I met Joan Rivers only once, though I’d been going to her shows for years. It was in 2007, at a birthday party thrown for a mutual friend in New York. Meeting her was like meeting Margaret Thatcher, which I also did a few times just before the latter passed. Each possessed a unique sort of charisma that can only be described as transcendent: something in their eyes that commanded obeisance and adoration.
Maggie achieved it with a cultivated air of presidential authority that coexisted with selectively deployed coquettishness: delicate touches on the elbow (only ever to men, obviously) and perfectly angled tilts of the head. Joan’s gift felt less practiced, more subtle. Something about her made men and women alike hang on every word.
Fortunately, every word she uttered was golden. Everyone will have their own favourite Joan moment. She appealed to a remarkably broad cross-section of the public, often as a sort of guilty pleasure. But despite her terrible cruelty about the foibles of other celebrities, somehow she remained a part of the establishment–a sort of Hollywood Red Team, keeping the others grounded, checking them if their behaviour ever got too ridiculous.
Joan was a comedian, but, like all great comedians, her cultural bequeathal has been political. She stood unparalleled in American life as a woman who would deliver harsh truths in even harsher language, whether it was about Elizabeth Taylor’s eating problems or Gaza, while the media sank into boring, tribal routines and politicians ceased to say anything meaningful or true in public at all.
Because she was funny, she reached people political obsessives couldn’t and gave them something to take away with them. She tore herself apart, laying the pieces about for public inspection in that particular way Jewish comedians often have. In examining her, we learnt to be more honest about ourselves. Putting it that way, perhaps it’s not surprising she was loved so much by so many.
She made us braver, too. Early in my journalistic career, I was advised against voicing some of my more unorthodox opinions in print. “You’ll be unemployable,” everyone said. That turned out not to be true, and any time in the ten years since, every bad decision I’ve ever made can be traced back to an overabundance of caution.
But–and I know how preposterous this sounds, but it’s true–it was only after a particularly riotous Joan Rivers show that I could say “fuck it” with any conviction and go out into the world, for better or worse, as me. She inspired me to speak truth to power.
We live in an age of almost unbearable safeness, from the health stickers attached to our food to the mealy-mouthed soundbites that come out of our politicians’ mouths. Joan Rivers was the necessary antithesis to that safeness: a professional shocker who left you with something to think about–and laugh about.
But, although she was a shock merchant, she had class. And energy! Boy did she have that, in spades. And other very rare personal gifts, it goes without saying. She could send herself up without losing her dignity–not an easy feat in your eighties.
But I could go on all day about her personal gifts. It was that spark of otherworldliness that perhaps a dozen living people possess that’s the greatest loss to those of us who were lucky enough to spend time in her company, because we’ll never get to see it again. Of all the celebrity deaths this year, the loss of Joan Rivers is by far the saddest for me, for that reason.
No man can touch women like Joan Rivers and Margaret Thatcher for that mesmerising, ineffable quality. I’ve always thought that’s why there are no male supermodels; it’s only women who have the gift, though of course not all of them in such superlative quantities as Joan had. You’ve probably experienced it yourself. You literally can’t drag yourself away from them. Time stands still.
Time will stand still for Joan forever now, but her legacy as one of the last great American straight talkers in an era of dissembling, euphemism, and double talk will endure. Devotees like me will make sure of it. God bless you, Joan.