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Laughing Through the Tears

Melissa Rivers and her son, Cooper, share memories of the late Joan Rivers … and the irreverent humor they learned at her side

Beyond the lawn, visible through the open French doors of Melissa Rivers' Los Angeles living room, a glittery strip of Pacific Ocean meets a cloudless sky at the horizon. The sophistication of an earlier generation anchors the decor: a Picasso sketch over the sandstone fireplace, matching overstuffed sofas, neat tabletop displays of vintage silver lighters and abalone boxes. But Rivers, 47, in and out of a photo shoot on the patio, wearing denim shorts, a sleeveless top and bare feet, erases any sense of formality.

She and Cooper, her 14-year-old son with ex-husband John Endicott, a horse dealer, share the house with two dogs, two parakeets and a parrotlet the color of perfectly faded jeans. For a few days each week, Melissa's mother, Joan Rivers, the profane, insightful, take-no-prisoners comedian, lived here, too, forsaking her gilded New York apartment — the one she liked to say looked like "how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money." She became bicoastal to spend quality time — and to work — with her daughter and grandson. Although Melissa's residence is not nearly as opulent as Joan's palatial spread was, one can imagine the traditional touches here made her feel right at home; mother's and daughter's style had always neatly dovetailed.

Melissa Rivers

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Melissa Rivers with her mom, Joan, at the Oscars in 2005.

Before Joan's unexpected death late last summer, the Rivers ladies were Hollywood's best-known mother-daughter tag team. Red-carpet fixtures, they hailed celebrities on their way into the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars and posed Joan's trademark (and now ubiquitous) "Who are you wearing?" along with any extemporaneous question that popped to mind.

The conversation continued on E!'s Fashion Police, coproduced by Melissa, on which Joan led an opinionated panel devoted to celebrating and shredding the getups of the rich and infamous.

The two also collaborated on WE tv's Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? — a hyperreality show that included Cooper and their trusty staff — and on In Bed With Joan, a Web chat series featuring a quasi-supine Joan interviewing comedians, actors and social media stars. "Joan and Melissa were best friends and an amazing team," says Jeff Olde, vice president of programming at E! "They completely trusted each other and knew what would work, what would be funny. It was sort of a magical combination."

Melissa Rivers

Rick Rowell/ABC via Getty Images

Grandma lived part time at Melissa and Cooper's Los Angeles home, which doubled as a TV-show set.

Joan may have been two generations older than many of her costars, but her comments, often unprintable, were reliably the most outrageous. In private, when the cameras were gone, "she was so kind and generous to the point you wanted to smack her," says Melissa. "She'd be in my house and someone would say, 'Oh, I like those candlesticks.' And she'd say, 'Take them!' They were mine! She'd say, 'You can get more.' "

And, of course, Joan Rivers was funny. Kelly Osbourne, the 30-year-old lavender-haired daughter of Sharon and Ozzy, was Joan's Fashion Police costar and considered her a dear friend, the grandmother she never had. The two were once on the same flight to New York, unbeknownst to Osbourne. "I went right to sleep," she says. "When I woke up, I thought I had gone blind because Joan had duct-taped a note to my head. I keep it on my desk. It says, 'Kel!! You must stop stalking me. XoXo. Look at seat 3H, you have a friend. PS. Can you give me a lift? PPS. You don't snore.' "

Joan loved being a celebrity. "She knew how lucky she was," Melissa says. "She never stopped being grateful. She'd turn and say, 'Can you believe they're still sending a limo for me? This is awesome!' "

On August 28 of last year, Joan Rivers, whose trademark raspy voice had become weaker, entered an outpatient clinic in New York for an exploratory endoscopic procedure. "At 7 a.m., I got a call from one of her assistants," remembers Melissa, who had spoken to Joan the night before. "She said, 'I don't know what to tell you; your mother stopped breathing.' " By the time Melissa got to New York, Joan was at Mount Sinai Hospital in an induced coma. The outlook was grim — her brain had been deprived of oxygen. "You have flashes of hope because you're desperate to hang on to something," Melissa says. "But in my heart, I knew." Joan had been slated for a tour in England (titled, with typical Rivers irreverence, Before They Close the Lid).

Melissa Rivers


The family of three a year before Edgar's death.

