NEW YORK – Joan Rivers, the acerbic standup comic and television host who blazed a trail at a time when comedy was all but off-limits to women, died in a hospital in New York on Thursday. She was 81.
The award-winning star had been in Mount Sinai Hospital since Aug. 28, when she reportedly stopped breathing during a medical procedure on her vocal cords at a private clinic in New York.
“It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends,” daughter Melissa Rivers said.
Melissa and grandson Cooper had kept a vigil at Rivers’ bedside since flying in from Los Angeles as soon as she fell ill.
“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” her daughter added, in a statement.
“Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”
Celebrities, including many younger female comics who followed her to greatness, raced to pay tribute to their inspiration and to express their condolences.
“My friend Joan Rivers has passed away once again, to quote Billy Crystal… There are no words. Bon Voyage Joan,” tweeted Oscar-winning actress and comic Whoopi Goldberg.
“A legend, a friend, a mentor, an icon, and wildly funny. One of a kind. RIP,” wrote U.S. actress and comedian Kathy Griffin.
The New York Times wrote that Rivers “evolved from a sassy, self-deprecating performer early in her career into a coarser assassin, slashing at celebrities and others with a rapier wit that some critics called comic genius.”
Others, the paper admitted, “called it downright vicious. But if she turned the scowlers off, she left millions in stitches.”
Born in Brooklyn into a well-off, middle-class family, Rivers enjoyed a stunningly successful career that lasted decades.
Just days before falling ill, she had filmed a special 90-minute episode of the show “Fashion Police” for the E! network and she had a two-week tour of Britain scheduled in October.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, she graduated from New York’s Barnard College and worked in the fashion industry before starting out in standup under the stage name Joan Rivers.
She spared no one her razor-sharp wit and was considered one of the best at delivering a cutting one-liner, although she also sparked controversy with outspoken opinions on the Middle East.
Rivers was the most irascible and foul-mouthed of a breakthrough generation of U.S. “comediennes,” who included Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett.
Her signature catch phrase was “Can we talk?” an icebreaker she used before verbally drop-kicking the object of her ridicule.
She told an interviewer that she thought it up while on the circuit in Las Vegas during the 1980s.
The joke at the time, she said, “was probably about Elizabeth Taylor being fat, and people gasped and I went, ‘Can we talk here?’
“What you’re really saying is, ‘Come on, are we going to talk the truth?’”
In recent decades, Rivers had been well-known for her love of plastic surgery, taken to excess with her exaggerated cheek bones and her preternaturally wrinkle-free face.
Tough and tenacious, she spent several years supporting herself with secretarial work while doing comedy gigs, until she got her big break on the popular “Tonight Show” program in 1965, a launchpad for up and comers on the comedy circuit.
Four months after landing a regular Tonight Show gig, she married one of the show’s producers, Edgar Rosenberg. They had a daughter, Melissa, in 1968.
Rivers used to say that no subject was off-limits in her comedy: not even her husband’s suicide in 1987.
“By the next day, I was already starting with close friends to do terrible black humor,” she told New York Magazine.
“That’s how I get through life. God has given us this gift of humor,” she added. “Animals don’t laugh.”