The Rivers Run Together
Melissa blamed Joan for her father’s suicide
NOW YOU LISTEN, MISSY!” JOAN RIVERS playfully commands her 25-year-old daughter after a long day at the studio. “I’m giving you a sex video that somebody was plugging on my show today. You’ve got to see this tape! A woman should be good in every aspect of her life!”
“Mother!” cries the dismayed Melissa, in town on a visit from Los Angeles. “You start on sex and I am running from the room!” The room in question happens to be the dining room of Rivers’s $1.6 million Manhattan triplex, but it could just as easily have been the master bath. “We’ve always had these long talks while one of us is in the tub,” explains Rivers, who was 60 on June 8. “It’s very private, and nobody can interrupt us.”
It’s hard to imagine a closer mother-daughter bond than one in which nothing comes between the two but soap bubbles. And theirs—at least lately—is as bubbly as it gets. In addition to a genetic affinity for talking, Joan and Melissa share a love of theater (“I would take her with me before she could sit on the seat,” says Joan), books (“I’ve read every Princess Diana book,” says Melissa) and exercise (“all due to Melissa,” admits Joan, who follows her daughter’s healthy lead and does a combination of treadmill, floor exercises and weights six times a week).
These days the two even share a career path. Melissa, who last year had her own two-minute gossip segments on Hangin’ with MTV and covered 1993 spring break for the cable channel, is now reporting youth-oriented stories for both MTV and CBS This Morning. She is also negotiating a late-night talk show of her own with Maverick, Madonna‘s company (“I am beyond excited about it,” she says). Joan has her four-year-old daily syndicated talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, on 140 stations nationwide, and she is also host of a weekly half hour on the USA Network with the in-your-face title Gossip! Gossip! Gossip! Moreover, Joan has kissed and made up with Barry Diller, who was president of Fox Network in 1987 when she was very publicly fired from her own late-night talk show a mere six months after its debut. Now, as the CEO of the QVC Network, Diller provides her with a berth to sell her Joan Rivers Classics jewelry (estimated 1992 sales: $25 million). Joan also is developing a one-woman off-Broadway show based on the life of comic Sally Marr—comedian Lenin Bruce’s mother—that she hopes will be on the boards this winter.
Not all is toil, though: Later this month, mother and daughter are planning a trip together to St. Petersburg, Russia, to attend a Fabergé exhibit. After that they will go ballooning in Normandy with the family of Malcolm Forbes.
But the warm feelings and good limes are relatively recent—and hard-earned. For a year after Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide at age 62 in 1987, the desolate mother and furious daughter didn’t get along at all. “The way I see it,” explains Joan, “Melissa blamed me.” After all, Joan and Edgar had only recently separated when he killed himself. “But,” says Joan, “she wasn’t going to turn to me by the casket and say, ‘You killed Daddy!’ ” Instead, Joan says, anger simmered under the surface as the two “tried to go on with our own lives and were both so broken that we couldn’t help each other. Joan, who divided her time between her home in Bel Air and a hotel in Manhattan while Melissa was still in Philadelphia attending the University of Pennsylvania, remembers it as a time when “I was totally alone, with no career, no husband, no child. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I really thought about suicide myself.”
For her part, Melissa avoided Joan, blaming her mother and feeling abandoned. “I didn’t want to know [what my mother was feeling],” she says. “It was her problem. I was going through my own thing.” Meanwhile, a tailspinning Joan became bulimic for the first time ever, and the disorder remained with her for six months. After months of depression and isolation, though, she pulled herself together by returning to work on Broadway in Broadway Bound and moving into a brand-new luxury apartment that was mercifully free of doleful memories. As therapy after Rosenberg’s suicide, she decorated with gilt and antiques in the manner of a mini Versailles, envisioning “what Marie Antoinette would have done if she had taste.” The grand triplex even boasts a cheerfully decorated one-bedroom apartment on the first floor that is reserved for her daughter’s use during visits. “Even at the worst time, we would always speak,” says Rivers. “I decided that for Melissa’s sake I had to keep going. Otherwise, I would give her the same message as Edgar—that suicide is the only way out. So I felt she had to see me climb out of the well.”
Immediately after Edgar’s suicide, mother and daughter began—at Joan’s insistence—an eight-month stint of psychotherapy, both separately and together, in L.A. and Philadelphia. Only after this process was well underway could they put aside their hostility and begin to renew their relationship. “One day, after a session,” recalls Joan, “Melissa said, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ But I couldn’t. I was too wiped. That was the lowest point for me.”
Melissa remembers a different low. She was heading to their L.A. home from school for the weekend, and Joan couldn’t pick her up at the airport because she had guests. Melissa went wild with anger. “Mind you,” she now says with a wry smile, “my parents had never picked me up, and it was no big deal. But this time I thought, ‘if my mother’s not there, I’m not going home!’ I did, of course, but I made everyone miserable.”
