Amy Vanderbilt to Edwin Newman to Gene Simmons to Totie Fields to
Eydie Gorme to Tony Bennett to Keith Richards to Chuck Barry to Joan Rivers
One made a living helping others by laughing, with a brand of comedy noted for its coarse vulgarity; the other made a living helping others to behave with manners of formal decorum.
It’s hard to imagine two more different individuals than comedienne Joan Rivers who died unexpectedly following surgery complications this past Thursday at 81 years old, and etiquette expert Amy Vanderbilt, who died suddenly of either a fall or jump from her apartment second-story window in 1974. Both gained currency in New York City during an overlapping period yet never encountered one another. While surely, it’s an understatement to say they didn’t run in the same circles, there’s only nine Celebrity Degrees of Separation between them.
Tracing the connections which bond over-the-top and raucous Rivers and understated and refined Vanderbilt is a swoop across the zenith of Sixties and Seventies celebrities, most of them performers on both the small screen and the stage; the line linking them is a veritable Pop Culture feast of that era.
Amy Vanderbilt (1908-1974) wasn’t as highfaluting as she seemed. She wasn’t descended from the railroad heir line of the famous family whose name she bore, but rather a collateral offshoot.
She started but never finished college, earning her own way early on, beginning as a teenage reporter who pushed her way up into journalism, and making a name for herself covering what would today be called “lifestyle” subjects.
She eventually starred in It’s In Good Taste, her own television show, and The Right Thing to Do, her own radio show.
She went to create a cottage industry on conduct becoming. Amy Vanderbilt churned out books, hosted training classes, conducted corporate makeovers and did all she could to teach the common folks the manners and mores of the upper class.
Just as Joan Rivers became famous for hawking her own jewelry and other products on QVC-TV, in her day Amy Vanderbilt made hay while the sun shined, whether it was doing toothpaste or cigarette ads in magazines or air freshener television commercials.
Here’s one from the Seventies:
Although married four times, Amy Vanderbilt was practical enough to retain her golden maiden name but other than that, she was no aristocrat, born on Staten Island, and educated in public schools there. She was no phony either, remaining loyal to her roots.
In 1971, Amy Vanderbilt was joined by NBC News anchor Edwin Newman (1919-2010) to visit the Historic Richmond Town restoration project in Staten Island.
Edwin Newman was known for his calm but kindly manner as a television journalist, whether it was moderating a 1976 presidential debate or narrating any number of documentaries in his reassuring voice.
He also had a fun sense of irony in his reporting, and particularly delighted in being able to interview Gene Simmons (born 1949), the lead singer of the rock band KISS and his mates for the 1977 NBC documentary, Land of Hype and Glory, made at the height of their fame.
Gene Simmons and KISS got a substantial boost when the band was first making inroads into mainstream American teenage hearts and minds by appearing on the daytime TV Mike Douglas Show in April 29, 1974.
His effort to appear scary only produced smirks and eyerolls from Toti Fields (1930-1978), a wisecracking comedienne a bit schtickier than Joan Rivers, popular in the late Sixties on television variety shows and co-hosted the Mike Douglas Show.
Fields nearly derailed Simmons’ effort to launch KISS by casting himself as terrifying and demonic.
Beneath his makeup and costume, Fields mused, was likely a “nice, Jewish boy.”
Here’s a clip of their encounter:
Respect for her professionalism grew even larger after she endured a leg amputation, breast cancer and two heart attacks, and managed to continue working, incorporating her medical challenges into her comedy act.
The year she died, she was voted Entertainer of the Year and Female Comedy Star of the Year by the American Guild of Variety Artists.
A regular on the Las Vegas circuit, it was inevitable that Toti Fields would come to meet the married singing duet Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (1928–2013).
The warm and compassionate Lawrence and Gorme were especially supportive of Fields as she faced her mounting health problems, and helped celebrate her last birthday in Vegas, in May of 1978.
On numerous occasions, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme were with their friend, legendary crooner Tony Bennett (born 1931).
Eydie Gorme long remembered the phone call she got late one time from Brazil.
Tony Bennett was calling, excited about the exploding and popular sound of the bossas nova, urging the duo to start recording songs to it and inspiring Gorme’s signature hit, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.”
Here’s a rendition of that:
Perhaps the most significant time that Steve and Eydie were with Tony Bennett was at the May 15, 1963 Grammy Awards.
