Book Review: Last Girl Before Freeway

The life of legendary comedian Joan Rivers is an amazing story of hard work, determination, tragedy and triumph. But….first of all, (Joan says it best here)  Can we Talk?: the cover for this book is hideous!  With all the photos of Joan Rivers, whether her original face, or the many incarnations over the years, this is the cover someone greenlighted?!?  I initially remember Joan from her QVC days, when she was the embodiment of patrician elegance, Chanel-enrobed, completely bejeweled and lacquered pageboy.  I thought this was the mock cover and I would see a different draft closer to the publication date.  If I’m channeling Joan Rivers, I would stick my finger in my mouth and gag like she did with great consternation.

That dose of indignation out of the way, what lies under that cover is wonderful and brilliant.  Veteran journalist Leslie Bennetts crafts a wonderful biography of the long life, career highs, lows and triumphant comebacks of one of the best comedians that ever lived.  If you are a fan of comedy and the history of the major players, this book is for you.  If you like a great comeback story, this book is for you.  If you love strong female protagonist, this book is for you. (Notice the trend?) 

I have loved Joan Rivers for as long as I can remember.  I am a card-carrying Joan Ranger from Fashion Police. Whether you know her from her early stand-up (pretty old), her time with the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (also pretty ancient), QVC, her daytime show or her red-carpet commentary, Joan has been in the background of our lives forever.  I was excited for this book, and it does not disappoint.  Ms. Bennetts does a wonderful job of dissecting the life of Joan Rivers and putting it into the proper context of the times in which she lived, which was a long run.  We explore the temperament of her humor-was she funny or was she just a bully?  The story of how Elizabeth Taylor, one of Joan’s favorite victims, put her on the spot at a dinner party is priceless! Her need to make a joke at anyone/everyone’s expense (including her own), was that a skill or a defense mechanism?  And of course-what’s with the penchant for constant plastic surgery?

We begin in the beginning, when Joan was the second daughter of an enterprising mother and frustrated doctor father.  The family had the look of prosperity, but they were living a parallel life, as financial ruin was a going concern.  This lack of security and the inner feeling of being the ‘lesser’ sister was the catalyst for Joan’s drive for a better life as well as the need to expose the hypocrisy she saw everywhere.  The beginning of her career did not show promise, but Joan was determined and dedicated to succeeding and proving everyone wrong. Becoming a female star in a male-dominated industry, Joan succeeded by persistence alone, learning the trade and developing the skills of a seasoned comic.  Along the way she married, she succeeds, she fails, her husband commits suicide leaving her heavily in debt, she digs deep, rebounds to become an even bigger star.  That’s the storyline of the book.  Exploring the underlying context along the way, Bennetts reveals the complex character of Joan-her place as a feminist, although she didn’t embrace that title, her quiet generosity to others against her loud over-the-top lavish lifestyle, the contradiction of her political affiliations against her social actions, her loyalty to her Jewish roots while coveting a WASP lifestyle, her down-to-earth nature against her diva-life histrionics (which were just an act).    She was extremely complex, yet still had the DNA of a simple girl from Brooklyn raised on traditional Jewish values.  She was a warrior, unapologetic, yet soft and fluffy at the same time.

Given her place in history, there are very few books about Joan Rivers written by anyone other than Joan, she alone, seemed to control her narrative.  One of the few outliers is the heartwarming book by daughter Melissa after her death.  Joan was the one who chronicled the stories and the rumors (not always truthfully), who poked fun at herself, and addressed every elephant in the room.  I was sure the first book written about her following her death by an outsider would be a salacious skewering of a lightning-rod kind of woman who inspired as much derision as adulation.  I thought the critics would want to take their shot at her, since she wasn’t around to aim back with her acid-tinged tongue.  Fortunately, this book is astonishingly balanced, showing her in her most human terms.  She had her good points, her bad points and behaviors, she failed as people do, albeit on a grand scale, but her rebound was well-earned, and you won’t begrudge her one iota of the sweetness of it.   I believe that people who were not fans will walk away, if not in love, with a knowledgeable respect for her, and those that were fans, will have a greater depth of understanding of how she earned the term ‘legend’. Closing the book, you realize what we really lost in Joan Rivers:  a true broad (I love a ballsy and bawdy broad), with a spine of steel and a heart of gold hidden behind her viciously snarky tone.


Were you a fan or a critic of Joan?  Do you think this book will reinforce your change your opinion?