MAKING THE CUT

Adventures of a Plastic Surgeon

By Kurt J. Wagner MD

(eBook version)

eBook version

Copyright 2011 © Kurt J. Wagner
All rights reserved.

DrKurtWagner.com

Kurt J. Wagner

Dedication
Perhaps it is a little unusual to honor someone who was in my life for only a few years. But it was my grandfather, Oscar Kaunitz who gave me the map to set my journey on its course. Wherever you are, Papa, this one’s for you !!!!

3

Making the Cut

TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. THE BEGINNING 2. VIENNA 1930S 3. WHAT A WORLD! 4. A LITTLE ASIDE - FREUD AND ME 5. THE COMING STORM 6. THINGS ARE A CHANGING 7. AMERICA, AMERICA 8. MICKEY AND ME 9. MOVE AGAIN 10. GONE WITH THE WIND - A LANGUAGE PRIMER 11. TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME 12. THE AMERICANIZATION OF YOUNG WAGNER 13. ANOTHER WAR TIME CASUALTY 14. LITTLE ROCK - AGE 10 15. THE SOUTHERNIZATION OF KURT-A NEW POINT OF VIEW 16. 1945 – HOORAY FOR THE USA 17. BACK TO SQUARE TWO? 1946 18. COLLEGE DAZE OF SORTS 19. MONEY ON THE HOOF 20. A DIFFERENT ROAD TO TRAVEL-FOR A WHILE AGE 19 21. MY REAL EDUCATION 22. SUNY ENTERING MED SCHOOL AGE 20 23. A REAL LOOK AT THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR 24. THE EUROPEAN TOUR

4

Kurt J. Wagner
25. AGE 23- AT LEAST I HAD A HAND IN IT 26. OUT IN THE REAL WORLD - IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE! 27. JULY 1958 CLOSER TO FREEDOM - AGE 24 28. MOVE OVER ELVIS – ALMOST 29. MOVE ON 30. THE COURTSHIP 31. BARBARA 32. WELCOME TO THE WEST COAST, BABY 33. REVELATION TIME 34. I LOVE YOU PORGY 35. LET’S LEAVE DODGE FOR A WHILE 36. LET’S HAVE A BABY 37. SURGEON IN TRAINING 38. MRS. MILLER, ARE YOU OK? 39. FINISHING UP PHASE ONE 40. 1962- ON THE MOVE 41. ADIOS, OKLAHOMA - HELLO, NEW YORK 42. THIS IS THE AIR FORCE, DOCTOR WAGNER 43. BARBARA’S FUNERAL 44. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO! 1966 45. NOT ENTIRELY ON MY OWN 46. BETTER THAN CARMAX AGE 34 47. MR. 1250 48. SURGEON TO A STAR OR TWO-AND EVERYONE ELSE 49. TRUE GRIT 50. MY CAREER EXPANDS 51. THE MAN MUST BE PUNISHED 1971-1972 52. OH-SAY CAN YOU SEE 5

Making the Cut 53. ONLY A MANIAC SUCKS FAT OUT OF A BODY 54. MEETING WITH MY LEGEND 55. REALITY IN PARADISE 56. THE BEAT GOES ON 1974-75 57. THE RACE GOES ON AND DISASTER WINS 58. WHO AM I? 59. THE 90S - NOT ENTIRELY GAY 60. MY FAMILY GETS BIGGER 61. NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED 62. SOUTH OF THE BORDER 63. A NEW CENTURY

64.

A NEW BEGINNING

6

Kurt J. Wagner

THE ORIGINAL “DOC HOLLYWOOD”

7

Making the Cut

1 THE BEGINNING
I guess the best way to start a story is from the beginning, except where it’s difficult to define the onset of something. Being a doctor makes it a little more difficult because of all the various inputs that are tucked away in the deep recesses of the cerebral cortex. Mix that with a little bit of Freudian theory, some overdeveloped sexual drives, and a lot of pre-determined DNA and you wind up in a sea of confusion. Let’s dive in. It was late in the afternoon in the last days of November in 1989. My mother Sonia’s health had been fading for many years, and lying there in her bed, she looked more like a Yoda out of Stars Wars. Her swollen condition forced her to stay in the upright position, gasping to catch every breath. Her heart didn’t respond to the armada of drugs, diuretics and digoxin anymore, her lungs were drowning in fluid with no chance of finding a safe shore. Our relationship had had its ups and downs and I remember saying in a joking manner “Oedipus, Schmedipus, I love my mama” more than once. Unfortunately, she took it more seriously than I did, and more than one person or better “said” woman had commented on the intensity of her feelings to her first born. But back to the mainstream. I was summoned for a special meeting. My mother had something that she had to tell me. After all, we had only a 55-year (56 if you count her pregnancy) span to straighten things out. Studio City, California was a fitting place to be the fulcrum of our saga. The last rays of the sun were streaming through the venetian blinds, making the bed and its occupant look as

8

Kurt J. Wagner

though they were trapped in a prison cell. I entered the room, cluttered with too much furniture, too ornate for its 10 x 14 foot setting, and with two strides had her hand in mine as I sat on the side of her bed. “Kurtie, I have something to tell you.” “What is it, Mutti? “Your father’s not your father.”

9

Making the Cut

2 VIENNA 1930s

Vienna in the 1930s has been described from every angle because of its importance in the historical significance of WWII’s beginnings. I always think that God played a bad trick on his world by filling such beautiful places with such disagreeable people. Austria is a great place to be from, the further the better, particularly if you have a little Jewishness inside of you. The anxiety of its populace made Austria’s capital city a fitting place for being the cauldron of hysteria, neuroses, psychoses, and complexes; and it seems like everyone had gotten a serving of the stew that simmered in the pot – and Sonia Kaunitz had more than one helping. Her father, Oskar, was the third generation of physicians that had sprung from the loins of a branch of the family that had boasted the Prince Chancellor to Maria Theresa as one of its members. (Wenzel Anton KaunitzRietberg who remained in office almost four decades, resigning in 1792.) Aside from delivering seventeen children,

10

Kurt J. Wagner

including Marie Antoinette, this Empress had a roving eye. (It was rumored that Wenzel Anton, my great-great-granddad, did more than advise his queen.)

Wenzel Anton Kaunitz

Oskar had chosen to become an obstetrician and, in order to fill the family coffers, had used his surgical skills to assist many a patrician lady in ridding herself of an unwanted pregnancy. A great trick in Catholic Austria before and after the reign of Franz Joseph. Being the third of seven children born to a Yugoslavian physician, he left his small town to seek fortune and a degree in Vienna.

11

Making the Cut

Oskar, Great-Grandpapa and Great-Uncle Paul

After his graduation, he settled in the 9th District, well known for “Das Allgemeines Krankenhaus der Stadt Wien,” the Vienna General Hospital, and its satellite office of physicians and other professional services. Olga was his first cousin, a raven-haired beauty with fetching purple eyes. She had become his bride not entirely of his own volition, but being in his late 20s, he decided that it was time to start a family. But even Oskar could not do much to determine the gender of his first born girl, Sonia, who appeared in 1909. Determined to have a son, Olga was quickly impregnated again and after an uneventful pregnancy, she delivered stillborn twin sons. Undaunted, Oskar found time from his bourgeoning practice to re-impregnate his obedient wife, and as the shadows of war loomed over the continent, a little sister named Barbara Fredericka was brought forth. (That she turned out to be a schizophrenic is another tale for a later date.)

12

Kurt J. Wagner

Just a little aside about Oskar’s brother, Paul, who followed his older brother into the medical profession: He chose pathology as his specialty and after graduation, returned to Sarajevo just in time to be available for the embalming of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, assassinated by National extremists -- an act that pushed the world into the first great conflict. The Habsburgs evidently thought that a Kaunitz was a fitting choice to embalm the Archduke and his wife, probably because our family was into them in more ways than one. Back to the major characters: Olga, unfortunately, got breast cancer and after the obligatory mutilation, was constantly morose and if she ever had been able to, no longer could provide “sexual” and intellectual comfort to the insatiable Oskar, who found comfort in the arms of many of his patients, who had fallen under the spell of his azure-blue gaze and magic hands. Sonia soon became the little mother, and had many tasks that as she grew older, would include being a savior to her mother, an unwilling sister, and a companion to her father with whom she constantly was at odds. Oskar could boast of many accomplishments, but neither of his daughters could claim their mother’s beauty as theirs. Sonia was more blessed than her younger sister, but she shared her father’s propensity toward corpulence, which was to become a life-long struggle. While her father ruled the house with an iron hand, Sonia soon became an accomplished singer and pianist, which delighted her family and friends. But it was destined to be a battleground for her future career. Her presbyopia was ever a source of consternation. Her vanity, combined with Papa’s unwillingness to consider

13

Making the Cut

that his eagle eyes had not passed the placental barrier, proved a detriment to her scholastic endeavors. So Sonia grew up and soon determined to follow a theatrical career. After all, hadn’t her two aunts on Olga’s side carved out a niche for themselves on the stage? But she was soon to be frustrated by her father, who thought that actresses may be good in front of an audience, or under the sheets, but not for his daughter. Therefore, after much consternation, she relegated her talents to entertaining friends and family, while she improved her culinary skills to delight the ever-expanding appetite of her slowly-expanding father. Her life under the dictatorial reign of what would now be described as the “male chauvinist pig” was growing more and more difficult and soon another man would enter the scene. Hans Moldauer was the son of an attorney, part of Vienna’s upper middle class growing intelligentsia. A handsome face, an infectious smile and continental charm, combined with a musical virtuosity, were an overwhelming combination for many a dirndl dressed damsel. Because of their love for music and (it’s hard for a son to judge his mother’s attractiveness) physical attraction, their duets on viola and piano soon became sexually charged. Hans reluctantly attended law school because of his father’s wishes, albeit without making too much headway toward graduation. Whether Sonia saw this opportunity as a chance to get out from under an increasingly uncomfortable situation at home, or truly desired to make this her future is a moot point. At any rate, the young duo secretly eloped, both being in their early twenties before they could obtain parental blessing. It seems that the LLD (law degree) was a necessary prerequisite. Under a covert blanket Sonia soon found herself pregnant and when Hans proved to be fearful of the consequences of revealing their plight to the elders, an
14

Kurt J. Wagner

abortion was planned and carried out. The distressed mother sought refuge in a pilgrimage to a family home in Yugoslavia, while the young husband found comfort in the arms of another woman. Unfortunately, he was seen with his latest paramour by a mutual friend (?) who could hardly wait to share the news with the recuperating patient. But, lest ye readers judge the man too harshly, remember this is just part of the beginning. One characteristic that followed Sonia her whole life through – forgiveness – was not part of her repertoire, so Hans bit the dust either through Papa’s pull with the church that resulted in an annulment -- or perhaps there was never a marriage? Not really worth researching. Now our little girl was all grown up but as slightly-soiled merchandise. It seems that scholastic pursuits were quietly put aside. Oskar was one to take care of his family so it came as no surprise that several of his siblings were ensconced within a one or two block radius. One problem that had plagued Sonia was her sister, a.k.a. Fritzi. Fat, unattractive and slightly bonkers, she had survived an attempt on her life at age 2 when accidentally pushed down a flight of stairs in her carriage by her adoring sister. It was a relief when Aunt Olga delivered Trude to the family, so now Sonia had a friend and confidant, albeit four years younger. Trude Spitz was fortunate to grow up under the kinder hand of her parents, and thanks to their urging and her scholastic competence, she pursued a medical career as well. Endowed with what seemed to be the Kaunitz lust for life, it is not surprising that she found herself engaged to a fellow classmate, Norbert Neumann, endearingly known as Bertell. The son of a dead father who had succumbed to wounds sustained in WWI after a long battle with TB as well, he was

15

Making the Cut

urged on by his overbearing mother, who happened to be a patient of Dr. Kaunitz as well. He had one sibling, Alfred, two years his senior, who was bright, witty, charming, and goodlooking and was successfully pursuing a legal career. Is it then surprising that Sonia soon found herself in a heated affair with Alfred, providing him with many of his needs? It was then that Oskar suggested to the 22-year-old Alfred that he would be well taken care of if he would see fit to marry his oldest daughter. But alas, this was not meant to be. Whether it was due to Freddie’s youth, his desire to test various battlegrounds to add to his conquests, his fear of losing his identity, or his proposed paramour’s persistence in ruling the roost (did this remind him so much of his own mother?) he soon rejected the offer. But guilt reared its ugly head and Fred decided that he could not leave his rejected lady empty handed. What to do? How about fixing her up with one of his needy fraternity brothers, after all, a bird in the hand…. Enter Bernard Wahrhaftig, lanky, skinny, 6’4” in height, barely weighing 150 pounds and horse-toothed to boot, but with a certain look that was not terribly displeasing. The youngest of four sons, he had dutifully followed the wishes of his slightly deranged father and was studying medicine. A poor Jewish family at least could fortify itself with learning, so Joseph was a Rabbi, Ernst a teacher, Siegfried a law student, and Bernard a physician in training. Father Eduard was too busy wheeling and dealing around the synagogue, and would disappear from time to time, so it was left to wife Charlotte, a very unattractive woman of less than five feet, to keep some semblance of food on the table with her sons providing what help they could while studying feverishly. It is then no surprise that Bernard jumped at the chance and that Sonia, already a little battle weary, decided that anything was better than being beholden to her father.
16

Kurt J. Wagner

But first to make Mr. Wahrhaftig more presentable. Harry (his nickname) soon became Mr. Wagner, more Teutonic and fitting for these troubled times. He proceeded to be fed decent meals for the first time in his life. Soon nuptials were planned and Dr. Kaunitz reluctantly agreed to the union. Sonia had her own agenda: On the night before the planned ceremony, she coaxed Alfred into her bed in order to have a more fitting father for the son she knew she needed to replace the child she had forfeited. June 11, 1933 came and went. Harry’s father approached Oskar and asked for a payoff since his son had now become one of the family. Dr. Kaunitz responded by freezing Sonia’s dowry for five years in order to assure himself of some continuity in the new relationship. It was soon to be a pivotal turning point in the story that was to unfold.

Sonia and Bernard

Evidently, this part of the bride’s plan bore fruition. She was soon blossoming and showing signs of her delicate condition. The prospective grandparents looked forward with delight to the upcoming event. But even with Sonia being surrounded by medical degrees, this, too, would be a struggle. Oskar may not have given his daughter his gender, but did pass on an android pelvis. This male configuration can prove to be a problem. As the abdomen enlarged, it
17

Making the Cut

became obvious that the child might have some difficulty in passing through the birth canal. On March 6, 1934, a gush of fluid signaled the onset of labor and the game was on. In these pre-antibiotic days, Caesarean sections were not the order of the day. Malpractice was not even a coined phrase and the contractions began in earnest. After 72 hours an exhausted Sonia was given the option of having her unborn child killed while still in her womb and dismantled for vaginal delivery. Thanks to Mom, she dutifully or probably hysterically declined and proceeded to endure her suffering. Dr. Berger, a colleague of Dr. Kaunitz, successfully delivered a 9 lb., 26” male child utilizing a high forceps technique, much to the delight of everyone concerned. But it was not without a price: Sonia’s abdominal wall was stretched out like a rubber band ready for recycling and her left leg was lifeless, due to prolonger compression on the sciatic nerve as the child struggled to leave his cramped quarters. But what a prize: the longest baby ever delivered at Sanatorium Hera (after all, wasn’t the father 6’4” – ha ha) and a boy to boot, with sparkling eyes, and a mature look that defied his birth age. Welcome to the world – Kurt Joseph Wagner.

18

Kurt J. Wagner

3 WHAT A WORLD!

Hahngasse

Moving to Hahngasse, a wedding present held in trust thanks to Mr. Wahrhaftig, Sr., was a great experience for the heir-apparent. His grandparents were only a stone’s throw away even if you were not a ball player, and his great-uncle and aunt lived across the street. The first born in the new generation, it was quickly apparent that he was going to be special. His size belied his short time on earth and he responded to TLC from all sides with laughs and sighs and ooh! - those eyes. Sonia’s leg was slow in responding to the trauma of her son’s passage and it caused her to be partially bedridden for 5-6 months. It also became evident that this boy possessed an ability to mimic and comprehend signs and phrases. His vocabulary started to expand geometrically, and by the age of 14 months he could speak and think in complete sentences, with total comprehension. Oskar and Olga delighted in teaching their grandson new words (some not so nice), as quickly as he could repeat them. Finally, happy to

19

Making the Cut

have a male around, the leader or “fuehrer” of the clan took his charge everywhere – to the office to collect rents, to the local restaurants, etc. Kurt had taken over the show and enjoyed every minute of attention. He spent so much time with his grandparents that he became confused as to the relationship with his parents, but being a clever little boy and by naming them Sono Mutti (Sonia Mother) and Papa Hallykind (Father Harry (r’s were hard for him) he soon resolved the family hierarchy. At age two he could read and write; by age three his grandfather made a little lab coat with the name “Dr. Kurtie” proudly embossed on it. After all, how else could the young doctor-to-be make the diagnosis of pregnancy by touching the bellies of the patients waiting their turn for the more thorough examination of the elder specialist? Oskar made his young charge his constant companion, and occasionally made him his willing confidant with some words of advice that were to alter the course of the little boy’s thought processes. One day in Lichtenstein Park, a green sanctuary in the midst of urbanizing Vienna, this pronouncement issued forth: “Kurtie, God has given some people a little, some people a lot – but he has given you everything. You must help everyone you meet.” The reply: “If you say so, Papa.” What a life sentence!

20

Kurt J. Wagner

The world seems to rotate around the little boy. What could go wrong? Tailor-made clothes to mimic his grandfather’s sartorial splendor, hugging and kissing by all of the family women and servants, who seemed ready and willing to fulfill any expressed or implied wish; vacations on the Italian Riviera or the Alps, all in return for a reasonable display of brains and affection which the little boy was not only glad, but eager to deliver.

Even then there were girls

21

Making the Cut

4 A LITTLE ASIDE – FREUD AND ME

One of the advantages of living in the 9th District in Vienna was the fact that medical advice or opinion was always close at hand. As it happened, one of our more illustrious denizens was a man – or should I say a legend – Sigmund Freud. This bearded innovator with a sad and painful expression patted my head more than once and gave his diagnosis: “Schoener Bursch” (good looking kid). Whether he said this because of his keen eye – or the fact that my great aunt Steffi was one of his neighbors, my grandfather always thanked him and agreed “Why does he look so sad Papa?” “He doesn’t feel well, Kurtie.” Guess I had a keen eye even then.
22

Kurt J. Wagner

5 THE COMING STORM
This state of paradise was soon to be shattered by external events: on March 11, 1938, the Austrian government was glad to become part of the Third Reich with a promise of sharing in the glorious future of Hitler’s new order after getting rid of a few million Jews, gypsies and miscellaneous nonAryan folk.

Quite a show

An anecdotal experience or two might better illustrate the state of mind of the local gentry due to the sweeping changes that became manifest overnight. It took some fast explaining to convince Kurt that the planned parade of the German horde around the Ringstrasse, the circular thoroughfare that marked the boundaries of the 1st District, was not in honor of his fourth birthday, just a few days earlier.

23

Making the Cut

Really sad, these Austrians…

Whether by curiosity or the prodding eagerness of the little boy to see everything, the family entourage found itself in the front row as the precise marching order of men and machines took their turn in fascinating the young onlooker. Suddenly, a car stopped in front of the group and a man dressed in regimental decorations and highly polished boots stepped out and approached the blonde- haired, blueeyed boy. “What is your name?” “Kurt Joseph Wagner, Sir.” “Would you like to become a soldier and march in the parade some day?” “Oh yes, could I?” “But Colonel,” Sonia chimed in, “he’s only four years old.” “Come, come dear lady. How could that be? He is so tall and you should be proud to have him serve the Fuehrer.” “But it’s the truth; I was just four years old a few days ago, sir.”

24

Kurt J. Wagner

“Really. Where do you live,+ little man?” “31 Hahngasse, 9th District and my telephone number is 679-421.” The colonel had his aide write down all the details in a little black diary.

“On March 9, 1940, Frau Wagner, you will be proud to have Kurt join us to become part of the glory of the Third Reich for we will have the Hitler Jugend train him to be one of the ‘chosen ones’.” “I will remember,” Kurtie answered; after all, didn’t he remember everything?
A future soldier? 

He still remembers the first beating of his life by an angry and anxious Sonia after the parade.

25

Making the Cut

6 THINGS ARE A-CHANGING
A somber air soon pervaded every aspect of life. While some people seemed jubilant, those with Jewish attachments soon found out that this was the beginning of the end: curfews, identity cards, open attacks and unannounced sweeps of living quarters by officials of the newly established order, but most of all, attachment of all bank accounts and control of all financial activities. People scurried to leave and embassies were hounded with pleas of visas to anywhere. Oskar was convinced that he would be immune. After all, hadn’t he served the Austrians faithfully in WWI? Wasn’t he a member of one of the oldest families with strong Catholic ties and friends in high places? The money would soon be released and things would return to normal. Interesting that a man who had survived so much could see so little…but he was not alone. Give credit to Sonia. She begged everyone to leave years before this event, but this advice had fallen on deaf ears. She felt powerless because her money was held in trust only to be confiscated after the Anschluss. Her largesse was always dependent on her father’s purse strings since Harry earned little to alleviate his wife’s financial anxieties. After all, he was a Jew! The next months brought on one ignominious event after another. The family fortress and fortunes were slowly crumbling and it became obvious that the Wahrhaftigs were in danger.
26

Kurt J. Wagner

To Sonia’s credit, she urged her husband to leave Vienna as soon as possible. Fortunately for him, he had several aunts who had settled in Brooklyn to escape one of the earlier pogroms in Poland. With passage in hand, thanks to Dr. Kaunitz and a passport marked with a big “J” and smaller but more ornate Swastika, Papa Hallykind took leave of his young wife and son on July 25, 1938, and not a moment too soon. The concentration camp censuses were beginning to climb with Hebrews #1 on the resident list. One day before her husband was to leave, Sonia and Kurt had some unexpected callers – an army Major, an Austrian police officer and an SS investigator. Seems like some of our Aryan tenants told the authorities about rich Jews who owned the apartment house and had not given everything to the Third Reich coffers. “Where is your safe, Frau Wagner?” grunted the SS officer. “We have none.” She was crowding 30 but Sonia still had a sexy Slavic slant to her light eyes (thank you, Attila the Hun) and a comehither smile or look of derision as the situation dictated. It was obvious that the man had something else on his mind. “Then how about a little kiss?” as he grasped the startled woman around the waist. A resounding slap on the face left the stunned soldier’s cheek red and his ears ringing. The holster unbuckled and a sharp crack on Sonia’s forehead that left the skin open and bleeding was the luger’s response. The dazed mother slid to the floor and the cold steel of the barrel was pressed to her temple until the Major took the
27

Making the Cut

ever-present riding croup and eased the gun out of harm’s way. “We are not here for this, lieutenant.” Kurtie lost all taste for military life in a breath of Mutti’s life. Lucky for Harry that he decided not to come home that afternoon. The next months passed in a mixed blend of fear, frustration, anxiety and hope. Passage out was becoming more and more restricted as the line of those anxious to leave grew longer. Oskar, probably for the first time in his adult life, was not in complete control. What money still available was either in “neutral” Switzerland or spent in bribes to ease the daily perils that confronted the beleaguered family. Finally, a bit of unbelievably good fortune came from across the sea. New York State was represented by Senator Robert Wagner, who had achieved a reputation among the working class by his work in labor relations. An immigrant himself, he had come to the United States from his native Germany to carve out an illustrious career. Fortunately, 1938 was an election year and one of Harry’s relatives decided to take a chance. He wrote a long letter to Senator Wagner telling him of the difficulty that the wife and child of one of his own was having in obtaining a visa from the consulate of Austria. Whether he checked on the veracity of the facts, or did it out of the goodness of his heart, the legislator ordered that two visas be put aside for the young pair ASAP. It was early one morning on a dreary November day that the message came to Sonia – start packing. So it was, on November 11, 1938, that the elder Kaunitzes accompanied the two travelers to the “Bahnhof” to
28

Kurt J. Wagner

start the long journey. How coincidental that this day would live in infamy as the dreadful “Krystalnacht ” when the brownshirted hoodlums razed and destroyed as many Jewish establishments as time allowed, ably abetted by the Austrian patriots who delighted in the occasional killings that accompanied the attacks. The parting was like those seen in so many films...only too real and unforgettable. The young mother and the little boy pressed their faces against the window as the train rolled out of the station. The little figures left standing on the platform waved a tearful farewell as they became less and less distinct on the horizon until they were gone. “Don’t cry, Mutti, we’ll see them again real soon.” “No, Kurtie, we’ll never see them again.” Who could know how right Sonia would be?

