Comedian, Gay Fan Favorite Joan Rivers Is Dead at 81

The comedian died a week after cardiac arrest during a surgical procedure.

BY Daniel Reynolds

September 04 2014 3:13 PM ET

Joan Rivers, the sharp-tongued comedian who paved the way for countless funny women, died today. She was 81. 

The brassy comedian was pronounced dead Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. She had gone into cardiac arrest during surgery to her vocal cords a week ago and had been unconscious ever since.

Rivers was 81. She is survived by her daughter, Melissa Rivers, and her grandson, Edgar Cooper Endicott.

"It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers," Melissa Rivers said in a written statement today. "She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother."

A native New Yorker, Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933. She would later change her last name to Rivers at the advice of her agent Tony Rivers, before embarking on a long and enduring career in entertainment.

A graduate of Barnard College with a degree in English literature, Rivers got her start as an actress and stand-up performer in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. During this time, she appeared in the play Driftwood as the lover of a then-unknown Barbra Streisand, with whom she shared a kiss onstage. ("She was a fabulous kisser," Rivers fondly recalled over 50 years later.)

One of her first major television appearances was in 1965 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, who would became her mentor. She became a frequent guest on various talk and variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Squares, and The Carol Burnett Show. She hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983. A year later, she was nominated for a Grammy Award for her comedy album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?

In 1987 Rivers was banned from The Tonight Show by Carson, allegedly because she joined the fledgling Fox network to host her own television program, The Late Show. The ban was in place until 2014, when current host Jimmy Fallon invited her back for his inaugural show.

In the early '90s, Rivers hosted another television program, The Joan Rivers Show, for which she won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host. By this time, she had gone through two marriages. The first was in 1955 to James Sanger, which lasted around six months. The next was a decade later to Edgar Rosenberg, with whom she had her only child, Melissa.

Rivers would often collaborate with her daughter in the entertainment world, including red carpet interviews as well as the reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best, which launched in 2011. In 2013 Rivers discussed a troubling spot on an X-ray that doctors had discovered after a cough led her to undergo an exam.

"We're just not going to be sad about this," Rivers said on the WE TV show. "We're gonna do jokes and be up until we know. That's how I deal with things. I'm not just gonna sit around the next couple of days and go crazy."

Rivers has written more than a dozen books on self-help, humor, and her own life. While promoting her most recent book, Diary of a Mad Diva, Rivers came under fire for referring to Michelle Obama with transphobic slurs. After CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield interrogated Rivers about the remarks, the comedian made headlines by walking out of the interview.

But Rivers’s no-holds-barred approach to comedy has endeared her to many gay people, who admired her enthusiasm for plastic surgery as well as her sass in the face of adversity and, at times, common decency. Her influence on comedy, including clear descendants like Kathy Griffin, is undeniable.

“My gay fans have been wonderful from day one,” she told The Advocate in a recent interview. “I remember when I was working at the Duplex in Greenwich Village in New York at the beginning of my career and the only ones who would laugh at my jokes were the gay guys. I think if I had started out in straight clubs and bars I never would’ve gotten anywhere.”

“Even today,” she adds, “when I’m on tour I always know if I get eight gay men in the front row it’s going to be a great show. Maybe it’s just me and I know they’re going to laugh at what I’d laugh at, but when my gays are in the audience it’s always a good time.”

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