A Joan Rivers Week Celebration! (#1) - Steven's Book Reviews: Last Girl Before Freeway by Leslie Bennetts (Little Brown, November 2016)

A Joan Rivers Week Celebration! (#1) - Steven's Book Reviews: Last Girl Before Freeway by Leslie Bennetts (Little Brown, November 2016)

Since my week-long sojourn into the life of character actress Mary Wickes was such an overwhelming success, I’ve decided to make famed comedienne Joan Rivers my next subject! Since Joan absolutely adored Thanksgiving, I decided to christen this week JOAN RIVERS WEEK on my blog! November 21st through 25th we’ll be exploring five surprise facets of Ms. Rivers thrilling personality.

Today’s blog is a review of the first book-length biographical study of Joan Rivers, which happened to be published this past Tuesday. Leslie Bennetts, of Vanity Fair, has encountered some roadblocks during her research, most notably the fact that Joan’s daughter Melissa refused to participate in the project. Celebrity Biographer Kitty Kelley, in an interview with me, said to remind readers of biographies that just because something is unauthorized, it doesn’t make it untrue!

That being said, Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers is a triumph on all counts. Rivers, a multi-faceted and contradictory personality, is a hard nut to crack.

Driven from a young age to be an actress, Rivers literally clawed her way to the top. She smashed through the glass ceiling not by being lifted up on silk pillows, but diving headfirst into the abyss. Born of a successful, yet fatally generous, doctor father and a social-climbing, pretentious mother, Rivers was told from a young age to marry…and marry well!

Rivers hit her break on The Johnny Carson Show, eventually becoming a permanent guest host. When Rivers, and husband Edgar Rosenberg, decided to hitch their wagon to the burgeoning Fox TV Network, Carson ex-communicated his former pupil and never spoke to her again for the rest of his life. From there, Edgar’s suicide and the loss of her new show sent her spiraling into depression, only use her perfectly-manicured nails to climb right back to the top.

Rivers’ drive, tenacity, and sheer force of will are well-documented in this book. Bennetts, wisely, decides to take a feminist perspective on this icon, who fervently denied being a feminist. Bennetts’ documentation of Rivers’ trailblazing for female comedians is given much more than Kathy Griffin’s “she paved the way for all of us” spiel. We finally get to see Rivers evolve from a time where she wasn’t allowed to say she was pregnant on The Ed Sullivan Show to being able to talk about her sagging vagina on network television:

Edgar, sadly, gets the brunt of the abuse in this book (and Melissa, as well.) Edgar is characterized as a stuffy, crotchety man who wanted to further his own ambition and hook his line into a sure thing. It was his advice that pushed her into the fatal Fox TV show and the shock of its failure led him to overdose. Melissa, likewise, is seen as a woman who is plagued by the shadow of her mother, unable to find a career or path that won’t force her to ride on her mother’s coattails. It’s an unenviable position to be in, but Bennetts has few positive words to say about the husband and the offspring.

But, of course, the main hero of this narrative is Joan herself and she’s painted in vibrant Technicolor here, my friends. It’s like “one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics”, to quote Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: you can see the flaws, but it’s the picture that counts. Rivers knew what she wanted and worked until the day she died to cement her legacy as a comedienne and actress.

The cast of characters in this book, many of which were interviewed, are too numerous to mention, but they add lush commentary to the proceedings. Bennetts manages to take Rivers and show her off, blemishes and all, and lets us see the woman behind the botox.

Bennetts prose is simple, straight-forward, and subtly laced with current idioms like “slut-shaming” and “cringy.” (Joan would have loved that, as this book attests, because Rivers was always reinventing and revitalizing herself to stay current with the trends of the time.) Bennetts is light on sermonizing and heavy on entertainment, just like Joanie herself.

Last Girl Before Freeway is a delightful romp through the whiz-bang, whirlwind life of Joan Rivers, who entered the world like Hurricane Katrina in a mink coat and hung on for dear life to generations of fans.


*I invite you to continue to join me this entire week (November 21st-25th) for a Thanksgiving Celebration of The Life of Joan Rivers!*

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