29

Making the Cut

7 AMERICA, AMERICA

The next eleven days passed with a great deal of excitement. Papers checked by the border patrol, a safe haven in Holland and passage to England. We were transferred to the “Westernland,” an older vessel of the Red Star line (later sold to the Holland America line), but one that must have looked grander than the Queen Mary to those boarding her. A private cabin had been arranged, one of the last bits of luxury that were provided. Too bad that the weather could not have been better, but at least it made for an empty dining room and deck because few of the passengers could convince their stomachs that meals were necessary in the mist of Mother Nature’s Rock and Roll and hurricane-like gusts that battered the deck. Finally, the day of embarkment: November 22nd (interesting that this would also be an unforgettable day 25
30

Kurt J. Wagner

years later due to an assassin’s bullet during a presidential parade). Kurtie was dapperly dressed in his naval attire (at least clothes could be taken out of captivity) and with a small American flag firmly clasped in hand, he ran down the gangplank to an anxiously awaiting father. Some of the local newspapers thought this worthy enough to make a photographic record of the refugee arrival.

Westernland

The elation and the realization of freedom were soon tempered by stark reality. No more luxuries, preferential treatment or servants, and no money. Depression was still on full swing and foreign doctors were having little luck in getting a license. From temporary quarters with other newly-arrived family members in Boro Park, Harry and Sonia soon found themselves in a cold-water flat on Kossuth Place in Brooklyn for the grand sum of $30.00 a month. While Harry was feverishly studying for his exams (he flunked three times), he found employment as a resident doctor in the Menorah Home for the Aged for the glorious sum of $17 month. To supplement this, Sonia took in embroidery work from a local cottage industry where a 70 hour work week equaled an additional $25.

31

Making the Cut

The $150 that Mutti had been allowed to bring along was soon gone: $75 went to Uncle Siegfried (Harry’s brother) and $75 was quickly devoured by hungry stomachs. One of the goodies that the Old Age Home provided was Friday night dinner that included matzo ball soup with real chicken and chalah – a far cry from Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle, but as a wise man aptly said: “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Finally, Harry passed. After a frustrating year of increasing war drums in the news, near starvation on more than one occasion, a tearful mother whose sobs awakened an anxious five-year-old, more often than not – it was time to start a practice.

32

Kurt J. Wagner

8 MICKEY AND ME!!

New York City was abuzz in 1939 with the World’s Fair, only one of its major attractions. On a dreary November day (funny how November always comes up), Sonia decided to treat herself and Kurtie to a carefree afternoon. After 10 cents spent on a 30-minute subway ride, they stepped through the entrance to see the wonders of the future in a world teetering on the brink of disaster. As Mutti and Kurt stroke the exhibits, a voice called out “Frau Wagner, ist das Sie?” (Is that you?) Much to the little boy’s delight, there stood a little man smaller than him. It turned out to be one of Dr. Kaunitz’s delivered charges: a midget who was part of a

33

Making the Cut

diminutive 3-man song and dance act. He remembered Sonia from the 9th District and was as happy to see a familiar face as she was. The next hour was spent inside a makeshift home with a resounding repertoire of Viennese songs and stories. Unfortunately, reality replaced recall and after a tearful farewell, a mother and her son found themselves alone again in a chilly blustering setting. Whether Sonia realized our fearful situation, not having the comfort of her parents or feeling the newly acquired poverty and loss of security, she burst into tears. What is a little boy to do with a fretful, inconsolable mother? His own bravado was on the edge of ever-trembling lips when a delightful man-sized mouse appeared. Seeing the woman’s sadness, the large eared creature grasped her hands and started a merry roundelay with a song (it was too early for the Mickey Mouse Club). Tears soon turned into laughter and from that time on, a magic talisman came into Kurt’s life. We have grown well together, Mickey and me. I still wear something of him everyday

34

Kurt J. Wagner

9 MOVE AGAIN

Kosciusko Street

Where to go? The young doctor, despite Sonia’s pleas to the contrary, decided on Kosciusko Street, just two blocks away on the borderline of Bedford Stuyvesant and the Broadway-Bushwick section of this populous borough. The street was named after a Polish general who distinguished himself in America’s successful fight for independence. A bridge that connected two areas in Greenpoint also bore his name. For some, spelling was so difficult that an old joke had been a standard for many years. Seems a horse died on that very thoroughfare and the physician dragged the carcass to Reid Avenue because he couldn’t spell Kosciusko in his report! Neither could anyone else. Therefore 570 Kosciusko Street, Apartment 1C became the office and living quarters of the Wagner Clan, on the corner of Reid Avenue.

35

Making the Cut

10 GONE WITH THE WIND, A LANGUAGE PRIMER
Within a few months I had a new band of friends on Kosciusko Street, once it was determined that I was not a Nazi spy – thanks to some patient parental intervention. One afternoon my newest associate, Bobby G., came forward with a strange request. “My grandma wants to meet you right away.” To hear is to obey and within moments we had climbed the five flights of stairs (no elevator necessary unless you had six floors) and entered a dark, dank, hallway to be met by a nefarious looking elderly lady, who offered me her hand. “Catch your breath, boys. Are you the refugee?” In retrospect she looked more like a character from “Planet of the Apes” and I don’t mean the human kind. “Are you Jewish? “I think so.” At least part of me was. “Vus redst du?” What did she say? “What language do you speak?” “German, French and English” – not bad for a six-yearold, but not good enough for Mrs. G. “Redst Yiddish?” What’s that? “Gleichst cookies?” Peculiar accent but I only understood “cookies.” “Do you like cookies? For a smart kid, you don’t know much.”
36

Kurt J. Wagner

As she brandished a large white appearing object in front of my face she started to make a deal. “I’m teaching my Bobby to read Yiddish. If you can forget that crappy Deutsch, you’ll also win this prize.” The next two afternoons were filled with a half-hour of phrases that seemed familiar. (I understood a lot), but somehow my repetition left something to be desired. “You’re speaking ‘Deutsch.’’ And that was not my only exposure to foreign languages. My mother had her own way of learning her new native tongue – the movies. At least once or, with luck, twice a week, we’d brown-bag it and watch the latest double feature at the RKO Bushwick or the Loew’s Gates.

The language school

The feature showing today: a modest “two reeler” with great revues, “Gone with the Wind.” We went early so as not to miss a beat. It was glorious in Technicolor, but I must confess that much of the dialogue was lost on me. Who had taught me

37

Making the Cut

English? No blacks or English-accented tutors! If I was bewildered, my mother was completely at sea. “Miss Scarlett, I don't know nothing about birthing no babies! – I’m a house Nigga.” “Was sagen Sie?” my mother asked plaintively (“What did she say?”). All I could do was to shake my head and shrug my shoulders. The movie ended. In those days they didn’t empty the theater, so my mother followed with the pronouncement, “Wir sehen es noch einmal!” (We’ll see it again!) All right with me. After a bathroom break and a refill of my five-cent soda and popcorn, I was set to go. If love is lovelier the second time around (thanks, Frank), the second running was a revelation. I understood almost every word! After eight hours, this tired trooper was ready for some well-earned shuteye. The next lesson came the following day and I must admit I was getting more than a little frustrated. But the promise of a tasty reward is hard to walk away from. It started with some tutorial recitals in the proper incantation and rhythm. Why did it sound more familiar? Let’s give it a try! “Mrs. G., I think I can read Yiddish!” “All right, Tati – Redd zu mir!” (Read to me!) So, invoking all of the inflections that danced fresh in my mind I began the best combination of Negro and English warble I could summon. “Ich bin a gettes kindt!” (I’m a good boy!) “Now you got it. Now you’re reading Yiddish.”

38

Kurt J. Wagner

With a simultaneous kiss on the cheek she thrust the cookie into my mouth. “Geet?” (Good?) Did you ever eat chalk? I still can feel it filling my cheeks as I hastily retreated to make rapid deposit into the Brooklyn sewage system with a single flush. I must admit I can still fake quite a Yiddish accent to this day!

11 TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME
It’s hard to chronicle every important event in one’s life, because as large as it seems to the writer, it may not ignite the interest of others. But Baseball! We were living in America. As soon as Dr. Harry started his practice on Kosciusko Street, his appointments began to fill. One of the earliest was a Hal Cronin, who happened to be a cousin of Joe Cronin, then a member of the Boston Red Sox and destined to be become President of the American League and a Hall of Famer. “What do you mean, Doc? Your boy doesn’t know about baseball? We’ll fix that!”
Hal Cronin

39

Making the Cut

So with my parent’s blessing, we went on a one hour journey via the BMT all the way from Brooklyn to the Bronx to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox. I had read about them, but the sight of the stadium was a wonder to behold for a six-year-old. “Want to go to the dugout and meet some players?” Not wanting to admit that I had no idea what a “dugout” was, I carefully agreed.

Ted.W.

The next 15 or 20 minutes were historical for me, especially in retrospect. There they were, all in uniform: Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, et al, who greeted the new American with smiles, handshakes and a present – a baseball which said “Good Luck in America, Kurt.” It was soon signed by new friends who then escorted me to their storied rivals’ encampment where Joe DiMaggio,  Joe D. Bill Dickey, Charlie Keller, and Red Ruffing added their autographs. I was watching the game, but soon caught on the rules, and really wanted the Red Sox to win. They didn’t. But I left with a few hot dogs in my belly and a prize to be treasured – at least for awhile – my ball.

40

Kurt J. Wagner

Incidentally I chose the Dodgers to be my team – Traitor!

12 THE AMERICANIZATION OF YOUNG WAGNER
Things got better in a real hurry. It was 1941 and although the depression was still on (hot dog five cents, Pepsi Cola hits the spot – 12 full ounces, that’s a lot – twice as much for a nickel, too, etc.). The mobilization of our boys was going full blast and there was to be a growing shortage of everything – including M.D.s. With Sonia egging him on, Harry gladly made house calls for $2 and saw patients between 1 and 2 pm and from 6 to 8 pm six days a week. One bedroom doubled as the waiting room and the kitchen as a small lab, but it was like paradise compared to the previous years. We even had a red Pontiac with the face of the old Chieftain adorning the front hood. It was just the beginning of my P.S. infatuation with crimson cruisers.

68

The street was a different matter, and could be better described as a multinational obstacle course for a young
41

Making the Cut

refugee. P.S. 68 was two blocks away and every day was an adventure. The Irish controlled the north corner; some more sedate Jewish families occupied the once glorious apartment houses in the middle of the block, with the Italians patrolling the lower part of both sides of the street. If you were foolish enough to go around the corner to Lafayette Avenue, particularly after dark, the least you would lose was your pocket change because this was really Black territory in every way. In the beginning, friends were few because, after all, if you spoke German, didn’t that make you a Nazi? So even the middle territory provided no respite. Imagine getting up every morning and leaving with books and lunch bag in hand, looking to the left, then to the right as you left the confines of the safe haven of the building, and then running for your life to the corner of Broadway hooded by the ever-present elevated lines of the glorious BMT subway system. If the light was green, a stop at Mishkin’s Drug Store (Harry’s prescriptions were filled there) to catch your breath for the final charge to the school yard for the daily routine. Regarding classes, let me say that from kindergarten onward it was rough sledding at first. The two teachers who had their first chance at colonizing the young were Mrs. Young and Mrs. Old. The only trouble was that Mrs. Young was old and Mrs. Old was young, a bit confusing for a kid learning the native lingo. Then there was Mrs. Gillespie, the principal who arrived daily in her chauffeur-driven limousine, a bit out of place in this barrio setting. From the first, she took on the Wagners, insisting that suspenders would deform young Kurt’s back and sending him home to be refitted with a belt. Whether this caused daily stomach aches is a moot point, but

42

Kurt J. Wagner

it led to a confrontation all the way up to the local school board, with the rich lady being the loser and Kurt forever going to the top of her shit list. In spite of all this, the suspenders were put in the drawer forever, the pants were held up by the now ubiquitous belt and the school daze began in earnest. The teachers soon realized, as did the other students, that this was no ordinary kid. Although he may not have been the most popular, he soon was known to be the smartest one and in the ensuing three years was elected class president more times than FDR was re-elected. Life on the street became easier. As his skill grew in stickball (how many brooms would be sacrificed at the altar), punch ball, Johnny on the Pony, King of the Mountain, and Kick the can, so did his acceptance by Marvin, Jerry, Jackie, Bobbie, et al.

Saturday movies were the weekend treats (25 cents would get you in with money for a drink and candy to spare), the matron would make sure that you stayed in the children’s sections, and an occasional trip on Sunday to see relatives or to eat Chinx. With luck, Mutti would take her young charge to the Tuesday evening free-plate night, to escape the drudgery of the daily routine or to forget the fact that news from Vienna was becoming more and more infrequent. December 7, 1941 – no more talk of isolation thanks to Pearl Harbor. Now the war was on in earnest, rationing began and the men started to leave to answer the call. Now Harry was even busier and occasionally people had to wait in the hall to see what ailed them, and pretty soon the

43

Making the Cut

practice grew to over $1,000 a month, a relative fortune for those times, and before you knew it, to $2,000.

But is a refugee ever secure, particularly without familiar family surroundings and a poor interpersonal relationship with your spouse? Before you knew it, Sonia’s confidant was her young son, who was not getting along too well with his confrontational father, who delighted in taking the opposite position on almost every topic the two discussed. In retrospect, there was indeed too much intimate sharing, with Kurtie asked to carry an ever-increasing load in providing a friendly ear for his unhappy mother complainant. There were visitors to the apartment: some male, all sharing the same journey away from Nazi oppression and finding solace by each other’s company. And there was Uncle Igo and Uncle Oscar, and others, and Harry didn’t seem to mind, for he was in a world of his own, seeing patients, arguing with his wife, and lamentably with his son, and eating albeit too rapidly the gourmet meals that were presented to him from the small cooking area on a daily basis. But in spite of it all, Sonia still lived in old Vienna, filling Kurtie’s head with the glory that was Greece and the grandeur
44

Kurt J. Wagner

that was Rome. And indeed, could Apartment 1C compare to what had been snatched away and where were Papa and Omi and would we ever be together again? Anxiety breeds anxiety and Mutti had told her charge the day they had landed that he would be the man of the house, after all, he was almost five then! But why not have someone to share the burden with? In 1942 it seemed that if some of his friends had brothers or sisters, why couldn’t he? Whom else to ask but his mother? After all, hadn’t she told him repeatedly how she had carried him about so lovingly and in spite of her difficult labor with the ensuing destruction of the abdominal wall and the permanent weakness of her left leg, she forgave him. And as if in answer to his pleas, a second child was soon on the way. Now the happy prospect of having a partner was commingled with the fear of possible further damage to the mother figure, making for increasing trepidation. But Sonia seemed to blossom and never missed a beat in fulfilling the multiple duties of nurse, housewife, mother, cook and whatever. On the evening of May 24, 1943, Sonia and Kurtie went to the movies and saw Errol Flynn playing the role of Corporal Steven Wagner in “Northern Pursuit” at the RKO Bushwick. A good time was had by all, and there was talk about the coming event.

45

Making the Cut

No sooner said than done: 12 hours later, and after less than one hour of easy labor, and in spite of Kurt’s nausea and vomiting, as symbols of his fear and guilt of the original request – a 9-pound Errol Steven Wagner entered the scene at Beth Moses Hospital – mother and child both doing well!! A funny thing happened on the next day when Harry chose to sneak me into Sonia’s room to see the new arrival. In those pre-penicillin times, children under 12 were not permitted on the maternity ward, lest they bring in some harbinger or messenger of infection. Since I expected to see a clone of myself, the visit was widely anticipated. But after I had a brief glance, Uncle Igo Wachtel, Mama’s friend, virtually threw me into the cold corridor. Strange behavior from a man who had taken me to Chinese dinners and movies with Mutti. Harry never seemed to show much interest in making time for us, but in retrospect, when Error did reach manhood he favored Mr. Wachtel’s family, with no trace of the Wahrhaftig features. Oh well! When mother and child did make it back home, the older brother was quickly introduced to the new reality: “You wanted him – you have to do your share” – which meant babysitter, bottle washer, feeder, and most importantly, playing first base during stickball and punch ball encounters so that I could keep an eye on the young prince firmly entrenched in the newly-acquired perambulator parked on the sidewalk next to the position indelibly etched in the street, facing the windows of Apartment 1C. But no matter, Kurt had a potential ally, although it did crimp his freedom from doing more important things like listening to Hop Harrigan the Phantom, Jack Armstrong and Jack Benny, Can You Top This, the Shadow and all the oldies now enjoying a new life on cassette. In addition, this kid was proving to be a pain in the ass, particularly around meal time. Seems he took little or no
46

Kurt J. Wagner

delight in the simple matter of downing his food, and would leave every morsel stranded in his chipmunk like cheeks for what seemed to be an eternity. He was soon to be nicknamed “Swallow,” and not after the avian of the same spelling. Meal time became war time and in between lectures about having to eat everything on your plate because of the people in concentration camps and Sonia’s wedging one spoonful after another into the equally stubborn baby, the joy of experiencing the delights that were the result of Mother’s culinary prowess soon dissipated into another bout of anguish. During the weekends it was hard to distinguish between the end of breakfast and the beginning of lunch – and going to school even with all the obstacles, proved to be a temporary respite from Hell’s Kitchen. (Funny how stubbornness can be carried by such a tiny DNA particle.) All that aside, things were getting better on the financial front. Sonia was squirreling away enough so that pretty soon another apartment was added to the Lebensraum across the hall now that the patients had first call to the waiting room and life though laced with anxiety, was looking up. There was even enough to buy a duplex in Crown Heights, a better-than-average middle-class neighborhood in the more civilized part of Brooklyn. For the magnificent sum of $9,000 there were two apartments of nine rooms with a garage in back. (on the market for 600k+ now)

47

Making the Cut

Crown Heights

But paying little or no heed to Sonia’s badgering to look for a new practice site, Harry seemed content to stay in an area where he could mock his patients and retain all his argumentative capabilities. His whole would be featured by the recurring inability to stay on a civil level with anyone, young and old included. Indeed, he never was to have anything resembling a close friend. But in spite of it all, the future seemed brighter, unless the USA and its allies were to lose the war and there were times when victory seemed far from certain. Rationing, saving used fat on the window sill, gas and food coupons were the order of the day until on a dreary morning in November of 1944, Harry announced gleefully: “I have joined the Army.” You could say it was the patriotic thing to do, that he wanted to do his part in bringing down Hitler’s hordes to exact revenge for the death of two brothers …but you say it only if you didn’t know Dr. Wagner. Because he was getting busier and because his military duties would be limited due to his
48

Kurt J. Wagner

partial physical incapacity, he escaped the rigors of a rapidly expanding practice to be assigned to a Veteran’s Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, far from the front lines and far from doing anything to help in the war. But before leaving another personal disappointment reared its ugly head.

13 ANOTHER WARTIME CASUALTY
By the time I was 8, baseball was in my blood in the spring and summer,; football in the fall. My friends and I occasionally collected baseball cards which appeared in every package of Topps gum purchase. We would trade, flip or collect them. We could read about the vital statistics and accomplishments of our heroes – past and present. Did I mention that Kurt was slightly narcissistic? (understatement) What card did he find the most amazing? Honus Wagner of the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. Although he could have won an award for one of the 10 most unattractive players of all time, he was after all, a WAGNER! I never considered Wahrhaftig until later (for only a moment). So Honus took his place with my ball in one of my boxes to be viewed on special occasions.

49

Making the Cut

Now it was the war that extracted this casualty. Harry, being a fastidious cleaner-upper and not having much personal experience with things that had any meaning, decided that the ball and cards weren’t of much use. In preparing for our inland trip to Arkansas, they found their way to oblivion with other excess baggage? What’s the big deal? Honus Wagner cards were sold over 40 years later for over $400,000. A near-mint condition T206 Wagner card sold in 2007 for $2.8 million dollars, the highest price ever for a baseball card. Oh, well, was this a subconscious revenge?

14 LITTLE ROCK

The VA hospital

Once again, the Wagner family quietly gave up the new luxury in exchange for the most expensive uniform that money could buy, for the new lieutenant, and in November, packed tightly in the Pontiac, started a trip through previously undiscovered territory toward their new destination.

50

Kurt J. Wagner

2217 Center Street

Three days on the road, braving a blinding blizzard while crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains with Sonia walking in front of a creeping car for one hour to prevent us from falling over the edge of a precipice, losing our way more than once, a weary troop of travelers was happy to turn into the driveway of 2217 Center Street, a house that had seen better days. (The picture of the house is the newest version, 2011). The date: November 22, 1944 (coincidence?) No heat, an ice box in the kitchen and rats scurrying back and forth under the posts that prevented them from having an easy ingress into our new living quarters.

