Joan Rivers was my godmother — and her daughter Melissa is my goddaughter. (We came together 43 years ago in Los Angeles, as East Coast transplants, and formed our own patchwork family. My own mother had died when I was only a girl.) It was a cherished relationship for me, and because of her celebrity I rarely mentioned our connection to others because it was the private person whom I loved and depended on for support, advice and encouragement. (Once I hit my own middle-age, Joan began calling me “her good friend” to others because I think it made her feel too old to be godmother to someone no longer a spring chicken — especially since I disappointed her by declining her offer of a face lift and not electing to follow in her footsteps of trying to stay eternally young!)
While I knew Joan enjoyed her celebrity and I greatly admired her brilliance, work ethic and was thrilled for her many professional successes, the Joan whom I loved was the person inside all that plastic surgery and glamorous dressing and grand living — the one who insisted on being called “Mrs. Rosenberg” at home and in her non-showbiz life, who loved to paint on the easel set up in her dressing room (after taking up art as part of her friendship with the Prince of Wales, mind you!), paid for the education of the children of anyone who worked for her, and who was happy to curl up with her dogs by her side and read a good book while nibbling on low cal chocolate snacks (sharing them with the dogs when she discovered that most commercial human treats like that don’t actually contain any chocolate). For me, her beauty came not from all the elegant trappings, but from her core values of generosity, intelligence, and kindness. How could you not love a woman who, when push came to shove, called her doggies her best friends and in later years said they were better companions than a husband because “they didn’t leave the seat up!”
Her recent death has given me the opportunity to recall decades of memories. In my pet-centered life, one thing that struck me was how Joan had never been without at least one dog in her life, doting on them and paying close attention to their physical and emotional needs. She loved her dogs dearly, and they meant so much to her because with her hectic lifestyle of travel and performances, her pooches were her touchstone to normalcy and genuine affection — just as they are for the rest of us! With Joan gone, I wondered what plans there were for her most recent sidekick Max (her re-homed black Pekingese, who had bounced to two other homes before he clicked instantly with Joan many years ago) and her rescued Havanese-mix, Samantha. Sam was black, too, and Joan thought it was wonderful to walk two black dogs down the block in New York city — so chic! She was especially proud that her dogs were rescues, not purchases, and would have loved to fill her house and heart with even more of them.
I thought back to the first dogs she got after moving to Los Angeles with her husband Edgar and Melissa as a little girl, which was when I was first swept up by Joan’s unique energy and the enchantment of Melissa, who was a bewitching child, and I became Family with them. Joan was worried about security — back in the Seventies the FBI often had to intervene when she received threatening notes and phone calls because people took offense at Joan’s outrageous humor — so she got what was supposed to be a German Shepherd protection dog and named her Tiger, for good measure, thinking it made her seem more threatening. As it turned out, Sweet Tiger was a wash-out as a guard dog, rarely motivated to get up and do so much as bark when the gate bell rang — which I often thought might have been because she got so chubby and happy because of the snacks Joan would sneak to her. (I never did manage to get her to feed a healthy balanced diet to her doggies, although they clearly enjoyed the can of Spot’s Stew I brought over, trying to convert Joan to a healthy diet for them — and for herself and Melissa as a child, too!)
They got a second dog as a companion for Melissa, who named the black Lhasa Apso Sparky, a spunky little guy whom they wanted to take with them in a hand carrier when they traveled. However, they feared being turned away at the airport no matter how carefully they had made plans. (This was back in the days when almost nobody except Elizabeth Taylor took dogs on board airplanes.) The first time they did it, Edgar and Joan were horribly worried about the plan going off smoothly, fearful the dog might not be allowed into the cabin at the last minute and they would be unable to travel. I offered to meet them at the airport very early on a Sunday morning in case there were any last minute problems, in which case I’d keep Sparky with me. All went well, but Joan never quite got over thanking me for being Sparky’s “safety net” — she never missed a chance to mention her lifelong gratitude to me. Having that dog with them — and making sure he was fine — meant so much to her.
At her funeral there were some amazingly funny and heartfelt eulogies, first from Howard Stern, who mentioned that Joan’s foremost concern about dying was how Melissa, her grandson Cooper and her dogs would do afterwards. It was funny because the dogs mattered at that level of importance. I knew she made sure to leave very clear provisions for all of them; it struck me that in our world today, dogs have become accepted as such essential family members that providing for them well in life, and after death, is considered quite normal, whereas not that many years ago it would have been considered eccentric to mention children, grandchildren and dogs in the same context.
Another fantastic speaker at the funeral was Deborah Norville, the TV personality who had delicious tales to tell of her travel adventures with Joan. I have decided to take to heart Deborah’s admonition that instead of feeling too blue about losing Joan, that instead we make an effort to bring a smile or laugh to someone in Joan’s honor. She said we should do something silly, say something funny, anything to spread some cheer, which was what Joan’s life was dedicated to. Deborah threw down the challenge to do that, using the hash-tag #joanriverschallenge and I hope some of you may want to follow suit.
If you’re out in the Hamptons or on Long Island this coming Saturday, I’ll be dedicating my NPR radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) to Joanie on 88.3, Peconic Public Broadcasting — and then the show will be podcast on my Radio Pet Lady Network next week. The show will consist of two interviews I did with Joan about her dogs — one on the prior incarnation of the NPR station when it was called WLIU, and the second on WOR-AM radio in New York City, where I had my own Saturday night pet talk show in 2010. We discuss canine problems like “welcome tinkling” that I tried to help solve, and questions I answered. Joan reminisces about her long-gone dog Spike, her “heart dog,” her perfect little Yorkie who went everywhere with her and was a perfect gentleman (except for dragging around and humping the pink fuzzy slipper he was in love with); Veronica, the little Yorkie she got as a girlfriend for Spike (who wouldn’t so much as look in her direction for an entire twelve years!); Lulu, a sprightly Boston Terrier, given to her by a paramour, a dog who wound up living the final year of her life as a tripawd, after bone cancer forced a rear amputation. Then there is her most recent pal, Max the Peke (who wears a belly band to stop him from marking on the damask silk drapes!) and Samantha the Havanese-mix.
Perhaps most startling about these interviews, which she did with me four years ago, is that she talks about having cremated her dogs and wanting to be cremated herself — and then having all their ashes mixed together in “one big barking urn.” Although she left many instructions about her funeral and beyond, I don’t believe that the concept of a big cremation urn actually wound up as her final wish, but she didn’t want to be separated from them, that’s for sure. Parting from them when she went away on work was sweet sorrow for her, and I will always remember the joy in Joan’s voice when she would come home and be greeted by balls of flying fur. Joan said, “Hello my darlings, my little darlings” and I think she knew she was with her greatest fans of all.
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