A TRAGIC ENDING / Novelist Olivia Goldsmith, who died last month, was famous, successful - and well versed in the process of transformation
Some friends knew her as Randy, some as Justine and others
It was Olivia, though, who made her famous. As Olivia Goldsmith, she wrote
"The First Wives Club" and other novels in which she both satirized and
celebrated plastic surgery and other methods by which women could make
themselves look young and beautiful.
But when she died on Jan. 15, at age 54 - a week after falling into a coma
while receiving anesthesia for a nip and tuck around the neck - she found an
ending for herself that was far more tragic and ironic than any she'd concocted
for her characters.
The paradox was palpable to many who knew her as a mercurial woman,
ambitious and complex, who underwent several major transformations beyond the
Goldsmith could be thoughtful, caring and generous. She could also, some
say, be vindictive and petty, ending friendships in abrupt, mystifying, often
bizarre ways - in one instance leaving defaced Valentine candy at the doorstep
of a friend who'd fallen from favor.
"Every curtain that you lift, there's another cloud of mystery ... a lot of
smoke and mirrors and ever- shifting realities in her life," says Amy Fine
Collins, a writer who co-authored a book with Goldsmith. "She was miserable
with her appearance. ... I think Justine would have traded her brains for
beauty. She longed for beauty."
But that longing - reflected in her books - was a complicated thing.
In "Switcheroo," a betrayed wife gets enough plastic surgery to be able to
trade places with her husband's younger mistress. In "Flavor of the Month," a
talented but homely actress goes through two years of procedures, loses 40
pounds and changes her name to become a Hollywood star. And who can forget the
image of Goldie Hawn with overpuffed, collagened lips in a particularly funny
scene from the movie version of "First Wives Club"?
"If she had written a death for herself, this could have been it," Collins
says of Goldsmith's death. "She was one of her characters. She lived like one,
and she died like one."
Goldsmith's death is being investigated by the New York State Department of
Health, a spokesman says. A spokesman for her attorney and agent says the
estate is contemplating legal action, if warranted.
Those who knew Goldsmith say this was not the first such procedure for a
woman who described herself as "a plain brown wren," but whom friends describe
as pretty and witty.
She went from business whiz Randy Goldfield (the name she grew up with in
Dumont, N.J., one of three daughters of a civil servant and a teacher) to
children's book author Justine Rendal (the name she switched to legally) to the
whimsically blond-maned Olivia Goldsmith (a nom de plume to go with another
new career and image, enhanced through her first few books with a wig). Along
the way, she evoked a wide spectrum of reactions and opinions.
"She was unforgettable ... larger than life and full of melodrama," says
Larry Ashmead, who edited several of her books at HarperCollins and was a close
friend - until she cut him off.
"She was lovably meshuggener, and then it became too much," says Collins,
who shared a close friendship - until Goldsmith abruptly ended their friendship.
"She was a wildly funny, deeply generous woman," says Nick Ellison, her
longtime agent and friend.
"She was a very angry woman," says her ex-husband, John T. Reid, "a very
discontented person, always trying to overcome and overachieve and do better."
"She was a darling, darling person," says Ethel Schutz, a 79-year-old
retired English teacher to whom Goldsmith's "Dumping Billy," a novel to be
published in May, is dedicated. Schutz, who lives in East Hampton, had been
Goldsmith's close friend for about three years. They traveled together to
bought a nearby property in East Hampton largely so they could be together
more, Schutz says.
So were Randy, Justine and Olivia three personas? "They were different
businesses," says one former associate who had become alienated from Goldsmith.
But there are more compassionate explanations, too.
Randy Goldfield was, even in high school, a great reader and aspiring
writer, she told one interviewer in 1996. Among her favorite themes, she said,
was anger: "I hate unfairness; it gives me anger. And anger fuels things."
In 1979, she married Reid, then a garment center executive and now a
T-shirt producer. "She wrote 18th century English romances," he says, "in bed
at night, in longhand," but they were never published. Meanwhile, she
flourished as a consultant at the management consulting firm Booz Allen
Initially, Reid says, he was taken by her sense of humor and her "very
verbal, very vocal Jewish family," whom they visited often.
During her marriage, her professional star rose. A 1981 Business Week
article recounted how she was recruited to become president of a Katharine
Gibbs subsidiary, a new consulting group that would train secretaries and
executives in how to move "into the office of the future" with its newfangled
word processors. She was already negotiating a $500,000 contract, and planned
"to parlay this business ... into broad-based corporate strategic planning."
Among the people she hired was Warren Waldbrand, who now lives in East
Setauket and Manhattan. Waldbrand says he followed her when she launched and
became president of her own consulting firm, the Omni Group. "It was
successful. It grew rapidly," he says.
