Joan Rivers

How a first generation Jewish American became an entertainment legend.

Print this page Print this page

Meyer Molinsky's family had been poverty-stricken in Russia, and they remained poor in their early years in America. Molinsky’s entry into the medical profession propelled the family into the emergent Jewish middle class of Brooklyn.

Beatrice Molinsky's family had been very wealthy merchants in Odessa but left everything behind in the Old Country. That loss of status forever haunted Beatrice Molinsky, and she continually pushed her husband—a struggling general practitioner in the heavily Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn—to earn more money.

The conflict between her parents ("My mother wanted M.D. to stand for Make Dollars") was the inspiration for many of Rivers's early routines. The constant arguments in the family about money left her with a permanent sense of insecurity that she mined for its comedic value. The epilogue to Enter Talking concludes in this way: "She lives the life her mother longed to have—but still believes that next week everything will disappear."

Education

From earliest childhood, Rivers wanted to be an actor. Her mother wanted her youngest daughter to prepare herself for marriage and entry into polite society. The tension between these aspirations deeply influenced the young woman's life and craft.

Educated in Brooklyn's Ethical Culture School and Adelphi Academy, Rivers was an enthusiastic participant in the school drama and writing programs. At Adelphi, she founded the school newspaper. At Connecticut College and later at Barnard, she read widely in the classics and took courses in the history of the theater. Though she was later to project a scatterbrain image, the key to her craft lies in her classical education and her ability to turn out witty monologues and dialogues.

In 1954, Rivers graduated from Barnard College with a degree in English literature and was awarded membership in Phi Beta Kappa. After college, she took an entry-level job at a firm in the New York fashion industry. She soon gave it up for a short-lived (and disastrous) marriage to the boss's son. "Our marriage license turned out to be a learner’s permit" (Enter Talking).

Early Ventures in Entertainment

Determined to succeed in the theater, Rivers did temporary office work while auditioning for roles in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway plays. In 1960, she developed comedy routines that gained some attention and in 1961 got her first big break when she joined the Second City Comedy troupe of Chicago. Her improvisational and writing skills shone at Second City.

Within a few years, she was a regular at New York City comedy clubs, foremost among them the Duplex and the Bitter End. In her act, she joked about sex in a way that was both shocking and endearing. Female comedians had not spoken with such frankness before. "I knew nothing about sex. All my mother told me was that the man gets on top and the woman gets on the bottom. I bought bunk beds" (Still Talking).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Shalom Goldman

Shalom Goldman received a B.S. degree in Hebrew Culture and Education, an M.A. in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Biblical Studies from New York University. He is currently a Professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University.