51

Making the Cut

15 THE SOUTHERNIZATION OF KURT: A NEW “POINT OF VIEW”
The Wagners are settled in and now that the weather’s clear – time to look around. “Why don’t you go out and play with those boys? Get acquainted.” Jessie Lanier and Raymond W seemed nice enough and Kurt had enough savvy to make small talk, but the next hour was to be a revelation. “Do you know what Fuck is?” queried Jessie. “Sure: Go fuck yourself, fuck you!” Kurt replied. After a few more verbal skirmishes, it became obvious that the sophisticated New Yorker, the toast of two continents (at least Mutti thought so), didn’t know what the hell the essential part of a Brooklyn vocabulary really meant. After a brief and lurid explanation which included some graphic comic book illustrations, Kurt retreated to home base, thoroughly disillusioned and defeated to face a mother who had her own explaining to do. “How could you not tell me about this? You and Dad really do it too?” Thoroughly shaken, Mutti decided that perhaps Jesse and Raymond were not suitable for her pride and joy. After quick investigation she followed the recommendation of some of the older neighbors and introduced me to Travis Jackson – a handsome, blond-haired 10-year-old who looked like an angel, with eyes of blue and smile to match. He was the son
52

Kurt J. Wagner

of the local Baptist minister, so at least there was some measure of security. The day of our first meeting still lives with intense recollection: “Kurt, do you want to come with me to my afternoon job?” Why not? How enterprising. One street away a new adventure beckoned. A knock on the door of the corner house brought out a partially clad boy of about 13 who gave Travis something that quickly found its way into an open pocket. Upon returning, I dutifully followed my new-found friend around to the other side of the house where an empty wooden crate once used to ship oranges lay on its side under a window that was slightly ajar. Within minutes a merry group of men all a little younger than I came around and dutifully gave Travis some change which he greedily pocketed again. Then one by one, they climbed upon the wooden grandstand to see what was going on inside. A chorus of giggles and hands clasped over gaping mouths seemed to be the universal response to the view. “Do you want to take a look? You don’t have to pay this time.” “OK” was the curt reply. But what did appear but the live enactment of the comic illustrations only seen 48 hours ago. The boy and his very young willing companion were engaged in vigorous contortions that served only to daze and confuse and sent me scurrying to the safety of my new shelter. It would take awhile to digest this new reality. But school life must go on and so it did. After one week at Centennial School, it was decided that Kurt was a little too much for this 5th grade, so on to Mrs. Black’s class for the gifted.

53

Making the Cut

“Boys and girls – let’s welcome Kurt Wagner whose Daddy is in our Armed Forces,” she said with that intoxicating drawl that was soon to become a part of my speech pattern. “Let’s make him feel at home. Why don’t you sit next to Janet Love?” Much to my chagrin, I recognized my new classmate in spite of the fact that she had all her clothes on !!!! Quite a change from the Brooklyn milieu. An outstanding discovery – they actually treat Negroes with total disrespect and maybe that’s why I had to run for my life every time I was near Lafayette Avenue. Still shaking from my new sexual awareness, I foolishly offered an elderly black lady my seat on the bus. This led to my immediate ejection and a lecture about how things “are” and will always remain in Arkansas. Settling in doesn’t take long if you can run fast or throw a football with a spiral. No stickball, but plenty of space with real grass to play contact football and such. School was easy, respect for my smarts grew and the war dragged on.

54

Kurt J. Wagner

16 1945 – Hooray for the USA

Winston was right

It's VE day and Europe is liberated but at a great cost. Churchill and his cigar gave the crowd his V sign. With victory comes increasing news about the fate of those that didn’t make it out, and none of the Wagner family in the Holocaust was spared. Within a week – no more grandparents, two uncles and cousins dead. All hope dashed and the atmosphere assuming a tomb-like chill. Money is almost gone, tension is in the air and all Sonia can think about is getting the hell out of her virtual solitary confinement. For Kurt, things were bittersweet. I liked the open spaces with relative freedom to take my red Schwinn bike on explorations as far as two miles away from home base -- and then there was Saturday – where I could take the bus

55

Making the Cut

downtown for a great movie and a purchase of delicious doughnuts at the local Kresge’s for nourishment on the ride home. Of course, my taste for Hollywood was increasing. Whether it was to help Mutti learn English by seeing the same feature over and over, or just losing myself in the adventures of Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and fantasizing how great it would be if Veronica Lake were my girlfriend – the dream of being there grew steadily until it became a beacon to guide me in later years. And the bus rides turned out to be a great adventure -- on one special occasion it gave me somewhat of an inside look into stardom. My dream girl Veronica

Caught in reverie and replaying a great scene still fresh in my mind, a middle-aged lady took the seat next to me without my special notice. “I saw you come out of the picture show – was it fun?” Somewhat taken aback but with politeness honed by years of practice: “Yes, I love the movies.” “My son-in-law was a movie star. Did you ever hear of Al Jolson?” Al Although I fancied myself somewhat of an expert after all the years of viewing experience (at least once a week for
56

Kurt J. Wagner

over six years) – “No ma’am (yep, I’m a real southerner) sorry but that name’s not familiar.” That was soon rectified by an album that happened to be near at hand in the purse of my rider companion. For the next ten minutes I was regaled with pictures old and new of an older man with a young bride accompanied by mementos of a career that filled the pages with glowing recall. After thanks and saying a quick goodbye, I raced up the street to find Mutti on the porch with my faithful dog Skippy (yep, everyone needed one to keep the rats at bay). “Mama – do you know who Al Jolson is?” She replied smartly with a quick chorus of “Swanee” (German lyrics of course) followed by a brief summary of what she knew. The blank spaces were filled in shortly thereafter by the “Al Jolson Story” on the silver screen and polished by meeting Larry Parks when I started practice twenty-two years later. Nice guy – but he had his own problems that you can Google if you’re interested.

57

Making the Cut

PS 74 (before me)

17 BACK TO SQUARE TWO? 1946
Harry had his hands full since the beginning of his military career. You’re in the Army and you were born in Vienna. Great – we need psychiatrists -- all those boys with battle fatigue will need some looking after -- going to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Bernard Wagner -- who soon became as adept handling electroshock treatments as any expert behind a gun. Too bad they didn’t teach him about compassion. 1946 was drawing to an end; it was time to return to Kosciusko Street with empty pockets and an umbrella full of sadness. It was kind of hard to get back in step with the boys who were amazed by peculiar speech patterns, but the girls found it kind of cute and I became the recipient of nightly

58

Kurt J. Wagner

phone calls by unknown gigglers that my parents found strangely annoying. Well – back to PS 74 and graduation (#1, of course) followed by high school at Erasmus Hall and a move to Crown Heights.

Erasmus High

The former would become world famous thanks to Barbra Streisand and legendary stars like Susan Hayward and Barbara Stanwyck who had graced its halls. Occasional puppy romances with girls from near and far, but I’m younger than most, which only serves to dampen my juvenile charge. Moreover, I am Errol’s constant babysitter since my parents still run the practice on the street but drop my brother off every afternoon for my guardianship. (Remember, you wanted him.)

59

Making the Cut

18 COLLEGE DAZE OF SORTS

Before you know it, it’s 1951 and I graduate (#2 – OK…so I’m not perfect!) and college is ahead. But, it’s January and no room for Ivy League schools until September, so NYU here I come. I’ve got a scholarship -- it’s free, but at that time $1,500 paid for 4 years’ tuition. I’m really not in the best of moods because Mutti says there is no money for out-of-town schools -- so stay near home it is. The school bus is replaced by a 40 minute subway ride to Washington Square (not that I went very much), along with increasing dissatisfaction with my lot – dark clouds loom on the horizon. Did I mention that I had mastered the ability to knit, embroider and crochet? I could play the piano, not like Mutti, but enough to entertain most of my tone-deaf friends.

60

Kurt J. Wagner

Cooking is easy if you can read and taste a little as the creations are brewing.

My hero

Oh yes, but now it was certain – doctor was what I was going to be, and plastic surgeon – the ultimate goal. The decision at age 10 was easy after having read a book by Maxwell Maltz in the candy store while waiting for a late delivery of the Daily News. The front of “New Faces, New Futures” was graced with a half-scarred face that showed restoration on the other side. Add to this a movie with Melvyn Douglas and Joan Crawford entitled A Woman’s Face and I was hooked for good. Like so many turns in life, I would meet my hero in the golden years face to face and come to know “Mommy Dearest” on a more personal basis. “Kurtie, I have to go to Vienna for a few weeks. Take care of your dad and brother till I get back.” To hear is to obey, but something was lost in the translation. Weeks turned into months while I ran the house, did the cooking and kept up a straight A average in school. At the same time I managed to start up a relationship with my

61

Making the Cut

first serious girlfriend, Vickie F, which was to last on and onand-off basis for four years, ending in a broken engagement and a broken heart that was quickly mended on my jilted paramour’s part.

A future friend

When Mama returned after a five month hiatus to find the first perceived person’s rival for her son’s affection, she proceeded to impose a 10:00 p.m. curfew, limit fund distribution and otherwise make the aspiring doctor uncomfortable. Harry was silent. Here was I, groomed to be Mr. Perfect, now relegated to the dog house, but there were some advantages. My

62

Kurt J. Wagner

sweetie was a dancer and I quickly mastered the art of the light fantastic. Not only was I good, but I became a temporary professional while waiting for medical school admission, and that ability would always be a big plus in my armamentarium, both in and out of the bedroom – ask some of the girls about Cuba in 1953.

19 MONEY ON THE HOOF!
I have made allusions to my inability to deal with financial matters in a meaningful way. To be more concise, I never had trouble making money. The difficulty was in keeping it. Before I would become a physician, I participated in the following professions: baby sitter (mostly Errol), tutor, shoe salesman, dance instructor, busboy, waiter, bookie (brief but exciting at NYU), and cashier. The following recollection gives you some further insight into my slightly deranged family structure. Siegfried Wahrhaftig (Harry’s older brother) was only two years senior to the baby of the family. Slightly more adventurous, he displayed an early interest in matters geographical, particularly map-reading. At the age of six, he took his four-year-old brother to an outer edge of Vienna (where were his parents?) and then instructed Harry to get home in an easterly direction while he tried the western route. The police helped Harry complete his journey. Siegfried grew to manhood, kept his bellicose nature and his love of geography, mastered six languages as well as law school to survive the Nazi takeover in the same manner as his younger sibling. Without the benefit of name change, he made it to
63

Making the Cut

Brooklyn, but couldn’t practice his profession – something about Roman law not being the same as English law. When the Wagner family was reunited in Brooklyn, Uncle Siggie was at hand to act as guide and translator. In fact, my first trip in the elaborate subway system was under his guidance, showing me that a smart person could get to every stop in the three lines with only a nickel. My mother was not happy with my eight-hour absence. The relationship between Sig and Harry was never a cordial one (do you think my father forgot the original abandonment?) and distance could be the best remedy. So, with $75 in his hand, it was shuffle off to Buffalo for my pathfinder uncle. How to earn a living? Law was out of the question. What could a teetotaler who knew every nook of the upstate highway system do after he had married Aunt Minnie (a most disagreeable choice)? If nothing else, her family had some connections in the vineyard business – so before you could say Jack Robinson, he was touring the cities near Niagara Falls peddling Chateau Martin wine without much difficulty. His detailed description of all the locals supplying the grapes would make anyone want to take a swig – except Uncle Sig. But there were other things to take care of first – like the draft and WWII. No OCS (Officer Candidate School), but you cannot hide your light for long. General Patton needed a translator and legal advice, so Master Sergeant Wahrhaftig was a constant passenger in the famous jeep. Although he never shot a gun, he got more than a measure of revenge against the murderers of most of his family, and had the medals to prove it. The war over, he was welcomed back to the company, refused a managerial position, and opted for his route on the open road. (Was it to escape the now balding Aunt Minnie?) It seems she lied about her age! I would have.

64

Kurt J. Wagner

Enough of a background. It’s 1950 and I’m getting ready to learn how to drive. Brooklyn is not the greatest proving ground and if Harry never had time to take me to a ball game, what were my chances at getting behind the wheel under his tutelage? Slim to none. How about this for a solution? Visit Uncle Sig and go along on one of his country road routes in his new Chevy (salesmen changed cars every other year). Surely this war vet wouldn’t mind a driving experience for his blood (ha) nephew? After all, he didn’t have any kids of his own. No problem. We set off in the early a.m. I marveled at his descriptions that would put Fodor to shame as he transfixed his customer’s attention. Order followed order usually with an increase in the bottles that would hit the open shelves. A day well done. Now it’s my turn to shine. Let’s get off the main highway for safety. A nice straight stretch with farms on either side. No problem. The miles are flying by, confidence increasing, what’s the big deal? But wait – Is that a cow crossing the road? Slow down, of course – but not quick enough for Uncle Sig. Without warning a foot comes on top of mine, but it doesn’t quite reach the brake – we speed up instead. I swerve – too late. Not a direct hit, but enough to whack a leg and fell Elsie’s cousin. What to do? The car’s hardly dented but as we survey the situation, a small entourage surrounds us. It’s the irate famer with a few choice words for the attackers.

65

Making the Cut

Seems like a cow with a broken limb is a dead cow. The owner, who obviously believes in euthanasia, returns with a shotgun to do the deed. Uncle Sig has already provided a check to pay for the replacement -- $200. One bullet – fait accompli. The onlookers start to disperse. Not so fast. Now it’s my turn. “Doesn’t the cow belong to us?” Guess so. “Would you mind putting it on top of my uncle’s car?” He seems stunned. “You bet.” After 15 minutes and some borrowed rope, our prize drapes the entire dome and we are on our way, albeit at a slower clip. “Uncle Sig, you know everything. Where’s the nearest slaughter house in Buffalo?” A slight detour – an hour later, after intense negotiations on m part – the newest passenger finds a new home, in exchange for a $25 profit in my pocket. Aunt Minnie never did get an adequate explanation about the origin of the slight dent on the dome until it was fixed. One of Sig’s friends did it for free. Not quite a war story, but close!

66

Kurt J. Wagner

20 A DIFFERENT ROAD TO TRAVEL, FOR A WHILE – AGE 19
I haven’t made much mention of my “happy days” in Washington Square during my college time at NYU. Although there was no campus, there was plenty of activity and not always in the classroom. The curriculum was gauged for many of the WWII vets who had taken advantage of the last years of the GI bill of rights to finish or further their education. Easy for me, anyway, and a lot less to deal with now. My mother and I were at constant odds about my parade of paramours and she chose the ultimate weapon – the purse strings. OK, I don’t have to support an exorbitant lifestyle – besides, there was always Vinnie. For some reason or another, we had bonded as kids in Kosciusko Street although he was several years my senior, partly because I was a “two-sewer man” in stickball and that made me a ringer in the money games between us and the rival gang from DeKalb Avenue. In addition, he knew whom to go to if a school composition needed some touching up. In those days, part of his income was derived from selling chances to younger kids for a dime, to stick a pick into a mystery box for a return of 5 to 1, if the right number came up. I didn’t realize then what a “made man” meant. No cops ever bothered him. That would come later. The years passed but out of sight meant out of mind. I guess it only means sometimes.
67

Making the Cut

“Kurt, how’d you like to make a little dough?” A little more mature tone, but it was my old pal. “We’re running a little numbers game around Soho and we could use someone to help promote the business and handle some of the paperwork.” It wasn’t too hard to figure out. In the summer, choose 3 players to get 6 hits – 8 to 1. During football season (the pros were just starting), the odds were a little more confusing and since that wasn’t an integral part of my duties, I was more concerned with the transmission of the information. Not a bad gig (the word wasn’t in my vocabulary yet) and it grew by leaps and bounds. Soon I had more notes to look after in this book than any that my professors had assigned. Now there was always money in my pocket or in the drawer, safe at home. Impetuous I am sometimes, more than I care to admit. A walk on the wild side can be exhilarating and I’m still getting straight A’s anyway. This was all to change when one of the girls in my Marriage and Family class approached me out of the blue. “We heard that you’re very good with appointments. My friends and I are running a dating service and we could use a little organization to make it more efficient. Are you interested?” Laura could be persuasive. Before long I was not only lining up appointments, but also getting 10% of the fees. An occasional date on the house, of course, was a perk – unsolicited by the way. But not for that long. Vinnie called – an emergency meeting with Uncle Vito in the downtown headquarters. We entered the back room of an Italian eatery with some trepidation. He didn’t look like Marlon Brando would look in The Godfather and he wasn’t happy.

68

Kurt J. Wagner

“What the fuck do you guys think you’re doing? We don’t need no independent operators. Stick to what you’re supposed to. Lucky for you, smart guy, that I know your old man from the neighborhood. (Thanks, Dad.) A slight smile, a big sigh of relief. “Why don’t you just be a sawbones? If you need some help getting in, we can help. Go back to the books and keep your nose clean.” One more look like the first one and it would have been more than my nose that would have needed cleaning. I realized there was another way of getting into med school besides hard work. But Vinnie and I were not through, not by a long shot.

21 MY REAL EDUCATION
Time for a pause – perhaps I am racing through my education a little on the quick side. Although I did spend a great deal of time behind a desk, home schooling was not a distant second and who was my professor or the subject that mattered as much as Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic? Can you guess? At the head of the class – always ready to share the family folklore, her expertise in manual pursuits, and most importantly interpersonal relationships – none other than the veteran of the battle of the sexes (I think she lost more than she won) – Sonia Wagner! I cannot recall any real tenderness that flowed between Harry and Sonia in all the years that I was part of the household. So who was there to turn to? A boy with a longing to be back in Vienna with the servants, the attention
69

Making the Cut

and the unbridled affection that flowed in from every direction. Besides, wasn’t he on his appointed mission – “You must help everyone.” And who better to assist in what was obviously a loveless relationship? After all, hadn’t he ruined her body and hadn’t she saved his life all the way from the uterus to Brooklyn? I listened attentively as Mutti shared with me whatever she could, and in retrospect, a lot of what she shouldn’t have. After the cat was out of the bag about the real meaning of fuck, the tenor and intensity of the information increased particularly into my teenage years – the ABCs soon entered into the SEX with these tidbits of feminine advice: 1- Women are the superior sex! As long as you have a third leg that can’t see or think ahead very far, you are not going to make very smart decisions. (How true.) 2- When you are doing it, no matter what, make sure your partner reaches the finish line, first if possible, but place is almost as good. 3- Remember you are different, so don’t worry if the crowd is not always in your corner. Lessons that I almost mastered.

70

Kurt J. Wagner

22 SUNY IN NEW YORK CITY MEDICAL SCHOOL – AGE 20
Phi Beta Kappa not withstanding, the chant is always the same: “You have a state scholarship – stay zu house!!” Vicki is out of the picture, but by now I have realized there are plenty more where she came from, particularly for a doctor-intraining. For some reason I like being engaged, and Shelley is next at bat. When I don’t want to marry as quickly as she does, she dumps me and runs off with her former boyfriend. It was doomed anyway, because I had tasted her mother’s offerings (she was only 17 years older) during an earlier spat with my beloved. (Mom’s idea, not mine!) Medical school was a mixed bag of misadventures because by now, my constant diatribes at home spilled over into occasional conflicts with my professors who were annoyed with my arrogance and my displeasure over their perceived stupidity which was not always wrong. But let’s go on.

71

Making the Cut

23 A REAL LOOK AT THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR!
Before I stray too far from this part of my journey, a memorable event right about now would alter my behavior pattern for the rest of my days. In 1954, the media and the airways did not dig into the adventures of Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, and more importantly had not opened the doors of the operating room to let the viewers see everything from stem to stern.

My medical school

With this background, Kurt and five of his freshmen colleagues took their seats in the rafters of a rather dated operating suite in Long Island College Hospital, the forerunner of the edifice currently under construction that would house the newly dubbed State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York at Brooklyn (quite a mouthful – hence SUNY).

72

Kurt J. Wagner

The program for the morning (thank God it wasn’t a DOUBLEHEADER), Dr. Jefferson Browder – a worldrenowned neurosurgeon and present Chief of the department – was scheduled to perform a “craniotomy” in order to relieve the pressure of some growth pressing against the confines of his patient’s skull. The stage was set: a body in the upright position, drapes covering everything except the well-shaved upper portion of a gleaming scalp. Dr. Browder, scalpel in hand, surrounded by nurses and other able assistants makes his first cut without further notice. My eyes were filled with a jet stream of blood that spewed forth from its confines. As I leaned forward with my hands held tightly to the front railing, I prayed that my knees would stop buckling, and that some consciousness would return my disappearing senses. With a sense of bravado summoned from the depths of God-knows-where (I had to be a surgeon! How could I show my unbridled weakness?), I turned to my companions, and to my amazement found three on the floor and one out the door! What a relief! If this was a fraternity-like hazing, thank goodness I had never joined one. But it is interesting to note that whenever the brain was to be entered into, all the years of my surgical training I was always the first one to switch assignments to avoid repetition of those early feelings. Scratch off neurosurgery!

73

Making the Cut

24 THE EUROPEAN TOUR
Two years of medical school gone by, a little problem getting through year one before I decided that punishing Sonia for her chronic interfering by flunking out would harm only me. Besides, I was planning my escape on a daily basis. My grades had improved, only failing psychiatry, when I suggested our instructor had too much of a leaning toward the males in his classes. Fortunately, my other classes overshadowed this blip. With Harry’s help, the Dean permitted me to continue on to the third year. (Six A’s and an F were in my favor plus 90% in the national boards.) As a peace offering, my parents suggested a threemonth visit to Europe via a passenger student boat called the Groote Beer along with a hired car to meet us in Holland.

Groote Beer

The day of departure – make sure to secure a deck chair next to the pool. Difficult to do since there was no pool, no deck chairs. Let’s get a good berth in your cabin. Oh-oh – five roommates and a motorcycle and no bathroom either. Just about enough room to breathe. No matter, Donald O. and I would make the best of it because three months of exploration lay ahead. What did it matter that we were on a converted slave ship with 646 women and 200 men? I had crossed the ocean before and survived.
74

Kurt J. Wagner

Nine days at sea filled with 10-cent Heineken beers, raucous parties and continued sexual exchanges. So this is what I missed by not going out of town. One of my roommates was a first-year med student whom they called “Doc.” Despite the fact that I had my ever-present doctor’s bag at hand, somehow my proper title eluded me. The menu started with ox tongue stew and ended with oxtail soup nine days later. By then, some level of flu or dysentery had swept the passageways and the ship’s doctor was overwhelmed. Let “Doc” help him! Staggering off shore in Rotterdam, we found a Renault 4 CV sedan (a VW Beetle dwarfs it), with my name waiting, complete with gas discount coupons and map.

Not quite a Cadillac

Forget the fact that I had never driven a stick shift car, but after the cow incident outside of Buffalo, nothing was daunting The land voyage was to cover over 10,000 miles and 14 countries, extending from Norway to Lebanon and was filled with many adventures, the sum total probably worthy of its own collection. But there was one time ….

75

Making the Cut

We had made many friends during our sea trip, some of whom were on organized student tours. Although we were free-lancing, our paths crossed on more than one occasion. In late July, we found three of our voyagers walking the streets of Florence in search of treasures besides Michelangelo’s David – namely women!

After a brief conversation it was decided that since I was relatively multilingual, perhaps I could find a haven for sexual relief. Some prodding – OK – followed by some questions in quasi-Italian and we were in front of the “Via di Amore.” As ambassador, I inspected a few domiciles, finally finding one that reminded me of what one of these places should like look. A pleasant negotiation with the Madame, settling on 15,000 lire for three hours (about $10) and my companions were off to the races, while I waited downstairs. Soon I was surrounded by several of the beauties who questioned me about my sexual orientation. Remembering that I was somewhat of a pro in this business, I politely told them that I was a poor medical student, unable to afford their services. But wait – is that your car out front? (Remember it’s 1956) …and aren’t you a doctore? (Not quite yet, but not quite a lie). How about an examination in exchange for some fun, followed by a ride in the car?