The relationship continued along its rocky course until “something terrible and traumatic happened to me, says Melissa. At a particularly vulnerable point—three months after her father’s suicide—she began to date a fellow student at Penn and suddenly found herself “in an abusive relationship.” At the time, she says, “I was so far gone [emotionally] that I don’t know if I was allowing myself to physically feel the pain.” She stayed with him through two ugly incidents—Melissa refuses to discuss the specifics—but the third time, she says, was the last straw. “I realized that I had a lot more to offer than to have someone hit me,” she explains, “and I just said, ‘This is it.’ It made me realize what I had—and the thing I had and will always have is my mother. She was right there for me.”
Joan remembers Melissa’s phone call well. “She called me and said, ‘Mother, don’t worry, he pushed my face into glass, but I didn’t cut my eye.’ I wanted to take that son of a bitch and kill him, but I couldn’t say that to her.” Nor could she tell Melissa not to go back to him. “But I asked her to remember that if she did, she was opening a door to that kind of abuse for the rest of her life. This was her battle. I allowed her to make the choice.”
And Melissa was grateful. “She didn’t condemn me. She never asked me, ‘How could you have gone back to him?’ ” she says. “She just said, ‘Okay, this is the situation. Let’s deal with it.’ ”
“We had to go through the bad times, but we came out of them,” says Joan. The pair reconciled, and at her daughter’s urging, Joan gave one of the commencement addresses to Melissa’s class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 (Melissa graduated with a degree in European history). In the middle of the speech, Joan broke into tears as she told the crowd, “I’m so proud of my daughter.” Today, her eyes moist with emotion, Joan says simply, “Melissa and I are truly good friends now.” Adds Melissa: “We’re each other’s sounding boards. We really talk things out.”
On this sun-strewn morning, mother and daughter sit in Joan’s peach-colored dining room, picking at crumb cake and sipping decaf coffee (Joan, who has a heart arrhythmia, doesn’t keep a caffeinated bean in the house) served from a silver tea service by a formally attired butler. Gazing at her decor, Joan laughs. “There are certain celebrities you say thank God for! Yoko Ono. Leona Helmsley. Tammy Faye Bakker. I got my mileage on Tammy Faye. Melissa, she bought us this dining room.”
“I got mine from Beverly Hills, 90210; Melrose Place and anyone in the Top 40,” says Melissa, who rents a three-bedroom, Mediterranean-style house outside L.A. Claiming she changed her last name to Rivers in December 1989 not because it would give her a career boost but because it was easier to spell than Rosenberg, Melissa also insists that connections didn’t get her her first break as MTV’s resident gossip. She says, rather, that she owes if all to propitious seating. “At an L.A. charily dinner for the homeless,” she explains, “I sat next to a woman who was a producer for MTV.” One thing led to another, and several months later Melissa wound up with her gig.
It seems only appropriate that mother should provide inspiration for daughter. From the time Melissa was 2, she watched Joan perfect her harshly innovative comedy routine. The tot would sit in the wings of nightclubs like the one at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and wave to her mother, who stood center stage performing her routine. “By age 5,” says Joan, “she knew it verbatim. She’d say, I hate to cook. I hate to clean. Housework is stupid. No woman was ever made love to because she scrubbed the linoleum.”
That only endeared Melissa more to her mother. Even while Edgar was alive, Joan has said, “Melissa is the one to whom I could give total affection and feel it being absorbed and returned.” Indeed, despite Joan’s career drive, she says she has always valued family above all else. “I wish I had had 10 children,” she says. “After Missy, I had two miscarriages and a tubular pregnancy. Not having more is my only regret in life. We were going to adopt, and then Edgar changed his mind. I worry now because there’s nobody for Missy. When the chips are down, the only one who will take you in is a relative.”
When Melissa was growing up, both Joan and Edgar, who was also Joan’s manager, insisted on being active parents, even when they were on the road doing nightclub gigs. “Mom and Dad would fly in from wherever for even minor school events,” recalls Melissa, who attended a trio of private schools in Southern California. Confirms Joan: “I was even a Brownie troop mother. Now that was a picture.”
Despite all the privileges of Joan’s stardom, raising a daughter in Beverly Hills wasn’t easy. For Melissa, unfortunately, childhood meant struggling to live up to images of youthful perfection. “I always wanted to be tall and blond,” she says, “and I’m still having trouble with that.” Explains Joan: “Melissa grew up in a society where everyone who walked in the door was beautiful. Nicollette Sheridan went to her school. Missy always fell short and squat, but we constantly told her, ‘You’re the best! Go for it!’ In third-grade swim meets she was 3’2″ while other kids were 6’2″. And I would scream, ‘You can beat them!”
