By Nancy Balbirer
The very first time I met Joan Rivers, she began to cry, after which, she pulled me into an embrace so warm, so full, so sincere, I frankly hoped it would never end.
It was late 2003 just after she’d performed her sold-out act at the now-defunct performance venue Fez, in the East Village. I was also performing at Fez, on a different night, and during that time, we shared the same publicist. Said publicist had asked me to come that night with some friends, and implored me to sit ringside so that Joan could potentially use me as fodder to rag on during the show if the mood struck her.
Seriously—how could I turn down an invitation like that? During her act that night, Joan was absolutely ON FIRE; totally brilliant, and never once referring to the ridiculously enormous cue-cards she’d plastered all over the stage floor of that wonderful dumpy joint that anyone with taste will miss until the end of time. Pretty early on, Joan caught my eye and began to do what comics typically call “crowd-work,” wherein they engage with an audience member and sort of conscript them into the act. Joan started asking me fairly innocent questions until the point when she discovered that I was not in possession of a fur coat—only a wool coat with a fur collar. She thereupon (correctly) assumed aloud that I was a “first wife,” because only a “first wife” would accept such bullshit. Several times, in the midst of her set, she came back to me to address her outrage over my lack of pelage. Finally, toward the end, she asked me if I was Jewish, to which I responded:
“Yes.” Joan was horrified:
“You are a Jewish girl AND YOU DIDN’T GET A FUR COAT???”
“Well, actually,” I replied, “I’m only half, and to be really specific, I am only 3/4 Jewish.”
Joan, barely pausing, screamed: “THEN FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, YOU SHOULD HAVE AT LEAST GOTTEN THE FUR COLLAR AND FUR CUFFS!!!!!”
Her act finished; as she was leaving the stage, she leaned down and said,”Thank you—you were terrific.” And in that moment, I caught, for the first time, a glimpse of the Lady behind The Legend. I can never do it justice, the way she looked at me in that moment, but it was so genuine, so REAL, so honestly appreciative. But, if that was my only brush with Joan Rivers, I’d have known something undeniably true about her: she loved and valued her audience, yes, but what she craved was the sort of human connection she found only possible standing in a tiny pool of light in the dark.
[continued after the jump]
Later, when I was ushered backstage to the postage stamp dressing room I always bemoaned before my own gigs there, I was able to thank her, too, and tell her just what she meant to me and why:
In February of 1965, when Joan made her first, seminal appearance on The Tonight Show, my mother, a junior editor at McCall’s magazine, was watching. She was understandably amazed by this “girl” in the nice cocktail dress and pearls, blowing Johnny Carson’s mind, and the next day, she went to her boss, Lenore Hershey, the then Arts and Entertainment editor at McCall’s, and pitched doing a full feature on this groundbreaking “girl.” Lenore approved and soon, my mother, Lenore, Joan, and Joan’s mother met for a long lunch at The Four Seasons Restaurant. It was fantastic—all of it, and Joan invited my mother to come down to the Village to attend the live recording of her very first album. My mother went to both nights and, in a way, I went too: my mother was a couple of months pregnant with me at the time. As I recounted this story to Joan that first night that I met her backstage after her show, she began to cry. “I will never forget that,” she told me. “Never, ever.” Which is exactly what I thought when she pulled me to her and I began to cry, too.
In the ensuing years, I was lucky enough to work with Joan a few times— in my own show, “Cause Celeb!” and then in my friend Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel, in which Joan played “God.” And every single time I saw her, she looked at me—really looked at me like she actually saw me and wanted to connect, before pulling me into a warm, maternal embrace.
Joan Rivers was one of my idols—I adored her. She obviously made people laugh, but my god, how she herself loved to laugh. She was sweet, kind, generous and always, always said YES. I am so sad, so upset; I guess…I don’t know—I really don’t think she was done—could a person like that ever be? I am comforted only in knowing that mere hours before the tragic event that led to her passing, she was up on stage, basking in the waves of love, the gales of laughter, knowing that all that joyous energy floating through space, was because of her.
Joan, I love you—you were loved, you were admired, you were everything. If there is a heaven, I do hope that if you are not, in fact, “God,” you are at the very least, The Eternal Host….
Nancy Balbirer, a frequent contributor to Stargayzing, is a writer and actress. Her memoir, Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences, was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.
More Nancy Balbirer in Stargayzing: