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Looks to Die For

Plastic surgery was one of novelist Olivia Goldsmith’s favorite themes. But when she went into the hospital for a chin-tuck, the ending—death—was one she never would have written.


In The Pink: Olivia Goldsmith with fellow novelist (and L.A. TV news anchor Kelly Lange in 1996.  

Olivia Goldsmith, the best-selling author of The First Wives Club and ten other pop-feminist novels, checked into the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital on January 7 for what has been described as minor plastic surgery—a chin-tuck.

Botox and plastic surgery are as much of a recurring motif in the literary oeuvre of Goldsmith as the subconscious is in the work of Freud. Indeed, if there’s anyone who seems to have understood the ultimate futility of trying to touch up the outside when you’re feeling unattractive on the inside, it’s the author of The First Wives Club. Which isn’t to say she was against it. She’d had several such procedures in the past, with the same doctor, Norman Pastorek, a well-regarded ENT with a devoted following. To Goldsmith, the procedure was no big deal, a laugh line.

Before the surgery had even begun, however, problems developed. “They had literally just put her on the table,” says a hospital source.

Goldsmith had apparently opted for general anaesthesia, more dangerous and not standard for the operation she was having. At Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat—considered one of the best hospitals for such procedures in the city—as at many hospitals, specially trained nurses are permitted to administer anaesthesia under the supervision of an anaesthesiologist who might be responsible for more than one operation at a time.

Goldsmith was in distress even before her surgeon went to work. Nothing that was attempted to revive her seemed to help. “There were spasms,” says a source. “Enormous ones.”

Within four minutes, she was in a coma from which she’d never awake. All for a face-lift.

“A face-lift? Why?” asks Sylvie Schiffer’s doctor in Switcheroo, goldsmith’s 1998 novel about a woman who tries to win back her philandering spouse by transforming herself into the spitting image of his younger mistress. “Sylvie. What’s wrong?”

“Everything. Bob’s cheating on me. And I saw her. She looks just like me but younger. Just like me, but no crow’s feet. Just like me, but without the second chin.

“Age crept up on me, John. I wasn’t watching. I didn’t know I looked so bad—”

“Are you insane? You need a psychiatrist, not a plastic surgeon.”

Olivia Goldsmith, it could be argued, needed both. She was at least as colorful as any of her characters, and apparently a lot more complicated, and elusive. Born Randy Goldfield in Dumont, New Jersey in 1949, she changed names—first to Justine Rendal, then to Olivia Goldsmith, and back and forth—husbands, lovers, hairpieces, editors, and most of all, friends with disorienting speed.

“Everybody came in and out of her life,” says Larry Ashmead, a close friend of Goldsmith’s who edited three of her books at HarperCollins. “It was a pattern she went through,” he says. “For the most part, anybody in her life didn’t stay more than five years.”

Dale Burg, a New York writer and friend who inexplicably found herself abandoned by Goldsmith, recalls a party that Scalamandré, the upmarket fabric house, hosted for one of Goldsmith’s novels. “She’d spent so much of her life in New York, and one other friend and I were the only friends invited,” Burg remembers. “I couldn’t understand why there was nobody representing her past.”

What made it so unusual wasn’t that Olivia was socially inept. Just the opposite. Friends and business associates in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and upstate New York, where she bought a historic mansion overlooking the Hudson and lived like a grande dame, speak of a dazzling personality who seduced with her brilliant sense of humor, joie de vivre, and generosity. Indeed, her success and her fortune—she made millions off her 1992 novel First Wives and routinely raked in six- and seven-figure sums for subsequent novels and movie rights—owed as much to her personality as to her literary talent.

“She was a strange creature,” says Burg, “and all the more strange because she presented herself as such a fabulous, fun, warm person that it was particularly odd when she disappointed you. She kept reinventing herself.”

“She treated her friends—not in a homosexual way—as if they were lovers,” explains Gail Parent, the author of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York and a Los Angeles screenwriter with whom Goldsmith collaborated on a screenplay based on Switcheroo. “She sent enormous amounts of flowers and gave gifts, and you’d do the same with her because she was so generous. She came on like a lover. Her relationships were so intense.”

Plastic surgeon Michael Sachs got to know Goldsmith after he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and she called and asked if she could follow him around for a few weeks as research for her second novel, Flavor of the Month. Their relationship ended when she suggested having him work on her. “I gave her a price,” he remembers, including a 50 percent professional courtesy discount. “She was insulted by that. I think she expected it to be done for free.”

Soon after the face-lift, Goldsmith was transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital—Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat doesn’t have an intensive-care unit. There, heroic efforts were made to revive her. “A team was put together to see if a reawakening was possible,” a friend says. “Two of the best neuroradiologists in the country were brought in.” As doctors worked to attempt to resuscitate her, a shifting team of friends kept vigil, talking to her, singing to her, rubbing her feet. “There were pools of different people from different groups,” says Nick Ellison, her agent. “They didn’t know each other. There were so many disparate people she knew and loved.” Those loved ones didn’t include any members of her immediate family, from whom she was estranged.

The decision about removing her from life support apparently rested with Nan Robinson, her loyal assistant. But on January 15, eight days after she entered the hospital, she died on her own.

Citing patient confidentiality and an ongoing investigation, no one at the hospital, including Pastorek, would comment on the specific details of Goldsmith’s operation.

Goldsmith was known to be on antidepressants, and talk at the hospital has focused on whether she fully informed physicians of the drugs she was using. Goldsmith’s supporters find this unlikely. “One thing Olivia was not was scornful of the medical process,” says a close friend.

“Her doctor knew everything about her medical history,” says another confidante, who adds that Goldsmith’s friends are focusing on whether the writer received oxygen fast enough. “They fucked up big-time,” charges one.

“We don’t have a lot of information,” says Sheldon Opperman, the director of anaesthesiology at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. “We’re having discussions regarding the case and going over various aspects of it.”

“What drugs did they give her?” wonders one well-respected plastic surgeon unconnected to the hospital or the case. “Did she have a pulmonary embolism? Did anybody notice anything ahead of time? Did she have underlying heart disease? There are so many permutations and complications. Everybody ultimately dies of a stopped heart and low oxygen.

“It comes down to what piece of information isn’t being released here,” says the plastic surgeon. “Any patient that comes in to have surgery that withholds information is putting themselves at risk.” However, she adds, “why wouldn’t somebody share” the fact that she was on antidepressants if she was? “Half of the Upper East Side of Manhattan is on some kind of antidepressant. I don’t think there’s a lot of shame. At the end of the day, it’s a tragedy.”

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