On the morning of Aug. 14 the call came first to Edgar Rosenberg’s daughter, Melissa, 19, whose awful duty it became to carry the news to her mother, comedienne Joan Rivers, 54. During the night, Edgar, 62, had taken his own life by a combination of Valium and alcohol. He had been found by security guards in his hotel room in Philadelphia, where he had gone to see his closest friend, Tom Pileggi, his partner in extensive real estate ventures and, as Edgar once wistfully said, “the brother I never had.”
Then began the two women’s struggle with bewilderment, anger, guilt and terrible grief. On Sunday, Aug. 16, in Los Angeles, there was one such moment. Minutes before the memorial service at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a friend of her husband approached Joan. III at ease, he blurted out, “Edgar was a classy guy.” The words touched some deep switch in Joan and she turned and fled. Huddling alone against a wall, she wept.
Melissa, her own eyes puffy from crying, went to her mother and, touching the hand that clutched a sodden handkerchief, said, “Mom, it’s all right to cry. It’s all right.” Then the two women reached for what in their household is the medicine for pain—humor. Joan answered, “It’s not ‘classy’ to cry in public.” Melissa said, “Princess Di cried in public when Charles’s horse died.” Eyes dry now, Joan grinned crookedly and said, “Then the Princess has no class.”
At home that night, not knowing what to expect, they opened two manila envelopes left for them by Edgar in his Philadelphia hotel room. They were addressed to Melissa Rosenberg and Joan Rosenberg, and each was marked with three kisses—XXX. They found that in his meticulous way, Edgar was putting their affairs in order, sending them papers for estate planning, lists of the contents of the house, bank account numbers, his case of keys. Melissa received his money clip, the last gift from his mother, who died before Melissa was born. On tape cassettes were his personal messages. Melissa will listen to hers soon. Joan has decided that she cannot, and will not, listen to hers now; she will wait months, until she has the strength to face it.
In the immediate future she wants to cope with her grief through hard work. Her first appearance will be as a presenter in the Sept. 20 Emmy ceremony. She is signing with Hollywood Squares and there are 18 months to run on her contract with Caesars Palace. Performing is her therapy. “I can say exactly what I think onstage,” she explains. “And on a good night when 500 people have said, ‘Yeah, we think the same way’—I come off feeling wonderful.”
She does not know what her comedy will be, only that it will be different. Her stage persona can no longer be the complaining married woman. Whatever the new persona is, it will evolve onstage. “That will be interesting for me,” she says, “and interesting to the audience. The only difference is that they’re paying.” One thing she does know. Joan talks about the sign Bea Lit lie put up backstage in London during World War II, when she went on the night after her son was killed. The sign read: “I know how you all feel. Don’t let’s talk about it. Bless you. Now, let’s get on with our work.” Joan says, “I don’t want a warm hand on my shoulder. I don’t want sympathy audiences. It’s my job to make them laugh, and I’m a professional, and my husband was a professional. I don’t want to turn my career into anything maudlin and sentimental.” The grin flashes. “Besides, I’m too short to be a tragic figure.”
Work had always been a bond for both Edgar and Joan. In fact, it was work that brought them together. Joan, working as a writer and a comic, met Edgar in 1965 in New York. Billed as a funny writer, she had just scored on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Edgar brought her to Jamaica to work on a script for his friend Peter Sellers. Edgar’s sophistication—the education at England’s Rugby School and Cambridge, the superb English tailoring, the omnivorous addiction to books, the impressive breadth of knowledge, the flair for elegance, the obsessive commitment to show business—hit Joan between the eyes.
Moreover, he had mastered the machinery of the show business world that was her consuming ambition. He was the No. 1 assistant and virtual son to the legendary public relations consultant Anna Rosenberg (no relation). He had worked as an assistant producer for NBC, and had produced five feature films, including The Poppy Is Also a Flower. For 31-year-old Joan, incurably wounded, permanently insecure from years of rejection and failure in her struggle to become a comic—”a battered child,” as she puts it—here was Mr. Right. “It was a good match,” Joan says. “We filled each other’s gaps like two pieces of a puzzle. I gave him warmth. He gave me style.”
