Comedian kept her spirits high despite husband's suicide and her daughter's estrangement

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
August 16, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Comedians rarely lead ha-ha lives, and Joan Rivers has not been the rare case. The Brooklyn-born Joan Molinsky worked her tush off for years, making jokes about her shortcomings as a woman at a time when women comics — what few there were of them — were considered something akin to dancing dogs, and disparaged themselves accordingly. By 1965, she had landed her first spot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; by 1983, encouraged and managed by her husband, British-born Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers had become the first permanent guest host of Johnny’s kingdom.

But a decade ago, right after she had the chutzpah to leave Johnny for a late-night talk show of her own on the fledgling Fox network, the bad stuff started piling up. Her underperforming Late Show was canceled in 1987, after seven months on the air. The marriage fractured. The couple separated. And on Aug. 14, 1987, Rosenberg, who had been struggling with severe depression since a major heart attack and triple-bypass surgery three years before, committed suicide at 62 with an overdose of Valium.

”All that happened to me,” Rivers once said, ”was my husband committed suicide, my daughter [Melissa, now 28] didn’t talk to me for two years, and I was broke.” But quiet grief did not suit this tiny, driven, public woman. Immediately, she took center square on Hollywood Squares. In 1991, after she and Melissa had gone through a difficult period of anger, estrangement, and reconciliation, she (and collaborator Richard Meryman) brought out an autobiography called Still Talking. Seven years after the suicide, mother and daughter played themselves in an icky 1994 affair on NBC called Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story. ”Joan genuinely believed she had something to tell other bereaved widows in the book; by reliving it, she would genuinely help others living through the same experience,” says Meryman.

Last June, a radiant 63-year-old Joan Rivers announced her engagement to longtime beau Orin Lehman, 74-year-old scion of a distinguished banking family. Lehman does not appear to be a gentleman about whom a lady — even a funny lady — would dish. But Rivers, if true to form, is not finished talking yet. And jokes about ”Orin” will eventually fill the comedy space where ”Edgar” once stood.

Time Capsule: August 14, 1987

Readers toyed with Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games; TV viewers bonded with Family Ties; Stakeout held moviegoers captive; and listeners identified with U2’s ”I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”