Another Omni employee, David Cushing, now of Montclair, N.J., had sought
her out after reading the Business Week article while he was a young trade
journalist. She was well- known and influential, he says, "in a major trend:
office automation and the coming of the personal computer. Randy was an
incredible leader. ... She was great at developing people." She turned him from
a journalist into a businessman, he says, though she did accept his offer to
ghostwrite a Working Woman magazine column for her.
When Goldsmith sold the company in 1984, "she gave virtually everyone there
some cash and some stock, and that was amazing," says Cushing.
Around that same time, Goldsmith and Reid split, though they didn't
finalize their divorce until 1990. In numerous interviews during her career as
a novelist, Goldsmith never named Reid, but sometimes talked about a 5-year
marriage followed by a rancorous 6- or 7-year-long divorce in which her husband
got "everything," including the Hamptons house and the Jaguar.
"I bought the house in Amagansett," which he still owns, says Reid. Ditto
for the car. "She didn't have a license. She couldn't drive." (She once again
owned a Jaguar at her death, says her friend Schutz, and let others drive her.)
They split because, he says, "She didn't want to have children, although
when I married her she did." Neither ever had children. After the breakup, she
became estranged from her family for about a year, he says, and had been so,
off and on, since then. (One of her sisters, Kate Goldfield, declined to be
interviewed, saying, "We are still just finishing sitting shiva for our
sister.") She also dropped all their friends. "It was as though she took a
blackboard, wrote down every name that she had anything to do with, and erased
it. ... When she wrote you off, you were dead, and you didn't know why." It was
a pattern to be repeated.
Soon after selling the company and ending her marriage, Goldsmith left for
There, she started her career as Justine Rendal, children's book author.
She was successful, but not in the mega-Hollywood way she apparently craved. At
some point, she decided to turn to adult novels and screenplays and to return
to the United States. For this new stage, she invented her pen name, after the
18th century novelist Oliver Goldsmith.
In 1989, she said in interviews, she read a Fortune magazine article about
executives who abandoned their older mates for younger "trophy wives," and got
the idea for her first novel, which she wrote in Vermont.
She pitched "The First Wives Club," her comic story of sweet revenge by
three dumped wives, as both a film and novel.
But selling Olivia proved tougher than selling Justine. She had 27
rejection letters and a $40,000 debt, she told Newsday in 1996, when she got a
call saying that three Hollywood studios were bidding for the manuscript. It
ultimately went to producer Sherry Lansing, now chairwoman of Paramount.
That sale piqued publishers' interest, and in 1991 Simon & Schuster awarded
her a hefty contract. When she met with her publishers, though, she said in
the interview, they told her they had expected her to be "taller and blonder
and more sophisticated looking." Her response was to don a tacky blond wig and
And that's how she showed up at photographer Sigrid Estrada's studio in
1991, for the first of several author's photographs. "She loved disguises,"
even adding sunglasses and a leopard skin wrap for a later photo shoot, says
Estrada. "She believed perhaps in changing your persona, especially after she
was so successful in Hollywood," where, she reported, everyone had plastic
surgery. "She always told me that whatever you're not happy with can be
In 1994 or 1995, Goldsmith had surgery on her neck and chin (the same area
that was to be tightened before her death). "She was very open about it, that
it was the most natural thing in the world to do," Estrada says. Goldsmith
preferred side lighting to bring out her cheekbones, and often put her hands up
to hide her chin, she says.
She said she'd never made money on her children's books and told Estrada,
"I'm tired of starving. I want to make a lot of money. I want to be a success,"
says Estrada, adding that she liked Goldsmith very much.
Two others who knew her at that time were Chuck Adams, a Simon & Schuster
editor who was involved in the purchase of "The First Wives Club" but declined
to work with Goldsmith, and Joanna Colter, who published a Rendal children's
book under her own imprint at the same firm.
"She was a witty and very intelligent lady," says Adams, who called her
Justine. "But as an editor, I thought she needed more work than she was willing
to put in." Adams says Goldsmith told him "that she had read some Danielle
Steele books and felt, 'I could write that crap.' I felt she was writing down
to her readers. ... She was out to make a buck." He says he liked her
personally, and that she often gave generous gifts, such as a pricey
Abercrombie & Fitch picnic basket when she came to his apartment for lunch.
"She made large statements."
Colter, who published the children's book "A Very Personal Computer" in
1995, has a much higher opinion of the writer Rendal. "It's a wonderful story
for kids. She had a great love of children's books. She kind of considered her
children's work her serious work - not to denigrate her other work, her
mainstream success." She was so successful with her novels, says Colter, that
she never did another children's book.