76

Kurt J. Wagner

Seemed fair to me. The exams didn’t last long but my stay did. 48 hours later we said goodbye and I even had a new camera, courtesy of one of the older customers who didn’t want his wife to know about his occasional visits.

Always on the lookout…

Another old song that I like: “There is nothing like a dame,” particularly in that line of employment! P.S. I came back with a new fiancée – Sylvia – just to prod my folks. Lasted all of 2 months! Would I ever grow up?

25 AGE 23 AT LEAST I HAD A HAND IN IT!
Skipping through med school rather quickly. I don’t want to leave the impression that there were not one or two incidents as vivid today as the day they occurred. Forget Doctor at Large, The Interns or even Grey’s Anatomy. We have to begin with this old adage “Idle fingers are the Devil’s workshop.” Although plastic surgery was usually number one on my wish list, there was a delusional moment when I
77

Making the Cut

considered OB-GYN. Whether it was due to homage to my grandfather, or the idea that I was always pretty comfortable around ladies, I set about to memorize almost everything set before us either in lecture or text book form. Lest you think that they let us run wild among the wards without some practical preparation, that was not the case. Enter Dr. G and Bertha. As part of our training, we had to spend some time getting acquainted with the anatomical “ins and outs” of the female pelvis under the tutelage of the good Dr., whose neck was adorned with a cross just slightly smaller than the original. Who better to practice on than a rubberized reproduction of our target – laughingly referred to as “Big Bertha.” A brief introduction and review of our objectives ending with the following admonition: “If you guys are in there for more than a minute and a half, you’re in there for more than an examination.” How dare he? Surely five generations of medicine should exempt me from such a scurrilous remark. The next day found a group of anxious if not too eager cadre of classmates in the general clinic of KCH (Kings County Hospital) preparing to have our first (at least for me) go at it. The lesson for today. Make sure the patient has the proper measurements to ensure a normal pelvic delivery, as well as checking out the inner workings. Our uniform of the day: a white jacket denoting our medical ranking along with regular civilian attire. Since women having their first baby were at a premium, we had to rely on the luck of the draw and use our imagination to handle the rest.

78

Kurt J. Wagner

My first formal patient was a young Puerto Rican lady who was having her fourth child at the tender age of 26. Quite good looking in a Latin sort of way. But an assignment is an assignment. We were divided into cubicles with a screen shielding the examination from public viewing. My chair -- a stool on wheels enabling me to scurry about with the push of my heels. My patient – in the correct position – no word between us. Here we go. I entered carefully – Oh God – not anything resembling Big Bertha. Did the Carlsbad Caverns feel any bigger? Maybe my fingers are too short, put in the ring finger to get a better angle. That’s it. There’s something familiar – is it the cervix? Got to be sure. My pinky is in an uncomfortable position. What the hell! Join in. And it was like a miracle. The books and all the illustrations were on the mark. She wasn’t missing a thing – uterus, tubes, and ovaries – all the walls. I was in heaven – anatomical, that is! My reverie was interrupted by a voice in the corridor. Sounds like Dr. G. Time to end the exam. But wait, my hand can’t come out. She won’t let me go and her breathing is like something I’ve heard before, but usually in bedrooms. Quick – OK, talk to her. “Seňora, empuje más fuerte por la boca.” (Lady, push stronger through your mouth). Push hard against the table while hitting her belly with the free hand – free at last – but I’m hurdling toward the screen just in time to slam into the entering Dr. G who was thrown back much like an open tackle on the gridiron. “What the hell happened, Wagner?” “Sorry, Doc, I slipped! (Better than slipping up).

79

Making the Cut

Epilogue: The next day a rather disappointed patient returned to the clinic with the following complaint. “Yesterday the doctor with the negro pantalones and mucho pelo was examining me when another doctor came before he finished. I want the whole exam.” Wouldn’t most women?

26 OUT IN THE REAL WORLD IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Last year of medical school. Time to learn about public health in the community. What better way than to visit a family in the barrio and make sure the kids have all their shots? My assignment led me into a Puerto Rican neighborhood and a four-story walkup .Lucky for me that the Santos are on the third floor. As I plodded up the stairs, a very pregnant lady appeared on the landing overhead. Flashing the Wagner smile, I inquired, “Cuándo viene el niño?” (When is the child coming?) “No se.” (I don’t know.) Brilliant – thank goodness she isn’t one of mine! The next few days passed pleasantly with my patients baring their injections bravely, letting me practice my Spanish, which was its usual rusty self. On my next scheduled visit, a frenetic man came racing down the stairs, grabbed my everpresent doctors bag, filled with the usual pharmaceutical gifts

80

Kurt J. Wagner

(stethoscope, otoscope, drug samples, etc ) and shouted, “El niño viene! Ayúdenos!” (Help us!) I followed him up the stairs to find my previous acquaintance very much in labor, leaning on the kitchen table and almost ready to pop. It is not as though I hadn’t delivered my fair share by now, but never, never, never in the wild. Think quickly! (Remember, no 911 just waiting for an ambulance that wasn’t here yet). Clear the table top. It’ll have to do, she isn’t moving and I think I see the crown coming!!!!!! Agua caliente, toallas! (Hot water, towels. That’s what they ask for in the movies but what for?) Okay. Towels for the surface and a bib for me as well. I’m sitting on a chair with her legs on either side like a catcher waiting for the pitch and here it comes, right down the middle. It’s a boy! The placenta isn’t far behind. Necessity is the mother of invention. How about using a shoelace as a tie to separate the two? There are enough knives within reach. OK – done. Papa is dazed, so am I. Now find something sterile to wrap the new born in. Did you know that newspapers are very clean on the inside? (Where did I learn that?) Periodicos nuevos! (New newspapers) Done! Still haven’t decided what to do with the hot water, which has cooled down a little. Nobody’s arrived yet, so let’s tidy up around the “delivery suite.” Wait, is that the cavalry approaching? Quick review while we all catch our breath: one baby, one exhausted, jubilant father and a dazed pseudoobstetrician holding his new charge wrapped in the Daily News with one shoe barely hanging on. The ambulance driver is first on the scene. “Hey mister, you’re not supposed to do that!” (Better me than him).

81

Making the Cut

“Well why don’t you put the baby back inside and start from scratch. I’ll make believe I’m not here!” When the baby was unwrapped, he did have a transfer of newsprint and Dick Tracy on his tusch but everything else was a –ok. Better than all the news that’s fit to print in the recent NY Times. PS – The newest member of the family was named Porifirio (for Rubirosa - Google him) Kurt (you know him) Gonzales. If I had any remaining thoughts about Ob–Gyn still floating in my subconscious, they were permanently drowned in the Agua Caliente!

27 JULY 1958 – CLOSER TO FREEDOM Age 24

Long Island Jewish Hospital

Long Island Jewish Hospital (LIJH) in New Hyde Park was a stark contrast to the other venues that the aspiring
82

Kurt J. Wagner

young medics in need of practice were sent to out of the bosom of SUNY and King’s County Hospital. Built on a country-like setting at the tip of Queen’s County, this 250 bed oasis was a welcome from the hustle, bustle and dark reality of crowded metropolitan Brooklyn. Besides, even the Dodgers were leaving!! Kurt had spent two very pleasant senior rotations there and in response to Marilyn G’s (#5) supplications, had opted to make LIJH his first choice in the obligatory intern-matching program. Even after having been betrayed by the selfish bitch (she was right, it wouldn’t have worked out – I was a much better knitter), I looked forward to the next year with great anticipation. July 1, like a kid on his first day at school, I strode into the familiar entrance with my white attire and new white bucks, but with something else brand new – lots of embroidery in the significant places that heralded to the world -- Dr. Kurt Wagner! Generation number 5 into the ranks.

Ready to go

I haven’t been overly kind in my previous descriptions of Papa Hallykind (Dad), but in this instance, he did step up

83

Making the Cut

with some cogent advice – words that were to reverberate on my fledgling career. 1. At rounds – look at the attending or professor – nod approvingly, laugh at any attempted joke, and for God’s sake, try agreeing! 2. Become a champ at blood letting and getting. (I became known as “Dr. Blood.”) 3. Don’t piss off any of the head nurses – make them your friends! 4. Be available when someone needs you without a lot of searching. First rotation – emergency room and a first step in the right direction. After gathering up the entire nursing staff behind closed doors, I confessed my clinical ineptitude and begged them to make me a real doctor. Amazing what true confessions bring about in the appropriate circumstances! The next months went by in the blink of an eye. My partner, Amnon Wein, a 6’4” giant from Israel, already a father of one with another on the horizon, was a fitting foil for my more jocular attitude. The sudden reception of a $40/month salary (added up to 11 cents an hour) combined with free room and board, was enough to make me giddy. Besides, there were enough nurses, candy-stripers and occasional patients to fill up my spare (rare) time. And then there was the extra $25 per week just for a sample of my more than ample sperm supply for those in need of artificial insemination.

84

Kurt J. Wagner

28 MOVE OVER ELVIS – ALMOST!
Before you think that all I did was chase every skirt or fight off every advance, let’s get one thing clear – I liked being DR. Wagner and I recalled my real purpose – Help everybody! So it was with great enthusiasm that I dove into every rotation with a desire to be the best and give all those under my charge 100%. But there were times that my encounters led to more than medical ministrations.

MEET LESTER LEE I was on medical rotation when summoned to meet and admit a new patient. This involved a presumptive history and physical, which served the dual purpose of teaching while fulfilling hospital requirements. I was greeted by an attractive man, about 10 years my senior, who was clearly out of breath and in the not-so-early stages of heart failure. After admission and a rather rapid response to the administration of powerful diuretics, I returned to find him in a much more comfortable frame of mind and body. Who did he remind me of? A little bit like me. After the usual perfunctory exam we found one or two common paths to explore. He turned out to be a Vice President of United Artists Records and proceeded to recant the people he could call his personal friends. “Excuse me a second, kid. I think Frank’s on the line. Have to get it.”

85

Making the Cut

It seemed like Hollywood was on the line and in the next days it turned out to be true. After checking with the operator (remember – I was raised in Brooklyn), the calls did emanate from Vegas, L.A. or Philadelphia. And so it was that Lester was ready for discharge just 48 hours after our first meeting. “You like platters, kid? Give me your home address and I’ll send you a few.” Out of politeness coupled with sincere enthusiasm, I dutifully complied and wished him well as he stepped into a waiting limo. Within a week, my mother informed me that there were 110 LPs that awaited my inspection at their new house in Roslyn, Long Island. (Yes, we had moved). Not a month passed by and my new favorite patient was in the VIP room again, his heart being drowned by the fluid that his overtaxed kidneys couldn’t get rid of without much-needed help. A slightly longer recovery this time, but his day was brightened by my morning visits. Nowadays our conversation broadened to a little more personal note. “So, you were a dancer. Can you sing?” Sadly, my mother’s vocal abilities had been lost in translation and I only could give a negative reply. “No matter – you know, you look a little like me. And from what the nurse’s tell me, the dames think you’re the second coming of Christ. I’m going to make you a star!” Soon after he was well enough to leave, he left the bed again after convincing me that a voice box (echo chamber) would turn my shit to Shinola. But first an acid test – A DJ convention at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, during the days of payola yet.

86

Kurt J. Wagner

Within a month we were off on a weekend jaunt to meet the likes of Dick Clark and company, so he could introduce his latest find – the Singing Swinging Dr. Wagner. The exhibits were OK, the baloney was being cut and served in thick slices, and it didn’t hurt that I grew up in Brooklyn. After passing that hurdle to Lester’s total satisfaction, he told me that I was to get ready to cut my first demo – something about sport coats and carnations. Nothing to prepare for – I could have practiced yodeling in the Alps but anticipation grew as the scheduled day approached. All good planning. If you have vocal talent – that’s even better, but no good deed goes unpunished and this was no exception. The end of September – a call from the ER. I’m not on duty but now it’s of a more personal nature: Lester is readmitted and is in an oxygen tent. Within an instance I stood at his side as he yelled at me plaintively, “Kurtie, don’t let me die – please, please.” In a second I held him in my embrace within the plastic enclosure. “Fuck the record, Lester – breathe for me.” Guess my requests fell on more than deaf ears. With a gasp he was gone and the agony of loss welled up in my tears. I lost more than a career that day: I lost part of me!

87

Making the Cut

29 MOVE ON
Lots and lots of girls and one or two big mistakes (story of my life). One of my favorites (at least for awhile) was a fashion model who graced the cover of more than one magazine. For some reason or another, in spite of the fact that $40-50K per annum was keeping her in style, she wanted a baby. Despite her assurances that the entrance was safe, she put one over on my blind associate and soon regaled me with the news. Congratulations. Too bad her beauty was not matched by her gray matter. With dreams of California still dancing in my head, I persuaded her that the time was not right, and with her Jewish parents joining in the chorus, she agreed to a termination of pregnancy. After an overnight ordeal with me at her side, now being $300 poorer but really relieved, I returned to the ranks of the unattached, for the time being. My mother’s advice: “Why don’t you sleep with married patients? It’s safer if you slip up again.” Thanks, mom. She was right in a peculiar sort of way. But let’s go on. The months slipped by with rarely a misadventure worth noting. I came to realize that any thought of going into OBGYN would have been a step toward imminent disaster because my mother was right. Some ladies really like the man who gives them a lot of attention from that point of view. Besides, I had already caught on. Did I ever mention that, aside from appreciating a great feminine face, I was and still am (more or less) a “leg and ass
88

Kurt J. Wagner

man”? So began the biggest change in my life. On a dreary November day (that’s right – maybe I should skip that month), as I was walking down the hallway to appointed rounds, two strides ahead was a vision clad in a camel hair coat, which served as a backdrop for blonde tresses that flowed to below her waist. Her fingers, holding a notebook loosely in their clutches, were covered with rings that only left her thumb unadorned. That drew my attention to as beautiful a pair of legs as I had ever laid my eyes on. (Forget Betty Grable.) But surely her face couldn’t compare to the tempting offering walking before me. What to do? There was an adjacent hallway reserved for hospital personnel that I quickly entered and raced to the exit that would put me in front of her path. Moments later I came face to face with Barbara Jean Wallace. She wasn’t the best, but she sure was better than the majority of the rest in a Lee Remick kind of way. Our first encounter was this scintillating repartee : “What the fuck are you looking at?” A clever sophisticated opening not soon to be forgotten. That called for a well-thought-out retort. “Do you want to get married?” “Fuck off,” she said as she defiantly continued her journey – if only I had listened!

89

Making the Cut

30 THE COURTSHIP
Next meeting – did I mention that I was somewhat of a terpsichorean delight? Of course I did. As part of my everexpanding obligations, I incorporated teaching a weekly dance class held in the staff house next to the hospital. Much like the floating crap game in “Guys and Dolls,” the time and place were posted on strategically positioned bulletin boards throughout the floors. But I was not always an exact master of the starting time. Sometimes patients weren’t on the same clock. (Imagine that!) And on one or two occasions my students would begin practicing their routines listening to the beat of my selected 78s while awaiting the professor’s arrival. It was on such an evening that I rushed to keep my appointment to find several couples practicing basic tango steps. Barbara Jean was struggling to keep up with (or ahead) of Frank W. He was destined to become Professor of Radiology at Harvard, but now was only interested in keeping step. A perfect moment to eavesdrop: “Who the hell taught you to dance?” Barbara asked. “Kurt Wagner and he was a professional. I’m doing it just like he showed us.” “Who is this guy? Has he hypnotized everybody? The girls on the third and fourth floors can’t get enough of him. I could show that putz a thing or two!” Truer words were never spoken!

90

Kurt J. Wagner

So what exactly was her position at the hospital and what where did she come from? Born in Oklahoma eight months before me, Barbara came out of a youthful marriage between a 19-year-old father and a 16-year-old part-Indian mother. The marriage was doomed with mom deserting an already alcoholic dad, so her upbringing was turned over to 33-year-old Grandma Hazel and hubbie Shorty Wallace. Because times were tough and Hazel had a sister Sammie who was married to a burgeoning oil tycoon, Richard Lyons, a vice president under J.P. Getty, and since that marriage was and would be childless (no thought of adoption), Barbara was soon shuttled between Houston and Holdenville, Oklahoma to be raised in a patchwork of alternating wealth and poverty. Education was under the purveyance of Uncle or Papa Richard, who ruled with the iron hand forged by strict Roman Catholic doctrine. Being a rebellious spirit and obviously having an IQ that reached the stratosphere, Barbara rose up the ranks in various Texas colleges until she met her first husband, Edgar, also a refugee from Europe (Belgium) who was a musician. (Beginning to sound familiar?) Despite objection, they married and Barbara became pregnant to give birth to a beautiful daughter with one problem – hydroencephalus. Before ending this tragic part, perhaps I should mention that B.J.’s first mother-in-law came from Vienna and that one of her classmates was named Sonia Kaunitz!! Six degrees of separation – no baloney. Now back to the story. Edgar didn’t have the gumption to face his doomed progeny, so he skipped out leaving the young mother to keep watch over the deterioration and the death of the first born at ten months of age. What was she doing in Queens? Only working at two positions to pay for her divorce bills. She temporarily was

91

Making the Cut

high on the Lyon’s shit list. No problem – after a weekend of reading through Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, she easily landed the job of head secretary at the Pathology Department. Not quite enough. OK, why don’t we be admitting officer for the night shift? And that, dear reader, is why she was walking down the hall.

31 BARBARA

I’m in the ER again and get to spend some rest time on a cot in a little enclosure that abuts a wall separating it from the office dealing with after-hour emergency admissions. Ergo, my not-so-favorite fan found herself less than a stone’s throw from my modestly described sexual “stairway to heaven!” The banter continued for a few nights, my intellectual rival always getting in the last word (maybe I let her) until on a day that marked the beginning (or the end), the door opened in the wee hours of the morning and I awoke to face her final answer – “Oh, what the hell! Move over!”

92

Kurt J. Wagner

An abrupt change in my lifestyle soon followed. It was as if all the girls thought I had the bubonic plague – not a care! OK with me, B.J. was more than enough in any department and before long, everyone knew we were a couple. I was duly impressed with all her other abilities which included typing 120+ words per minute (good for transcribing my notes), playing the piano, singing, occasionally cooking in her studio apartment, and making sure that all of my personal needs were being met. Just as important was the fact that she could hold her own in an occasional toe-to-toe encounter with my mother, who did recollect her erstwhile classmate in old Vienna with some degree of fondness (whew!). There was an important addendum she made sure that I knew. Her family money, now at hand, would not be a barrier to a promising career with a six-year residency looming on the horizon. Fitting for obeying another one of Mama W’s rules of life: “If you marry before you’re through, make sure she’s not a financial burden to you.” But as nice as things were on the surface, no way did Mutti approve of the slightly damaged merchandise, even though they resembled each other in more ways than one. Internship is only the beginning and applications for a surgical residency were being sent out and answered. As far as Kurt was concerned, he had made this vow to himself: No matter what, this time it’s “California, here I come.” Cedars of Lebanon had offered me a surgical position long before I had a thought of any new female entanglement. The more we were together, the higher my level of guilt because there was absolutely no thought of my escape being anything but a solo flight. In fact, during our going away party in June, given by the attendings, at which time I was voted the best of the rest, we all stood one-by-one to announce our immediate plans for the future.
93

Making the Cut

“I’m Marty Delman and I’m going to be an ophthalmology resident at Manhattan Eye and Ear.” “I’m Frank Wald and I’m going to be radiology resident in Boston.” Finally it was my turn – “I’m Kurt Wagner and I’m quitting medicine and going into show business!” Was this a portent of future reality? Before you knew it, June 27, 1959 found me heading toward Route 66 in a new red Pontiac convertible (sorry, Mom, I told you I was going, bribe or not), with my 16-year-old brother riding shotgun, and no Barbara! But with a heavyheavy achy-breaky heart!! Wasn’t this a form of Sonia’s déjà vu?

94

Kurt J. Wagner

32 WELCOME TO THE WEST COAST, BABY!

It was quite a three-day ride. Errol, a quiet companion tucked down with his cowboy hat, was ready to take on California with a much clearer head that his older brother. After all, it was only for a two-week jaunt and then back home on the wings of TWA. What did I expect? As I explained before, for a smart guy, sometimes the brain shriveled into the size of a peanut. When does the dream really mirror reality? Why Cedars of Lebanon? Well, maybe it’ll be good to be in a nonJewish hospital for awhile to increase my chances of finding a good plastic surgery residence. (Yes, anti-Semitism was present in more than one hallowed hall.) Ha! The biggest Star of David that I had ever seen adorned the roof of a slightly

95

Making the Cut

Cedars of Lebanon

bedraggled building at 4833 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood. Schmuck! To add insult to injury, the prestigious Chief of Surgery who had accepted me with open arms via the U.S. Postal Service was crossing the country to take on the position of Head of Surgery at Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Probably missed him in Albuquerque as we were driving past one another. Hollywood: getting off the freeway in downtown Los Angeles turned out to be a replica of New York, but with palm trees. No matter: My first trip for a dip in the Pacific – that was going to be easy. Still numb from the sight of the Star, I barreled down Santa Monica Boulevard toward the ocean that beckoned from the map that Errol had in his lap. At least parking was easier. That’s more like it, and there’s plenty of room compared to Coney Island. That excitement cooled with the first splash of seafoam spray. It’s colder than a witch’s tit. It would be a long time until those waves were to touch my skin again. Would I ever find Valhalla? Enough of the prelims. Cedars welcomed her new recruit with slightly less than open arms. The accommodations for incoming staff were so-so, particularly in comparison to LIJH.
96

Kurt J. Wagner

The beach: b-brrrrr!

After a brief introductory run through of the history (baloney) and services available at my new institution, the real work began on July 4th (Independence? Day). My new colleagues were OK, having been recruited from almost everywhere but California. From a professional standpoint, I was not entirely alone because Amnon had also crossed over to pursue his surgical career.

Dick

But, where was the Chief? You already know he had fled. Who was to lead us? And Dr. Kurt, you were accepted to a five-year surgical program. Incidentally, now I found out only the first year was guaranteed as part of a pyramid scheme. Five down to three and then 1-1-1. No matter if I was insecure in some matters, competition for advancement usually worked out one way or another. I only need three years to be eligible for the next rung of the ladder toward a plastic career.

97

Making the Cut

Work began and at least my curiosity about movie greats in the flesh was soon satisfied. Dick Powell and June Allyson passed me in the hall on day one. In the first weeks I had a “brief encounter” with Natalie Wood, which did nothing to disappoint me in my admiration of her many skills.

Natalie

There was a serious discussion with Peter Lorre, now looking more like the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet than his role in The Maltese Falcon.

Peter

Within a few days it became known (thanks, Amnon) that I was a promoter of the “light fantastic” and more than a handful of hopefuls soon were part of the new Wagner dancing corps, with classes in the rec room. Like so many institutions whose structures were showing their age, every attempt was made to solicit donations for a bigger, better and new facility to serve the public. My new home was no exception. In its yearly drive to fill its coffers, the staff was granted free access to enjoy the festivities. And, it was here that “Twinkle Toes” was prodded to petition to ask for a short dance with Ginger Rogers.

