Fancy Faces, Fancy Pants. Part II.

The passing parade on Mulberry Street. 8:55 PM. Photo: JH.

Yesterday’s piece on Alex Kuczynski’s new book (excerpted in the latest Vanity Fair) brought people out of the woodwork with opinions. Many view our obsession with plastic surgery as another symptom of our cultural decadence. They express their dismay with words and phrases like “pathetic” or “I feel sorry for….” Others are more matter of fact: A good friend of mine emailed to say that she’d had two face lifts. I vaguely recalled hearing about one of them at the time. She still looks the same to me. And rather good, I should add. Others wrote of horror stories of friends (or maybe themselves), while still others wanted a recommendation of a good plastic surgeon.

Ann Miller about to go into her dance

I was reminded of the story of Ann Miller’s nose. I’m referring to dancing movie star of the 40s and 50s who was famous for her routines in which she tore off her (wrap) skirt and twirled around and around and around. First given to her by her good friend, choreographer Hermes Pan, it got to be a signature movement in her films – down stairs, across table tops, tapping away.

Ann Miller had a botched nose job when she was first under contract to MGM. They made one side a little too slender and the flaw showed up on camera. So the studio makeup department made a prosthesis that was attached (or glued on) for filming. In the 1950s, Hermes Pan choreographed Miller in the film version of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” which was filmed in 3-D. During one of her numbers, Pan directed her in a series of her famous twirls, heading straight for the camera. Just about six or seven feet from the lens, twirling and twirling, Miller’s nose flew off and jettisoned right into the camera. The scene was re-shot, needless to say. Pan told me once that the three principals in that film were all wearing nose pieces.

Fifty years ago, their practices were referred to sotto voce. Women seeking a plastic surgeon would often ask their dentists, with the pretext that the dentist knew about faces. Today you can go to a dinner party on either Coast and hear people talking about their experiences over dinner. I recall one dinner I went to about fifteen years ago in Los Angeles where I was the only one of ten at table who had not had a face job. That included a couple of male movie stars.

In its earlier manifestations right up today, plastic surgery has been regarded as a method of staving off the ravages of Father Time (and Mother Nature). The difference between then (forty, fifty years ago)  and now is that the patient is getting younger and younger because ... they want to look different. Not younger; different. Like someone else. Like a cat (not like a squirrel), like a cute little button, a sultry siren. Who knows, but not much different from creating a menu for your next dinner party, or next manicure.

Vera-Ellen and Fred Astaire

Nowadays plastic surgeons are even the darlings of society – the way fashion designers were in the 1960s. Or they could be. Or should be. There are the flashier ones whose names evoke images of luxury goods (like jewels and expensive shoes and handbags). This popularity has its good points and its bad.

When one very well known plastic surgeon was having marital and domestic problems a few years ago (and became a little unhinged), it was the talk of the town. At the height of his alleged instability, however, he had something like 27 “beds” at one of the local infirmaries. “Beds” in the cosmetic surgery parlance is like “heads” is to “hairdressers,” a synonym for success or failure. 27 beds is a helluva number for someone who was on shaky ground (associates actually did the surgery in case you’re wondering). His patients wanted him, and his magic.

Joan Rivers ...

I remember seeing his beautiful wife one summer early on in their marriage. She looked “different.” I wasn’t so sure she looked so good. She was young too. And beautiful. So I wondered why. I wonder no more. For some people it’s like going to get your teeth cleaned and checked. And whitened of course. I’m sure that’s what it is for Joan Rivers. I’ve been watching Joan Rivers since her early days on the Carson show when she was so funny making fun of her looks you could fall off the couch from laughing. I’m not exaggerating.

Gerry Imber

Now, umpty-ump procedures later, Joan might make fun of the plastic surgery but not of her looks. Because she looks good. I know some people think that it’s a bit (or maybe more than that) much, but I know Joan now and I see her up close and she looks good at her version of her age which is now over 70. Going on forty-seven. The other thing about Joan is that she’s very intelligent and very creative. After all, she turned a Borscht belt into a silk purse.

The first person I ever knew to have plastic surgery was the girl next door when I was a teen-ager. She was a very pretty redhead, and Irish American girl with a big schnozz. I put it that bluntly because it was disproportional to the rest of her face. So she had it fixed. She was fourteen or fifteen and she had a nose job. I didn’t see her for two or three weeks and when I did, she’d been transformed into young womanhood. Or at least that’s what it seemed like to this geeky teenager. That procedure had positively altered the way she felt about herself. In fact, in my opinion, it altered it beyond reason and she became quite taken with herself.

I always wondered how a doctor chose to be a plastic surgeon. Was it the money? I asked Gerry Imber once how he became a plastic surgeon. He’s an affable man to talk to, with a directness that is refreshing. He was doing his residency at a hospital in Los Angeles and assisting in surgery. A doctor there observed him at work and determined that he was very very talented in the art of stitching people up. He had the artist’s touch. Doctors look at that sort of thing, obviously. So this doctor suggested to Gerry that he consider the plastic surgery business and he connected him up with a prominent plastic surgeon in New York.

What is that phrase? “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Clothes horses. Giddy-yap-giddy-yap, giddy-yup.

