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A Gilded Goddess: Joan Rivers and Her Upper East Side Palace

by AVENUE Magazine Photographed by Promotional portrait of American comedian and actor Joan Rivers, 1980s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Tuesday, November 1, 2016

By Leslie Bennetts

When Joan Rivers bought the derelict Upper East Side apartment she would transform into the home of her most extravagant dreams, there were pigeons nesting in it.

Housed in a Gilded Age limestone mansion originally owned by John Drexel of the Philadelphia banking family, the residence was designed in neo–French Classic style by Horace Trumbauer. Built in 1903 at 1 East 62nd Street, the apartment included two vast ballrooms separated by a sliding door. But despite its grand pedigree, the property had deteriorated into a certifiable wreck by the time Rivers first saw it in the late 1980s.

As she admitted, “It was now a broken-down warren of cloakrooms, maids’ rooms, and musicians’ changing rooms, and then vast spaces of no use whatsoever. It had been on the market for two and a half years without one bid, and by now plaster was falling from the walls, the floor was coming up. There was major water damage.”

Rivers knew that her husband, who had long served as her business manager, would never have bought such a dilapidated place—but for the first time in more than two decades, she was making such decisions alone. In 1987, she was fired from her own TV show, the first late-night talk program ever to be hosted by a woman. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers had helped to launch the brand-new Fox television network, and her husband had served as the show’s producer—but when it failed, he was so depressed that he committed suicide.

After more than a decade of living with her family in Los Angeles, Rivers was suddenly on her own. Her only child had gone off to college, and Rivers needed to reinvent both herself and her career. Although she earned much of her income in garish Las Vegas, she wanted to build a glamorous new life in Manhattan.

For her role models, Rivers chose the WASPy socialites whose elegance she admired and hoped to emulate. “She wanted to be perceived as being part of that world—a world she didn’t feel she belonged in: ‘Look at me! I wish my mother were here to see me today!’” said David Dangle, who first met Rivers when he was hired to reinvent her personal style for a new daytime TV talk show in New York.

“David went to places like Le Cirque and drew people, and then he created that look for her,” explained Marlaine Selip, who became the supervising producer on The Joan Rivers Show. “She looked like a million bucks. She had Chanel jewels and tailored outfits and wonderful bags, because she was always carrying stuff. She looked rich. People tuned in just to see what she’d be wearing.”

Rivers had an even more grandiose vision for her new home, which would become a legendary gathering place. Her inspiration was the Palace of Versailles, but since her natural milieu was show business, her taste was a unique amalgam she described as “Louis XIV meets Fred and Ginger.”

From the leopard-print carpets to the ballroom with its 23-foot ceilings, Greek columns, gilded antique paneling and crystal chandeliers, Rivers’ vision was so ornate that even the very rich were astonished. “When people would go to Joan’s apartment, they couldn’t believe it,” said Blaine Trump, who became a close friend when Rivers moved back to New York.

For Rivers, creating a life of ostentatious opulence was paramount. Born in Brooklyn, she grew up in suburban Westchester as the daughter of a doctor, but her childhood was scarred by financial insecurity and parental conflict. Her father never earned enough money to support the extravagant lifestyle coveted by his spendthrift wife, and his penny-pinching anxiety erupted into rage when Joan’s mother secretly bought expensive luxuries—including a mink coat they couldn’t afford.

Their endless battles traumatized Joan and her sister, Barbara. For the rest of her life, Joan loved making her own money and relished the sense of power it gave her.

She also loved spending what she earned, and she thoroughly enjoyed all the costly possessions she was able to buy. Nothing ever assuaged her childhood feelings of deprivation, but she always seemed comforted by her ability to afford such luxuries, and she developed a connoisseur’s eye.

“Joan called Sotheby’s out of the blue and got me, and she bought a very important piece of 18th-century French furniture, a Louis XV ormolu mounted writing table from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman,” said Pete Hathaway, a former director of European furniture at Sotheby’s. “I was stunned that she was calling about a very important table. I thought, ‘She lives really well, and she’s got lovely things!’ ”

When Rivers finished creating her home, its style owed the most obvious debt to France. “If Louis XIV hasn’t sat on it, I don’t want it,” said Rivers, who delighted in telling people that her apartment was what Marie Antoinette would have done “if she’d had the money.”