Four days after they met they were married by a judge in New York. Doubtless, Edgar had recognized Joan’s raw talent and sensed how far she could go. But when Edgar was in the hospital following his 1984 heart attack, he was asked why he married Joan so quickly. He became embarrassed, almost sheepish, and smiled with unaccustomed softness. “I fell in love,” he said.
Both came into the marriage (his first, her second) raw with bitterness and psychic pain. Joan grew up in a home racked by money battles between a spendthrift, upwardly mobile mother whom she adored and her father, a kind but penny-pinching family doctor. When her childhood romance with show business became a career, her parents fought her to the point where she ran away from home for two years.
When Edgar was a small boy, his family fled Nazi Germany, taking virtually nothing with them—and even his pet canary and cache of tin soldiers were taken from him at the border. For two years, the Rosenbergs lived in Denmark where he was an outsider, barely able to speak the language. Then they fled the Nazis again, this time to South Africa and a third start in another wholly new world. Trying to explain Edgar to Melissa, Joan told her, “Daddy was as much a war victim as a person put in a camp. That boy was whipped of all security in his life. Every time he had something, got anyplace, it was taken away from him.”
Coming to New York as a young man, Edgar worked his way up to an assistant to NBC’s entertainment vice president, Emanuel (Manie) Sacks. Then, shortly after, sitting in a parked car, Edgar was hit by a runaway truck. During a year of hospitalization, NBC dropped him. Virtually penniless, he had to begin over again—as a night clerk at a Doubleday bookstore.
While Joan describes herself as “screaming my way through life,” Edgar was almost pathologically private. By nature aloof, imposing on himself impossible standards, he was incapable of revealing himself and purging his accumulation of pain. The gentle emotions were especially held compressed behind his donnish reserve—which made a tender hand laid on Joan’s shoulder, a little rub around her neck, even more moving.
Joan and Edgar, pursued by the same ghosts and hurts, feeling mutually threatened by adversaries real and imagined, trusted only each other and existed as an island built from intense and protective loyalty. When Edgar was treated rudely by a clerk in a bookstore, Joan put in a blistering phone call to the manager. Together they often felt scorned by “the industry” and believed their only real base was Joan’s popularity with audiences.
“The career” became an independent entity, a palpable child to be nourished, shaped, cherished and intensely shared. “Our work,” Joan says, “was our play.” Edgar was the architect, the idea man, Joan’s sounding board, the business manager, “the rock,” as she puts it, the one who drove the hard bargains and said the no’s.
With Edgar charting the career moves, they brought “the act” from the grunge and insults of small clubs—”in one place the dressing room was separated from the men’s toilet by only a free-standing wall”—to second billing in Las Vegas, to headlining, to a Carnegie Hall concert, to the permanent guest host on Carson’s Tonight Show and ultimately to her own show.
Joan dates the beginning of Edgar’s serious trouble back three years when he suffered his near-fatal heart attack. He was never the same man after that, she says. Life became a continuous, slow-motion anxiety attack. Now Joan wakes up in the middle of the night, flailing herself: “Why didn’t I pay attention to the signs? Why didn’t anybody?” Indeed, for a year Edgar kept a nurse on his staff at all times. His stamina was depleted. His mental powers and his memory were affected. There were roller-coaster mood swings with deep depressions. “He was never really, really happy anymore,” says Joan. Except, interjects Melissa, the night he came to see her in a play at college. “Then he just glowed,” Melissa says. “Anything to do with you made him glow,” answers Joan.
In this deteriorating, unstable condition, Edgar began his role as executive producer of The Late Show, his wife’s much-heralded talkfest on the Fox network that had been plagued by troubles and low ratings since its debut on Oct. 9, 1986. He became a lightning rod for a Fox management determined to dictate to an increasingly rebellious Joan. As always, the two closed ranks against the enemy and fought all directives. The toll was brutal. After seven months, Edgar was barred from the set—an order he defied—but that day Joan was almost incapacitated from stomach pains and Edgar alternately lay in bed or wandered about the house in a daze.
