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Joan Rivers, Comedian Whose Barbs Spared No One, Dies at 81

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Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers attends an event in New York on May 14, 2014. Rivers, a stand-up comedian, writer and outrageous television persona best known for hurling cutting barbs at fellow celebrities as well as herself, has died. She was 81. Photographer: Jim Spellman/WireImage

Sept. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Joan Rivers, a stand-up comedian, writer and outrageous television personality best known for hurling cutting barbs at fellow celebrities as well as herself, has died. She was 81.

She died yesterday, according to a statement by her daughter, Melissa Rivers. She was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on Aug. 28 after going into cardiac arrest during throat surgery at Yorkville Endoscopy in Manhattan.

The New York State Department of Health is looking into her death and its investigators have visited the clinic, according to two people with knowledge of the inquiry, who asked not to be identified because the probe is still open. A call to Yorkville Endoscopy wasn’t immediately returned.

With her rapid-fire, nasal, Brooklyn-inflected delivery, Rivers specialized in celebrity gossip, ribaldry and insults, regaling audiences with the catchphrase, “Can we talk?”

“Elizabeth Taylor’s so fat she puts mayonnaise on aspirin,” she cracked. Another of her zingers: “Bo Derek is so dumb she studies for a Pap test.”

Having been in show business for more than half a century, Rivers was perhaps most famous for her annual TV appearances at the Oscars and other awards shows, where she provided snarky commentary on red-carpet couture, helped by a panel from her weekly show “Fashion Police” on the E! Network.

Face Work

“When somebody comes out looking terrible, you go ‘Thank you, God,’” Rivers said in a February interview according to the Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California. A proponent of plastic surgery, Rivers made no apologies for her multiple procedures, advising fellow E! star Giuliana Rancic in May, “Better a new face coming out of an old car than an old face coming out of a new car!”

She also was the star, with her daughter, of the reality show “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” on WE TV and an Internet interview show, “In Bed With Joan.”

A veteran entertainer who first came to national attention as a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1965, Rivers landed her own syndicated talk show in 1968, and in 1983 signed a contract to become Carson’s regular guest host.

Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born on June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, according to an article she wrote in 2006 for the New York Times. Her parents, Meyer C. Molinsky, a physician, and the former Beatrice Grushman, were Russian Jewish immigrants who eventually settled in Larchmont, a wealthy New York City suburb.

Early Life

Later, she mined her childhood for comic material.

“I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio,” she said.

Rivers graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in New York in 1954, according to the school’s website. She was briefly married to James Sanger, heir to the Bond’s clothing retailer, according to a People magazine profile in 1983.

Her first jobs were in the fashion industry. In her 1986 autobiography “Enter Talking,” she described quitting to pursue acting in the late 1950s. In 1961 she joined the Chicago-based Second City improvisation troupe where she honed her comic persona.

“To this day everything I do on stage is right out of Second City,” she said in a 2013 PBS documentary, “Funny Ladies.”

She also wrote for and appeared on the TV show “Candid Camera” in the 1960s, and wrote material for Phyllis Diller and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Fan Base

“I’m luckier than a lot of people,” she said in 1965, shortly after her first “The Tonight Show” appearance, according to the Hartford Courant. “I have a hard core of desperate fans in Westchester.”

Rivers made her movie debut in “The Swimmer” (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. She wrote and directed the 1978 film “Rabbit Test.” She was by the late 1970s one of the most prominent comedians in the country, making regular appearances on TV, in the movies and performing stand-up in Las Vegas.

In 1986, Rivers announced she would host a late-night talk show on the new Fox TV network, alienating Carson, her long-time mentor. Her Fox show flopped in the ratings and she was fired in 1987. Soon afterward her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, executive producer of “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” committed suicide.

She soon went back to performing. “I don’t want sympathy audiences,” she said in 1987, according to a People magazine interview. “I’m too short to be a tragic figure.”

CEO Role

In 1992 Rivers began selling a line of jewelry on the QVC channel. She expanded into clothing and fashion items, becoming chief executive officer of Joan Rivers Worldwide Enterprises. In 1995, she began doing commentary on fashion at awards shows.

She stayed busy writing books of comedy, memoirs and fashion advice -- about a dozen in all, including “Diary of a Mad Diva,” published earlier this year. In 2010, the documentary film, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” was released.

“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” Melissa Rivers said. “Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”

In addition to her daughter, Rivers is survived by a grandson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Miller in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at Alan Goldstein

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