As the nation learned of the death of the beloved comic icon, I recalled my meeting with Joan Rivers when I was a guest on her short-lived a daytime talk show in March 1990.
The story of how it came about began in 1987 with a horrific tragedy that garnered headlines of a "house of horrors" and a six-year-old girl called Lisa who died after years of abuse.
In the dimly lit, filthy Greenwich Village home of attorney Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum where Lisa lived a tortured life and died, police discovered a toddler boy tethered to a table leg in soiled diapers with a bottle of rancid milk. He, like Lisa, had been adopted by the couple. Hedda, who once wrote children's books, was badly abused and drug addicted. She was given immunity to testify against Joel who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 8 1⁄3 - 25 years in prison. Steinberg was denied parole twice and released after serving his time.
The media focused on the spousal and child abuse and how Lisa's abuse had occurred for six years and no one, even in Lisa's school, had known or reported it. That the children had been adopted was down-played as an anomaly, an adoption that "slipped through the cracks."
As an adoption reform activist I was writing articles, speaking at local and national conferences, and appearing on talk shows such as Geraldo, and The Morton Downey Jr. Show, twice, addressing the need to allow adoptees access to their own birth certificates.
Lisa's death sent shock waves around the world and was deeply felt throughout the adoption community. Adoptees of all ages identified with the two victims while mothers who had been persuaded to relinquish children for adoption in the hope they would be provided a better life worried about the safety and well-being of their children. How could this have happened? Could such a tragic end befall their own children?
Both Steinberg/Nussbaum adoptions were labeled "illegal" because Steinberg had failed to file final adoptions papers. Other than that, there was little difference between these adoptions and any other privately arranged, independent adoption. It was not then, and is still today, not uncommon or illegal for doctors and attorneys to arrange the transfer of custody of infants without an adoption agency involved in the process.
I organized a tearful candle light vigil from Lisa's home to her Greenwich Village elementary a school to honor this child who had suffered unspeakable abuse, and to bring attention to the dangerous loopholes in the adoption process that allowed it to occur, The march was televised and garnered news coverage that we hoped would help prevent other such tragedies.
At the same time, I worked with the attorney general's office to identify and locate the mother of the toddler boy called Mitchell. I discovered that his mother was a teenager named Nicole Smigel who had kept her pregnancy a secret from her mother who had just hours to deal with finding out about the pregnancy and a baby being born. Dr. Peter J. Sarosi was a staff obstetrician and gynecologist at Beth Israel Hospital in New York where the baby was delivered. The doctor told Nicole and her mother that he had a friend (Joel Steinberg) who would adopt the baby. Nicole's mother, GraceAnne Smigel, made all the arrangements.
Sarosi, who also treated Hedda Nussbaum, was sentenced to three years probation and 100 hours of community service and fined $1,000 for his role in the illegal adoption but still practices medicine.
When I contacted GraceAnne, she was initially extremely vested in maintaining the secret. She had done everything so quickly. She never told her husband, Nicole's father, or Nicole's grandmother. Nor did the baby father's know anything about his son or the decision to have him adopted. GraceAnne couldn't bear to break it to them that the baby in the headlines was theirs! She wanted to keep it all buried and just allow the child to be re-adopted by another family.
I called GraceAnne several times over a period of weeks. Every time we spoke I impressed upon her that she and her grandson were being given a second chance and that the only way she could be assured of his safety and well-being was to reclaim him because there are no guarantees with any adoption. Finally, she and Nicole told the family the truth and reclaimed Nicole's son who she named Travis.
My 1988 book, shedding light on...The Dark Side of Adoption was published with a dedication to Lisa.
And so Joan Rivers, looking for hot trendy news issues for The Joan Rivers Show, invited GraceAnne to describe how her grandson wound up in the midst of this front page horror story. Joan also wanted an "expert" to address adoption laws and explain how this was allowed to occur, and GraceAnnee wanted me to be there with her. The two of us were guests on the show along with Joyce Johnson author of What Lisa Knew.
Also appearing that day on another segment of the show was Joan's friend Howard Stern who recently spoke at her funeral and Angela Bowie, former wife of David Bowie, who had just written a tell-all that included how she caught her husband in bed with Mick Jagger!
The Joan I met was professional and obviously wanting to be seen as more serious than her usual comedic persona by conducting an interview about a hot but unpleasant topic involving child abuse as part of a series she was doing on secret-keeping.
When Joan interviewed GraceAnne, she was initially incredulous that her 17-year-old daughter had successfully hidden a pregnancy for more than nine months, especially from her own mother. Nicole had worn loose clothing and pooh-poohed questions about her modest weight gain. Joan, whose own daughter Melissa was not more than a teenager at the time, appeared sincere in her empathy with GraceAnne's dilemma in trying to protect everyone.
Apparently the public preferred Joan as a jokester, however, and the show was soon cancelled. GraceAnne and Nicole kept in touch with me, sending holiday cards and photos of Travis, and updated me until he got into college. My second book, THE STORK MARKET: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry (2008) tells the story with photos.
Lisa's natural mother, who had paid Steinberg to place her baby daughter for adoption, successfully sued several New York agencies.