But Joan purposely chose schools that were not filled with the scions of show business. “I wanted her to see that other kids’ fathers are doctors and businessmen,” says Joan. And there were family rules: When Joan and Edgar were in town, the family had dinner at 6 p.m. During the meal, all phones would be shut off. Then they would talk about everything—school and work, life and art, business problems and solutions. “We wanted Melissa to know about the good times and the bad,” Joan says.
Rivers was also hip to her daughter’s most sensitive needs. When Melissa acquired her first serious bean and asked for contraceptives at age 17, Joan look her to the gynecologist. “And then I slipped her $250 [for a hotel room] so that it wouldn’t happen in the backseat of a car,” she admits. “It’s tricky because you know you’re opening up a can of worms. Melissa was starting to feel adult emotions now, and I worried, ‘Is this boy nice for her?” But at least she was going to have safe sex.”
Yet even the open-minded Joan could be pushed too far. Says Melissa: “I rebelled late. I was 16.” The catalyst was not sex or drugs. It was college. While Joan, who had graduated from Barnard College, and the British-reared Rosenberg, who had graduated from Cambridge, wanted their daughter to go to school in the East, Melissa lobbied for UCLA—and lost. One night the discussion got so heated that she blew her cool and stormed out of the house. “Think carefully before you leave,” her mother called after her. “You cannot come back until you’re invited!” That night, Melissa, who had ended up at the house of Joan’s personal assistant, phoned home. Joan had to steel herself as she reiterated. “You’re not invited back.” But the tough-love tactic worked. “When she said if, I freaked,” recalls Melissa. “Then I realized what I had done.” After spending two nights away, the chastened daughter called again—as Joan had suspected she would. This time her mother did invite her back. Melissa promptly sent in her application to Penn. “It was just an application,” she explains, defending her actions. “It didn’t mean I had to go.” But of the schools that accepted her, Penn was the most highly ranked.
The only sparks that fly these days, mother and daughter say, are those kindled by their gentle ribbing. Melissa provokes her mother by describing Joan’s beloved Yorkshire terrier, Spike, as “a tall rat.” Joan, on the other hand, gets Melissa’s dander up with public conversation about her daughter’s personal life. Once, Rivers had TV viewers call a 900 number and vote on whether or not Melissa should buy a convertible. (The verdict: Go for it. But Melissa didn’t, after Joan’s security consultant phoned to convince her otherwise.) “Remember, I wanted to set you up with one of those 21 Jump Street guys,” Joan says as Melissa rolls her eyes. “And what about the boy whose father owns North Carolina?”
Melissa, however, isn’t much taken with dating. “It’s tough, and I don’t really like it,” she says. She describes her current beau, from San Diego, as “someone fun to hang out with.” Though she refuses to identify him, she acknowledges that “he has nothing to do with television—that’s one of the reasons I like him.” Still, she adds cautiously, “It’s all very casual.”
Has Joan met the new man in her daughter’s life? Yes, says Missy—and she likes him too. Yet whether or not mother and daughter agree on candidates for Melissa’s future, they certainly disagree about the courtship itself. Looking her daughter in the eye across her dining-room table, the concerned mother advises, “Be careful and don’t live with someone unless you’re married first.” Melissa has heard this before and is unmoved. “I believe that before you marry, you should live together,” she replies firmly.
“Never!” cries the doting mom. “I’m sorry, you can have a romance with somebody, but you don’t move in and do his laundry until after you’re married.”
Melissa would advise Joan differently. “She thinks I should live with a man, but not get married,” says her mother. “I think Missy’s happy when she knows I’m going out and not sitting home. But I don’t date much. One guy was so old he picked me up in a hearse.”
In fact, Joan had a serious suitor, but she broke up with him last December. “He wasn’t right for me,” she says. “Now I’m fancy-free, and it’s horrible.” During the breakup, Melissa flew to New York City to comfort her mother. Says Joan: “She was the one I talked to.”
At this point Joan reserves her romantic fantasies for her daughter. “She will have a dream wedding,” she says. “It will be very elegant and very formal. Black tie.”
“Oh, no,” counters Melissa. “I’d rather run off to Vegas—that chapel near the Riviera Hotel.”
The two laugh. They’ve played this song before. “She doesn’t have a choice,” Joan insists. “It’ll be something like the Metropolitan Club. Lester Lanin will play ‘You’re the Top,’ and we’ll two-step around the room.”
Melissa sighs and shrugs. “There are some things in life I’m resigned to,” she says lightly.
“You know,” says Joan, as she cuts a last sliver of crumb cake, “I always wanted us to be as close as I was to my mother. But now I think I have it better because we’re much more honest.” Adds Melissa slyly: “Yes, but I still can’t talk to her about sex. And I never will.”
SUE CARSWELL and LISA GREISSINGER in New York City