Joan Rivers reached the pinnacle of showbiz success, had it all come crashing down after she crossed one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and then rebuilt her career and billion-dollar brand from the ground up. Her husband killed himself in 1987 — and she came within a hair’s breadth of doing the same shortly after, with only her concern over her Yorkie, Spike, keeping her from blowing her brains out with a pistol. She underwent countless plastic surgeries, then died in 2014 at age 81 following a minor procedure on her throat. Her incredible life was an open book — even more so now, with the fascinating new biography Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers (Little, Brown) hitting shelves on Nov. 15. Here, author Leslie Bennetts talks to OK! about her insights into the late comedy legend.
What was Joan’s favorite pastime away from the spotlight?
-The secret Joan Rivers was the studious Barnard graduate who loved to sit around in a bathrobe and no makeup, reading serious books. But her second favorite activity was taking all her friends and relatives to glamorous places for lavish vacations on a luxurious yacht.
You describe Joan sneaking extra soap from a motel housekeeper’s cart even while she was making millions. What drove her to do that?
-Joan’s father was a doctor, so she didn’t grow up poor, but the family wasn’t wealthy enough to live the way her mother wanted, and her parents had terrible fights about money. Joan herself struggled for years before she made it in comedy, and she never got over her fear of being poor. She always felt that she had to stock up on everything from expensive shoes to motel soap bars, because the hard times might come again.
How often did Joan consider taking her own life?
-I think the only time she seriously thought about committing suicide was the terrible period after her husband killed himself. Her career was ruined, she was deeply in debt, and she felt she had nothing to live for — and yet she went on to make an extraordinary comeback, and build a billion-dollar business in her 60s and 70s.
Was Joan faithful to Edgar during their marriage?
-She was not faithful to her husband, by her own admission, and she left him briefly during one affair. She also claimed to have had trysts with everyone from Johnny Carson and [Hollywood tough guy] Robert Mitchum to John F. Kennedy.
Did Joan ever date again after the death of her husband, Edgar?
-Joan had quite a few lovers after her husband’s death, including a Greek shipping magnate, but the man she called the love of her life was the distinguished New York politician and philanthropist Orin Lehman. Although they got engaged, she dumped him when she discovered he was cheating on her — and spent the rest of her life regretting it.
Was growing up as the daughter of a showbiz legend hard for Melissa?
-It’s difficult for the children of stars to grow up in the shadow of a famous parent, and when Melissa went into show business she was always overshadowed by her larger-than-life mother. Melissa had an Ivy League education, and some of her friends think she would have been happier if she’d become a doctor or a lawyer instead of going into show business to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
What drove Joan to insult other celebrities and comedians?
-Joan never got over her anger that she wasn’t pretty, and that beautiful women had such an unfair advantage. Her jealousy fueled much of her early humor, including her infamous fat-shaming of Elizabeth Taylor, and in later years Lena Dunham. As Joan got older she also became jealous of younger comics like Kathy Griffin, because she saw their success as a threat to her own status as the Queen of Comedy.
Was there one celebrity that Joan hated above all, and why?
-I don’t think she truly hated any of them, but she was jealous of and competitive with many.
What was the single most shocking thing you learned about Joan while doing the book?
-Since she spent her whole life trying to shock the entire world, nothing about Joan Rivers shocks me. But I would like to know if she was really telling the truth when she claimed to have touched Johnny Carson’s p***s.