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Looks to Die For

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John Reid also told The Mail that Olivia was obsessed with looking younger. However, other friends say that’s absurd. “Who the hell wants to look old?” Lange says. “I don’t think Olivia was any different from any of us.”

Dale Burg remembers visits to Beaver Hall, a dilapidated 1801 Georgian mansion that Goldsmith bought for under $400,000 but sunk almost $1 million into renovating. The house was painted the color of Necco wafers, with periwinkle porch furniture and window boxes.

“The house was a Jane Austen museum for one woman,” Burg recalls. “The proportions were so enormous. She had enormous kinds of talent—a sense of art and history. I wanted to bring a present. What do you bring? A bunch of tulips? It was like bringing a single rose to Versailles.”

Ashmead was equally smitten with Goldsmith until, Ashmead says, he incurred her wrath when he edited her 1996 novel Marrying Mom. “Marrying Mom had what I thought were some rather grotesque sex scenes between people over 70 years of age—they had to rearrange their bellies to have sexual intercourse,” Ashmead says. “I asked her to take it out. That was the end of the relationship. She went out the door and never came back.”

Well, not completely. It turned out Goldsmith was as adept at revenge as any of her characters. On Valentine’s Day, Ashmead opened his front door to discover a bag full of candy valentines. However, Olivia wasn’t trying to restart the friendship.

“She’d crossed out all the nice things and written ‘Fuck you, screw you,’ ” Ashmead says. “It must have taken a lot of time.”

She didn’t stop there. “She went on Sally Jesse Raphael once and said, ‘This book would be a lot better if my editor hadn’t gotten so old he’d forgotten what good sex is like,’ ” Ashmead remembers. “ ‘So if any of you have a manuscript with no sex in it, give it to . . . ’ and she gave my name.”

HarperCollins and Goldsmith eventually parted company in what one HarperCollins executive describes as a “mutual situation.” “What happens in this business is that when a writer’s first book becomes a phenomenon, it’s very hard for the author and for the publisher to recapture that size audience,” the executive says.

Lange says that Olivia was disappointed with some of her sales. “I do remember when she talked about Bestseller, and it sold very few copies,” she says. “She couldn’t believe it. She just felt terrible.

First Wives Club touched the Zeitgeist about women,” Lange adds. “She was this year’s blonde, on the cover of Time magazine.” It was a tough act to follow.

Goldsmith’s declining popularity apparently took an emotional toll. A friend recalls the time an organization paid the author a $10,000 speaking fee and first-class airfare to speak to it. But Goldsmith almost didn’t show. “She just failed miserably,” the friend says. “She didn’t want to come out of her room.”

Nonetheless, Goldsmith continued to publish and to make a fortune. She has two books that are appearing posthumously: Dumping Billy, about a fellow with uncanny powers—women find themselves married within a short time of dating him, but to other people—and Casting On, which Nick Ellison described as a 2004 version of Georgy Girl, about an American woman’s love affair with London. Dumping Billy was sold to Warner Books. For the screenplay and film rights, she got what Ellison describes as seven figures.

Perhaps what Goldsmith was best at wasn’t writing (Ashmead, with whom there’s obviously little love lost, describes her as a writer of modest talent and First Wives Club the literary high-water mark of her career) but at coming up with ideas and pitching them. Few could do so better.

“She could have been anything—an actress, a motivational speaker,” says Marjorie Braman, Goldsmith’s editor at HarperCollins after her falling out with Ashmead. “She once did a book pitch to me as if I was a Hollywood person. It was an incredibly economical pitch. You would see the whole story as she talked about it. I would then and there have jumped up from behind my desk and said, ‘Anything you want,’ because she was so funny.”

The playwright Jay P. Allen, one of Olivia’s more recent acquaintances, spoke with Goldsmith the day before the operation that would end her life. “She was in high spirits,” she recalls. “We talked about plastic surgery—what else! She said she was having it done. That’s all. Just a conversation to let me know where she was.”

The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to issue the results of its autopsy. The case is also under investigation by the New York State Department of Health. “This comes down to allegations regarding anesthesia and the fact that the patient had gone in for elective surgery,” says Robert Kenny, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. “It’s considered an unexpected death.”

Mintz, Goldsmith’s lawyer, says no decision has yet been made about whether to sue Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. “What we’re going to do is evaluate it and make a decision down the road about whether it’s appropriate to start any legal action,” he says. “This is really viewed as a tragedy. Nobody is pointing fingers.”

Goldsmith leaves behind many people who never got to say good-bye. “I keep reflecting about how we laughed so much about plastic surgery,” says Gail Parent. “When Olivia was in a coma, I didn’t believe anything bad was going to happen, and we’d have this wonderful big laugh about it.”

Additional reporting by Rebecca Marx


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