"In that period when we were working together, she went out of her way to
be close. She extended herself," inviting Colter to her New York apartment and
her Vermont house. Colter met Goldsmith's longtime companion of the time, Paul
Smith, whom Goldsmith said in interviews was a captain, pilot and sound
engineer she had met in Florida, where she also had a home. (Goldsmith parted
amicably with Smith after about 10 years together.) She was open, too, about
plastic surgery for her chin area. "She was relaxed about it," says Colter. "I
thought she was lovely to look at both ways."
Goldsmith also went out of her way to become friendly with her next editor,
Larry Ashmead of HarperCollins, who is now retired. After visiting his
vacation home in Stuyvesant, N.Y., she bought a home nearby, a Georgian mansion
called Beaver Hall, which she restored in such a glorious way that
Architectural Digest devoted eight pages to photos and her story about the home
in February 1989. She also bought Ashmead a $7,000 fence, which he couldn't
return because she had had it set in his garden in concrete.
"She was generous to everyone when it was your time, when you were the
'flavor of the month.' ... It was her way of controlling people, of making them
like her. She was so insecure. Her self-image was terrible." He recalled that
she had two liposuctions while he knew her. She thought plastic surgery was "a
great boon to women," he says.
He edited three of her books - thinking, like Adams, that she had great
plot ideas, but didn't like editing her books - then turned her over to another
editor after "she wrote a letter complaining to my higher-ups that I was too
old, that I had forgotten what sex was about. It was one of those revenge
things she was so popular for. No one stayed more than five years in her life.
... Revenge was her guiding force in life."
To clinch the estrangement, he says, "One day I got a bag of candy hearts
left at my front door. She had scraped off the sayings and put nasty things on
them. It must have taken her hours."
Another person similarly cut off by Goldsmith after a warm friendship of
about four years is Amy Fine Collins. Collins, a Vanity Fair special
correspondent and former style editor of Harper's Bazaar, collaborated with
Goldsmith on "Simple Isn't Easy," a nonfiction book on how to organize your
wardrobe. "She came into my life in a big way. I met her when she was
researching 'Fashionably Late,'" a fashion world satire published in 1994.
Goldsmith suggested the joint book and, as with Ashmead, moved into a place
very close to Collins' home in Manhattan.
She was very generous with gifts, including "a very beautiful silk peach
dress" from England for Collins' daughter.
"She was meshuggener," says Collins. "She became obsessed with friends. She
enveloped you with entertainment and gifts. She moved serially through
different friendships." Collins has since discovered that several things
Goldsmith told her - her age, that she was married to Smith, that her real name
was Justine Rendal - aren't true. And she also concocted some of the
supposedly true anecdotes in their book, Fine says.
Though Goldsmith "had a big heart," says Collins, she also had an unusual
way of ending their relationship, not showing up for dinner at Collins'
apartment one day, never to return calls or talk to her again. "Poof, she was
gone," says Collins. "She moved on to the next person."
Combing through people listed by Goldsmith in the acknowledgments of her
books uncovers some who showed up fairly consistently, others not. One woman
contacted called her a "dear friend," another turned out to be a decorator who
had only spoken on the phone to Goldsmith, whom she remembered as Justine
Rendal, and was surprised to find herself listed in a book.
A more recent friend and champion is Jamie Raab, the editor of her upcoming
book, "Dumping Billy," about a scheme involving a young man from Brooklyn
whose special gift is that any woman he dates and dumps goes on to marry the
next man she meets. "I had a blast working with her," says Raab, who is also
the publisher of Warner Books. "What I recall most is that she was easy to work
At the time of her death, her agent Ellison says, she had two books already
in the pipeline at Warner, and all her novels were optioned for movies. She
also had just completed another, "Loving Dick," a "bawdy, celebratory" romance
about five women who meet the same man, Richard, on the Internet.
She had discussed her plastic surgery with Ellison. "I was deadly opposed
to it. I thought it was absurd, it's buying into a beauty culture of how women
should look," a culture Goldsmith criticized in some of her books.
But Goldsmith had no concerns, says her East Hampton friend Schutz, who
knew her as Justine. "I spoke to her the night before. She said, 'Call me at 1
o'clock. I'll be home with a nurse. You know it's nothing.' ... She had to be
perfect, and she was so beautiful." For the last nine or 10 months, she had
been dating a Hamptons contractor, who sat at her bedside during the coma and
is "very affected" by her death. "I'm so moved by his devotion," Schutz says.
Goldsmith had many "longtime friends," she adds.
"She was in every possible way a giving person. ... Her generosity reached
past her death. She donated not just her organs, but her bones, her skin,
Goldsmith's living will specified no memorial service, says Schutz, but the
weekend after her death, six of her friends gathered at Schutz's home. "We all
sat and drank a glass of champagne and told stories," says Schutz. "A lot of
us will miss her. I will miss her."