Eleanor Lambert at 97

In the same Vanity Fair with Alex Kuczynski’s book excerpt is the 2006 Best Dressed List. As I’ve written here more than once, (so forgive the repeating), I sat on the Best Dressed Committee for a few years, invited by its creator Eleanor Lambert.

To be invited by the lady, who was a formidable and exceptional person and businesswoman, was very flattering. The Best Dressed to me meant something I heard about as a kid. It was regarded as an accolade paid only to the mythic and mainly the glamorous. It was Society’s symphony, hummed by average (but aspiring) American housewives. (This is the kid talking.) However, in all the years that have passed, and the phases and transmogrifications of fashion that we’ve witnessed, the Best Dressed List had begun to take on the thicker airs of nostalgia by the time I came to the confab.

The meetings were held in Eleanor’s Fifth Avenue living room. There were about twenty, many of whom are well known in social circles, on the committee. Decisions were astonishingly makeshift. There was a list. People’s names were read out, and someone in the room would have a reaction. If it were a name that wasn’t popular with certain people, it was tossed. Not unlike some clique who just won’t invite certain people to the party. There’s a lesson in that which is difficult for very socially aggressive people to learn: nobody likes pushy. At least they don’t like it to “show.” (Brings back memories, probably).

The discussions went along the lines of “she’s great,” “I love her,” or “she has a wonderful husband,” or “he’s a great guy,” or, “oh god, he’s horrible…” And from there somehow a little List would be hatched, take its first steps and finally run into a final tally which seemed to be loading up on movie-stars-of-the-moment.

One of the last meetings I attended had several people from Conde Nast including Graydon Carter, the E-I-C of VF. That year saw Victoria Newhouse on the List (wife of Conde Nast owner Si Newhouse) as well as several others from the Conde Nast family. I think even Mr. Carter was anointed by his brothers and sisters. I don’t recall if Mr. Newhouse was added to the List, but there was definitely a loyalty in the room. Well, why not? Or: oh well, what the hell.

Then, once the List was compiled, there was getting the publicity, getting the word out. That wasn’t as easy as it had once been back in Eleanor’s heyday. The Consumer Society is a Shopping Society. Oftentimes they’d often been-there-done-that. Or were somewhere else. Maybe with some baby fat hanging over the backside of her low slung jeans with the hems dragging.

Hedi Slimane

Not long before her passing Eleanor Lambert arranged to “bequeath” the International Best Dressed List to Vanity Fair. At first it seemed like an odd move for the magazine because the List had become a dinosaur well on its way the Museum of Natural History.

However. I stopped going to the Best Dressed meeting three years ago and shortly thereafter, they stopped inviting me to attend. I couldn’t have been very useful anyway. Fashion and style are so personal. I like people who look attractive (to me) when they’ve got themselves up for going out on the street. I like neat. And clean. I don’t like droopy drawers. I really don’t understand all the tattoos or the sluttiness (their word, not mine) that came into fashion several years ago. It looks bizarrely adolescent. Not to mention boring. But there you are: opinions.

Fran Lebowitz

So, with all that in mind, I took a look at the 2006 Best Dressed List in Vanity Fair. And, I have to say (if you care), I liked it. A group of goodlooking people, often people who are interested in fashion, in the way they look, in style. Some are famous, several are British or European, many are rich; some are beautiful, or handsome, and others are not. But they all look good. I was looking at Hedi Slimane (pronounced ‘eddy’) who designs for Dior. That’s not my idea of a best-dressed look. So I looked at it and looked at it and detached myself from Hedi Slimane’s get-up, and I came away thinking: this is good. Then of course there was Fran Lebowitz. I was present at a meeting several years go when she was first proposed. Many liked the idea but some didn’t because her garb is decidedly lineal and male-oriented in the popular mind. Jacket and pants. So this year, they succeeded. Lebowitz is a wonder. She’s very smart. And wry. And full of uncommon common sense garnishing her take on a lot of things in contemporary life. She has opinions about fashion and style and they’ll probably be reading them decades from now because her words often articulate the Zeitgeist. So does her costume.


When I was a kid, I would have wanted to be one of the Best Dressed. And dance like Fred Astaire too; can’t leave that one out. Oh, and sing like Frank Sinatra. As an adult and as a struggling writer, I lost that aspiration somewhere between my single pair of grey flannels and my single pair of jeans. I just didn’t want to look as threadbare as it seemed at times.

Later on when things came together and I had reason to wear jackets and flannels and wools, etc. it was a question of buying things that would give good mileage.


Nevertheless, Fred Astaire was my idea of a cool, well-dressed guy. He wasn’t a beauty to look at in terms of male pulchritude, but boy was he a beauty, all style and tossed-off élan. That remains my idea of Best Dressed and I think they found a lot of it for this year’s List in all categories.

Oh, incidentally: I met Fred Astaire once. At a dinner in California at the house of Edie Goetz (see the List). Everyone met at 7:30 in the Billy Haines-designed library for cocktails. I was the last to arrive of six. Mr. Astaire was quite old then in early 80s. But he still looked like Fred. He had that same diffident manner with which hewas wearing a blue blazer, with a blue and white striped shirt, and a blue knit necktie, as well as dark grey flannel pants. So was I. He looked me over when we were introduced. I wondered if he’d noticed I’d copied him, as I’d done by best to do for years before and years since. Why wouldn’t he have?


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August 15, 2006, Volume VI, Number 129


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/