Before her sudden passing in 2014 at the age of 81, Joan Rivers seemed to have lived several lives in the public eye. From her training in the hepster coffee houses of Greenwich Village and the challenges of being a “comedienne” in the Sullivan-era standup scene to a spate of late-career activity that included a hit cable TV show — and a tour stop at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre — Rivers acquired new generations of fans as readily as she made enemies in and out of the business.
So writes author Leslie Bennetts in Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers, her newly published comprehensive study of the star’s “tumultuous, victorious, tragic, hilarious, and fascinating life.” A regular contributor to Vanity Fair magazine and an interviewer of stars, Bennetts visits River Road Books in Fair Haven for an intimate “can we talk?” session Wednesday evening.
As rendered by Bennetts, Rivers was a polarizing figure for much of her long career. A multi-talented trailblazer, she was openly distrustful of the female performers she paved the way for, and famously gambled her status as mentor Johnny Carson’s hand-picked guest host of The Tonight Show for a shot at her own competing program, a devastating failure that played out in full view of the public.
Also detailed are Rivers’ obsessions over financial insecurity and addiction to cosmetic surgery; her one shot as a Hollywood filmmaker (the cheesy 1978 curio Rabbit Test); her complicated relationship with Edgar Rosenberg, her husband (and notoriously inept manager-producer) who committed suicide in 1987; and her also-complicated relationship with daughter Melissa, with whom she partnered for some of her most successful late-life projects.
If you’re wondering about that title, it relates to an old joke Rivers (whose comic persona was forged on her being a desperate and promiscuous Jewish girl from Westchester County) told of her mother’s attempts to fix her up with pretty much any man who passed through town, to the point of putting up roadside signage.
Reserve a signing copy of Last Girl Before Freeway in advance of the author’s 7 p.m. appearance at River Road Books, by calling (732) 747-9455.