Joan Rivers’ Passing is Personal for Many of Us

By Debra Zimmerman Murphey

Debra Zimmerman Murphey at Sandy and Irvin Arthur’s Manhattan apartment during one of their legendary annual post-Thanksgiving parties

Joan Rivers’ face may have defied gravity, but, sadly, her body did not defy mortality. In what still seems like a shocking turn of events when you consider how vital and mentally fit Rivers was at the age of 81, we are reminded that trailblazers eventually leave us and we owe it to ourselves to understand what they taught us.

Many colleagues and friends might be interested to learn that my husband Maury Tobin’s deceased mom, Ellen, was the first cousin of Sandy Arthur, who was half of the former talent-mining and development duo Irvin and Sandy Arthur, a husband-and-wife team. The entertainment entrepreneurs extraordinaire lived in Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York at various points. They cumulatively managed bookings and clubs and ushered in new talent, particularly comedians and musicians. Irvin represented greats such as Steve Allen, Ellen DeGeneres, Dick Gregory, Peggy Lee, Bill Maher and Barbra Streisand.

But what’s noteworthy now is that Rivers once worked as a secretary for Irvin while she was striving to jettison her career. Irvin, however, found her sense of humor off-putting. He knew she was determined, but there was little means of forecasting that her tenor of jokes would ensure her comic fame for decades, spanning bouffants to extensions. Years ago, Maury conducted some interviews with Irvin and after Rivers’ death, he dug through his audio archives and found an interesting bit from Irvin about Rivers. Listen to it here.

Against All Odds

I’ve always loved Rivers because her career and life, to me, aren’t as much about the style of comedy she delivered, but more about the life she lived. Though not the first comedienne to achieve fame or fortune, Rivers didn’t just break the glass ceiling — she jackhammered through it.

Despite memories of what Jews had been through in the world that were far from funny and the difficulties women endured in show business, Rivers used both her femininity and her Jewish identity to carve out a comedic brand, and then went from there.

Whether you found her humor off-color or tactless, the point was that it was raw, along the vein of cold water in your face. But her shtick also morphed and stood the test of time. It was über-kitsch and became the vaudeville of a botoxed era Rivers didn’t just adjust to, but, paradoxically, also led.

When elderly stars such as Rivers die, society becomes cognizant of the mere whisper or whimper of many celebrities’ careers long before their talent is used up. But Rivers does not fall into this realm. Her end was more like a sudden crash, a sad pivoting point for her family, friends and fans because Rivers was healthy. The fragility that comes with age was deftly masked as she made us laugh.

I’ve often wondered how great it would be to sit in Rivers’ lavish New York apartment sipping tea. The mix of etiquette, the luxe space, and Rivers’ wicked tongue probably made for a surreal combination.

Maury and I remember visiting Sandy and Irvin’s Manhattan apartment in New York during their annual and popular post-Thanksgiving parties, where family members mingled with their clients and friends. The rooms would buzz with large personalities and you could see how much Irvin loved what he did. When younger, Maury once met Henny Youngman there.

I recall that Sandy always wore glasses with large, colorful frames and was often reserved. People would chat, laugh, eat and enjoy wine surrounded by contemporary art and Hirschfeld drawings of greats (in the style of the iconic caricatures of Woody Allen) who typified a different era, a bohemian heyday. Several times, we listened to Barbara Carroll, a jazz pianist, before she headed off to The Carlyle, an upscale hotspot where Carroll was a mainstay.

From Here to Eternity

Sandy recently passed away and with her death, it became clear to Maury and me the souls and stories we lose as these grand dames die. They lived through some harsh global and national events, but their lives, for some reason, still remind us of a less-tainted world, time and culture.

The kind of work the Arthurs had to put into helping others build their careers underscores the many sacrifices of what it means to become an icon. How does one balance what is required in surviving life’s hardships, working nonstop and living in the public eye? How do they process both grief and joy under a microscope?

The Arthurs and Rivers understood the old-school glamour and angst of life as a Hollywood personality or the teeter-totter between New York grit and its entertainment and theatrical venues and the well-heeled. Ultimately, they remind us of the Zeitgeist when people became famous for actually showcasing a new kind of talent and taking professional risks. Rivers was not one of those who reached star status due to being merely packaged correctly. There was no question she had brains and talent, in addition to moxie.

Even in her late 70s and early 80s, Rivers was on the red carpet throwing stingers about celebrities’ outfits and careers, and through the cable program, “Fashion Police,” she found a forum that managed to mix her campy repertoire with her love of clothes and style. Her wit meant no subject — baby bumps, breasts and bums — was taboo, which probably would not have been an easy segue for many of The Greatest Generation, but Rivers always found a way to stay relevant.