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Edgar Rosenberg: The Public Ending of a Private Life : Suicide of Rivers' Husband Came Without a Warning

August 20, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

He was winding up four days of routine financial meetings in Philadelphia and had told his administrative assistant to confirm his return flight to Los Angeles. He had just finished reading Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and was looking for another good book. He was trying to figure out when he could reschedule dinner with actor Vincent Price. And, as he always did whenever he went out of town, Edgar Rosenberg kept in close telephone contact with his wife.

"I spoke to him the day before," comedienne Joan Rivers said Tuesday night, her voice filled with disbelief and anguish. "He said he had finished his business and was coming home.

"He was, indeed. On final business."

No one had any warning when the 62-year-old producer swallowed a fatal overdose of Valium in Room 425 of the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. Hotel security officers found his body sprawled on the bedroom floor of his $450 suite Friday morning after they were alerted by business partner Thomas Pileggi, who became worried when Rosenberg didn't answer the telephone. On the day he was to return to Los Angeles, Rosenberg was officially pronounced dead at 11:45 a.m.

In death, as he had been in life, Rosenberg put his family first, meticulous down to the last detail. So there would be no suspicion of foul play, no possibility of any misunderstanding, no chance of dying without saying goodby, he recorded three cassette tapes--one for his wife, one for their 19-year-old daughter Melissa and one for Pileggi.

Pileggi said the Philadelphia police played the tape earmarked for him just long enough to hear Rosenberg admit that he had taken his own life. Pileggi wept when he heard Rosenberg instruct him to personally deliver the other two tapes to Rivers and Melissa. On the recording, Rosenberg explained that his failing health, beginning with a massive heart attack in 1984, made him feel he was a "burden to the people he loved" and that he "couldn't go on," Pileggi said.

Breaking her public silence on her husband's death, Rivers haltingly tried to explain what she herself doesn't yet fully understand. "He had gotten very depressed. And since the heart attack, he never really came out of it. . . . His health just disintegrated and with it his mental health. . . . I don't mean to say that he was crazy . . . it's just that he was very upset."

Rivers was sitting shiva in her Bel-Air home this week as hundreds of VIPs and celebrities came by or called, following an emotional memorial service Sunday. Subdued, almost submerged by the enormity of her grief, Rivers sounded as if she had been forced underwater and couldn't get to the surface for air. And the man who for 22 years was her best friend, her business confidante, her source of strength is no longer able to throw her a life preserver.

She recited a long list of illnesses Rosenberg had endured recently, including some never publicly revealed. "Gout, a hiatal hernia, a bleeding ulcer, a growth taken off his mouth, a quadruple bypass, heart attacks. It can get you very depressed. . . . It's a bummer."

In public Edgar Rosenberg, though not a celebrity in show business terms, was known as a diligent but difficult businessman. In private, he was an intellectual who loved good conversation over caviar and crackers.

Rivers' fans knew him only as the impossibly put-upon husband in her jokes about her sagging breasts, falling buttocks and raging cellulite. "There was never a joke that was a put-down of Edgar," her secretary Dorothy Melvin noted. "All the put-downs were about herself."

Only after Rivers began hosting "The Late Show" on the Fox Broadcasting Co. network in October, 1986, did the public finally get regular glimpses of him. The bearded and bespectacled little man with the barrel chest and the self-conscious grin was the program's executive producer. Yet he squirmed shyly on camera one night as Nell Carter serenaded him with a love ballad.

To much of the Hollywood community, Rosenberg was yet another husband who managed his wife's career. Few in the industry knew about his years in TV and film production and public relations. "There was a whole Edgar whom very few people knew, which is a tragedy because he was such an extraordinary talent," explained prominent Los Angeles producer-screenwriter Peter Bart, who was a member of Rosenberg's inner circle of friends for more than two decades. "He shouldn't have let that happen. But his wife's career took off so fast, he ended up fostering it rather than fostering himself."

David Craig, a nationally known musical theater teacher, the husband of comedienne Nancy Walker, was another Rosenberg confidante. "Like many of us married to actresses, we tend to be shadowed by them," Craig said. "Edgar liked it that way. But he was a fascinating man in his own right."

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