Camp Americana: That Time Joan Rivers Was Threatened by Jerry Lewis

In honor of fresh starts, look back at the many fights and feuds that Joan Rivers was dragged into while refusing to kowtow to threats of violence.

The new year is a time to make amends, rebuild burnt bridges, and bury any hatchets left lying around. Unless you’re Joan Rivers. Then you just wad up whatever death threats you racked up over the last 365 days and start afresh. 

Before her life story was lifted nearly verbatim for the benefit of one Mrs. Midge Maisel, Joan Rivers was being called everything but “marvelous” by scores of detractors. From airline stewardesses to Jerry Lewis, between her rise to fame in 1965 and her career-changing Liz Taylor jokes (“Is she fat? Please! Her blood type is Ragu!”) in the early ‘80s, Joanie managed to rack up an impressive and diverse list of enemies with accompanying threats. Everyone’s a critic. 

Joan was playing Miami Beach’s once-glittering, now-derelict Deauville Beach Resort over New Year’s Eve 1973 when a pair of anonymous local calls came in, threatening to bomb the Deauville should Rivers take the stage. The feds were tipped off, but the show went on. On December 31, a follow-up telegram was fired off to “Joann Malinksy Rivers,” misspelling both her first and maiden names. 

“You have managed to not only ruin my Christmas holidays,” the message began, “but you are also making me miss 10 days of sorely needed vacation. I am returning to Miami to put a stop to your Polish ‘joke’ routine … My people will no longer sit back supinely while a human cesspool spews her dirt on them … If I hear anything Polish mentioned in your routine, I promise you will regret it. Shalom.” 

Rivers and her husband tipped off the FBI and hired guards but decided not to press charges, and the matter was dropped. There is no record of whether or not Joan did her Polish jokes that New Year’s. Joan’s FBI file, made available after her death, includes another, more persistent series of death threats that came flooding in during 1991, written by some virulently homophobic anti-Semite calling himself “Mr. Clean,” but the Miami Beach incident wasn’t Miss Rivers’ first time at the rodeo, just the first time she bothered to call the cops. The truth was, the Polish fiasco was the second of two death threats she’d received in three short years. 

By 1968, Rivers was enough of a name to host her own daytime talk show, That Show With Joan Rivers. Not a smash hit, it still drew a respectable phalanx of guests to be interviewed by the rising “lady comic.” Jerry Lewis stopped by Joan’s second-ever episode to talk about the joys and stressors of rearing a child who wants to enter show business, a problem with which Melissa never burdened Joan. 

As talented a gossip as she was a comedian, Rivers wrote years later that Lewis “came on our dumb little show like the big king, demanding everything. He arrived late, full of being Jerry Lewis. He wanted a bigger dressing room. He wanted champagne. He wanted flowers.” While he was on, Lewis offered his parenting tips: “Hug ‘em plenty, smack ‘em plenty.” Two years later, a disagreement between the two over children would nearly cost Joan her life. At least, she seemed to think so. 

Rivers was a celebrity phone-answerer at Jerry’s fourth annual MDA Labor Day Telethon in 1970, the first to be broadcast coast-to-coast, meaning more viewers and potential donations than ever before. Cue waterworks. “Please give what you can,” Lewis mewled while shaking a sickly kid like a rag doll, “because this child is going to die if we don’t find a cure.” A disgusted Rivers sounded off publicly, accusing Jerry of using the telethons to keep his career afloat. 

When Jerry, whose friends ran the gamut from movie stars to mafiosos, got wind of the accusations, he wasted no time sending Rivers a strongly worded letter:

Dear Ms. Rivers,

We’ve never met [not entirely true] and I’m looking forward to keeping it that way. If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career, or my ‘kids’ ever again, I promise I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your goddamned head off.

P.S. You do know that you’re not allowed to threaten people. So if you go to [the police], show them this letter, they’ll arrest me. But I want you to never forget what it said.

Joan and husband Edgar hired bodyguards but didn’t file charges, taking the threat seriously enough to purposefully keep it under wraps. After Jerry Lewis mentioned the incident to a shocked Maria Menounos in 2014, Joan finally divulged the long-secret incident in an interview shortly before her death. “Done! Never talking about him again! I don’t want to have my knees broken over Jerry Lewis … My last words are not going to be, ‘But I was only kidding!’” 

Smack between death threats, Rivers stopped by The Dick Cavett Show in 1972 to dish about her incessant jokes on airline stewardesses. “I don’t know why she laughs at us, we don’t laugh at her,” one flight attendant allegedly told Cavett. When Joan countered that the whole profession deserved her jabs for their mistreatment of lady passengers, one audience member yelled, “You started it!” 

An unflappable Joan maintained, “Stewardesses are not nice to women, unless you’re over the hill, or a real piggy … But they’re not nice to women. You’re a man, and you’re very attractive and you’re very cute and they’re all over you, who are we kidding?” A tireless critic of sexist double standards, Joan wouldn’t be silenced. She kept right on telling jokes, charming audiences, and making enemies. 

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