Tucson actress pays tribute to friend and role model, the late Joan Rivers

Susan Claassen (left) as Edith Head with Joan Rivers in London in 2008.
Susan Claassen (left) as Edith Head with Joan Rivers in London in 2008.

Susan Claassen, actress and managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre, first met comedian Joan Rivers, who died Sept. 4 at the age of 81, in 2008. “It was a dream come true,” says Claassen. “She had been performing her brilliant show ‘A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress’ at the Leceister Square Theatre in London where my show, ‘A Conversation with Edith Head,’ was having its London debut. We overlapped. We met entering the theatre, she was in rehearsal and I in performance.

“On our final Friday evening, she discreetly came in to see the last few minutes of the show. She and ‘Edie’ chatted about their time together,” says Claassen, as well as about Mae West and other celebrities they both knew.

“The next day, the theater manager came and asked if we could add a performance so Joan and company could see the entire show. In our minds ‘The Queen’ had requested a command performance. So Joan, after doing two shows herself, came to a 10:30 p.m. ‘Conversation with Edith Head’,” says Claassen. “It was extraordinary. She gifted ‘Edie’ with a saucy apron that she had picked up in Soho.”

The next morning, Aug. 31, 2008, Claassen received a handwritten letter from Rivers, lauding Claassen for her “amazing” performance. “I’m still thinking about it,” wrote Rivers.

“It is something that I will treasure always,” notes Claassen. “Her gracious and generous heart extended beyond any professional courtesy. She remained a staunch supporter of our show and always greeted me as if I was a close personal friend. I realized how in many ways Edith’s life paralleled Joan’s life. They both succeeded in a man’s world by playing the game better than anyone — reinventing themselves to remain relevant and always investing back.

“I know how much she touched my life but to think I touched her life in some way fills me with enormous gratitude,” says Claassen. “When the invitation arrived for the memorial, there was no question that I would immediately get on a plane (from Tucson to New York City) and pay my respects to this phenomenal woman.

“It was a privilege being at Joan Rivers’ memorial service” at Temple Emanu-El in New York, says Claassen. “It was heartfelt, hilarious, charming, irreverent, inspirational and filled with music, style, grace and wit. Brava Joan! Brava Melissa, Cooper and staff for creating this beautiful tribute. Joan’s legacy will live on in the hearts of all lucky enough to have known her. Joan Rivers was a blessing to this world.”