Looks to Die For

In The Pink: Olivia Goldsmith with fellow novelist (and L.A. TV news anchor Kelly Lange in 1996.Photo: Lisa Rose/Globe Photos

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.”

One thing no one disputes is Goldsmith’s talent. After graduating from NYU, Randy Goldfield joined Booz Allen Hamilton, the management-consulting firm, where she worked from 1976 to 1981 and was one of the first women to make partner. Around 1983, she started her own firm, the Omni Group, which helped companies such as Hoffman-La Roche, Merrill Lynch, IBM, and Data General automate their offices.

What she was best at, even back then, was pitching stories. “She was a rather extraordinary salesperson,” says Warren Waldbrand, who worked as an executive under Goldfield at Omni. “She knew how to sell intangibles, which you do in consulting. She was very skillful at creating a buzz.”

Waldbrand recalls when Randy convinced BusinessWeek to include her start-up among a short list of top IT-consulting firms. “Let’s say the buzz was ahead of the facts,” Waldbrand says. “The kind of thing at which she really excelled was gaining access to very high-level decision-makers, and she knew how to move them to act in the way she wanted. She knew how to close at a very high level.”

Nonetheless, her heart was apparently elsewhere. “If you told her she was going to be a successful IT consultant the rest of her life, she’d be profoundly depressed,” says Waldbrand, who remembers the way Goldfield remained at the office late at night with an administrative assistant, trying to write novels and children’s books. She and her partners eventually sold the company to Butler Cox, a British firm.

“As doctors worked to resuscitate her, friends kept vigil, talking to her, singing to her, rubbing her feet.”

In 1976, Randy married John T. Reid, a business executive. The couple split acrimoniously six years later. Broke from her divorce and legal fees, as her oft-told legend has it, she moved to London, changed her name to Justine Rendal, and wrote her first novel about revenge-seeking first wives, based, she said, on her own marriage to a philandering tycoon.

However, the real Reid, who still lives in Manhattan, recently told the British newspaper The Mail that the problem with his marriage wasn’t that he was a master of the universe but that he wasn’t. “I was a very ordinary, monogamous person running a ladies’-clothing line.”

More recently, Olivia was said to have been married to a much younger Florida yacht skipper named Paul Smith. “When she called you, on your caller I.D. it still came up as Paul Smith,” says Nick Ellison. Larry Ashmead got to know Paul Smith well when Goldsmith bought the mansion down the road from theirs two hours north of Manhattan and rode around the countryside on the back of Smith’s motorcycle. “She used to introduce him as her husband; he wasn’t,” says Ashmead.

“She ran singles ads in New York Magazine and was meeting men that way,” Ashmead adds. “I knew she met at least one, a fairly nice guy. We all had dinner together.”

Kelly Lange, a longtime anchor for NBC-4 Los Angeles and now a mystery writer, also remembers meeting Paul Smith. “I’d heard it was a marriage she did in some Central American country and never made legal,” she recalls. “At some point she said, ‘I’m divorcing him.’ Maybe it wasn’t that hard. He was not big in her orbit. She had a high orbit. She made big, big tracks.”

Lange remembers Goldsmith as a Roman candle. They met when Olivia picked up a copy of Kelly’s novel Trophy Wife at the airport and left a message on her answering machine at NBC-4. “She said, ‘You don’t know me. I wrote a book called First Wives Club. I came out here. I’m at the Beverly Wilshire.’ I fell in love with her on the phone. I went over and picked her up and took her to a party. We were close for a long time.”

Lange remembers the Valentine’s Day when, between relationships, she had dinner with Olivia and Gail Parent between the early and late news and lamented the fact that all the women at work except her had received flowers.

“Olivia excused herself, went to the phone, and fifteen minutes later, in comes a florist with a huge vase,” Kelly says. “It covered the table. The card said, ‘Dear Kelly, Last night was wonderful. Denzel.’ ” The reference was to Denzel Washington, co-owner of the restaurant where they were having dinner.

“I’ve never seen anyone enjoy” her wealth more, Parent observes. “She lavished gifts on everyone she knew. It was a fantasy—‘I can do these things!’ I don’t think it spoiled her.”

Olivia doted on her nieces, but her relationships with her sisters, Kate Goldfield and Barbara Turner, were turbulent. Steven Mintz, Goldsmith’s lawyer, said that no family member was available for comment.

Perhaps the person Olivia was closest to was Nan Robinson, her assistant. “Nan was a gofer, a typist, and Olivia more or less took over her life,” Ashmead says.

“She ran interference for her all the time,” Lange recalls. “She made a lot of money as an assistant. I’d heard Olivia put a child of Nan’s in private school. She was really, really good to Nan.”

Lorelle Phillips, who owns the house next door to her upstate house and who frequently had Goldsmith as a houseguest, believes that her neighbor had a surpassing fear of growing old. “She was the first person who ever talked to me about Botox, and she had had it long before it became de rigueur,” recalls Phillips, whose phone calls Olivia inexplicably stopped returning as soon as she moved into her own house. “She was somebody who had a difficult time growing old. She definitely didn’t tell her age. Maybe this was the way she needed to go, because I don’t think she would have dealt well with old age. She would have died when the London Telegraph called her “plump’ ” in an obituary.

Ashmead agrees. “I think she had a great fear of growing old and not looking pretty,” says the editor, who says he forced her to retire the long blonde wig she wore for her photograph in First Wives Club. “That was the reason for the plastic surgery.”

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

Looks to Die For