One Last Thanksgiving at Joan Rivers': Charles Busch on the "Outrageous, Sentimental and Opulent" Farewell

News   One Last Thanksgiving at Joan Rivers': Charles Busch on the "Outrageous, Sentimental and Opulent" Farewell
 
Playwright Charles Busch, a longtime friend of Tony Award nominee Joan Rivers, who died in September at the age of 81, attended one last lavish Thanksgiving dinner at the entertainment pioneer's home, which was thrown by her daughter, Melissa Rivers. Busch details his relationship with the late comedian and the final celebration of her favorite holiday for Playbill.com.

Charles Busch with Joan Rivers and friend Kevin Scullin at Busch's apartment last Christmas
Charles Busch with Joan Rivers and friend Kevin Scullin at Busch's apartment last Christmas

It's fairly common during this time of year to ask someone, "Whatcha do for Thanksgiving?" For the past six years, I had a real show-stopping answer. "Oh, I went to Joan Rivers'." I got such a kick out of being able to toss it off as if I was saying, "Feh, I went to my Aunt Belle's." Having Thanksgiving at Joan Rivers' luxurious apartment off Fifth Avenue was everything you'd think it would be; fun, glamorous, a bit outrageous, sentimental and opulent.

This year, when people ask me the same question, I respond with the same answer. "I went to Joan Rivers'." As you can imagine, now I get an odd look, and I'm forced to elaborate. Joan's daughter Melissa decided to have one last lavish Thanksgiving in her mother's apartment before she puts the place on the market. This was Joan's favorite holiday, and there was almost always the same group present. A gang of 40!

So how the hell did I ever get invited to Joan Rivers' for Thanksgiving? A long story. Let's try and do this succinctly. I knew Joan casually for years. I think she may have been the first celebrity to ever come to one of my shows, and I mean when we were performing on Avenue C. That's very likely because Joan saw everything. She had absolutely no snobbism about the theatre. Around seven years ago, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Joan asking me to work with her on a "very revealing and honest performance art piece." I didn't want to help her write it, but I did want to get to know her better, so I suggested that I come over to her place every day for a week and interview her; then she could have the tapes transcribed and I'd shape them into monologues.

Since she owned the tapes, she was free to be completely candid and uncensored. Rage, tears, gratitude, she held nothing back. After several days, it inevitably became more of a conversation than an interview. Joan couldn't help but be interested in other people. Curiously enough, for a bigger-than-life comic and a huge celebrity, she didn't suck the air out of a room. She asked questions. She gave you the stage. She liked to talk seriously, and she loved for you to be funny.

Rivers and Busch, Thanksgiving 2013
Rivers and Busch, Thanksgiving 2013

Joan used some of this material in the finished play Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, which she performed in L.A., Edinburgh and London. She insisted that I receive credit and get paid. Well, minutes, and I truly mean minutes, after my manager and her lawyer began talking, it got ugly and I told my manager to just skip it. I didn't want credit or payment. The great thing was that Joan and I were becoming friends. Indeed, she invited my partner Eric, my sister Margaret and me to Thanksgiving. So there you have it.

Entering that fabled apartment was like visiting Versailles after hours. The apartment was part of a mansion originally built by the tycoon J.P. Morgan for his daughter. It was eventually broken up into apartments. One apartment per floor. Joan lived in the original gold gilded beaux arts ballroom and its two floors of accompanying rooms. It was a very formal and impossibly elegant series of rooms. It was not the residence of a famous comedienne. It was the home of a successful early 20th century courtesan in retirement. Gigi's Aunt would live there. Or Anastasia's grandmother.

You dressed well when you were a guest. I once made the mistake of not wearing a tie and detected a very slight but disapproving raised eyebrow from my hostess. It was interesting how when you arrived at her building, it seemed more natural to say to the doorman, "I'm here to see Mrs. Rosenberg." Not Joan Rivers.

The Thanksgiving guests were not generally celebrities. Thanksgiving was for her extended family and close friends and only occasionally a special guest star such as the great Barbara Cook. Melissa and her son Cooper usually celebrated at their home in Los Angeles but when they were present, it was clear how happy that made Joan. Each year, I was thrilled that I was seated next to Joan at the end of the very long table. It made me feel so special. I loved making her laugh. And that table was a work of art, the flowers and centerpieces, courtesy of her brilliant florist and great friend Preston Bailey, were always spectacular.

At one point during that first Thanksgiving chez Joan, I felt her hand touching my leg under the table. I wondered, "What the hell is she…?" I looked down and she was handing me an envelope. She whispered, "Shhhhh." Surreptitiously, I opened the envelope and inside was five thousand dollars in cash; a gesture of payment for my work on her play. I didn't want to, you know, insult her, so naturally I accepted it.

Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers

Here we were this past Thanksgiving, the same group but without the most glittering centerpiece – our hostess. I wondered if it might be a rather sad and ghostly affair. I'm still a bit in denial. I can't believe all that fierce energy, that drive, that wit, that love is gone. Well, it turned out to be a wonderful evening. Melissa, with her great gifts as a producer, made sure everything was as exquisite as her mother would have done. Present at this final Thanksgiving were those who worked with Joan from the West Coast, who I had never met, but were so much a part of her inner circle.

Melissa sat at one end of the table and Cooper at the other end, surrounded by his young cousins. It must be a  very difficult time for that young boy. Joan was such a fantastic grandmother. A real-life Auntie Mame. A dear friend of Joan's, who was present in the apartment during those awful days in September when Joan was in the coma, told me how glad she was to be in these beautiful rooms again and hearing them once more filled with laughter and not tears. It felt good and kind of... well... necessary being there one more time.

I went into the smaller and only slightly less formal library where our true friendship had begun. I looked at the shelves filled with books on world history, one of Joan's great interests. She was so intelligent and with a remarkable frame of reference. She was everything she was on TV and onstage and then all these other colors as well.

Throughout the evening, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who hoped that the lady herself would miraculously appear on the balcony overlooking the dinner table, wearing one of her long beaded William Ivey Long robes and at least five pieces of barbaric jewelry. Alas, that didn't happen, but when the time came for of us to take turns around the table and say what we were grateful for, we all had to express how grateful we were to have known and loved this fascinating woman who had been so caring and generous to us all.

* Busch is the Tony Award-nominated playwright of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. His numerous works include The Tribute Artist, Judith of Bethulia, The Divine Sister, The Third Story, The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, the long-running Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Die, Mommie, Die.

Busch snapped this photo at Rivers' home this Thanksgiving
Busch snapped this photo at Rivers' home this Thanksgiving
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