At the event, they would pose together, along with Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and Count Basie.
Remarkably, fifty years later at the 2013 Grammy Awards the group re-assembled for a photo, with only the late Count Basie missing.
Three months later, Eydie Gorme died.
On November 8, 2011, Tony Bennett met guitarist Keith Richards (born 1943) of the legendary rock band The Rolling Stones at the 3rd Annual Norman Mailer Center Gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York.
As a teenage boarding student, Richards began to focus more on playing his guitar than school work, learning to cover nearly all of the solo work by American guitarist and composer of legendary rhythm and blues songs, Chuck Berry.
In fact, when Richards met a London School of Economics student by the name of Mick Jagger on a train and discovered that he was carrying a stack of Berry’s records with him, the two became friends and so began the genesis of The Rolling Stones.
Chuck Berry (born 1926) remains a pioneer of rock and roll, best known for some of the most familiar songs of the Fifties, including Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958). He went on to be hailed in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and was bestowed with a Kennedy Center Honor.
In 1972, at the time that Tony Bennett, Steve & Eydie, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers were playing Vegas, when Edwin Newman was doing the national news, Keith Richards was touring the world with the Stones and Gene Simmons was doing the same thing with KISS, Chuck Berry had an unexpected hit with the novelty song, “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Keith Richards got a chance to not only meet his early rock idol Chuck Berry on numerous occasions but even publicly perform guitar duos with him, doing so for the first time in 1980.
Here’s a clip of a great moment in their friendship, when Keith Richards helped induct Chuck Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, their affection in great evidence:
In her half-century career in the entertainment industry, Joan Rivers (1933-2014) befriended Presidents, actors, journalists, designers, fellow comedians (and even the author of this website, whom she urged to write her a screenplay called The Last First Lady).
A good friend of First Lady Nancy Reagan, Rivers shouted to reporters as she proudly made her way into the White House for the only state dinner she was invited to with glee, “No scum here tonight!”
Rivers cracked that she especially liked the First Lady because, “She washes the whole panty, not just the crotch and feet.” Never offended, Mrs. Reagan laughed uproariously at her friend’s snipes, quips and well-intentioned insults.
It’s unlikely Amy Vanderbilt would have approved.
Joan Rivers made herself as much the victim of her own humor as she did anyone else. There was always a streak of feminism in her cracks, bemoaning society’s secondary status thrust on women. It was in evidence from even her earliest appearances, as seen here during her appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Despite her crude jokes and often harshly malicious humor, off-screen Joan Rivers maintained a tenderness towards those she encountered. She was also extremely loyal and supportive of many fellow entertainers, knowing that the public appearance of success was often achieved only after tremendous emotional sacrifice and required a continuous struggle.
According to Timothy Boyce, a longtime friend of singer and composer Pat Benatar, after first coming to hear her perform, Joan Rivers remained a steadfast supporter of the rock icon. “Pat went on her show in 1993 to promote her Gravity’s Rainbow album and CD. After that, whenever Pat was performing in New York, Joan Rivers attended the show just out of loyalty and friendship. There was no publicity to it.”
Similarly, Joan Rivers doted on actress and writer Mae West as she aged, never failing to show delight at the legend’s tales of old Hollywood, even though she had heard them all before. Rivers insisted on attending West’s memorial service and was chilled by how few of the Hollywood establishment made an effort to honor her, especially those whose careers had been launched by West.
She never failed to appreciate the kindness of individuals, including many strangers who approached her in attempts to buck her up during hard times.
On February 17, 1988, Joan Rivers was at Lincoln Center’s Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York for the presentation of the D.W. Griffith Awards by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures when she unexpected discovered that one of her most enthusiastic fans was none other than Chuck Berry.
To show his enthusiasm, Berry simply lifted and embraced Rivers at the otherwise staid ceremony, provoking the audience into an eruption of smiles and laughter and wild applause.
Joan Rivers attended the event still dressed in black mourning; as Berry and others were sensitive to the fact that she had lost her husband Edgar to suicide just five months earlier.
It is with the same degree of affection that, since Thursday, many millions of others are smiling and laughing at the memory of so much laughter that Joan Rivers provided the world.
Perhaps her greatest epitaph was a recent crack she made, capturing her blankly self-deprecating humor in reference to her unique approach to aging:
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery that when I die, I hope they donate my body to Tupperware.”
Categories: Celebrity Degrees of Separation