbag though. In a chapter of her memoir titled "The Purse," Melissa writes about when TSA agents pulled Rivers aside "for a security check." A motherlode of items fell out of her bag, including, most bizarrely, "a Ziploc bag filled with bacon bits" and "a vial" of fake blood that Rivers carried to throw at "terrorists" in the event her plane was hijacked.
Joan Rivers had somewhat questionable mothering skills
Joan Rivers had a close but sometimes tumultuous relationship with her only child, Melissa Rivers. Despite how much she loved daughter though, Joan had somewhat questionable mothering skills at times. "Don’t tell your kids you had an easy birth, or they won’t respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, "Melissa, you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep," Joan Rivers once joked (via The Telegraph).
Despite Joan’s unconventional outlook on life, Melissa told Caroline Stanbury on her "Dear Media Divorced Not Dead" podcast that she "had a very traditional childhood" before things took a less conventional turn in adulthood. "So I think because of that very traditional upbringing, when I was dating … after I got married, it caught me by surprise when my mom was like, ‘You need to be much sluttier,’" Melissa admitted. "She was like, ‘You need to put it out there.’"
Melissa also says that when she was a baby her mom took some flagrant risks while driving. "She told me once, ‘Missy, they didn’t have car seats when you were born, and you survived just fine," Melissa writes in her memoir. "I used to lay you on the floor of the passenger side. I would have held you on my lap, but I didn’t want to wrinkle my blouse." Obviously, Joan could have been joking, but according to Good Housekeeping, the first children’s car seats were actually invented in the 1930s.
Of course Joan Rivers did needlepoint and crossword puzzles in her own unique way
Joan Rivers was an outrageous, motor-mouthed comedian, but at the same time, she was a devoted grandma who loved to do needlepoint. While The Jerusalem Post captured the dichotomy of Rivers in a 2006 article, Melissa Rivers expanded on her mom’s unexpected hobby in a chapter of her memoir titled "Pillow Talk."
"It calmed her down," Melissa Rivers writes of her mom’s nightly needlepoint. "She’d get in bed, turn the TV on to Investigation Discovery to watch some dark tale about a gruesome murder, pull out her needles, and start sewing." Melissa also shares some of the slogans Rivers sewed on pillows, including: "Don’t Expect Praise Without Envy Until You’re Dead" and "Fashion Knows No Pain."
Elsewhere in her memoir, Melissa shares that Joan was "a terrible speller" who would cheat at crosswords by squeezing misspelled words into spaces. "No puzzle went unfinished," Melissa writes. "When I would point out that there was a mistake, she’d say, ‘Don’t bother me with the details. It works for me.’" In a poignant aside, Melissa reveals she included a crossword puzzle book and Rivers’ "favorite pens" in her coffin, joking, "Somewhere in heaven there’s a small blonde woman misspelling a four-letter word for ‘Asian housemaid.’"
Joan Rivers ‘loved to lie’ and tell tall tales
Joan Rivers was a renowned raconteur, both on and off the stage. However, her stories weren’t always totally factual, or sometimes based on any truth at all. In the biography, "Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers," author Lesley Bennett cites examples of the comedian playing fast and loose with the truth. Speaking with Vogue, the author recalled Rivers’ most surprising fib, that she was not, in fact, a member of the Greek honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. "She didn’t graduate with any honors," Bennett claimed, adding that Rivers’ untruths were "all about image building: correcting what nature had failed to give you."
NY Eater debunked another whopper Joan Rivers told during a Howard Stern interview — about a date dying during a romantic dinner at Le Cirque. An "official statement" from the tony NY restaurant insists, "No one has died at Le Cirque. The crème brulee’s to die for, but that’s about it."
Melissa Rivers also spilled about her mom’s love of tall tales in a piece she wrote for The Daily Mail, admitting, "She was rude, vain, embarrassing, an incorrigible liar… and hilariously funny." Melissa went on to claim that "most of my mother’s fibs were simply embellishments to make a story she was telling better or more interesting." Adding that when it came to actually having to lie that "ironically," Joan Rivers was "terrible at it."
Joan Rivers had ‘huge fights’ with daughter Melissa
To onlookers, Joan and Melissa Rivers appeared to be joined at the hip. The mother-daughter-duo shared an extraordinarily close personal and working relationship, starring together in the reality TV shows "Celebrity Apprentice" and "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?", and co-hosting "Fashion Police." However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing between the two. In fact, Melissa told "TODAY" that "there were some huge fights" over the years.
Melissa also admitted to directing her anger at her mom following her father’s heartbreaking suicide in 1987. In an interview with ABC News’ Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton for the podcast "Life After Suicide," Melissa shared, "I was really mad at my mom, really mad, and we’ve spoken very openly about that." The Daily News reports that things eventually became so bad between the two that they didn’t speak for a whole year before finally making "the decision to come back into each other’s lives."
"It took time to get back on stable footing," Melissa admitted. "It wasn’t like we just woke up one day and went, ‘OK, we’re fine again.’ It takes time to get there. And by the way, it doesn’t mean you don’t fight. One of the reasons our reality show was a success and our relationship on the red carpet was a success, the chemistry we had was such typical mother-daughter."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The truth behind Joan Rivers’ odd obsession with mocking Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor was the punchline of many Joan Rivers jokes over the years, including (per Vanity Fair) "She has a bumper sticker that says, ‘Save the whales’ and in small print, ‘for appetizers.’" But why was the "Cleopatra" star such a frequent target for Rivers?
Leslie Bennett alleges in her Joan Rivers’ biography (via Vanity Fair) that "The main person she felt jealous of was Elizabeth Taylor, who was so beautiful that she was a movie star before she was out of childhood." But, Melissa Rivers tells a different story in her memoir, insisting that Joan actually really liked Taylor despite all the barbs. "Not only did they work tirelessly together for AIDS research, but they also shared a close personal friendship with actor Roddy McDowall," Melissa writes. "The other truth is that they weren’t all really Elizabeth Taylor jokes; a lot of them were just really good fat jokes that my mother attached to Elizabeth Taylor."
Yet another outlet, Marie Claire, has another theory about how Joan Rivers’ acerbic and acidic take-downs of other women stemmed from her "crippling insecurity." The magazine writes that Rivers once admitted in an interview, "No man ever told me I was beautiful…no man ever told me I had a good body," spurring her plastic surgery obsession.
Joan Rivers’ ashes are with different ‘friends all over the world’
In her memoir, Melissa Rivers writes, "In hindsight, I think [Joan Rivers] hated more people than she liked. She had a fake flight manifest labeled ‘Death Flight 5000,’ which had the names of all the people she hoped would be on board when the plane flew nose-first into K2." But, in reality, the comedian had a multitude of close friendships with people worldwide.
Melissa appeared on "TODAY" two years after Joan Rivers’ death to discuss her settlement of the negligence lawsuit she filed against the hospital her mother died in. "Closure is an overused word. It was time to put it behind us and move forward," Melissa told host Matt Lauer. "One of the ways we’re moving forward is I’m going to push for some sort of legislature. I’m going to start in Albany, and hopefully, it’ll be something that becomes a federal mandate of much closer regulations, tighter regulations on these outpatient ambulatory clinics."
Melissa also shared that she’d sent her mom’s ashes to various friends all around the globe. "She’s in England and Scotland and Mexico and Wyoming and California — and stores and restaurants and studios! She is places nobody would expect her to be," Melissa said, going on to admit she’d kept some of her mom’s remains for herself, stored "in my closet, near my shoes."