In Last Girl Before Freeway, Bennetts charts the life of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
What made you want to write this book?
The truth is, it was not my idea—it was the brilliant idea of my agent, David Kuhn. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to take on a book at the time. But he said why don’t you call Gloria Steinem and talk to her about it? So I did that the next morning. And Gloria said that she had always thought of Joan as what she called a “transitional woman.” They were the same age, and both of them came of age in the 1950s. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought of the extent to which Joan Rivers’s life and career embodies the evolution of women in recent decades, and the liberation of women from the era of the feminine mystique to participating in the work force and in the larger life of the nation and the world. But also the extent to which she embodied so many of the obsessions and toxic values that hold women back. She grew up tortured by the fact that she was not as pretty as her older sister, and she felt that boys didn’t think she was pretty, and she felt this deep envy of women who were and hated them for it. And she turned those emotions into fuel for her early comedy. She was fat-shaming Elizabeth Taylor 30 years ago before the term fat-shaming had even been invented.
Were you a fan of her comedy prior to writing the book?
I had mixed feelings about her comedy. She was fearless in a lot of ways but she was also mean in a lot of ways that were very disturbing. Her cruelty toward other women in her comedy made her famous, but it was disturbing, as were the underlining values [of her jokes]. I think the whole mean girls thing is a hallmark of our culture. Why are women so hard on other women? I mean, if Joan Rivers had started doing fat-shaming jokes about Elizabeth Taylor and everybody recoiled, she would’ve stopped doing them. There is just an endless market for it. In other words, even the things that I didn’t particularly like about Joan Rivers are really interesting and important about her because they tell us something about ourselves and the culture we create and live in.
What do you think of her now?
I think she’s a hoot; she’s a hoot and a horror. I don’t have a black-and-white view of her. People are complicated. I think that one of the things that this culture also does particularly with women is to oversimplify their stories. I didn’t want to be reductionist about this. I didn’t want to oversimplify her or her life. I wanted to portray her in all of her complexities and let people make up their own minds about what they think of her.