Publish date:
Updated on

Comedy legend Joan Rivers dies

On this day in 2014, Joan Rivers, one of the best-known comedians of her era, dies at age 81 in a New York City hospital, a week after she went into cardiac arrest while undergoing a medical procedure on her vocal cords at a Manhattan clinic. During a showbiz career that spanned more than five decades, Rivers blazed a trail for women in stand-up comedy and turned “Can we talk?” into a national catchphrase. No topic was taboo for the irreverent, sharp-tongued performer, who poked fun at her personal life and affinity for plastic surgery, skewered Hollywood celebrities and once said, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”

Born Joan Molinsky on June 8, 1933, to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, the entertainer graduated from Barnard College in 1954. Interested in becoming an actress, she scored parts in Off-Broadway plays and worked office temp jobs to support herself. In the late 1950s, she started performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs as a means to earn money; at the time, there were few other female stand-up comics. In the early 1960s, she did a stint with the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe. Along the way, at the suggestion of an agent, she changed her last name to Rivers. In 1965, her career took off after she made her first appearance on “The Tonight Show,” hosted by Johnny Carson, who told her she was going to be a star. Rivers went on to rack up numerous guest spots on the program, while also appearing on other TV comedy shows and doing her stand-up act around the country.

In 1983, Rivers was tapped as the permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show.” Three years later, she inked a deal for her own late-night TV show on another network. Afterward, Carson, who reportedly felt betrayed, never spoke to Rivers again (she was blacklisted from “The Tonight Show” until 2014, when host Jimmy Fallon invited her on as a guest). “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted in October 1986 but soon sank in the ratings, and Rivers was fired in May 1987. That August, Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who served as a producer of her show, committed suicide.

Rivers’ career temporarily stalled but she eventually signed on to host her own daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” which aired from 1989 to 1993. Next, the raspy-voiced comedian added fashion maven to her resume and helped revolutionize red-carpet coverage and popularize the question “Who are you wearing?,” after she and her daughter, Melissa, began hosting E! Entertainment’s pre-award shows for the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and other events, starting in the mid-1990s. From 2010 until her death, Rivers was a co-host of the TV program “Fashion Police,” on which she cattily critiqued the style choices of celebrities. Rivers also published a dozen books during her career, produced a jewelry line for TV shopping channel QVC and supported a variety of charitable causes. After starting out in the 1950s with dreams of working in theater, she earned a Tony Award nomination in the best actress category in 1994 for her role in the Broadway play “Sally Marr…and her escorts,” which she co-wrote.

Rivers gave what turned out to be her last stand-up performance, in Manhattan, on August 27, 2014, the night before the medical procedure that led to her death on September 4. Three days later, the legendary funny woman was memorialized at a star-studded service in New York City. As Rivers had noted in her 2012 book “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me,” she wanted a send-off that was “a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action.”

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!


Google is incorporated

On this day in 1998, search engine firm Google, co-founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who met at Stanford University, files for incorporation in California. Google went on to become the planet’s most-used search engine, and the word “google” entered the lexicon as a verb more

Western Roman Empire falls

Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, is deposed by Odoacer, a German barbarian who proclaims himself king of Italy. Odoacer was a mercenary leader in the Roman imperial army when he launched his mutiny against the young emperor. At Piacenza, he defeated more

Arkansas troops prevent desegregation

Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus enlists the National Guard to prevent nine African American students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. The armed Arkansas militia troops surrounded the school while an angry crowd of some 400 whites jeered, booed, and threatened to more

Geronimo surrenders

On this day in 1886, Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. government troops. For 30 years, the mighty Native American warrior had battled to protect his tribe’s homeland; however, by 1886 the Apaches were exhausted and hopelessly outnumbered. General Nelson Miles accepted more

The USS Greer is fired upon

On this day in 1940, the American destroyer Greer becomes the first U.S. vessel fired on in the war when a German sub aims a few torpedoes at it, sparking heightened tensions between Germany and the United States. It was a case of mistaken identity. As the more

Japanese surrender on Wake Island

On this day in 1945, 2,200 Japanese soldiers finally lay down their arms-days after their government had already formally capitulated. Wake Island was one of the islands bombed as part of a wider bombing raid that coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In December of 1941, more

Marines in heavy fighting

The U.S. 1st Marine Division launches Operation SWIFT, a search and destroy operation in Quang Nam and Quang Tin Provinces in I Corps Tactical Zone (the region south of the Demilitarized Zone). A fierce four-day battle ensued in the Que Son Valley, 25 miles south of Da Nang. more

Spitz wins 7th gold medal

U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz wins his seventh gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Spitz swam the fly leg of the 400-meter medley relay, and his team set a new world-record time of 3 minutes, 48.16 seconds. Remarkably, Spitz also established new world records in the six more

Tsunami pounds Japanese islands

One of the first tsunamis ever to be recorded devastates the east coast of Kyushu, the southernmost major island of Japan, on this day in 1596. The tsunami was set off by a relatively small earthquake in Beppu Bay on Kyushu’s east coast. Despite its weakness, the quake, which was more

Little Rock becomes a Cold War hotspot

Under orders from the governor of Arkansas, armed National Guardsmen prevent nine African-American students from attending the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. What began as a domestic crisis soon exploded into a Cold War embarrassment. The United States and the more