98

Kurt J. Wagner

With the aid of supplication on bended knee, I was granted my wish, which turned out to be three minutes of really being in dance heaven!

Ginger

Keeping busy with all these new sights and activities did not erase the memory of my cowardly flight from my intense relationship. Although I was never one to forget the less-than-perfect circumstances of my home environment, there was a great deal of comfort in the “protection” afforded by the proximity of my parents. While it is true that I had been absent from them for some months at a time (Europe in 1956), home base was always there. Many of my waking nights were spent re-reading Barbara’s daily missives since I had left without a not-so-final goodbye. In the darkness, visions of my grandparents reappeared, and admit it or not, little “Kurtie” was not doing all that well in these alien surroundings. Phone calls did little to dampen my anxiety and I could not or would not give my “jilted” partner a final decision. This persistent demand for an answer was not facilitated by some less-than-satisfying brief alliances that seemed to lose their splendor almost as soon as the orgasmic climax was in the memory bank. How long was I gone? A lifetime? Two months or less. It was twilight and I was ruminating on a late Sunday afternoon when there was a knock on the door. Oh no – please let it not be the nurse from orthopedics! I answered the persistent rapping and – was it another mirage? A dream? A fair-haired angel, her shining countenance framed by astral beams streaming through the rear hallway window.

99

Making the Cut

Back to earth. Barbara rushed to my embrace. “Enough of this bullshit! Are you going to marry me or not?” If you haven’t heard the once popular song, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” change only one word and that was my almost silent reply. Funny how a wounded psyche can rationalize a hasty decision. Like Mutti, she would take care of everything. Nobody on either side was going to be happy, but no worries. With Amnon as the best man and Irving Penn, my new best friend, in attendance, Kurt and Barbara tied the knot and after a less than spectacular weekend honeymoon in Las Vegas, a dazed bridegroom said goodbye to his better half who would tie up all loose ends and be back in a jiffy. With a weakling’s trepidation, I avoided my mother’s invectives and began to immerse myself into the new set of rules. Three weeks later, the new Mrs. Wagner returned, apparently victorious in having temporarily neutralized her new in-laws and pacifying the Southwest brigade to start us on the next chapter of an everexpanding experience.

100

Kurt J. Wagner

33 REVELATION TIME

Debbie

It’s September and Barbara continues to earn her stripes. Within a week she’s head secretary to Harry Karl, the shoe magnate married to Debbie Reynolds. We’re out of the staff house and ensconced in a cozy one bedroom just a block away, fully furnished after only a two-hour visit to local stores whose wares antedated IKEA, and everyone is quickly enamored with her quick wit and sparkling repartee. Remember that I am not a tyro in housekeeping either, so now I could concentrate on learning my craft – at least phase one. Sounds pretty good. A new champion to offer financial security, a welcome hearth and sexual satisfaction to the nth degree. But the coming months were soon to reveal a slightly different set of circumstances. The signs were there during the honeymoon. The compliant Barbara showed signs of being increasingly bellicose and belligerent. I attributed this to the less-than101

Making the Cut

perfect onset of our furtive union and besides, I was awaiting the oncoming attacks sure to emanate from home base. Not an idyllic retreat to say the least!

Lust for life

OK, scene one of a new script – we’re at home on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. Kirk Douglas has just cut off his ear in the Impressionist thriller, “Lust for Life,” the blood filling the TV screen just feet away from the bed that moments before had been the platform for an unusually tense sexual encounter. If that sight was not enough to dissipate the lingering after-glow leaving my loins, I felt a sudden chill that replaced the warmth permeating my being. For some reason I turned and said, “Barbara?” “The bitch Is not here!” Whose was the demonic face glaring my way? In an instance, I was in a corner of the room with only a sheet to offer shield from the stranger hurling increasing barbs at me from an ever-increasing attack-like stance. If Barbara had left, who was her understudy? And there were more than one
102

Kurt J. Wagner

vying for the starring role. Within moments I met Juanita (her real mother’s name), soon to be usurped by Lucy, followed closely by Faith (sorry, no Hope and Charity), and culminating with the real dominatrix Celia. Before an audience of one, this cast took turns at cursing, praising, demeaning and putting me in my proper place. It seems that the salacious phrases uttered to me during our sexual climaxes were not Barbara’s alone. My ever so constant blind partner also hadn’t listened very attentively on many previous encounters. Forget the “Three Faces of Eve” soon to come, suddenly I felt really alone now, not to mention the fact that I may have become an unknowing albeit legal bigamist! Quicker than the auditions began, the characters left the stage, to be replaced by a familiar smile that asked me what the hell I was standing in the corner for? Confusion, consternation and fear – take your pick – I quickly retreated to find the protection of something more substantial to wear. “Honey, let’s get something to eat, I’m famished.” As long as I wasn’t on the menu, I hastened to comply. Monday found me pouring through the psychological tomes of the library in search of a diagnosis that was outside of my ken. An urgent consultation with a psychiatric resident gave me more information. No, she was not Jekyll and Hyde, nor schizophrenic, but probably suffering from a newer malady “dissociative reaction.” In plain English, if things didn’t go well for a smart youngster in the very formative years, particularly from unwanted sexual advances from an adult (usually family member), they seek safer haven in other beings in order to survive reality. Bingo! But what to do for survival and self-protection was not easy to spell out in the immediate situation. After all, didn’t I just swear something about sickness and health, and parting only at death? And wouldn’t Mutti be pleased and hadn’t Harry seen anything?

103

Making the Cut

He was somewhat of a shrink. No matter. I had made my bed, although the roses were being replaced by thorns.

34 I LOVE YOU, PORGY
Needless to say, the tenor of our relationship underwent a monumental transformation. The tense undercurrent was highlighted by occasional verbal confrontations, where I was increasingly confused as to who exactly was my present antagonist. I had been advised to eschew direct confrontation and was increasingly immersed in the uncontrolled activation of the “flight or fight” mechanism churning at my being. Our sex life had not grounded to a grinding halt, but the level of satisfaction had plummeted to glacial levels. This did not mean that our social calendar was entirely scuttled as well. We still visited clubs on Sunset Strip which featured legendary comedians like Lenny Bruce and the like, as well as other well-known or rising stars. It was on just an evening that we were in the audience anxiously awaiting the performance of Nina Simone, a black singer and great piano stylist whose current remake of Gershwin’s “I love you Porgy” was climbing the charts. Her co-star, Christine Jorgensen, an ex-Marine who decided to become an ex-man thanks to the first publicized de-balling and such that had occurred in Denmark just a few years earlier (Remember, it’s 1959). Aided by clever hormone injections and even more clever plastic surgeons, he/she was now cashing in by prancing in front of the curious in any accepting setting, singing (about as

104

Kurt J. Wagner

well as my efforts), and displaying her new -you clad in gown and fur.

Nina

Nina was great, Christine was different, and Barbara said, “Let’s meet the bitches!” Before you knew it, she had conned the sentinel guarding the dressing room into entry, and we were standing face to face before the dynamic duo. It was love at first sight for some. Nina and Barbara had mutual acquaintances, and their paths had crossed in Paris. We lauded her performances, while Christine engaged me in more intimate conversation, particularly after hearing that I was “Dr. Wagner.” Maybe I didn’t know of Nina on the continent, but I did know the exact location of the Copenhagen chop shot, providing treatment that was more than a circumcision. Our last conversation: “Would you excuse me now, Dr. Kurt?” “Why?” “I have to change.” My instant reply – “Didn’t you do that already?” As he/she stormed out in a huff, throwing a fur boa around her square shoulders that almost decapitated me during an army-like pivot, my audience (only two) roared with

105

Making the Cut

laughter. A better response than Christine had gotten during his shot on the stage! It’s the beginning of a new friendship for B.J. Nina and she spend an increasing amount of time together at her Hollywood haunts. I’m not always there (good for me) and before long turned down an invitation for a “ménage-a-trois” initiated by the singer (I think). Not exactly my beat, one-onone being the rhythm I dance to. She may have been enchanting when she played or sang, but would you bed down a dame resembling Nat King Cole? The dialogue was disintegrating, ending in the following showdown.

Christine Jorgensen

All was not well in the public arena. An Asian flu epidemic was spreading through the population with alarming rapidity, and Barbara’s new best friend soon was a casualty. We were scheduled to go to a flick, only to be interrupted by a plea from a bedridden Nina for some companionship. “Maybe some chicken noodle soup will soothe her. I gotta be with her.”

106

Kurt J. Wagner

“For that conniving bitch? Not on this planet. Is it my time or hers?” The adjoining seat in the theater was empty that night. OK, that makes it easier to plan my escape. But once again the Fates threw a monkey wrench into my plans for an organized retreat. Nina had shared more than her talent with her nursing buddy – one week later a feverish, aching Mrs. Wagner needed some assistance from her roommate. After all, I could offer more than cooked chicken entrails. Two weeks later, a thinner, quieter and more compliant Barbara (I think) shared our bed. With a look of gratitude that filled her eyes, she stared across the room and unsolicited said, “I love you, Porgy.” The next weeks passed without much incident. Nina was on tour (good riddance) and we were off to our weekly movie adventure. Barbara excused herself to go to the john. Within moments an usher was at my side. “Are you Dr. Wagner? Your wife has just passed out on the staircase.” I raced to find her dazed and confused. We went home quickly as she gathered her wits. Was this for real? Or, were the specters battling to be free?” “Porgy, I can’t feel part of my legs.” Hysteria? But wait -- an examination with pinpricks revealed numbness that actually traveled down the course of real neurological pathways. And now, her pupils were taking an occasional separate trail independent of willful thought or action. I may not be a fan of real diagnostic medicine, but this was no psychological subterfuge. Cedars got a new emergency admission. That’s right, and it’s November again. Here we go! Within moments, blood was drawn, consultations were scheduled and a cot was set up for her displaced and anxious husband. By the next morning, a myriad of examinations by
107

Making the Cut

attending and appropriate house staff retired to ponder and give their respective opinions about the source of this (genuine?) malady. The diagnoses included more choices than offered on “What’s my Line?” ranging from hysteria to a more discouraging “Acute Multiple Sclerosis.” Unfortunately, Barbara (or her others) had heard the latter pronouncement and soon her symptoms pointed in that direction. Spinal tap followed tests to provide newer clues. A positive “colloidal gold curve” seemed to verify her fate. When not fulfilling my surgical obligations, I was at her bedside watching this strong-willed woman slowly deteriorate, one attack after another sapping her strength. One morning we awoke and she was blind, then her left leg would not respond to her command, then her ability to swallow was in jeopardy, and convulsions of epileptic proportions were soon to follow. Weeks would turn into months with little or no relief. Sometimes when we were alone, surrounded by the dark silence that night brings, and I was making sure that the almost continuous IVs introducing newer concoctions that held out the hope of bringing an end to her despair were still patent and running, a mournful request would be repeated. “Porgy, if you love me a little, help me to die!” I never had the guts to ask which one was asking. We even survived a brief transfer to Los Angeles County Hospital (Ben Casey’s home), as a result of rapid deterioration of her breathing capabilities. My presence during transport prevented an emergency tracheotomy at the hands of an EMRer anxious to display his life-saving skills under fire. With a less aggressive regimen she soon recovered and gradually many of her more severe symptoms regressed, albeit not with the rapidity that they had appeared.

108

Kurt J. Wagner

During some of the more perilous times, just before the Christmas holidays, B.J. had family drop in – namely Uncle/ Papa Richard and Sammie. The sight of their former charge struggling to speak and unable to walk without the benefit of assistance proved to be a little too much, even for a man who had spent part of his youth searching for oil deposits in dangerous terrain , all for J.P. Getty & Company. With a pat on my back as reassurance, knowing that all was being medically done that was humanly possible, they were gone as quickly as they had appeared, leaving Kurt and Company to keep up the good work. Before long, 1960 was the New Year and March was the new month. What a decade – high school, college, medical school, internship, marriage – not to mention five (or was it six?) engagements. Now I was saddled with a wife less than perfect in more ways than one, but at least our 24-hour a day, four-month hospital confinement was over, with a yet-tobe determined medical diagnosis. So, let’s review the situation. B.J. still has some areas of numbness, her convulsive history has deprived her of temporary driving privileges and prolonged absence has left her unemployed. Her demeanor is much improved and a state of truce reigns in the household. I was emotionally exhausted. More importantly, I had been celibate for nearly half a year. We now were back in bed together, and the moment was right – at least for me. It was over almost before it began, heralded by a scream of pain, rather than delight. What was wrong? Transforming myself into my medical persona quicker than Clark Kent could step into his phone booth, the next pelvic examination was purely gynecological in nature. My exploratory fingers were met by a painful mass in place of a normal unobstructed passage. Pregnancy was out of the question, so my first guess was some kind of cancer. Why not? That was all that was missing.

109

Making the Cut

Within 24 hours Dr. Lazarus, a terrific gynecologist with a great surgical skill that overrode his terrible OR manners, shared the good and the not-so-good news. “One of the worst cases of endometriosis I have seen!” For those who hadn’t gone to med school with me, it’s a condition where the uterine lining has escaped or is growing in abnormal sties causing pain and tumors that recur and can increase with each period. “Let’s try some testosterone injections to stop the cycles. I’m sorry to say that the chances of conceiving are virtually nil.” Fine with me regarding the baby business, and compared to the last four months, this was a walk in the park!

110

Kurt J. Wagner

35 LET’S LEAVE DODGE FOR AWHILE Age 25
It’s about time for a little R and R. Sooner or later, I’ll have to face Mutti and Harry, now that Barbara and I are no longer a two-income household (she had been making four times my salary). Maybe we would get a little help from deep pockets in Texas. Barbara is going to be slightly(?) incapacitated for the foreseeable future and besides, hadn’t I been the steadfast attendant in those darkest hours?

The lyin’ house

First stop – Houston. The house is nice, is in the right neighborhood (River Oaks), surrounded by the social elite. We are treated cordially but nowhere near the warmth of my parents’ Viennese hellos. The dinner was bland, the talk insipid and the question came afterward in the spacious library. “You know Barbara can’t work. Can you loan us 25K for five years so I can finish my residency? I’ll pay you 6%
111

Making the Cut

interest.” Did I mention that Richard was president of the Independent American Petroleum Association and CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation on NASDAQ? Quick calculation – about a week’s income! “Let us think about it,” was the first response, and we quietly retreated to one of the three guest rooms in the west wing. It took them less than three hours to unthink. Their answer was short, sweet and succinct. “Sammie and I don’t give money to raise Jew babies.” Pretty good answer for a Roman Catholic tither who had married a Baptist. We packed quickly even though it was close to midnight and spent the night at the airport Holiday Inn before continuing our trip to New York. Barbara’s retort: “Fuck them! What does it take to become a Jew?” New York was surprisingly pleasant, particularly in comparison with the Texas Howdy-Do. Harry was solicitous and more interested in the clinical history of our tribulation and Sonia proved that she could be a good sport, being somewhat alarmed at the sudden change in her daughter-in-law’s demeanor as well as the obvious deterioration in her sparkling eyes. It was good to do nothing but eat, and for the next week or so, sleep without keeping one eye open. They even asked me if I needed some help financially; my denial came just as quickly – but at least it rekindled my dying faith in family! A somewhat disgruntled couple headed back to California, still trying to regroup. I left B.J. at home with many calls to make sure the meds were being taken and peace reigned supreme. April is almost over and I’m at the foot of the bed while Barbara sits astride in one of her favorite Yoga positions. “Porgy, I think I’m pregnant.” Oh sure – a halfstream wonder wiggler had miraculously vaulted over the wall

112

Kurt J. Wagner

and through the obstructed zones. But wait a quick look at her slightly engorged breast veins and I wasn’t so sure. And Dr. Lazarus was amazed as well – it’s a miracle! Does that mean that God had been the real father? What do we do now? Time for some serious discussion, and once again “No” doesn’t seem to be in my vocabulary. “Please Porgy I lost one and who knows if I’ll ever have another chance. Stay with me till it’s over and then you can leave.” By now you can guess – whether it was loyalty or stupidity or just plain guilt over my last experience in New York – all systems were go – and another chapter was to be written.

36 LET’S HAVE A BABY
Cedars was still there. As was I. A new Chief had been recruited from New York: Dr. Leon M –a real stickler for dotting i’s and crossing Ts. I did not rise to the top of his favorite list although I did what I had to do, and knew more than I had to know. It seems that my easy non-medical ways without appropriate protocol that served to enchant the public had the opposite effect on him. Ah – well. I was bending the rules, taking night calls at home so I could stand guard against unexpected invasions (from without or within). In addition, I moonlighted at various 24-a-day offices three nights a week to supplement our ever-dwindling cash reserves. But even then I was not alone, because Barbara and company were my constant companions.

113

Making the Cut

Healthwise, it was like walking a tightrope; the occasional loss of her motor ability interspersed with an open wound on the dorsum of her hand that seemingly never quite healed. Wonder whose handiwork that was? But the others were keeping silence, at least within earshot. Somehow it was December 14, 1960 and the time was at hand. Dr. Lazarus was in charge, the anesthesiologist had his hands full sedating the mother(s), and Jean made her appearance with Mutti at hand. Full of grace, long hair and an adorable face, the new generation had arrived. Jean Wagner: Some great baby, religion not withstanding. No real congrats from Mom’s side – a token check. After all, we were polluting the planet, but with the elder Mrs. Wagner falling into her part as Omi (Nana) as quickly as she played the Minute Waltz, the new trio returned to our pied-aterre. Now’s my chance, I fulfilled my obligation and the door was open. Are you kidding me? Leave my daughter with this crazy or was it crazies? Not in this lifetime. Let’s get on with it. On one occasion in the first six months, B.J. did try to make my choice easier, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was during one of my nightly turns at Dr. Yonchar’s office that now had two tag-a-longers. The first floor of this older two-storey mansion housed office, exam rooms as well as Xray and lab facilities. There were no local ERs at the time, so business was sporadic through the night hours. The fullyfurnished basement was a cozy nest for Barbara, Jean and port-a-crib, while I stood guard awaiting any drop-in needies. There was a cot upstairs that gave me a chance to grab some shuteye between patients. An occasional patrol assured me that things were under control. It was near daylight. How long had I been asleep? There was that eerie chill again. Fully clothed this time, I flew down the stairs to find an
114

Kurt J. Wagner

unconscious figure on the floor; pupils fixed, no respiration, no pulse. Oh my God – what now? Forget 911, it didn’t exist. Jean was asleep and who could I call? What the hell – you are it! CPR one-man – no two-man. In and out, breathe, and press. Come on – show me something! Live, Goddamn it! A strong pair of hands interrupted my pace. It was a wide-eyed Dr. Y – But she was breathing on her own – or were they? Had it taken only an hour to defeat the Grim Reaper? Two days at Cedars: Cause? Allergy? Drug overdose? As usual, nothing clear-cut. I found out several years later that she had injected herself with ten times the normal dose of Morphine while I was in the arms of Orpheus. Too bad that information wasn’t readily available as I was going down the stairs. Oh well, the outcome wouldn’t have been different. My job was to help everybody,

37 SURGEON IN TRAINING
And so it continues. The baby was thriving; Barbara’s condition was never near imminent disaster, albeit in need of some sort of 24-hour supervision. If her chorus was around, they were vocally silent, enabling me to turn more attention to learning my craft. At the time, Cedars had all the contracts emanating from the Screen Actor’s Guild, so it was not uncommon to see movie stars of the past and the present in the public corridors or as patients. While I may not have been Morgenstern’s idea of what a doctor should be, many of the attending liked the young guy who knew all of the patients, had pretty good
115

Making the Cut

hands in the O.R. and was Mr. Reliable 24 hours a day, in spite of unbelievable personal problems. (Who didn’t know about Barbara?) While I was still relatively low on the totem pole as far as getting a turn with the knife goes, there was the dog lab. One of Raymond my earliest champions was Dr. Nat Hiatt of Brooklyn (born of my neighborhood extraction),a great anatomist and expert researcher. What made it super duper? He had been married to a Warner girl and although that union had ended, many of his patients were of the star variety. And he Carolyn liked the kid that he could share stories with while they were exploring the hidden recesses of their canine patients. On the private side was Dr. Felger, an elderly guy Liz who had gone to Vienna to hone his skills in the 20s, and was happy to take me down memory trails while I was assistant and sometimes surgeon on the current case. With this as an example of the friendships that I was forging, is it any wonder that I was in the O.R. with such legends as Raymond Massey, Elizabeth Taylor, Carolyn Jones, Edward Everett
Joanne Edward

Horton, Joanne Dru, June Allyson, Peter Lorre and the like. Some were aware of my connection, while others smiled as the pleasant assistant changed a dressing or removed some
116

Kurt J. Wagner

stitches. Perhaps I smiled a little too, taking pride in my workmanship that was improving steadily with growing practice. Meanwhile, the pyramid system was doing its worst. The second year had reduced the candidates to three – Kurt (he’s just along for the ride), Amnon Wein (remember he’s Israeli) and Fred Sahar – of Lebanese extraction. The day of decision was nearing to choose June the survivor to finish the program: Uhoh …Arab vs. Jew in a Jewish Peter Federation Hospital. Speculation in corridors grew in intensity. Then the announcement came: “We are changing the program from five years to four, and therefore will only need Dr. Wagner to fill the third year.” Guess even then Leon wanted to be politically correct. Besides, everyone was beginning to know that Twinkle Toes was sparkling in the O.R. as well. Now all I need is a plastic surgery residency and a little bit of luck!

117

Making the Cut

38 MRS. MILLER, ARE YOU OK?
I was on call one day in 1961 and of course, was at home serving nightly guard duty when the phone rang in the wee morning hours. “Where the hell are you?” came the familiar voice of one of my attendings, Dr. R. “Get your ass down here and see Mrs. Miller in the VIP floor right now!” Realizing that this request was a demand (not my style to delay anyway), I soon stood in front of a door guarded by a uniformed behemoth who reluctantly granted me entrance without a strip search (a little humor). In front of me, writhing in pain in a fetal position was a familiar figure not quite the quintessential Queen of Glamour. With nurse at my side, I soon decided that Mrs. Miller’s inflamed gall bladder was the problem, and after an IV of a generous amount of appropriate narcotic, grimace became a smile and the body returned to a more relaxed position. The nurse was sent off and my grateful patient asked
118

Kurt J. Wagner

me to stay for awhile to make sure the attack was really in the past. Why not? I’m there and she was someone special. “Do you know who I really am?” 20 questions now – OK... “Jane Russell?” “Silly boy!” (Didn’t that movie tone sound familiar?) After assuring her that I was one of her many fans, the dialogue continued. “Have you seen any of my pictures?” “Almost every one.” “What do you think of me as an actress?” uttered in the “come hither” tones known all too well to the public and subsequent impersonators. “I think you’re getting better all the time!” Guess that wasn’t what MM was looking for – back to square one. “All you guys are the same. You only want a woman for what you can get!!” Where in the hell did that come from? A little annoyed now – no, kind of pissed off – it was my turn to put in my two cents’ worth. “Listen, Mrs. M (still polite), I’m married to quite a clever girl. Do you think she would have become Mrs. Wagner if I had been a truck driver? No way. I haven’t appeared on a calendar, or let a skirt fly over my head, or let someone paint me as “Miss Desirable,” of this generation or the next. If you’re bait in a lake stocked with hungry mouths, you’ll get bitten.” (Not too bad an analogy for 5:30 a.m.) As I turned to leave, a plaintive voice now had replaced the sultry tones. “Where are you going, hon?” “I have to be in surgery in a few hours.”

