The Lark

Exploring Joan Rivers' rural getaway

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

On a warm and sunny March afternoon, as green began to brush the grass and trees, days before updated coronavirus restrictions — who could anticipate how quickly rules would change? — kept everyone in their own digs, I took a short field trip to the Bucks County, Pennsylvania mansion built by the comedian Joan Rivers. I expected that this would be a lighthearted escapade, something like a tourist visit to the home of a Hollywood legend. I had no idea that the 12,000-square-foot residence, now for sale by its present owner, sat in the township next to mine. Rivers might have been my six-and-a-half-miles-away neighbor. But she never moved into the house.

I had always loved the outrageous, self-deprecating comedy of the glamourous Joan Rivers, who died in New York City in 2014 at the age of 81. She’d reel audiences in with her signature catchphrase “Can we talk?” and then diss the looks and fashion choices of Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie, Cher, and Goldie Hawn. I can only imagine she’d be canceled by today’s standards. The blond and bejeweled Rivers often turned her comedic scalpel on herself. Candid about her penchant for plastic surgery, she said that her grandson called her “Nana new face.” As the years went on, she made lots of old-people jokes. At age 77, she quipped that there ought to be a home-delivery sex service for seniors called “feels on wheels.” Rivers had her terrible setbacks and brassy bold comebacks. In her high heels, she blazed the trail for many of today’s female stand-up comedians.

In the late 1970s when Rivers, her husband Edgar Rosenberg, and their builder-partner Thomas Pileggi conceived the plans for the Bucks County residence, the area was more bucolic than it is today. Back then, more woods, fields, and farmland surrounded what was to become the newly created Beverly Hills Road — oh, the celebrity glam of that name — and its Two Ponds subdivision. Today, the area is more settled. Almshouse Road — how ironic that name seems in this context — which leads up to Beverly Hills Road is lined with middle-class homes. The Bucks County location, northeast of Philadelphia and about two hours by car from New York City was planned to be Rivers’ only home. From there she would commute to California. Rivers, Rosenberg, and Pileggi tangled with municipal authorities for years over their original big-deal plans to put condos, a golf course, a movie studio, and more on their 87 acre Bucks County tract. Denied their proposal for mixed-use development, the trio eventually decided to apportion the tract for single-family homes, the Rivers-Rosenberg residence being one of the homes. Rosenberg, who had been in poor health, died by suicide in 1987. The house was completed in 1989. Rivers never moved in. What was the point of living in the mansion all by herself? The home ended up vacant. Eventually, somebody else bought it. The comedian remained in her New York City penthouse.

As I drove up Beverly Hills Road, I encountered a tall brick gatepost that towered like a monster at the entrance to Two Ponds. It prominently declared PRIVATE. The rusted black gates stood wide open. I saw no security monitoring. I took a breath for courage and drove through, mildly excited by my daring. I parked on the cul-de-sac at the end of Beverly Hills Road and walked to the house. The home, which is now on the market for $2.7 million, sits at the end of its private allée, which is lined with tall black streetlamps. Beyond the house, I found some open land and shallow streams. In spite of its enormity, I found the exterior of the house, which the
real estate listing describes as contemporary, rather plain. It is a two-story dwelling of light gray brick with Palladian windows and a portico at the front door. A caretaker or contractor emerged as I drew near. I thought that he would chase me away, but he did not. I told him that I was a Joan Rivers fan. He said that I could walk around and take a look.

I traipsed through the mud and dead leaves, rounding the perimeter of the house and peeking in the windows. While the photos I’ve seen of Rivers’ New York City penthouse reminded me of the Palace of Versailles, what I saw of this Bucks County manse, except for one item in the den, seemed kind of regular, tasteful, not ostentatious. The inside, at least the part I saw — I had no glimpse of the 2,000-square-foot master bedroom — called to mind an English country manor. The kitchen, pictured in an online photo, appeared country French. But the more I peeked inside, the sadder I felt. All this work. All these plans and dreams. Then Edgar dying and Joan remaining in New York City never to move to this peaceful spot.

I peered through a window into the den and spied a large beige armchair, an equestrian painting, and a beautiful carved dark wood built-in bar with a cut crystal goblet and decanter on top. I thought of the elegant parties that might have taken place in the house, the famous guests, the witty conversation. I was shocked to see on the floor a real grizzly bear rug, mouth open wide in threat, sharp teeth bared, arms and legs splayed out, and tipped with long black talons. I thought of people mauled by a bear. Why would anyone want to decorate with a grizzly bear rug? Maybe to make fun of death? Maybe for the same reason ancient Egyptians brought a skeleton to their feasts? Maybe I shouldn’t overthink it. I know that real estate agents stage homes, so maybe the real estate agent thought this would be in sync with the English country-manor look.

What was original to the Rivers-Rosenberg home, and what was not? Surely, the elegant curved double stairway with the inlaid malachite foyer floor and the cool spa, all glassed in with its indoor lap pool and jacuzzi. Although she joked about exercise, Rivers also said that she worked out an hour a day, hence the spa. A large array of fitness machines surrounded the
pool. Rusted barbells and free weights, some really heavy ones, too, lay on the floor. Maybe they belonged to the present owners. Hard to believe that stuff was 30-years-old.

A curtain of melancholy closed over me. Comedy was Rivers’ heartbeat and lifeblood. But then there was life between gigs, those times when she wasn’t busy killing her audiences. This was where that life, her private life, was to take place. The sign on the gatepost told me so. But there I ventured anyway, peeking in the windows, expecting to be entertained, expecting the experience to be a lark.•

Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. She is the author of eight books, including the poetry collection The Minor Virtues; as co-author, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Second Edition); and a translation from the Spanish, Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com.

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