By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Joan Rivers, the pioneering comedian known for her acerbic wit, classic put-downs and for asking “Can we talk?,” died on Thursday at the age of 81 in a New York hospital a week after her heart stopped during an outpatient medical procedure.
Melissa Rivers, the comedian’s only child, said her mother died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, at 1:17 p.m. EDT.
“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon,” Melissa Rivers added in a statement.
Rivers was the second leading American comedian to die in less than a month. Groundbreaking comedy star and actor Robin Williams, 63, hanged himself on Aug. 13 in California.
As news of her death spread, photographers, reporters and television crews gathered outside the hospital where Rivers died, and fans placed bouquets of flowers at the entrance to her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Onstage, Rivers came across as acidic and manic – sort of Don Rickles in diamonds and a Chanel dress. “Can we talk?” she would ask her audience in a husky New York accent before delivering a brutal put-down line, such as, “Elizabeth Taylor’s so fat she puts mayonnaise on her aspirin.”
The Brooklyn-born comedian, who once described herself as “the plastic surgery poster girl” and often joked about her numerous cosmetic enhancements, suffered cardiac arrest during a procedure on her vocal cords at a Manhattan clinic on Aug. 28. She was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where she was put on life support.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born on June 8, 1933, and grew up there and in a nearby town, the daughter of a doctor and a housewife. The Barnard College graduate began pursuing an entertainment career with the last name Rivers, which she borrowed from her agent.
Her lengthy career included stand-up comedy, television, writing and an Emmy Award-winning daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show.” But she originally wanted to be an actress.
She got into comedy after writing sketches for television’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.” A career in stand-up followed. She later worked as a regular guest host for Johnny Carson on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
Rivers reached a pinnacle in 1983 when Carson crowned her as his regular guest host on the popular NBC television show. When she started her own late-night talk show in 1986, on the rival Fox network, it caused a falling-out with Carson that lasted until he died in 2005. Rivers’s show was canceled after seven months due to low ratings.
A few months later, her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide and Rivers fell into depression.
Later in her career, Rivers and her daughter starred in the reality TV show “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”, with Rivers living with her grown child.
Most recently, Rivers was the host of cable television channel E!’s “Fashion Police,” commenting on the unfortunate red carpet choices of Hollywood celebrities.
Actress Anna Kendrick, a target of the comedian’s barbed comments, said she will be truly missed.
“RIP Joan Rivers. Being publicly told that my dress is hideous will never feel quite as awesome,” she tw
HOLLYWOOD REMEMBERS RIVERS
Friends and fellow comedians on Thursday expressed their grief and sadness and praised Rivers.
“No one loved life, laughter, and a good time more than Joan. We would have dinner and laugh and gossip and I always left the table smiling,” said journalist Barbara Walters.
“She was a brassy, often outrageous, and hilarious performer,” she added in a statement.
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to Rivers’s family and said she would be deeply missed.
“Joan Rivers brought laughter to millions around the world and was proud of her Jewish heritage and a vocal supporter of the State of Israel,” he said in a statement.
Britain’s Prince Charles, whose 2005 wedding to the Duchess of Cornwall Rivers attended, said he was “deeply saddened” at her death.
“Joan Rivers was an extraordinary woman with an original and indefatigable spirit, an unstoppable sense of humor and an enormous zest for life,” the heir to the throne said in a statement. “She will be hugely missed and utterly irreplaceable.”
Among others praising and remembering Rivers was actress Liza Minnelli who described her as a dear friend.
“I will always remember the laughter and friendship she brought into my life,” she said in a posting on Facebook.
Property mogul Donald Trump, who hosted the reality TV competition show “The Apprentice,” which Rivers won in 2009, described her as “an amazing woman and a great friend.”
“Her energy and talent were boundless. She will be greatly missed,” he added on Twitter.
CAUSE OF DEATH AND FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS
A spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner’s Office in New York said it is investigating the cause and manner of Rivers’s death on Thursday. She did not specify when the autopsy on Rivers would take place and when results would be released.
The New York State Department of Health said on Thursday it is investigating the comedian’s death. A telephone message seeking comment from the clinic where Rivers was treated was not immediately returned.
Earlier this week, a representative for Rivers said media reports that her family was planning to sue the clinic were not true.
Funeral services for Rivers will be held this weekend at Temple Emanu-El, the synagogue where she was a member. A statement from Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson to ABC News reads, “It is a terribly sad day for all of us. We mourn with her family, friends and all those millions to whom she brought laughter and joy.”