119

Making the Cut

“Please stay.” (I guess this was not Greta Garbo who wanted to be alone.) I walked toward the door. “I don’t want to be alone. If you stay, you won’t be sorry.” I’ll bet, but dealing with one cuckoo at a time was more than enough to fill my plate. Sigmund Freud - where are you now? She needed you much more than I did – at least then.

120

Kurt J. Wagner

39 FINISHING UP PHASE ONE
Before you know it, three years had passed. I was really getting good at this cutting business, but still could not deal with the cancers, the inoperable or the dying. More than once my eyes were filled with tears as I, the Chief Resident on the Private Side, had to tell the family there was no more hope and that their loved one’s fate was sealed. I managed to spend a great deal of time with Dr. Perzik, the Head and Neck Surgeon of the day, whose skill was admired by one and all, particularly me. Seeing what really went on under the skin of the face would stand me in good stead for the rest of my days. I didn’t have to go to the Land of Oz to get courage. Dr. Perzik was my own Wizard and he was showing me the way. I scrubbed with several plastic surgeons. I made sure those cases came on my schedule, and Dr. Gurdin, who was to become President of the Plastic Society in later years, let me put in more than a stitch or two, even on some of the “biggies.” In the meantime, I’m applying for a residency all over the country, starting at UCLA, so I could stay in familiar surroundings. Despite many unequivocal endorsements, Dr. Franklin Ashley, professor of plastic surgery, was not eager to be pinned down. He kept reminding me of one of the old standards, found in almost every old song book- (“She didn’t say yes, she didn’t say no”). More and more I felt like a puppet on a string, as no’s and ”sorry, we are full up” filled my mailbox. But time’s a-wasting, and surely someone will want me.
121

Making the Cut

A happier day

On the home front, things are anything but smooth. At times I can’t tell if she is really sick or just nuts. Then she’s great and Jean is gorgeous (the second most beautiful kid around, by popular agreement, not just my opinion). It looks like this will not be a short stay , so Dr. Wagner, in his ultimate wisdom, seeing into the future, and recalling how lonesome he had been, being the only child (Errol didn’t really make it better, he just had increased the work load), decided that another baby was the next order of the day. Was it because I wanted a male heir? Or could I really divine Jean’s future mindset? It seemed reasonable at the time; I was always good at multi-tasking (not a word yet), so soon it was #2 in the works.

122

Kurt J. Wagner

40 1962 - ON THE MOVE

St. Anthony’s Hospital

With godparents Irving and Arlette Penn (wonderful people and Jean’s godparents) keeping watch, I flitted across country more times than once in an effort to find a new home – Minnesota – too cold; West Virginia – I learned how to do a phenol peel but no money to pay me (bull shit) – Pennsylvania (too close to mom in Long Island for the recalcitrant Barbara). Finally, Oklahoma City – St. Anthony’s Hospital and the University – seems nice, close to Grandma Hazel and Shorty Wallace in Holdenville (I could use the help), and besides, didn’t I know their ways? Hadn’t I lived in Little Rock for over two years? (Schmuck) July, 1962, a new apartment with three bedrooms in a quasi-country club environment about 15 minutes from the hospital and a new page to write about. Now, let’s become a plastic surgeon. There are three residents to rotate between two hospitals: Kravitz, Koch and Wagner. (All Jews by the way)
123

Making the Cut

But very soon, a joker appeared in the deck and my hand was second best. A good old boy from the city wasn’t going into the service as planned, and he wanted in as well. What to do? Dr. Kimble is the Chief and is a fast friend of Forester’s father. So, before I knew it, not only was I at the back end of the operating table, but relegated to holding retractors for the interloper, who was now top dog! As for my beloved, she reverted to her usual self, in fact, acting so crazily that her new obstetrician bailed out in the ninth inning, leaving us temporarily stranded without a deliverer! My position was deteriorating. Records that I had written – disappeared; imaginary appointments were not being kept, and the distance between me and Kimble reached the depth of the Grand Canyon. From that point of view, I didn’t mind, because he and some of his compadres (they had been grandfathered in somehow as far as certification was concerned) were some of the worst that I would ever see with a knife in their hands. In desperation, I sought counsel with psychoanalyst Dr. Savage to check on my sanity. Was I losing it? A week later my psychiatric sleuth reported on these interesting findings: Make preparations for another career – they’re ready to dump you. Well, at least I wasn’t nuts. The baby was due any day, thank God. I got a pinch hitter in the delivery department to oversee the appearance of Stacy Lynn on November 2, 1962 – a real cutie with blond hair and a fine how-do-you-do attitude. And great-grandma Hazel and my Mutti were there and they were talking! If the mountains won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountains. Rebuffed by those in charge didn’t stop me from reading the newest journals with the latest techniques, then raiding the surrounding jails or Indian reservations in search of noses to straighten, ears to
124

Kurt J. Wagner

pin back, scars to improve. Hell, I had learned how to cook some dishes following directions, and the illustrations were good, a heck of a lot better and far less bloody than what I was witnessing in real life! So it went for a while, my spare moments filled with reading, then trying to put into three dimensions what the pages had revealed. What do you know: my solitary education wasn’t so bad after all? They actually were as good as the before and afters depicted in my “instruction manuals.” In spite of the fact that there were no complaints from the patient side, I found myself in front of a grim Mother Superior (Hospital Director) who had this news of the day: “I’m sorry, Dr. Wagner, we have to let you go. Dr. Kimble has told us that your careless and incompetent work does not reflect what this hospital stands for.” Blah – blah – blah. No kidding? Hadn’t she seen some of Kimble’s and company’s work? Let it not be said that this was unexpected, so a prompt counterattack began as soon as I reached a private phone. “Richard, I’m leaving and sending Barbara and the kids back to you. I was let go and have nowhere to turn.” A slight pause. “What the hell for?” A rather abbreviated synopsis of the day’s events followed. The reply: “Bullshit. You Jew boys make great doctors. Sit tight, I’ll get back to you.” A backhanded compliment, but I did as commanded. By now you must have realized that I’m a lover of song lyrics and the next one is perfect: “What a Difference a Day Makes.”

125

Making the Cut

Sure enough, not 24 hours had elapsed before I stood in front of a stunned and somewhat bewildered hospital director. “Forgive me, Dr. Wagner. We didn’t know you were such a good friend of the Bishop. Please forget the previous conversation.” Amazing what power the threat of tithing curtailment wields – even leads to the immediate firing of the program director and subsequent ending of the residency at year’s end. (Lots better for me than the loan that wasn’t granted. Thanks, Richard.) Besides, the girls weren’t exactly Jew babies in the real sense. God and I weren’t even on speaking terms. Let’s review the situation: this year is OK, but now where to go? My mother’s friend would come to the rescue. One of her closest friends, Greta S., an ophthalmologist, was married to an anesthesiologist. (Incidentally – both were Holocaust survivors). As luck would have it, husband Larry was cousin to the Chief of Surgery at the Bronx VA Hospital, which was part of the plastic surgery rotation at New York Hospital – Cornell – a big part. I had been rejected by the director, Herbert Conway; somehow he already had a 10 year waiting list. But what do you know? A position opens up in the late spring of 1963. Was there undue pressure? When I met Dr. Conway, a look of disdain filled the room, but I was granted a less-than-enthusiastic entrance, even though I “was not the caliber he usually accepted.” How right he was!

126

Kurt J. Wagner

41 ADIOS, OKLAHOMA – HELLO, NEW YORK
I won’t be hurrying back south anytime soon and now we live in the Bronx, not far away from Yankee Stadium. The finish line is in sight. Oh, yes, I am obligated to go into the Air Force in 1964, but at least then the residency will be over.

Better than 1963

I felt more than a trifle uneasy at the Bronx VA in the beginning, until my immediate superior resident Dr. Jacque Dansereau, a delightful French Canadian soon realized that, instead of being a cut below, I was more than a cut above and my work load and responsibility increased accordingly. Now we’re talking! On his weekly round visits, Dr. Conway treated me with utter disregard and silence. I soon learned that my new lord and master loved to see his name or institution in print. Quick to respond, no less than 5 papers were submitted and accepted for publication. I had been sure to name him as the

127

Making the Cut

main headline, maybe Wagner wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Now I was invited and included on events in the main arena and dialogue became the order of the day, with increasing queries about me and my situation. Dr. Conway occasionally invited a resident into his private office, talking while he put on his scrubs for the OR: not provocative, but a little peculiar from my point of view. However, it did provide a moment of privacy now and then. One such day changed our relationship that would rattle the foundations of things to come, at least for the next year. It was a casual remark about “you Jews” that opened the door to a more intimate exchange. “Dr. Conway, why do you think that I’m a Jew?” A puzzling look. Was this the time to show my hand? I have mentioned that 1934 was not a great year to make my entrance into the world, with rioting and occasional murders filling the streets. Sonia was in bed, her leg temporarily paralyzed, when she learned that several university students had been thrown to their deaths into the Danube, their religious identity being revealed when their pants were torn away. Since she wasn’t into anything in particular except perhaps the God of Wrath – her immediate request could barely be ignored. No circumcision, to placate Harry’s family. My Jewish birth certificate excused me from this savage ritual because of “serious health restraints.” Don’t worry; I’ve got a Catholic certificate as well. Almost-lawyer Mutti was covering all the bases. With a deft release of my belt, my “blind associate” and I made a bold decision. He appeared, fully dressed, so to speak, in front of a now-startled and disbelieving onlooker.
128

Kurt J. Wagner

A moment of silence --- followed by spontaneous laughter. How could the fates be so cruel, and then rewarding? Within minutes I learned about Dr. Ashley (a former resident), who had put those damn Jews in their place when they had the audacity to ask him to choose one of their own, and that Dr. Conway had been hoodwinked by my family. It looked like that blackmail had backfired. “We have to keep them in line, put them on a quota, shown them who’s in charge.” My future was at stake. I had never really said I was or wasn’t, and if this was going to give me a golden certificate, it was about time religion or lack thereof did something for me. My stock rose faster than a bull market, particularly when Barbara’s connection to the Texas Tea party came to light. Mrs. Conway was from the ESSO family, making for faster friends. Now that things were fine, I was a frequent assistant outside of the VA, getting the knife slipped into my hand with greater frequency. Want to learn how to really do a nose? Go to Gustie Aufricht, a Hungarian genius and one of the real originators of the American plastic aristocracy. He had been an original disciple of Jacques Joseph, a Jewish orthopedic surgeon who pushed cosmetic procedures in Berlin to prominence in the ‘20s. With Mama and Papa in constant attendance overseeing the grandchildren, I really got into it and soon was the new favorite of the “Chairman of the Board” (Conway was that). Left to my own designs with increasing responsibility being relegated to administrative duties, I occasionally was able to make a surreptitious call to heads of other programs that were only too eager to curry favor with Dr. Conway. Somehow I managed to find placement for a “Jew or two.” (Keep that under your hat.) Oh yes, the world didn’t get off scot-free that November either. On the same day (November 22) that I had
129

Making the Cut

landed, Kennedy departed, the victim of a Texas ambush. What sadness! Now I can concentrate on my next obligation: the USAF. After all, I had conned them into waiting until my residency was over, so I could be a real plastic surgeon. We are in Washington for an International Society meeting. Why not check on choices – there are only three: Texas, Mississippi and California – and three applicants? #1 Pick – California (I’m planning on going there after my two years); #2 Mississippi and #3 Texas (still more than a little distant from Barbara’s old roots). On March 9, 1964 (some birthday present), the official reply came in the mail: Dayton, Ohio. (What the fuck?) A quick call followed by an instant reply: “Our needs have changed.” Maybe I should have pulled some strings. Too late. It’s another move for the Wagner caravan, whose leader was very piqued at the prospect of wintery weather. So at June’s end, the New York campaign having been an unbridled success, we were off again, this time with an autographed picture of Dr. Conway, adorned with glowing words of praise describing his now former resident. So long, guys! It’s time to face the real world without training wheels!

130

Kurt J. Wagner

42 THIS IS THE AIR FORCE, DR. WAGNER

Wright Patterson AFB Quite a change from 1964

It took us less than a day to arrive at our new destination, Wright Patterson AFB, a sprawling community that covered more than a square mile in its boundaries. This was the headquarters of Air Force Logistics, a SAC base, research for supersonic flight and home to more than 400 top brass officers and their families. On arrival, I found out that the base housing units were reserved for Lt. Colonels and above; that the well-equipped hospital of 250 beds had not had plastic surgery coverage since God knows when, but not to worry: There were 18 holes of golf, indoor pool facilities, countless tennis and squash courts next to the Officer’s Country Club that rivaled anything Beverly Hills and Bel Air
131

Making the Cut

had to offer. Too bad lowly majors and below had to find offbase housing which, in our case, was 15 minutes away. The first week was anything but run-of-the-mill. On consecutive days I had the first asthmatic attack of my life (thanks to the local pollen count of 3000+), followed by a skirmish with a major general because I had the audacity to occupy his parking place. Who knew that “General Officers Parking” meant just that: Air Force lingo? That led to an unscheduled visit with my office commander, an uptight Col. H. who was quick to give this sage advice: “The fine for drunken driving in Fairborn (local town) is $150.” Clever Kurt’s reply, angry after having been mistaken for a corpsman by his irate accuser, “I thought that alcoholism was a problem usually reserved for career men.” Perhaps he was taken aback by my completely red attire and my red convertible, now parked in the proper slot. It’s time to get a uniform, I guess to clothe the new Chief of Plastic Surgery for the Northeastern and North Central USA, as well as the European Theater. Before the applause dies down, it was really not that big a deal since I was both Chief and Indian – a solo distinction. 3618 Otterbein is our new home, the kids now 4 and 2 are angelic, both in appearance and demeanor. I was quick to get a combination all-around helper – a lovely black woman, Annfield Arnold, who assured me that all her charges would be safe in my absence. Next order of the day: create a demand so I wouldn’t have to do urbane surgical procedures such as vein stripping, hernias, and the like. (Needs have changed – what a crock!) This patient problem was soon remedied by a large pronouncement on the Country Club bulletin board announcing the arrival of an expert with experience in Hollywoodland and New York who stood ready to serve any in

132

Kurt J. Wagner

need of cosmetic improvement. Within one week my appointment book was filled with 100 applicants. My new chief, irritated by the continued aggression of his new charge, was further stirred to immediate remedial action after learning of another toe-to-toe combat with a colonel who, in a drunken rebuke, told the newcomer that rank had its privileges. I had failed to salute. A suggestion that a Section 8 discharge might better serve all those concerned, since I was clearly not military material and in need of mental treatment. This was soon remedied by a call to Richard (he still didn’t want change). Within two days I was on special assignment to answer to some silent division of the Pentagon. Real hush-hush (or ha ha). I spent the least amount possible in getting my wardrobe and was silently amused that the total cost was only one-half of Papa Harry’s attire in the last military wardrobe purchase 20 years earlier. But work was like a blossoming garden. Before long, I accounted for over half of the surgical schedule. Why not with these prices? Rhinoplasty $1.75; face lift $3.25(!) (That’s not a typo!); the rapidly popular breast augmentation procedures $225 ($200 for the silicone implant). My social fortune rose rapidly as the number of pretty people trumpeted my praises while modeling their “Hollywood” look. Even the oncedoubting Dr. H. jumped on board, realizing that praise for his facility was increasing with each passing week. Perhaps a promotion to star ranking was not out of reach. All in all, the Wagner household remained on constant alert. Barbara’s behavior is more erratic, the children are spectators to more than one grand mal seizure and unfortunately, an occasional drug overdose. To parallel an old adage, “When she was good, she was very, very good,

133

Making the Cut

but when she was bad, she was horrid.” To add insult to injury, I now entered the ranks of the physical sufferers with a full blown gall bladder attack – another November surprise. That was over as soon as it began, and I resumed my hectic schedule, welcoming petitioners now from other bases if their requests were something I wanted to work on. One particular problem also was in the forefront – I had dubbed it the “Kaunitz curse” – breast cancer. This disease had galloped through three generations, the latest victims having been my mother, her sister (still in Yugoslavia) and cousin Trude. Was it any wonder that I was keenly interested in the recent introduction of the silicone implant manufactured by Dow Corning to facilitate the increasing population of breast augmentation? I had been introduced to its possibilities while in New York, and was quick to seek out the manufacturing facilities in Midland, Michigan, urged on by the enthusiastic salesmen who were quick to see a potential buyer of more than one at a time. A trip to the plant and a look at the “tear drop” shape that was the order of the day. OK, as far as it went, but hadn’t they ever seen an amputated breast waiting for its final trip to the pathologist – round like a pancake, almost filled with some give, with position changing to the touch. Build one like that, and you won’t have to worry if some schmuck puts it in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t it be great to use the new prosthesis under scooped-out breast skin, a technique that was just being investigated: subcutaneous mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Sounds great. How about trying it? Better yet, why not become an expert? More to come. Our social life was erratic. Many of our new friends were two-year soldiers as well, and for some reason, the wives were only too happy to pitch in and bail us out if the boat was sinking. While I couldn’t pay for their aid in cash, they eagerly accepted reward in the form of face or figure
134

Kurt J. Wagner

enhancement, given in gratitude for temporary respite from a temporary break in unending worry. Barely a spare moment between home and away, the days flew by and confidence grew as case after case ended with better and better results. My mom was right – practice makes perfect. Using my position as Chief of Plastic Surgery (remember – no Indians), I was able to bring women suffering from various kinds of suspicious breast lumps and bumps from surrounding bases in order to offer them a chance at freedom from fear with the new opportunity and Dow Corning was only too willing to provide the stuffing. At their prodding, a movie was made, a paper was written and another possibility added to future surgical repair. Left to my own devices, I had to consider the future in more concrete terms. In order to become Board Certified at the time, a candidate had to have two years of practice, provide a portfolio of 12 different surgical successes with total workup and then pass a 3-day oral and written examination that could include the total educational experience beginning at day one of medical school. That gave the Board enough rope to punish anyone on their loud or silent shit list, and I had seen it in action after Dr. Conway had let me into the workings of the inner sanctum. It was difficult to set aside the time, so, to use it more effectively, I learned the art of “self-hypnosis” from a practitioner of the dark art in the psychiatric department. Before long, two hours every day had to be spent in academic review. The other requirements took care of themselves. The close environment made for strange bed fellows with unusual requests. One of my major character defects is the occasional inability to “forgive and forget” and “turn the other cheek.” “Help everyone, even if you don’t like them” was an internal commandment constantly at odds with my
135

Making the Cut

being. But sometimes a satisfactory compromise could be reached, even with Colonel H., the man who had voted for my early dismissal, suffering from a condition literally laid on my doorstep. A late, ill-advised circumcision had been too aggressive and caused intense pain on erection. After being rejected by the surgical and urological departments, he was directed to the plastic surgeon who, after all, had the expertise to correct the short coming. The base is like a small town and I was suddenly given a bevy of offerings (free trips, less responsibility to the “military trappings”) as a preamble to the inevitable examination and surgical scheduling, which was to be kept “under your hat.” But no, that was a chance for the entire staff to witness a unique technique. With the Colonel asleep, I summoned colleagues from the adjoining room to learn as I had learned from that first “craniotomy.” The stage was set, the nursing director, curvaceous Major R.B, called into emergency service as my assistant, held the damaged part taut with the aid of a traction suture, as I raised my scalpel in a menacing position high above my head. Was there going to be a “beheading?” Everyone knew Dr. Wagner occasionally sang to a different key. Too much for R.B.: she slid unconscious to the floor, never releasing her hold. Quite a sight, but while I may seem eccentric to the outside world, I’m not crazy. A quick replacement for my unconscious assistant was followed by a rapid and precise reconstruction. Was it successful? Within one month a grateful Mrs. H. sent me a bouquet of roses with a card of sincere appreciation. I was the toast of the town! Less than one year to go before my discharge and things are quiet for the moment. Why not take my accumulated sick leave and see Spain? My mom would be only too glad to have the kids all to herself, and I’d have to study in high gear for the boards real soon.

136

Kurt J. Wagner

With the admonition that I shouldn’t eat all that oily food found in abundance on the continent in order not to insult my sensitive biliary tract, we were off – courtesy of free air flight. It was marvelous with good food, great sights and great company supplied by the locals. Refreshed, it was over all too soon and just in time to stop in Philadelphia at the convention to try to solidify my forthcoming situation. One hot dog later, the gall bladder welcomed me back to acute painsville. So much for European olive oil being a threat. But it was not a total loss this November. Barbara is in one of her more brilliant moments at an annual Plastic Surgery Convention and corners John Williams, a dapper dancer, good looker and a well-known man about town. (He had been married several times and could count Eva Gabor as one of the exes). It was hard to ignore her when she had a mind to engage you (one way or the other). “You’re lucky. John, I’ve chosen you to take on Kurt. He’s heading for the top and you should go along for the ride.” Who said that I had all the balls in the family? Within another eight months I was to become his new associate, but things were to change beyond my wildest imagination before then. I make a decision right then and there. My gall bladder and I are going to separate ASAP so I can study without discomfort. More importantly, get it over with on the Air Force’s time without loss of my meager income. January 13, 1966. Dr. Walter Pories, a pal and surgical chief, lays an anxious colleague on the table. No high jinx now. Just please don’t cut my common bile duct. Barbara is being watched by a family friend, so that’s covered. The next awakening is in the recovery room, very drugged, but awake enough to hear the new news. “Your wife is in the ER. She’s overdosed. What do you want us to do with her?”

137

Making the Cut

“Ask them!” and I lapsed into unconsciousness again. Three more days of treatment restored both Wagners, this time to the world of the living, but I was at my wit’s end. When a more ambulatory Barbara came to beg forgiveness just before my discharge, my patience was at an end. “Whomever I’m talking to, I’m through. One more of your stunts and you’re all on your own – very alone.” And I meant it. The routine at home changed. Two hours every day in order to cram whatever I could in preparation for the day. No special concern, no special favors, the girls were always first to be cared for and taken into arms, and life continued. When I had to go to Los Angeles to try to procure a position in March, there were no admonitions, no further warnings. Just a swift and silent goodbye. No phone calls to check the situation, they knew where I could be reached. Upon my return, a very quiet wife seemed genuinely happy to see me, although nothing of note had been accomplished. All quiet on the Eastern Front, in fact almost idyllic. April 13, 1966. Goodbye to one and all in the morning, a facelift is scheduled and I am never late for the opening bell. I’m happy whenever I’m in the OR, where I call the shots and am in total control most of the time. 11:00 a.m. One side is almost done when the door opens and a tearful nurse enters to blurt out something between sobs: “Your wife just died.” What do I do now? No one else to finish the case, so I carry on. Anger wells up inside, my thoughts reaching a crescendo pitch with each cut and closing stitch. “Oh God, the girls!” I had to get home.

