Olivia Goldsmith, 54; Author of Novel 'First Wives Club'

Times Staff Writer

Olivia Goldsmith, a best-selling novelist who used humor to lighten her cautionary tales about marital infidelity, corporate corruption and the cosmetic surgery boom, has died in New York City of complications from elective plastic surgery, according to her agent Nicholas Ellison. She was 54.

Goldsmith went into the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital for cosmetic surgery on Jan. 7. She suffered a heart attack after being given anesthesia and was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, according to Ellison. She remained in a coma until her death late Thursday afternoon.

She was best known for her first novel, "The First Wives Club" (1992), about three friends whose husbands leave them for younger women. The book was made into a movie released in 1996, starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. Goldsmith captured national attention when the book was sold as a feature film.

Thousands of women who saw the film or read the book wrote to her about their own painful experiences as jilted wives. They inspired Goldsmith to write several more novels about the battle between the sexes.

More than one of Goldsmith's heroines turned to plastic surgery in hope of advancing a career or saving a marriage.

In "Flavor of the Month" (1993), an actress changes her appearance for a better chance at stardom. In "Switcheroo" (1998), a wife re-creates herself to resemble her husband's younger mistress.

"Switcheroo" sold as a screenplay first. Goldsmith co-authored that script with Gail Parent.

"I've discovered it's a lot easier to write the screenplay before the novel than to try to distill a big novel into a screenplay," Goldsmith said in an interview with the Seattle Times in 1998. "It's like an outline; I have the dialogue, I understand the characters."

Her dealings with the publishing industry led her to write "The Best Seller" (1996), with a cast of characters that includes an editor who seduces her writers and a husband who sells his wife's fiction under his name.

Critics accused her of writing stories about vengeful women, but she said that although every character in her novels got what he or she deserved, revenge was not the point. "I really write about betrayals," she told the Baltimore Sun in an interview in 1996. "I have always hated injustice."

Ellison described Goldsmith, his client and friend of about 10 years, as a moralist at heart. "Olivia was the master of the novel of high purpose, but she was clever enough to write in a witty and entertaining way so that her message was seamlessly worked into her novels," he said. "In the years that I knew her, she never talked about men as the enemy. Her work was a cry for humanity."

By her own description, Goldsmith was "a pear-shaped, mousy little brunet of a certain age." For her first several books, she posed for publicity photos wearing a long blond wig and spike-heeled shoes. It began as a joke, she told Newsday in an interview in 1996, to poke fun at the editors and publishers who let her know they were disappointed by her physical appearance.

With typical biting humor, she explained, "They never said to Norman Mailer, 'Oooh! We like your book but we'd like you to look a little more glitzy. Let's get you some hair plugs and put in some plastic pecs."

Born Randy Goldfield in New York City, she graduated from New York University with a degree in education. She later said that her parents wanted her to be a teacher or a nurse, the two career options they favored for women.

She began a career in business marketing and launched her own company, Omni Consulting, in 1981. She sold the business in 1984, when her marriage to a business executive was collapsing.

In the divorce proceedings that followed, she lost the New York apartment and the weekend house she had shared with her former husband.

She changed her legal name to Justine Rendal and moved to Chester, Vt., to try writing a novel. She used the pen name Olivia Goldsmith, after the 18th-century British dramatist Oliver Goldsmith.

"I gave myself three years to get published and see if I was living in a dream world," she told Newsday. She finished "First Wives Club" and was $40,000 in debt when Hollywood called.

Looking back at that time in her life, Goldsmith marveled at the way something so good came of her painful divorce. "I don't know where I got the courage to leave my job and write," she told the Chicago Sun Times in an interview in 1996. "I am not a gambler by nature but ... when your life falls apart you figure, why not follow your bliss?"

Goldsmith, who never remarried and had no children, is survived by her mother and two sisters.

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