June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

MY PARENTS HAD A BIG SIGN,” Joan Rivers used to joke of her marriage prospects: ‘Last girl before Thruway.’ That’s how desperate. I’d get an obscene phone call. I’d say, ‘Hold on a minute, let me get a cigarette.’ ”

But there were no jokes on the set of Rivers’ QVC television shopping show June 8 when she shared news of her engagement to New York City blue blood Orin Lehman. After flashing the engagement ring, a 20-carat emerald-cut sapphire surrounded by two 2.5-carat diamonds, Rivers quietly took it off before hawking a $46 costume bracelet. It was a modest gesture, typical of Rivers, say her admirers. “Not a lot of people know the real Joan Rivers,” says a close friend. “Underneath all that bravado, she’s a very soft, sensitive, giving person.”

Nearly nine years after Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 22 years, committed suicide, Rivers, 63, has found someone new to share that private self with. She first met the low-key retired public official—he was New York State parks commissioner from 1975 to 1993—at a dinner party three years ago, and the two have been steady companions almost ever since.

Lehman, 74, a great-grandson of the founder of Lehman Brothers, the investment house, has, like Rivers, been married twice before. He and first wife, heiress Jane Bagley (who died of cancer in 1988) divorced in 1968. He was in the process of getting a divorce from socialite Wendy Vanderbilt in 1993 when he became interested in Rivers. Joan, says a friend, “was very sensitive to the fact that his divorce was not final,” and waited before responding to the notes he began sending her after their first meeting. “I’m from the old school,” she said recently on TV. “When a man marries, he takes care of you. Women should be taken care of.”

By all accounts, though, theirs is a relationship filled with give and take. Rivers has developed an interest in golf—Lehman, who lost a leg in a German campaign in World War II, plays despite crutches—and Lehman has learned to appreciate ballet and opera. “When they’re together, laughing and joking, I look at him sometimes, and he is just beaming,” says marketing executive Tom Corcoran, Rivers’s friend of 30 years and godfather to her daughter Melissa, 28. Melissa is beaming too. “I’m so happy for you,” a friend says she told her mother after hearing the news. “You’ve had a couple of very rough years.”

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