138

Kurt J. Wagner

43 BARBARA’S FUNERAL
The next days were a blur. Was I smarting from fate’s latest attack which I was sure the gods had planned? Preliminary exam had revealed the immediate cause of death – acute suffocation during a grand mal seizure, unattended except for a three-year-old bearing witness to her mother’s final struggles. Final autopsy further demonstrated chronic encephalitis with multiple healing subdural hematomas. I sent a final report to Dr. Melvin Yahr, a world-famous neurologist at the New York Neurological Institute, who six months previously had sent us home with a prescription for valium, which he was certain was all that was needed to quiet my anxious protestations – hysteria – my ass! Within hours, two ceremonies were planned; one locally and the other at the final resting place in Oklahoma. In spite of the increase in activity, one thing was for sure: two hours of study every day even on the last ride to the cemetery. The attendants were particularly somber, because my eulogy had been less than complimentary to her family to say the least. “Now you extol her virtues – Where were you when she was really in need?” That last remark cost my daughters some of their inheritance – goodbye to a reversible $2 million living trust! But, right now I had tests to pass. A call to Dr. Conway. Should I not take the boards? Assurance in abundance and Cleveland was not far away. I
139

Making the Cut

called a young contemporary whom I had just met at the last meeting – Dr. Richard Grossman – and asked him if he would let me share his hotel room, because I dreaded the dark emptiness shrouded by my racing recollections. What could he say? I was grateful as the end of April approached. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by 100 or more anxious applicants who engaged in all sorts of banter to hide their nascent fear of failure. For my part, I could not share their concern, because how could this occasion compete with the past month? The written exam came first – two wrong out of 198 questions – not a bad start. And the pathology slides were nothing to get upset about, even if they were not all that familiar. Two days of orals and it was over. In those days, there were no weeks of suspense – an envelope delivered to your room revealed the result. Sealed and there was trouble; if the flap was tucked in, you were snug as a bug in a rug. The weather was gloomy, chill was in the air and two screwdrivers had entered my body to change what the bartender hoped would brighten my sad countenance. A walk in the rain, a poor choice to pass the afternoon, made worse by seeing A Thousand Clowns, not the most elevating of cinematic creations, and then a retreat to home base. I entered the room, a silent Richard was sprawled on the other twin bed, and there it was – SEALED. Of course, it was a practical joke, not to my liking, but at least the two hours a day had paid off. I was now Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, number 743 in the entire world. Why wasn’t I happier? Small wonder. Two months to go. The children will be taken care of by the Mama that I could rely on in that respect. Dr. Williams has agreed to give it a go based on a handshake agreement during a local meeting in Palm Springs. It’s great to have all those free planes around in combination with a now evergrateful chief. Want to take off a few days to see the Ginza?
140

Kurt J. Wagner

Don’t worry; I’ll even arrange a temporary assignment for you so you can get a little extra spending money. Little did we know that it would lead to a two-week unauthorized side visit to Saigon that almost led to the abrupt end of this journey. I guess people still die at the end of a gun or after incendiary explosions. The less said the better. I’m bound to a written agreement. I’m back in one piece and ready to continue on Route 66 again. At the stroke of midnight, July 3, 1966, I let all of my Air Force attire fall to the floor, except for a favorite $3 raincoat, and strutted out to my red convertible, wearing those red shorts that had been the order of the day just two fun-filled years ago. California, here I come back!

141

Making the Cut

44 HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO
It didn’t take long to get into the swing of things. 336 East Hillcrest, Inglewood, California – a busy practice that was made busier by my arrival. Battle tested in more ways than one, no new techniques to master at the moment, save one new experience. William had an operating room in the office and was actually doing some complex cases there. Forget the fact that he was not the master of the anesthetic arts, hadn’t I done more than 500 cases under twilight sleep? Why not do it right there? Some practitioners had performed surgeries in private quarters in the 1930s and 1940s before being relegated to more orthodox sanctioned surroundings due to ever-increasing government regulations. (How about that?) But for me, it was a revelation. Where to live? Beverly Hills was still in my sights, the thought of a lifetime in Inglewood, which was rapidly growing darker in complexion, was not set in stone. Westwood, next to the San Diego Freeway at the Barrington Plaza enabled me to get to work quickly, and still be within hailing distance of my friends in the Valley and surrounding Hollywood. Even Cedars, on the verge of joining forces with once competitor Mt. Sinai in a new structure that had left the drawing board, was less than 20 minutes away. (In Los Angeles, distance is measured in minutes, not miles!)

142

Kurt J. Wagner

Nancy

By now, everyone knew of the return of the old kid on the block or should I say “potential Prince.” A board certified plastic surgeon, unattached, a widower and a known commodity. Aside from two children, he was perfect – perfect enough for one and all to provide him with literally scores of phone numbers of potential partners – bachelorettes, exwives, impatient mistresses, sisters, divorcees – my black book soon resembled the L.A. yellow pages and I was on the lookout. Every spare moment was filled with the hunt. An old neighborhood friend that had risen to prominence thanks to family ties forged on the shores of Sicily before reaching Brooklyn (guess who?) provided me with more than a few nights of pleasure, courtesy of Las Vegas. He would also be a great referral source in later years. Richard Grossman, perhaps as atonement for the sealed letter incident (not really – we were great friends), gave me Nancy Sinatra, whose boots were made for walking. And walk they did, perhaps because two children were too much of a load to take on, or probably just because my sparks didn’t light her fire.

143

Making the Cut

The search continued and soon it was plain for me to see: I wanted the kids back and with a healthy, uncomplicated companion. A date with family members of 20th Century Fox clan and whose home I was I in? None other than Larry Parks. (Remember the Al Jolson Story? He played him.) Sometimes two or three ladies (not at the same time) filled the daily calendar, but my social life never overshadowed my desire to let my star shine in the professional field. The first month flew by. The red Pontiac is gone, replaced by a Buick Riviera rental. I’m getting ready for a big speech about my breast reconstruction experiences at the American College of Surgeons meeting to be held in San Francisco; lots of warm memories from there, and suggestions continue from Richard again, who had heard of the failure of his previous match-making attempt. How about a cute blonde school teacher who was going to England in a short while, but was worth a look-see? August 2, 1966, 10:00 p.m. Kathie Kelley is next on the list. I have some free time on Thursday, and after beeping me out of an earlier evening experience, I could use a breather with a good looker. An enchanting voice answers the phone. I give her my credentials including the who, what, when, where and why with a self-rating of 8.7 out of 10. (Modesty is rarely one of my virtues.) “I’m sorry, but my friends are giving me a going away party at Scandia that night.” Too bad, and as I wish her a bon voyage with the phone returning to its cradle, the sentence continues “…but I could meet you at your place on my way home afterwards.” A reprieve – for her or me? Arrangements for 9:00 p.m., just 48 hours from now and a wistful goodbye. This girl had courage and some smarts!

144

Kurt J. Wagner

August 4, 9:00 p.m. I’m on the phone with an exinamorata who had traveled here all the way from New Jersey before being politely rebuffed again. Great for a night, but definitely not life’s delight. A knock on the door and there stood quite a vision, clad in black and white set off by a cute chapeau with matching accessories and possessing a smile that would warm the cockles of the most hard-hearted. That was quickly supplanted by a look mirroring something between astonishment and delight. Good looking she was as well as speechless while she surveyed the surroundings of my meager establishment, politely refusing refreshment or even a peek at the view until we sat down, a safe distance between us. Talk of Europe and her future itinerary while I surveyed her up and down as was my habit (professionally speaking, of course). After she was a little more comfortable, now realizing that there was no need to defend her honor from imminent attack, the topic turned to more personal matters. “Kathie, you’re quite a looker, but you do have blepharochalasis.” Momentary puzzlement followed by a logical response: “What’s that? Is it catching?” After a quick explanation that it only referred to extra skin and fat that masked the upper eyelids and could be easily remedied by a 20-minute operation (no charge, of course, it was my suggestion), anxiety retreated. “Do you have any pictures of your kids?” Unfortunately, all I had in my possession were some home movies. A quick retreat to the closet and within minutes the screen and projector were set up, the film inserted and the show began. What do you expect? Of course, Barbara was there with Jean and Stacy doing the usual routines.
145

Making the Cut

The next five minutes were spent with me trying to console a tearful Kathie, who was overcome with emotion. Add a big plus to her column. The hours flew by and arrangements were made for our next encounter on August 6th (my anniversary), since I was already double-booked for the next evening. A kiss at the doorway and this school teacher of 40 first graders in Watts (adds a plus 2) retreated toward the elevator, her glow definitely lighting up the hallway. August 6, noon. Finished at the office and I stop by her place to go shopping with a veiled promise that I would provide her with a raincoat and boots. While it rarely rained in Southern California (her birthplace), the same could not be said for England, her destination. A honk on the horn, and a surprised Kathie opened the door, accompanied by two small companions: nephew Steven age 4, and niece Sheri, age 2, her charges for the day at the supplication of her sister Patti, who urgently really needed to do her thing (divorced). In fact, Kathie confessed that she really hadn’t expected me to show up. Funny, but Los Angeles men aren’t the most reliable or truthful. The day was great, and for a moment the children’s presence filled a void, while I resumed an all-too-familiar role of activity planning and #1 entertainer. Kathie was at her best, with love and caring flowing freely in every direction and after we said goodbye to the children, it was obvious that we both were a little more than interested. By weekend’s end, the young teacher had serious doubts about her imminent departure. It may not have been love at first sight from my point of view, but it surely was intense like for this sparkling, effervescent, caring and all-around healthy girl who was setting her sights on a more permanent relationship. OK by me, let’s see where it leads.

146

Kurt J. Wagner

John and I were doing well at the start. By coincidence we both shared the same birth, March 9th, although separated by a 12-year gap. His present wife, Mary, was pregnant and there were no lulls in a busy, busy schedule. The biggest obstacle was his office manager/head secretary, Norma, who took umbrage at my very presence and my immediate suggestion that Beverly Hills or Century City offered a more fertile opportunity for future expansion. I was as quick to share any gaps in his repertoire as I was to add his knowledge to my armamentarium. He even had my office furniture designed by Curt Wagner, a well-known interior designer in that part of the city. Surely the stars were in alignment and the future was bright. I liked the guy and we seemed to march to the beat of the same drummer. July and August. Here was a man that shared his cases with me. After all, part of the fees that came to us that way was promised to me. How generous! Although I’m not good at keeping money (you’ll see), I’m very adept at knowing where it’s coming from or where it’s going to. Without medical expenses and child maintenance, the stage was set to build a little war chest. My monthly draw was $1,000, which believe it or not, covered most of my needs (1966 isn’t today), and I anxiously awaited my September settlement, which surely would exceed an additional $5,000. I soon learned why Dr. Williams had had previous marital disagreements and similar problems. Hmm, $900 – a lot short. It seems that the handshake was translated into Sanskrit or something was lost in translation. (I would have been better off as his secretary.) Dark clouds on the horizon and back on the defensive. Maybe I should have looked for a Jewish associate. Oops...Richard Grossman had gobbled Dr. Gurdin up a year earlier.
147

Making the Cut

148

Kurt J. Wagner
Kathie

Make the best of it, you have a part-time office in Beverly Hills with Joel Zisk, my former chief resident at Cedars, and I’m on the staff again. What was a scouting party to check moving possibilities took on more important purposes. Rework our agreement; no more freebies for John, just pay me for my direct referrals, which were sure to come after the publicity following my San Francisco speech. Not in this lifetime! I overheard Norma telling phone inquirers that Dr. Wagner was so busy, but his associate would be only too happy to see you. Next reckoning – I guess our new deal had fallen on deaf ears, because it was more than a day late and a dollar short. In spite of the fact that I was featured in a breast exhibition at a Las Vegas Convention sponsored by Dow Corning, which was in addition to a message left by a mysterious stranger on the female WC mirror heralding me as the greatest plastic surgeon in the world, the phones remained silent. So, it’s November again – time for another forced migration, with the able assistance of Kathie, who was now #1 in the running for the title of Mrs. Wagner #2. (She opted not to go to England.) We entered the office on a quiet Sunday afternoon, took my records (not many), and leaving key and beeper on Norma’s desk, left with a mixture of disappointment and relief. Enough was enough!

45
149

Making the Cut

1966 NOT ENTIRELY ON MY OWN
Needless to say, Dr. Williams was less than complimentary about his departed associate, but Beverly Hills was beyond his sphere of influence. Like Eisenhower planning the European invasion, I had thought out my future a few steps in advance of my leaving, and it was time to execute a course of action. #1 – I was pretty well set on recreating my family structure and any negative doubts were quickly assuaged after the girls took to Kathie like a duck to water. My mother was cordial, but, of course, cautious and peppered her prospective daughter-in-law with countless queries. On Christmas I asked and she accepted. #2 – Getting an office for me to practice surgery in. I know there is no longer a Texas Treasury, but Bank of America may be willing to pitch in. #3 – We have to find a place to live; the one bedroom surely will have to be vacated, so let’s go house hunting. First things first – a space on Brighton Way slightly off the beaten path is affordable with rent at $.50 a square foot after a generous build out. In addition, there’s a nice foreclosure on Mulholland Drive complete with pool and view for less than 60K. I’ve hired a new assistant, Betty, very experienced and I am making ends meet with a myriad of emergency room calls. $4,000 a month looks a lot better than William’s pittance, particularly in spite of his diatribes about my honesty, which had reached some unwanted ears.

150

Kurt J. Wagner

OK, between everything – BofA, mom and dad, and me, there is $25K to spend. Now, to get married, but where? I had disappointed Harry and Sonia the first time. Kathie’s parents were divorced with no prospect of a dowry (but her Grandma Ida Mom was worth the price of admission), so it was off to New York on the Ides of March. A meager entourage accompanying the nervous bride who was to be married in The Little Church around the Corner. (The girls spread the flowers, my uncle Siegfried gave the bride away.) It was followed by a kosher reception at Mama’s house in order to placate some of Harry’s more conservative relations. The next day we left snow-covered Kennedy for a sun-filled Florida vacation with promise that the children would follow as soon as the new house was in order. For the moment, we’re back at the Barrington, not much to pack, but lots to buy. Hard to believe – April 1st – the office is ready, the house is inhabitable, and it’s the beginning of a new life. Kathie is still working, having salvaged her teaching position, thanks to a touch of Irish blarney that only augmented the school’s desire to have the kids’ favorite “Miss Kelley” back in the fold. Her income was non-existent because of a persistent need to help her band of followers who always were a meal or a pair of shoes short. Taking care of two new ones ought to be a snap!

151

Making the Cut

8360 Mulholland Drive

Different routes to get to work, my promise that her labors in dangerous Watts would be over as soon as my income reached 5K per month and some more furniture filled the three bedrooms, three baths. Not quite a mansion, but surely a step in the right direction: home. By June all goals had been met, the children were on a plane heading toward their momma and nervous elation filled the air!
A family again

So how do you build a dynasty from scratch? Hospital rounds even though Dr. Morgenstern didn’t approve of my casual attire. (Ignore him, he never was my on my side). Besides, some of the previous residents had built some busy practices of their own. Dr. Hiatt and Dr. Perzik were glad to welcome me back. But, if I’m to give cogent advice to a young bucko or two, get in the good graces of busy beauty parlors, since they are the places to explore.

152

Kurt J. Wagner

Harold Chalef, holocaust survivor and now one of the stylists to the great and near-great, had befriended me in my first life. More than once he had wowed Hollywood with his breath-taking coiffures in the past, with Barbara having acted as his display model. (Remember her hair?) Within days of my return, it was like old times, except now he was getting $200 a cut, and there was Kurtie – funny, a nose job was only about $500 then. With Barbara now past history, Kathie and I drew closer to one another. At Harold’s suggestion, Kathie is a frequent visitor as she watches the wives of Don Adams, Jerry Lewis and Jack Lemmon take turns as Harold’s flying fingers and shears brought oohs and aahs from obedient assistants and other amazed customers. Harold was always quick to point out the exquisite job that young Dr. Wagner had performed on his gorgeous bride of less than a year. And Kathie was changed and not only in the eye department. After a disastrous dip in the Hotel Doral pool which found her swimming east while a falsie was floating west, one of the first patients to try out the new operating suite was the new Mrs. Wagner (non-paying of course, but Dow Corning did give us a $200 wedding gift – the inserts – the Wagner Design). Prodded by her husband who lived by the old German adage – Wenn schon, den schon (If you do it, do it), an otoplasty and small chin implant was added to complete the transformation from almost-perfect to Goddess! And perfect she was: as a mother, a cook and compassionate companion, although not quite as great a mathematician. A woeful BofA teller had to remind her that having checks did not always mean there was money in the account. No worries – compared to #1, she was a dream – for that matter, anyone’s.

153

Making the Cut

Wow!

46 BETTER THAN CARMAX AGE 34
It’s 1967 and we’re on our own, living on top of Mulholland Drive with a million-dollar panoramic view of the San Fernando Valley. There are two cars in the garage, including the obligatory station wagon a la Ozzie and Harriet. My Buick Riviera (approved doctor’s transportation) is comfortable and safe. At least that part of our life is settled – until the phone call from Las Vegas. Vinnie’s on the line. “Kurt, do you want to buy a ‘64 Rolls Royce for $7,500?” “Sure, but I only have two questions: What’s a Rolls Royce and where is $7,500?” (Mild humor) “Get your ass down here. We’ll work it out.” I learned a long time ago that when a member of Vinnie’s family makes a suggestion, it’s a good idea to follow up. (Kosciusko Street lore and personal experience).
154

Kurt J. Wagner

Besides, he had risen to an important position in the Caesar’s Palace hierarchy in Vegas.

My first Rolls

Within 24 hours there was a heartfelt reunion in the massive hotel entryway that bore somewhat of a resemblance to Roman ruins, only in much better shape. After Vinnie had given me unequivocal approval of the new Mrs. Wagner (yes, he knew #1), we headed down to the parking lot to view our potential acquisition – a somewhat sad white, large 4-door sedan. The famous lady adorned her hood and visions of a red paint job danced in my head. A brief transaction – the money changes hands – OK – the car is now ours. How about registration papers? Sorry, they’re not available. But you have a piece of Caesar’s stationery saying that the car is yours. What about the license plates? Also lost in translation, but don’t worry – you’ll figure it out. (Vinnie had done business with me before, remember?) The next order of business: get a car without license or documentation back to Los Angeles (we had flown here). The inside still smells of leather, no signs of any carnage and there’s only 30,000 miles on the odometer. The prospect of our return trip seems a little like running the gauntlet, but what the hell – I have two cases in the morning.

155

Making the Cut

The first 200 miles are uneventful; no speeding, stay in the right lane, slow and steady wins the race, but wait – there are flashing lights behind us and closing in fast. “Shit – I’ll let Kathie do the talking. Blondes always seem to have better luck.” The window comes down. “Excuse me, Sir. What kind of car is this?” “A Rolls Royce, officer. 1964 model.” “Sure is nice. Drive safe.” What a break! It’s soon in our driveway, but that’s the easy part. Two days later I’m in the waiting line at the DMV with my medical license and the Caesar’s paper denoting the new lineage tucked in an official looking folder. Next up – here we go. Hopefully, the nice lady behind the desk will be understanding. At the moment I have no idea of a plausible explanation. My number is called. With a bright smile and beaming hello, I introduce myself and present the papers at hand. After a moment, she replies with a look of consternation: “Sorry, Dr. Wagner, but this won’t do. I’ll see if the car is reported stolen. Surely there aren’t so many on the road.” A brief search – at least it’s not hot. Here’s a thought: “Darlin’, you know I’m a plastic surgeon and you have some bags under your eyes. How you would like to get rid of them – for free?” A quick check in the compact mirror. Some thought. (He is in Beverly Hills) – done.

156

Kurt J. Wagner

A greatly relieved Kurt stroke out the door, license and registration in hand. A little extra expense, but for a car that was to become something of a landmark (different shares of red of course) in 90210 for over 30 years, it was still one of the biggest bargains of the century.

157

Making the Cut

47 MR. 1250
I have to go back to describe a brief interlude that started just as I was leaving John’s employ and lasted for a time thereafter. I am not Wilt Chamberlain and surely not a sex addict, although there have been moments or two when I may have had self doubt. Cosmetic surgeons usually have an easy in, because transference is almost impossible to avoid. I was in my temporary Beverly Hills office, preparing my avenues of escape, when the phone rang. “Kurt, this is Vinnie. I’m sending a girl named Diana to you. She’s very special to us. Take good care of her!” Two days later I knew what special meant. Diana swept into the office – hard to ignore someone who stood way above the crowd: 5’6”, great face with sparkling eyes, lips that didn’t need any filler, a little bump on an otherwise sculpted nose, curves that even with clothes on made Marilyn seem like a school girl, and those legs – you know how I feel about that. Our initial consultation: “Doc, my boobs are a bit saggy. Can you fill them up a bit? How much? “Twelve hundred and fifty.” A moment of silence and then the consultation continues. “What if I ball you?”

158

Kurt J. Wagner

I paused for a second or two – no more than that. My counter-offer: “That’ll be $2,500 then.” A stunned expression. I guess it was totally unexpected. I continued. “I don’t know exactly what your line of work is, but you asked me for one thing and then you ask for another procedure. That’s my price” (tongue in cheek!). She left. About a week later another call. “Dr. Kurtie, this is Diana.” “Diana who?” (I knew who was on the phone) “I’m at the Beverly Wilshire and I sprained my ankle. Vinnie said you should look at it.” “That’s not exactly my line.” “But Vinnie said you would take care of me.” It was at the end of the day and I knocked on the door holding my doctor’s bag filled with tape and bandages. The door opened and a vision wearing a wide-open bright red penoir greeted me. In her hand were 25 brand new $100 bills (I only counted them later). What a liar! Nothing was wrong with her ankle, but don’t think she didn’t get her money’s worth! As the years passed, it was a mutually rewarding relationship. She was an extraordinary woman who was the special reward reserved for the high rollers with a million dollar line. A college graduate, proficient in several languages, she only asked those she entertained to leave what they thought her time was worth. As she entertained, she also listened carefully, stowing away many investment tips, among others. Too bad I didn’t make her my investment
159

Making the Cut

advisor because she quit her day (and night) job at age 40, the owner of one or two heavily laden offshore accounts. Needless to say, she got her share of nips and tucks and, in return, sent me a steady stream of working girls of similar caliber who always offered me the same deal: $1250 for the Wagner special. But be proud: I always refused. On one occasion, I was in Vegas alone after giving a special consultation (no hanky panky – just real business) when four of my lovelies decided to take me out on the town. We were quite a sight, entering the showroom of one of those well-known entertainers known for tearing some of the audience to shreds. No waiting in line – a front row table, drinks on the house (diet Coke for me) as the house lights dimmed. The usual banter, then the spotlight shone on us. “I see we have a new pimp in town!” Before you could blink, one of my champions arose: “You mean you don’t know Mr. 1250?” A moment of silence -- then laughter. I guess that ends that – the spotlight searched for another victim.

