Comedian Joan Rivers dies at 81
Rivers was undergoing surgery on her vocal cords at a clinic in New York City on Aug. 28 when she stopped breathing and had to be transported to Mount Sinai Hospital. Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, and her 13-year-old grandson, Cooper, who lived with her in Malibu, Calif., rushed to her bedside.
Raspy-voiced and brassy, Rivers was always self-deprecating, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect. A master of reinvention, she endured in show business because of her tenacious work ethic — which she credited to her "immigrant mentality."
Comedians typically push the envelope, but Rivers proved time and again that she didn't even see the envelope. To her fans, she was as shocking as she was endearing.
"The way she is funny, she tells the truth according to herself," the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2010. "She hates some people. She has political opinions. Her observations are so merciless and her timing so precise that even if you like that person, you laugh. She is a sadist of comedy, unafraid to be cruel — even too cruel."
No topic was off limits. From Elizabeth Taylor to Queen Elizabeth to even Anne Frank, Rivers loved going after public figures.
"I mock everybody, regardless of race, creed or color," she told the Toronto Star in July. "Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about."
Four years earlier, she explained her no-holds-barred approach to The Times of London: "If you laugh at something, you shrink the dragon."
Her favorite punching bag, though, was always herself. "My mother used to look at me and say, 'Looks don't count. Now, get out of my sight, you big lump.'"
Rivers was the first to mock her facelifts and other plastic surgeries. Her grandson "calls me Nana New Face. And when he was younger, the joke was he had never seen me without bandages. So one time, we saw 'The Return of the Mummy,' and he ran to the TV set and he went, 'Grandma, Grandma.'"
A famously hard-working dynamo, she was nowhere near close to retirement. She worked the red carpets for the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys near the end of August and had been scheduled to appear at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on Aug. 29. She co-hosted "Fashion Police," starred in WE TV's reality series "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" and hosted two online shows, "In Bed With Joan" and "Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls."
A life-long fashionista, Rivers and her daughter began doing the awards red carpet circuit in the mid-90s on shows for E! and later TV Guide. Her love of all things couture led her to coin another well-known catchphrase: "Who are you wearing?"
The comedian also embraced social media, and that, of course, brought its share of controversy. In 2012, Rivers used Twitter to tell R&B star Rihanna not to go back to Chris Brown after a domestic violence incident, in her own special way: "Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it's MY turn to slap her."
"I love the Internet, and I love that you can say whatever you want," Rivers told The Boston Globe last November.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, to Russian immigrants, Rivers spent her childhood in Brooklyn until her parents moved to upper-class Westchester County, New York. She believed she inherited her sense of humor from her father, who was a doctor. Her mother was a housewife.Click here for more on Rivers' life and career from NBC News.