Other appearances and her QVC clothing, jewelry and accessories line hung in the balance. Melissa huddled with her team in a hospital conference room to craft business contingency plans: "I didn't have the luxury of falling apart. I had to keep everything going."

Ultimately it was apparent that the 81-year-old Joan would not recover. "She had a living will and an advance directive that was very specific," says Melissa. "My mother's definition of quality of life was having all her faculties and being able to go on stage for one hour and, here was the kicker, be funny. As hard as it was, I knew the right decision." On September 4, after friends and family had paid their respects, Joan Rivers was removed from life support.

Twenty-seven years earlier, Melissa's father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, not long after the cancellation of Joan's late-night talk show on Fox; he had been her producer. "When one parent dies," says Melissa, an only child, "it's a comma. When the second parent dies, it's a period." With Joan's passing, Melissa lost her creative partner as well as her mother. "I was part of a comedy team," she says. "I was the straight man. And now I'm a solo act. That's the hard part. I'm trying to find my voice.

Melissa Rivers

WE Television/Photofest

The on-screen duo in 2011.

Her new collection of essays, The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation (which is excerpted at the end of the article), suggests she's on her way. Written with comedian Larry Amoros, who also worked with Joan, it's filled with family stories, poignant and ribald. "Those blocks of writing saved me, because Larry and I would laugh and laugh," says Melissa, ensconced in a window nook of her immaculate white kitchen. "I wanted to call the book Cheaper Than Therapy."

It was at Melissa's request that Fashion Police returned from its hiatus four months after her mother's funeral. "I was amazed by Melissa's strength and how she held it together," says E!'s Olde. "She felt the best thing for everyone, emotionally, was to get back to the show they loved. She said that's what her mother would have wanted. I think she wanted to get back to work, too."

"Everyone keeps telling me I need to take a minute and really mourn," says Melissa, who saves evidence of her grieving for an inner circle that includes her boyfriend, talent agent Mark Rousso, and a longtime team of assistants that she and her mother shared. "I try not to cry in front of Cooper," she says. "He can't handle it."

The book allowed her to delve into memories of her mother under the guise of work. Joan, a sparkling grab bag of contradictions, offered rich material. The woman who made a stand-up bit out of her disappointment in Melissa for turning down a topless spread in Playboy, and crassly dissed everyone from Helen Keller to Justin Bieber, was also a friend of Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla, one of only four Americans invited to their wedding. Her go-to expression of frustration was "F--k, sh-t, piss" (Osbourne had a trio of gold rings made for Joan with the epithets spelled in diamonds), but she was a stickler for manners. "She'd look at me with a different face," says Cooper, "and I would know I was doing something wrong, like I forgot my napkin or left my fork on the side of my plate."

Each year, Joan took him and a friend on a vacation dubbed Grandma Week. They went to gladiator school in Rome, took glassblowing classes in Venice, and when they discovered a chocolate cake that was "so good it was ridiculous," Cooper recalls, they ordered three pieces each.

Earlier this year, Cooper joined his mom in accepting Joan's posthumous Grammy award for the audio version of her last book, Diary of a Mad Diva. The win helped ameliorate the sting of Joan's exclusion from the In Memoriam segment of the Oscar awards two weeks later. "She was one of the first women directors ever, with Rabbit Test [the 1978 feature comedy debut of Billy Crystal], and she had acting credits," says Melissa. "We changed the awards-show business. Throw her picture up on the screen for 15 seconds!"

At the hotel where he took his life, Edgar Rosenberg left a tape recording for his daughter, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania. "He said goodbye and told me it was my job to take care of Mommy," Melissa remembers. "At the very end, his primary concern was my mother, he cared for her that much. But who was supposed to take care of me? Suicide is complicated."

Melissa Rivers

I.C. Rapoport/Getty Images

Joan and Melissa in 1970.

In a sense, Melissa is still carrying out Edgar's wish. On top of juggling her own entertainment projects, including two TV pilots and a role in an upcoming movie, Melissa now oversees her mother's QVC line and is selling Joan's New York apartment and having her 82,000 joke cards (in which the Smithsonian has expressed interest) digitally scanned. Fashion Police, on hiatus again until September, requires a serious rethink. "We were a family," Melissa says of the cast and crew, "and when the head of a family passes, it throws everyone into emotional turmoil." Osbourne quit after Giuliana Rancic, another cohost, joked that singer Zendaya Coleman's Oscar hairdo, an elaborate array of dreads, looked like it smelled of patchouli and weed, a comment that ignited a social media firestorm. Comedian Kathy Griffin took over Joan's seat and was gone after seven episodes. "We came back too fast," says Melissa.

