We met by accident. How else could it have been with two people who are so different? Or are we?

It was the early 1980s when a tabloid called me. They were doing a story on Joan Rivers and thought I, a conservative, would give them a quote critical of her. I said, "I won't speak to you and I don't want to be quoted as saying I won't speak to you."

They made up a quote, claiming I thought she was a terrible person.

I wrote her a letter in care of "The Tonight Show" where at the time she was substitute host for Johnny Carson. I said I hoped it wasn't necessary to deny something I didn't say and that I actually liked some of her work. She replied with a gracious handwritten note on pink stationery and included a "Can We Talk" button, which was her signature saying.

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Sometime later her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, took his life. I wrote her expressing condolences. We subsequently met on several occasions and after one performance she introduced me to people backstage as "the man who wrote me a wonderful letter after Edgar died."

Joan Molinsky was born in Brooklyn, New York. Though her father was a doctor, no one made much money during the Depression and the war years that followed. In her autobiography (with Richard Meryman), "Enter Talking," Joan says her mother thought MD should stand for "making dollars."

Her parents thought she was throwing away her college education -- and financial security -- by her interest in show business, but while Joan worked as a department store sales girl, earning what would be pocket change today, she had her eyes on the stage as early as her teen years.

Whatever a "family values" person might think of her act, which often included coarse language, they should appreciate her work ethic. Joan Rivers played burlesque houses and other dives that today would be shut down by the health department. She never quit, but persevered until success found her.

Insecure over money, Joan embraced her greatest asset. In her book, Joan wrote: 

"If I was obscenely pushy, that is what drive is -- wanting the impossible, wanting it all, never knuckling under to an obstacle, pushing till you get what you want. I wanted to be a star. ... If I ever become somebody who stops fighting for my place in the spotlight, I will be finished. Let us not be sentimental about this. This is what reaching the top and staying there means in this business -- and in the automobile business and the garment business and in politics."

One might argue whether having it "all" when you can't take it all, or any part of all with you is worth it, but if success is your vehicle and drive the fuel, then Joan succeeded by any standard and for far longer than most entertainers.

We too often judge people by labels and what we see on the outside. Reading Joan's book and knowing her just a little showed me the woman behind the facade, which was quite different from her public personae.

In the inscription to "Enter Talking" she wrote, "To Cal, thank you for being so terrific over the years. -- Joan Rivers."

No, Joan, you were the terrific one.

Cal Thomas is America's most widely syndicated op-ed columnist. He joined Fox News Channel in 1997 as a political contributor. His latest book is "What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America" is available in bookstores now. Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribune.com.