Joan Rivers 6

Joan Rivers was a kind woman—as gracious, wise, and generous as she was funny. That might sound strange to hear about a woman who could eviscerate any actress who made a misstep on the red carpet, and who famously described Elizabeth Taylor as standing in front of a microwave oven screaming “Hurry!” Her biting comedic sensibility—her art and craft—came from feeling like an outsider among Hollywood stars and New York society, even after she herself became very rich and very famous. And she sincerely believed that by skewering you in her act she was paying you a great compliment; it meant you were relevant, worth talking about. The “smart ones” got it, she said, and indeed many of her victims, including Prince Charles, counted her as a friend.

On August 27, just about 12 hours before she went in for a medical procedure during which she stopped breathing, I had the privilege of interviewing Joan in New York during a Q&A for Out @ Time Inc, the organization for the company’s LGBT employees. In Style’s Paul Robertson organized the event, and Joan agreed to appear to promote her latest book, Diary of a Mad Diva. (But really I think she just liked the idea of a room full of gay people; she always made sure that the front rows of her performances were populated by gays.) I’d been around Joan quite a few times over the years—in various green rooms and events—and had seen her try out stand-up material countless times in little clubs around the city, but I had never seen her in better spirits than she was during her final interview.

She was particularly warm and happy. She told the audience how grateful she was for such good health at age 81. “I attribute it to eating a lot of processed foods,” she said. “I think it’s the preservatives that keep me going.” She was hilarious and fascinating and full of stories of course, and revived one my favorite bits in which she riffed on Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ huge “lizard eyes” that looked for rich men. She said it meant the world to her that Jimmy Fallon invited her on The Tonight Show earlier this year—her first appearance since her falling-out with Johnny Carson nearly 30 years ago. She said how happy she was to see the awesome comedian Billy Eichner finally getting the attention he deserves. Joan Rivers was richer, funnier, smarter, sharper, and more fearless than most of us, but during our interview she showed why so many people admired and related to her for so many years. In the end, she was a worker among workers, and she took her job—making us laugh—very seriously. She put her heart into it, and never missed a beat, right up to the end.

Jess Cagle

Editorial Director, PEOPLE and EW

Below, hear Jess Cagle talk about Joan Rivers on Entertainment Weekly Radio.

On his favorite Joan Rivers projects:

On conducting Joan Rivers’ final interview:

On Joan Rivers’ relationship with the Royal Family:

On Joan Rivers’ legacy: