09/05/2014 08:04 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Meeting Joan Rivers When She Was in Love

So many celebs and fans are describing Joan Rivers with great fondness. But some folks are venting about her abrasive persona so (ironically) abrasively that I feel compelled to add a small, sweet anecdote to the many others that are pouring in.

It was about 30 years ago, and I was an assistant producer of a new play by Mark Medoff. I had met Mark when I had interviewed him for the Miami Herald a few years before, when he had written "When You Coming Back Red Ryder." That play did pretty well. And his next play, "Children of a Lesser God," won a Tony and became a movie.

But Mark's newest play needed investors, and so I invited my friend Bernard, along with a dozen or so others, to a reading at the home of one of the play's "angel" backers. And he brought a date in a little black dress.

He introduced her simply as "Joan," because he didn't need to give a last name. She was a familiar face indeed, host of her own talk show and much in the news about her feud with Johnny Carson, and the recent suicide of her husband and manager, Edgar.

She was in her fifties then, with some cosmetic work done, but not yet enough to crack jokes about. She looked like many of the blond, slim New York women-of-a certain-age who lunched at mid-town French restaurants back then, and maybe still do.

And, much to my surprise, she was the opposite of the joking loud-mouth I knew from television. She seemed demure and polite, and she let Bernard do most of the talking and the quipping.

Bernard was a funny, quirky guy, self-made and self-deprecating. He gave off a smart and powerful vibe, the same one that had probably attracted his lovely wife, my closest friend, who had tragically taken her life a few years before, at 37.

I figured that Bernard and Joan had tragedy to bond about, but I found out quickly that Bernie was the landlord of Joan's New York apartment, and they had been quietly dating. It was not that long after her late husband's death, and they had managed to keep it pretty secretive. They both seemed smitten in that sweet, romantic way that makes onlookers smile.

At this event I was with my live-in beau, another self-made man, a distant cousin in an iconic political family. He was curious about life and liked to use his famous last name to wangle invitations with fascinating people. Meeting a smart gal like Joan Rivers was just the kind of thing he enjoyed.

After the play reading, the four of us sat around, with Bernard telling jokes, my preening SO talking about everything from the Civil War to Lalique jewelry, and Joan asking me questions, mostly about my kids. Her daughter Melissa and my son Randall both attended the University of Pennsylvania, and she joked about setting them up.

Although Joan said gracious things about Mark's upcoming play, neither she nor Bernard invested in it -- wisely, it turns out -- as it flopped.

One afternoon, months later, I took my sons to a Broadway matinee, starring Joan Rivers. They didn't want to go backstage and meet her because despite my glowing description of her, like so many people, they thought she would be "gross." But I prevailed, sent a note backstage and she greeted us warmly in her dressing room. She spent most of our time together gently questioning my sons about school. And when I asked about how Bernard was she said, "You tell me. I haven't seen him in a while."

They did date for a few years more, and I read an interview where she said he was one of her three serious relationships after Edgar's death.

But whether or not our mutual friend was in her life when I went backstage, she remained gracious. I wasn't a celebrity and there were no cameras or press around. She could have said she was tired, but instead took time for us, and seemed to delight in my sons.

And for all the years I heard her brash jokes and snarky remarks on red carpets, I remembered the very different woman I met. I hope that those who think she was mean in real life consider that she had a good heart, and that there is a reason so many are mourning her death with great love. The tough comedienne was a kind person.

My skeptical sons summed it up another way, "You were right about Joan. She's got a big mouth but she's really a nice mom."