But some observers thought the place evoked Tsarist Russia, particularly after Rivers visited St. Petersburg, whose gilded ornamentation inspired her to go home and lavish gold on every possible surface. “It was like Anastasia’s grandmother’s apartment,” said the actor Charles Busch, another friend. “It was not a comedian’s apartment. It was dispossessed Russian nobility—an exiled empress.”

If the showcase she built for her life was extreme, at least Rivers was in on the joke. “That apartment was a giggle for Joan,” said the writer Jesse Kornbluth. “It amused her to live in Versailles. Why did she want to live in Versailles? Because she could.”

Other comedians found a rich vein of material in Rivers’ lifestyle. “If you want to know how big her palace was, Buckingham Palace has one more closet,” said Brad Zimmerman, a comic who often opened for Rivers. “My place would work very well in hers—as a hamper.”

But New York loves an over-the-top character, and Rivers had found the right locale for the exaggerated formality of her social style. Her crystal finger bowls and elaborate place settings seemed weirdly out of place in Southern California, but they were well-suited to the residential Fabergé egg she called home in Manhattan.

Rivers was particularly renowned for her holiday celebrations, and she invited a rotating array of friends, family and colleagues to her annual Thanksgiving, Christmas and Passover seder dinners—all of which were equally elaborate.

“One year I had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving, and she invited me,” said Lonny Price, who coauthored and directed the Broadway play Rivers wrote about Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr…and Her Escorts. “It was so elegant, it was like you were in a magazine. I was not used to Thanksgiving being that kind of production. Every time you stepped into that house it was like you were in a photo shoot for House & Garden.”

Rivers was equally extravagant in her philanthropy, and when Blaine Trump introduced her to God’s Love We Deliver, she developed a passion for the cause that endured until her death at 81. A nonprofit charity originally founded to deliver meals to homebound people with AIDS and HIV, God’s Love later expanded its mandate to serve patients with cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, heart failure, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.

When Rivers first got involved in the late 1980s, her commitment was viewed as an act of courage. “Joan never shied away from controversy, and she was the first celebrity to do an AIDS fundraiser,” said Karen Pearl, the current president and CEO of God’s Love. “I think it was hugely brave, and I don’t use that word lightly. AIDS was something nobody wanted to name or touch or do anything about. Joan took on the subject, and there was never a time when she said anything that was not heartfelt or loving. She was a hero.”

Every year, Rivers delivered Thanksgiving dinners from God’s Love before returning home to host her own celebration. When her grandson, Cooper, got old enough to accompany her, she took him with her on the annual holiday visits to AIDS patients.

Throughout her life, Rivers remained a passionate theatergoer, with a voracious appetite for New York’s profusion of cultural offerings. But her daughter lived in Los Angeles, and Rivers was tired of her weekly cross-country commute to see Melissa and Cooper. Although she was proud of the gilded showcase she had created in Manhattan, perhaps it had served its purpose.

“She thought it was stupid to be rattling around in a $20-million-plus apartment that was bought for entertaining when she wasn’t entertaining anymore,” said Hathaway, who is now the proprietor of Ragamont House, a catering and event venue in Salisbury, Connecticut. “She just wanted a more scaled-down, normal life.”

And so Rivers put her apartment on the market for $25 million in 2009, thinking she might buy a place in Los Angeles while maintaining a smaller pied-à-terre in New York. The apartment— whose monthly carrying costs were $25,337—didn’t find a buyer then, nor did it sell in 2012, when Rivers listed it once again for $29 million.

But after Rivers died in 2014, her private Versailles was finally purchased by a mystery man who was reputed to be part of a royal family. “It sold for the asking price, which was $28 million,” Hathaway reported.

The Queen of Comedy had wanted to create a home fit for a monarch, and the buyer turned out to be Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, the 65-year-old son of Saudi Arabia’s late King Fahd.

When the prince took possession, he immediately ordered a gut renovation.

Leslie Bennetts is the author of Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers, published by Little, Brown on November 15. A longtime Vanity Fair writer and former New York Times reporter, Bennetts also wrote The Feminine Mistake, a national bestseller about the cost of economic dependency for women who leave the work force to become stay-at-home mothers.


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