Finally, on May 14, Joan was fired. About the time The Late Show debuted, Edgar had seen the movie That’s Life in which an architect, played by Jack Lemmon, talked about turning 60 and knowing he would never get a shot at his dream building. Edgar told Joan, “Aren’t we lucky, because we can still build our building.” After the firing, Joan says, “He found out that he never would.” Climaxing months of scathing reviews of Joan and the show, the press almost gloated over her demise and fingered Edgar as a prime cause.
Until then he had been behind the scenes, a mystery figure existing only as a character in her comedy routines. Joan was always careful that she, not he, was the butt of her jokes. She was the stupid, ugly one, he was intelligent and dominant—”I caused Edgar’s heart attack. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.” Nevertheless, the more successful Joan had become, the more Edgar’s sense of identity disappeared into her fame, amplifying his lifelong self-doubts.
Now he was a target, accused in the press—though never by Joan—of destroying “the career.” At her fall, doors throughout Hollywood had closed. One movie executive even changed her seat at a restaurant to avoid eye contact with Joan. As a performer, rarely able to fulfill her expectations of herself, Joan had always lived with failure like an uncomfortable, yet familiar, coat. But in his condition, Edgar was devastated. He no longer had the strength to cap the anguish and never had the means to mitigate it. “He bottled everything up,” Joan says, “bottled it up and killed himself at 62.”
Health ailments plagued Edgar along with his emotional problems. He had painful gout. A nervous habit of chewing on the inside of his cheek caused a growth which, removed, immediately returned. He was utterly lethargic. In July they went to England and Ireland; Edgar was rushed to a hospital outside Dublin with a bleeding ulcer. Unable to concentrate, he could no longer read, his one means of distraction. This man for whom control was everything used up all his strength getting through the day.
On his return from Ireland, he woke one morning and said to Joan, “I get into bed and I pray that I won’t wake up in the morning.” She answered, “Are you crazy? Look at what we have together. What does anything else matter? To hell with everybody.” While he was taking a stress test on an exercise treadmill, Edgar talked to his lawyer about changes in his will. He began telling a few people, including Melissa’s boyfriend, how much he liked them. He left for Philadelphia on an apparently routine business trip. His partner, Tom Pileggi, phoned Joan, worried about the depth of Edgar’s despair.
From Philadelphia Edgar called Melissa. He told her, “I’ve put everything in order for you. You must be an adult. Things are going to be very difficult for you.” She cried out to him, “Daddy, we’re a team and a team doesn’t let each other down. I need you. I’m not an adult.” She reported the conversation to her father’s psychiatrist. Shortly afterward, Edgar phoned Joan and Melissa to say he was coming home and then called his psychiatrist to make an appointment. Then he gave orders for a car to meet him at the airport to take him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Joan remembers Edgar saying years ago, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And she wonders angrily, “Why didn’t he remember that, that night in Philly?” In her extremis of grief, there is some comfort. A friend told her, “Edgar was looking for a door to go through and take his pride with him.” But still she dreads the future without her “rock.” Joan says, “I don’t know why I am being tested this way, but I have to go on because of my daughter.”
At Edgar’s memorial service (45 minutes of prayers in Hebrew and English, and brief eulogies), 1,000 people, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Milton Berle, Bea Arthur, Jon Voight and Cher, attended. Hundreds more stood outside. Later Melissa expressed her pride and reassurance, saying, “If only he could have seen it—and he thought he was so despised.” There have been other touches of comfort along the way. Melissa, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, tells herself, “Nobody ever made a decison for my father except my father—and he must be given the dignity of making his own final decision.” And she reminds herself that there in Philadelphia her father was not rational. She says, “It was my father but it wasn’t my father!”
The night after the memorial service, Melissa said to her mother, “I am sure Daddy knew how much we loved him.” Joan answered, “Yes, he knew. He knew.”