Melissa Rivers

Jeff Lipsky

Melissa Rivers and her son, Cooper.

Asked if her mother might be looking out for her from another parallel, she laughs: "If she is, she can keep a little of this f--king chaos at bay! Seriously, if you're supposed to be sitting on my shoulder and making sure everything's OK — chop-chop, get on it! Things are crazy around here!"

"My mother and I each had our own lanes," says Melissa. "She'd work on one thing, I'd work on another, and then we'd come up with the game plan. Suddenly it feels like the work hasn't doubled; it's tripled. There's a new entity: the estate and the legacy. And there's no map. I don't want to blow it, so there's a lot of pressure."

With that legacy in mind, Melissa has filed a malpractice suit against the Yorkville Endoscopy clinic and the doctors who treated her mother there before her death. Federal health investigators found fault with several aspects of the procedure, during which, their report says, one of the doctors took a cellphone photo of Joan while she was unconscious. "Not only did my mother deserve better," Melissa said in a statement announcing the suit, "every patient deserves better." (A spokesperson for the Yorkville Endoscopy clinic declined an offer to comment.)

After her father's death, Melissa became involved with Our House, a grief support center that in 2013 honored her with its Good Grief Award. Given her experience, Melissa is familiar with the stages of bereavement. "I'm still in that deification phase," she says of dealing with her mother's death. "You miss even the sh-ttiest things: I miss when she'd come in and rearrange my furniture and tell me how I ran my house wrong and criticize everything. I miss the criticism! I'm still in that phase."

If there's a silver lining, it's the outpouring of support she's received. "A number of people really surprised me," she says. "My boyfriend is one." She and Rousso had been friends for years, but the relationship changed when he stepped up during the crisis. "I'd never seen him as someone dependable and strong and who gave a crap," she says. "He said he'd never seen me defenseless and didn't want to see me that way again." She pauses with the instinctive timing of a comedian. "As any therapist will tell you, probably not the best time to get into a relationship! But we figure it can't get any worse."

Humor helps her navigate the rough times; it is, after all, the family tradition. But there's no getting around Melissa's profound sense of loss. "What do I miss most?" she says of her mom. "Everything."

Joan: Seriously Beautiful

By Melissa Rivers

As a person who had changed her own physical appearance more than three hundred forty-eight times, my mother believed she had a moral and civic obligation to help make the world a prettier place. She took this beauty thing very seriously. In fact, she spent a lot of time doing research to support her case.

Joan Rivers Has Died at Age 81.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Comedian Joan Rivers attends Global Green USA's 11th Annual Pre-Oscar party at Avalon.

"Melissa, go back to the Bible. You've seen the pictures of Adam and Eve. Were they dogs? No. They were very attractive — and surprisingly pale considering how much time they spent in the sun. Granted, those pictures were an artist's rendering, but let me tell you, that artist was a maestro with a grease pencil."

When I was in eleventh grade we went on a family vacation to Italy and France. When we were in Paris my mother spent the first five days pointing out all the places where French people had been rude to her. Then we hit the museums. When we were in Florence, Italy, we saw Michelangelo's statue of David. I told my mother how handsome he was. My mother replied, "You know that's not his original nose." And then she said, "You're right, Missy, he is handsome. People like beauty. But look — he's not Jewish. Ucch." (FYI, she had something to say about all of the great works. "Mona Lisa didn't smile because she had rotten teeth. They had no fluoridation in her town, plus she smoked like a chimney. Venus de Milo? Played the handicapped card for all it was worth. Parked anywhere she wanted. I give her credit; she saved a fortune on gloves.")

The great thing about my mother was that, toward the end of her life, I think she had gotten to a place where she knew she looked good. Her whole thing was "Life is hard enough; you might as well do what you need to do to make yourself feel better." I find comfort in knowing that for all the plastic surgery jokes she made about herself — and that were made by others at her expense — she did what she needed to do to feel better. On her eightieth birthday she said to me, "You know what? For eighty, I don't look so bad." Better late than never, the swan appeared.

Adapted from The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation