Buyer Beware

If you are considering a face lift, I’m not going to try and talk you out of it. But I am compelled to say, “Buyer beware!”

You’d think with all the advances in technology that plastic surgeons would be able to nip and tuck a person into the Mugshot Hall of Fame.  But have you seen the websites? Face Lifts Gone Wrong, Celebrity Face Lifts Gone Wrong, and on Dr. Phil’s website, What Were These People Thinking?

One evening I walked into the living room where my wife was watching TV. It was like the 51st week in a row that PBS was fund raising. Almost every recording artist who had ever been somebody “back when” had been on PBS that year. The previous night had been, “Sing Along With the One-Hit Wonders” evening. I didn’t know what theme could possibly be onstage that night, but the song was familiar. Still, I didn’t recognize the face of the guy singing.

“Who is this guy?” I asked my wife.

“Kenny Rogers.”

“No way!” But by then I’d heard enough to identify his voice. The Gambler had gambled on a face lift and lost. It reminded me of the time I was watching Hawaii Five-O, the new one, Hawaii Five-O Gone Wrong, which looks nothing like the original, when the guest star turned out to be Meg Ryan. “No way is that her!” And then the lady on a recent cover of the AARP Magazine turned out to be Jessica Lange. “No way!”

I used to think that a plastic surgeon to the stars had to be a really talented physician. Anymore it seems that some plastic surgeons to the stars beat their patients in the face with a bag of meteor chunks. “Take that for making more money than I do!”

One of the surprises when I go to the Celebrity Face Lifts Gone Wrong website is that I don’t know half the people there. Another is that it’s interesting so many of these celebrities have exaggerated lips. It’s like plastic surgeons to these stars said to them, “Want to know what you’ll look like afterward?…Here, try on these wax lips.”

Buyer beware. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there is another problem brought about by face lifts gone wrong. Celebrities depend on facial recognition. They shouldn’t have to introduce themselves to the waitress when they’re seated at the Waffle House. For this reason I think it might be better for them to wait to have a face lift until their career is almost over. Then, if it goes wrong and they never work another gig, they’ll at least enjoy the privacy of never being recognized again. They can drive the paparazzi crazy trying to find them.

John Dillinger, the bank robber, had great faith in plastic surgery. He wanted to change his face so no one would recognize him, specifically J. Edgar Hoover, a fellow who, by the way, could have benefited by even a face lift gone wrong. Dillinger understood that it is important that anyone undergoing such a cosmetic procedure choose a quality clinic, a place where one won’t pick up an infection. Dillinger had his procedure in May 1934 at a weatherbeaten frame house next to a Shell station in an industrial area of Chicago’s North Side. The owner of the house was Jimmy Probasco (sounds like he could have used a nose job himself), a well-respected fence of stolen goods whose favorite pastime was cursing at the two police dogs in his backyard.

Having chosen a world-class clinic, Dillinger next needed a world-class plastic surgeon who made house calls. Fortunately for him, a tall, thin German named Wilhelm Loeser was available. If you’re going to undergo the knife, tall, thin Germans are among the best, at least between World Wars. Wilhelm even had a professional name, Ralph Robiend. He’d had studied medicine, but the only credential he hung on the wall was a wanted poster. Wanted by the FBI, most likely to work on some of their less-attractive agents, Dr. Ralph was assisted by a jittery alcoholic named Harold Cassidy, who needed the money else his ex-wife was going to put him under the knife. He was behind in his alimony.

Unfortunately, Dillinger had never believed the rule that says, “Don’t swim after eating for an hour.” Nor did he know its corollary, “Don’t lift your face after eating for eight hours.” He was so anxious to get started with the surgery that he told a fib when asked if he’d had anything to eat in the last few hours. He said no, but he’d pigged out just an hour earlier. What happened? Nothing initially. Assistant Cassidy placed a towel over his face and began dripping ether onto it. A couple of minutes later, Dillinger was still semiconscious. “When are we going to get this show on the road, Alimony Boy?”

Cassidy then poured an entire can of ether on the towel. Dillinger’s complexion soon turned blue, which isn’t a good sign during a face lift unless you’re going for the Smurf Smirk. He also stopped breathing. Needless to say, this caused Dr. Ralph and Alimony Boy to panic. If Dillinger died, it would be next to impossible to explain to the two, large, armed friends of his waiting outside that “these things just happen.”

Opening the window to vent the ether fumes, the two began pumping Dillinger’s chest. Finally, he began breathing. And even though he vomited several times during the procedure and bled heavily, the surgeon and his assistant pressed on. Slits behind his ears, followed by pulling back the skin, eliminated wrinkles. With the skin from cheek incisions, Dr. Ralph filled in Dillinger’s signature chin dimple. He also removed three facial moles.

When he was finished the bank robber looked like a bloody mummy, and so they wrapped his face in, I suppose, oily rags from the Shell station next door. In an hour he woke up on the blood and vomit stained cot, and then two days later had the bandages removed. Dillinger was delighted! His chin dimple was gone as were the moles. He looked like a new man even though his breath could put you to sleep.

John Dillinger could have starred in the newsreel, “Face lift Gone Right in Spite of Almost Dying.” Unfortunately, though, less than a couple of months later, F.B.I. agents were pretty sure they had tracked him down as he came out of a movie theater. “Stop!” they said.  He reached for his pistol and was killed. Historians are not sure, but some think that his last words were, “Hey, I’m not Dillinger. Look! No chin dimple. And where are the three moles? Not him.” It didn’t help his spiel that the F.B.I. caught up with him when it was nighttime.

What is enlightening about Dillinger’s celebrity face lift is that even though it worked, it didn’t lengthen his career. So, buyer beware. Whether a face lift has gone wrong or turned out great, it may not achieve the intended result. Anna Magnani, the Italian actress who won an Academy Award for her role in her first English-speaking movie, The Rose Tattoo, understood this. She said, “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”

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