As the nation mourned of the death of the beloved comic icon, I recalled my meeting with Joan Rivers when I was guest on her short-lived a daytime talk show, in March 1990.
But the story of how that 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 Greenwhich Village home of attorney Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum where Lisa had endured unspeakable abuses, police discovered a toddler boy tethered to a table leg in soiled diapers with a bottle of rancid milk. He, like Lisa, had been illegally 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 to 25 years in prison. He was denied parole twice and released after serving his time.
The media focused on how Lisa’s abuse had occurred for six years and no one, even in Lisa's school, had known or reported it. It was portrayed as an anomaly in terms of adoption that "slipped through the cracks."
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 unseal adoption records. Lisa’s death sent shock waves through 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. Could such a tragic end befall their children? How could this have happened?
These two adoptions were labeled “illegal” because Steinberg had failed to file final adoptions papers. Other than that, there was really not much 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.
In order to bring light to the loopholes in the adoption process, I organized a candle light vigil from Lisa's home to her Greenwich Village elementary a school. The march was televised and garnered news coverage 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. The doctor who delivered the child said he had a friend (Joel Steinberg) who would adopt the baby. Nicole's mother, Grace Ann Smigel made all the arrangements.
I contacted Grace Ann and 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. Grace Ann 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 Grace Ann over a period of weeks. Every time we spoke I impressed upon her that she and her grandson were given a second chance and that the only way she could be assured of his safety and well-being was to reclaim him. Finally, she and Nicole told the family the truth and reclaimed Nicole's son who she named him 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 Grace Ann 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 Grace Anne wanted me to be there with her. And so the two of us were guests on the show along with Joyce Johnson author of “What Lisa Knew.”
Also appearing on that same Joan Rivers 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! (I remember being concerned for her young daughter was there with her, backstage, as she revealed this.)
My sister attended the taping with me as did some colleagues. The Joan we 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 as child abuse, as part of a series she was doing on secret-keeping.
When Joan interviewed Grace Ann, 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 Grace Ann’s dilemma in trying to protect everyone.
Apparently, the public preferred Joan as a jokester, however, and the show was soon cancelled. Grace Ann 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.
WCBS-TC News coverage of the candlelight vigil for Lisa