Some of my handiwork

I got to know the performer who was to become one of my Beverly Hills neighbors in future years, and in one of our celebrated parties in which he was a guest, he took an occasion to corner me and ask, “You can tell me, doc, what the hell did you do to earn the title ‘Mr. 1250?’”
160

Kurt J. Wagner

I chose to remain a man of mystery, but suffice it to say that there was more than one show that was adorned with a bevy of Wagner designs strolling up and down the stage. The last time our paths crossed, over 30 years ago, Diana said to me, “Too bad we didn’t meet a few years sooner.” I don’t think so. Kathie was, and has proved herself to be, the right choice.

161

Making the Cut

48 SURGEON TO A STAR OR TWO, AND EVERYONE ELSE
My practice was taking off, particularly if you remember that there wasn’t competition in every corner. This office surgery was derided by some of my older competitors. (Was I really the butcher of Beverly Hills?) but embraced by prospective patients. It didn’t hurt that my Buick Riviera had been replaced by the 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, now sporting a new shiny red makeover and a KURTIE license plate. My take-home pay now doubled, membership at the tennis club helped keep us in shape and Kathie was firmly entrenched as the new Brownie leader and all-around mistress of the household, complete with new station wagon, live-in maid (nosotros hablamos mucho español), and school committee activist. I even got my first set of hair plugs to make my forehead stop growing. Back to work: After some persuasion, I finally convinced Nat Hiatt that I was ready for the big time, reminding him that he had let me operate on Carolyn Jones and Raymond Massey almost five years earlier, before my plastic training.

162

Kurt J. Wagner

Michael Cole, a star of the then-popular Mod Squad, gave him an easy out. A bad traffic accident left the patient with half his forehead missing and his left lower eyelid in a somewhat precarious position. No one else to call, so Kurtie to the rescue. After two hours in the OR, not only was his forehead miraculously intact with reconstruction lines hidden in a furtive crease, but the eyelid was now able to function. Nobody told me who Michael really was, so I presented him with a bill for $1,100 and notice that further lid scar revision might be necessary. We were to become friends on my subsequent daily visits and arranged for future office followup.

Mr. Spelling

Everyone seemed satisfied, except Aaron Spelling, the show’s producer, who thought that future revision would be better performed in the hands of Dr. Ashley, now my #1 detractor (there was a growing list). I guess he didn’t remember me as a resident who treated (ha) his former wife Carolyn. But, when you’re on a roll, good things continue to happen. After two failed attempts to restore the eyelid at
163

Making the Cut

UCLA to its former glory, it was Michael who put his foot down as to the surgeon of choice for his next surgery. Time to get personal with Mr. Spelling – a phone call promptly answered, pleasantries exchanged, and the final message: “I can fix it, Mr. Spelling, no hospital, just a 20minute office procedure that shouldn’t delay the shooting schedule for more than a week. To make sure you remember me in the future, how does $10,000 sound this time?” The check came by special messenger that afternoon. Even Nat was impressed: so was I.

Hedy, a neighbor from Vienna

I didn’t make too much of my Austrian origin, but it helped in landing a former beauty, now a little lackluster, but still a sight to behold: Hedy Lamarr. She was anything but a stranger to this moviegoer, who had sat entranced by her looks more than her acting prowess. My mother was quick to recount some of her infamous “I wish they wouldn’t be remembered” exploits off the screen, some of which were not in the public domain. Our first meeting was under a pseudonym: “Also, Kurtie, kennst Du Mich?” (Do you know who I am?) Not twenty questions again, even if it were to be in German. After proper assurances of recognition came an offer: “If you

164

Kurt J. Wagner

operate on me without charge, many people will follow.” Were the Nazis on her trail? She just had survived a shoplifting scandal. I gave a polite decline with the suggestion that, if she would just pay me a fair fee, I would keep Mutti’s lurid stories under lock and key. Bargain struck, with a slight discount, a deft nip and tuck, and an uneventful recovery. She never returned for an after picture and never unleashed the throng that had been “sure to follow her.”

165

Making the Cut

49 TRUE GRIT

Jeremy Slate

Wagner is not so obscure anymore. Whether it was due to the Aaron Spelling confrontation or the fact that Glen Campbell was our neighbor, the show business door swung wide open. Enter Jeremy Slate, well-known for his TV appearances, and with a hand in music and movies, had a prospective role in True Grit. He felt a little frayed at the edges and we agreed that a little here and there with a little addition where it was needed would put a smile back on his face and on his agent’s as well. The fee paid, he was scheduled to follow the first patient, Mamacita Wagner, who was in for her first lift. They met in the waiting room and when it came to part, they were fast friends, both ”facing” the unknown. The day went effortlessly, my expectations had been reached and two happy campers left several hours later, heavily bandaged, but relatively pain-free.
166

Kurt J. Wagner

Post op day 2: The unveiling. Jeremy arrived with a dozen roses for the mother and a note thanking her for her part in my creation. “Now that’s the kind of patient you should build your practice on!” (Mutti’s opinion without knowing his fee). Mine, too, until his check bounced higher than the sky. Day 4: He sauntered in with a happy face, albeit a little bruised. I put it to him straightaway. “Why did you give me this check when you knew you couldn’t cover it?” Without a blink, “You and your family are so nice and I knew you were going to do a great job. I wanted you to have it for the holidays!” If the sentiment was sincere, so was my call to the producers of True Grit. One of the meanings of this American expression is “devotion to what is right.” To my surprise, they displayed it almost immediately, turning my frown into a grin when they paid up. At the end I guess Shakespeare was right when he penned “all’s well that ends well.” P.S. Jeremy did send me a few of his crew. Guess they liked what they saw.

167

Making the Cut

50 MY CAREER EXPANDS

Some minor TV actors, many who faded into oblivion after their TV soaps were off the air. A bevy of long-legged beauties from Vegas, sent by those previously satisfied by my past performance in the “old days” one way or the other. Now there were two operating suites, a staff of five, and a 3-week waiting list without the benefit of emergency room referrals. It seems that a guy with a Rolls should leave emergency cases to the younger newcomers. How quickly they forget there were still none younger than I? I acquired the same detractors who complained that since I now drove such a fine vehicle, didn’t I think I was too good to take ER calls? But I never said no, and there were a few replacements on the horizon.

Weirder and weirder – these actors. - Yul Brynner was in the recovery room after a minor enhancement. Take it easy to make sure everything’s OK. Where was the smoke coming from amid all those oxygen tanks? As I extinguished one of his cancer sticks, he suggested that a hairless scalp might be a good frame for my Slavic features. It had done wonders for him. Forty years later I was to see his suggestion in the flesh without much personal choice.

168

Kurt J. Wagner

The consultations increased and in 1969 in marched Lily Lipton, a press agent in need of a face lift, but without funds. The timing was right and the opportunity presented itself. I was never afraid to strut my stuff as a youngster, and already had been tested as a professional. How about a trade? A few TV exposures and then we’ll talk. It was high time that the public was treated to real doctors, not just Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare. And so an unlikely alliance began, disappointing at first because who the hell cares about cosmetic surgery at the crack of dawn on some of the lesser channels? She wasn’t racking up many brownie points until the call came that not only altered my life, but was to change the face of public perception about cosmetic surgery forever. Lily was on the other end and I could feel her excitement through the trembling in her voice. She finally quieted down to speak. “NBC wants to do a makeover show. They’re going to take a lady, fix her hair, her makeup and her wardrobe. But what they really want is a plastic surgeon to finish the job. The surgeon they want is you!” “Not so fast, I’m not going to play second fiddle to a bunch of hairdressers.” “You can’t let this pass. At least meet the producer before you decide. OK?” Tongue-in-cheek, I agreed and met the producer, Mike Gavin, and his fiancée at Musso and Frank’s Grill in Hollywood, a forever-famous eatery. Paula had already heard about my style through the grapevine. It was “love at first sight” as I listened attentively to his plans for the show. It was not exactly my vision of the “big picture.”

169

Making the Cut

“Why do you want to be in the show?” (Was this a trick question?) “Are you kidding me? I’m already a great plastic surgeon (ask my mom). Now I want to be a star.” With both my hosts listening attentively, it was my turn. “It’s more than a story of superficial change with new makeup, clothes and hair styles to highlight some nips and tucks. It’s about life changes and the interplay of the characters on each other.”

It was worth looking into and we agreed to continue our exploration. Mike was a very thorough man and he soon watched me in action in the OR, had dinner with Kathie who left more than one man breathless. Would you believe it? This guy could play the piano, really ace a tennis serve, swim like Johnny Weissmuller, and he had a vintage red Rolls Royce. Let’s have a new title. How about “Kurt Wagner, Renaissance Man?” Why not? And so it began, and I loved every minute of it. The patient, hand-picked by me, was a 55-year-old grandmother who looked more like 90, thanks to bad genetics, ably abetted by California sun. Why had she agreed to be the changeling?

170

Kurt J. Wagner

“My granddaughter kept staring at my wrinkled face and asked me when I was going to die.” Cameras followed our every move, watching me doing a facelift, an eyelift, a chemical peel interspersed with an otoplasty. They sent her to the beauty parlor and followed her into a fashionable boutique for a new wardrobe.

In my spare hours, I tickled the ivories (not to worry, Van Cliburn), won a match or two on the court, and displayed Esther Williams’ grace in the pool, all under the ever-probing eyes of multiple camera exposures. At the producer’s behest, we even hosted a four-hour “Black and White Homage to Hollywood” ball at our club where 600 guests were treated to uninterrupted music and dancing, and ran up the largest open bar bill in the restaurant’s history. This all took place under the eyes of six roving cameras, constantly following and filming the dancers from every direction, who were only too willing to perform. (15 minutes of fame?) The show’s finale flashed between the “before” and “after,” the cuts, the makeup application and the final walk up and down Rodeo Drive, following a barely recognizable younger-looking lady – wow! Even I was impressed.
171

Making the Cut

It was local at first; within a week the show had made its way to New York, Chicago and even Berlin. Maybe the Aryans shouldn’t have made us leave. You think?

Look Magazine

That exposure sent my life into orbit. No worries about Spelling recognizing me now. Look magazine – I almost made the cover in a story about “Face Lifts for Men.” A handsome Los Angeles detective wanted to match his wife’s new looks. How about writing a book? Helen Gould, who had penned a few, told me to record what came to mind and she would take care of the rest, at least with the help of publisher McGraw Hill. Within six months, How to Win in the Youth Game: The Magic of Plastic Surgery was on bookshelves, and the book tour began. First Stop: The Merv Griffin Show, several appearances now available for viewing thanks to old patients and fans on the Internet. The original golden oldie lives on only in a few stills and my memory.

Merv

172

Kurt J. Wagner

51 THE MAN MUST BE PUNISHED 1971-1972
Forget off and running. We were thrust into the lead before anyone ever left the starting gate. The next decade would bring with it an unbelievable change in circumstance, along with a great big dose of reality flavored with more than a spoonful of aggravation, apprehension and uncertainty. Where to begin to unravel the web that I was to become trapped in?

Merv Griffin Show

Lily now demanded $10,000 as hush money or she would tell the Society that I had paid her to get publicity, a practice severely frowned upon. For me, a deal was a deal as I turned a deaf ear to her request. A facelift was on the table anytime she wanted it. Well, once again hell didn’t compare to a woman’s fury and the investigation began. The medical establishment was delighted with the news. This man must be punished, cut out of the herd, and destroyed as an example. After all, wasn’t he a thief? John Williams had sworn so and John was an honorable man: ask any of his five or six ex-wives. Before I could catch my breath, 22 of my colleagues had signed a petition to oust me
173

Making the Cut

from the Los Angeles County Medical Society, the American Plastic Society informed me that I was being judged for the crime of “self-aggrandizement” and voted for a permanent expulsion. I was blackballed from a local hospital staff by a cadre of opponents, who previously had accepted far lessqualified applicants without hesitation. Thank goodness for the practice. Before long I stood in court, surrounded by well-trained Hessians masquerading as lawyers, who provided me with the weapons to delay, if not stay, the detractors. $100,000 poorer and a year later, I was on my feet (sort of), battered but unbowed. I quit the Los Angeles County Medical Association. Would I belong to a society that included me in their membership? But for some reason, the American Plastic Society and I remained in a shaky truce. Even the newly-formed Society of Aesthetic Surgery refused my application for membership, although I met every requirement. The beat goes on and while battle rages in the war zones, there are signs of trouble in the trenches, and it is coming in bunches. But let’s keep things in order. Home change: Mulholland Drive is nice from a viewpoint of view, but I want my own tennis court and there’s just no room on this quarter-acre house and pool-filled lot. Besides, who wants to keep going up and downhill to shop or get to work? Let’s look around for something better. I try Beverly Hills but don’t have the cash for a down payment, since the lawyers are first at the trough. Mort Reed, an aggressive realtor in San Fernando Valley, has been keeping an eye out and tells Kathie he’s found the perfect answer: the Herbert Yates and Vera Hruba Ralston estate in Sherman Oaks is on the market for under $200K and a negotiable down payment. It is on two acres with 9,000 square feet of house, and the lot is almost flat. Who were the owners? Yates, expresident of Republic Studios, now deceased, who had
174

Kurt J. Wagner

propelled John Wayne and others to stardom via his level B productions. His widow, Vera Hruba Ralston, a Czech ice skater from the 1936 Olympics, was to become Republic’s answer to Sonja Henie, although she never got to the winner’s circle, even when hubby co-starred her in one epic after another.

Valley Vista

Not much negotiation. My personal lawyer, Ben Felton, handled the details and interior decorator Steve Barclay assured us that with a meager allowance of $40,000, he could make our new pied-a-terre a showcase. Just give him a month! So, like a fighter returning to his corner for a respite from the slugfest, the Wagner family, including momma and dad, took off for a well-deserved European adventure. I wanted to show the kids Hahngasse and weren’t there relatives in Yugoslavia as well? In May, very like the Kaunitzes of old, this merry band of six was on their way.

175

Making the Cut

When we returned, things had really changed. The new furnishings were in the style of Italian Renaissance, having supplanted the 1940s kitschy overstuffed and outdated covered-with-plastic trappings. Plans were there for a new tennis court, a larger pool area with cabanas, even providing for a koi pond, which was to become my passion. So much for the exterior decorations. Things were also moving in the interior department. that was to be a real sore point for years to come. If I had an Achilles’ heel, this bared it ...The girls were blossoming and Kathie wanted to get pregnant. Since that wasn’t happening, sperm counts and medication for both participants were the order of the day. As our fifth wedding anniversary approached, that topic started to get a bit dicey. Recriminations that I was the real culprit came hot and heavy. It didn’t seem to stop one of my interludes from telling me the news that I had first heard during my internship. Although I always complied, other problems appeared without warning.

176

Kurt J. Wagner

52 OH, SAY, CAN YOU SEE?
To say that my plate is full is the understatement of the year. My only shelter is in the operating room where control is in my hands and skill. The patients are coming from all corners of the globe – politicians, generals and South American dignitaries, singers, actors, even the family of Greek shipping magnates (not Jackie), and I do not disappoint in that department. Add the constant legal entanglements to the mix, continuing house and child pressure, and you’ve got quite a cocktail to swallow. It was in such a milieu that I awoke one Saturday to face the day. Wait – there’s a big black spot in front of my left eye. I rub and blink and slosh in a swig of Visine, but it won’t go away. Remembering Barbara’s bouts of blindness didn’t help any. A hurried call to my ophthalmologist who saw me right away. Soon after, a diagnosis rolled off his tongue with unbelievable ease: “Don’t worry. It’s only central serous retinitis.” I knew the words but I didn’t get the real meaning and origin. Who gets it? Type As like me under severe pressure. It’s usually self-limiting (now laser handles it). With bittersweet feelings I returned home to lick my wounds and down some cortisone, resigned to face the world with mono-vision for awhile. Not enough punishment for the guy who had to be in the front of the line. Let’s try this. There’s a painless soft lump growing on the back of my right hand between my thumb and index finger. It’s attached to muscles underneath and is sticking out, even under taut rubber surgical gloves. I’ve had some hand surgery experience, the only good part of
177

Making the Cut

my Oklahoma City debacle, so another swift consultation is in order with the #1 office in the city. A little biopsy with a notso-little result: possible liposarcoma. Without amputation of at least one-half of the hand, it’s a death sentence. Oh hell, why don’t you cut off my pecker and rip out my heart while you’re at it? Let’s make sure – send specimens to every big pathology department in the known universe, about 30 in all. The score was 28 to 2 not in my favor. The decision was made by me and me alone: cut out the mass, don’t share the info, make as much money as quickly as you can, and live like every day is the last one. It may well be! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. It’s hard to keep things in their proper perspective when you’re examining yourself for new lumps or bumps every day. Legal matters are in control, the new lifestyle is in full swing, and everyone else seems to be prospering. The exposure doesn’t slow down. We take on an associate, all the while maintaining an open-door policy for other physicians to observe and receive any help to take back home as theirs, including OR plans and operating techniques. Hell, if I’m not good enough to have a fellowship worthy of the standards of a plastic surgery society, I’ll help some fledgling ENT aspirants. Dr. Andrew Ordon was among the group and he took my words and techniques to heart. I knew he was special and if you want to see what I saw, tune in to The Doctors, where he is a regular. I’m sorry he didn’t come to LA earlier, because he was a perfect fit. My cousin Vera was in the group as well as Mark Berman, whom we’ll discuss later. Things are easier in the office since I imported Vera from Yugoslavia, a recent graduate who aspired to follow in the family tradition. She was to be true to her quest.

178

Kurt J. Wagner

I make better noses on real people Our core is now one larger with the addition of Joseph Wagner on June 13th, the result of a smooth adoption, thanks to my classmate Arnie Cooperman, who counted Barbra Streisand among his clientele. Tired of trying, Kathie deserves something that is ours, and the Joseph’s natural mother (age 14) did favor the Irish Kelley look. He’s long and lean and the girls (12 and 10 years old) are delighted. For the moment, that part of the puzzle is complete.

There is keen interest from the continent, particularly London. The Wagners are the subject of a 1972 TV special to be featured on BBC depicting the life and times of a not-sotypical Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. Before you know it, there’s a great article in LA Magazine in which I describe myself in a not-socomplimentary matter. The LA Times is quick to follow with a run-through of our home, complete with thoughts about life, liberty and the pursuit of beauty. It’s all great, but every day starts off with a self exam and then back into the fray. Kurt and Kathie are everywhere – their faces being seen in France, Germany and even Australia.

179

Making the Cut

180

Kurt J. Wagner

181

Making the Cut

More TV shows: Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, Steven Allen roasts me for 15 minutes (he’s creative, but a little weird out of camera range), and more Merv. I’m living my life in a hurry with a sense of urgency masking denial. I want to do and see whatever I can. So it’s off to Rio for the international convention and watch Pitanguy, who is number one for body sculpting in my book. It’s a good chance for me to give a few detractors a piece of my mind. Simon Fredericks from Texas said I should be ashamed of myself and my dangerous ways. Not only did he embrace them all within five years, but he named one of my books, Beauty by Design as suggested reading in a Houston newspaper article lauding his “novel” ideas. Fat hypocrite! But he was only the tip of the iceberg that began forming in 1971.

182

Kurt J. Wagner

53 ONLY A MANIAC SUCKS FAT OUT OF A BODY
Back from Rio, full of anger and new ideas. What we now call “body sculpting” involves removing massive amounts of skin and tissue and, in the case of thighs and buttocks, pulling up the remaining skin as you would a pair of trousers or panties. It’s a rather long, tedious procedure, leaving scar lines and limitation of activity for weeks. That was good as far as it went, but what would happen if someone made small incisions, took a curette (a medical scraper) to go underneath the skin, free the fat and then suck it out? If younger women’s stomach skin could contract after childbirth, why wouldn’t the skin of the lower extremities adjust to their contour? Worth a shot—so I tried it out on several patients with their approval. Pretty great results, so let’s keep doing it. One of the Van Nuys ladies of the night came to me seeking breast enlargement. She offered to trade services for a larger bosom which I smilingly declined, saying that if I complied with her wishes, my fee would double. But during a cursory pre-op exam, I did notice something that she could get for free. “You know, there’s a little extra fat on the way to your money-maker. I can get rid of it, make your legs look nicer, and there would be no visible scars – gratis.”

183

Making the Cut

The procedure went without a hitch. But what I had declined had been accepted by my brother (I never found out if he paid) less than two weeks after surgery. She returned to me with a sheepish grin and an infection along one thigh. Furious, I started her on antibiotics and sent her on her way. No good deed goes unpunished. A regular asked for her services and she had to beg off because “Dr. Wagner had sucked fat from her legs and there was an infection.” It was getting better; maybe next week would be OK. My mazel: of course, he was a lawyer and his best friend was Franklyn Ashley, my sworn enemy. Quick as a flash, there was a consultation on an emergency basis. After all, Dr. Ashley had saved her from certain death. He took great glee in writing to my insurance company and the medical board, “Only a maniac sucks fat out of a body.” The insurance company made her and her lawyer $50K wealthier with this admonition to me: “Further experimental procedures might be construed as a felony,” ergo, loss of everything. You know the rest. It is now the most popular procedure. But Ashley paid his dues, too. The casualties from the war mounted and finally insurance companies asked him to quit, since he was being overloaded with malpractice claims.

184

Kurt J. Wagner

54 MEETING WITH MY LEGEND
If you recall, my interest in cosmetic surgery was initiated by a book that I came across in the neighborhood candy store: New Faces, New Futures, written by Maxwell Maltz. Although I was only 9, it left an indelible mark on my soul. As I grew older I noted that his writing had shifted to a more psychological tilt. (Do a search: “Psychocybernetics.”) Needless to say, this memory always burned brightly in some private corner and was brought out on special occasions, such as interviews, articles, etc. After I was catapulted into the limelight in the early 70s, patients from any country where American TV productions were shown came to consult with the new “maven.” However, the local market still provided me with the majority of my clientele. In 1973, Joanne Meredith appeared in one of my consultation rooms with a nasal problem. She was a minor actress with the gift of gab. “Who did your nose?” I said. “Maxwell Maltz. Do you know him?” Thunderstruck, I recounted the tale told many times before. “Would you like to meet him? He’s the one who gave me your name. By the way, he’s my godfather.” Not a moment to waste – put her on the schedule ASAP. Whatever she wants to pay me, it’s OK; he’ll come for the surgery.
185

Making the Cut

First case of the day, 7:30 a.m.: Just a blepharoplasty for a warmup. Done by 8:00 a.m. Betty knocked on the door, “You have a visitor.” Right behind her stood my demigod, a bright smile on his face. Without thinking, I rushed to embrace him. He hugged me back. For once in my life, I was speechless. The OR is ready, pictures and markings have been made, and within moments the IV sedation and local anesthesia have done their part. Too much upper lateral taken away. Thank goodness the septum is intact, so I took a quick piece of it for grafting purposes. She’ll breathe better and look better as well, and in 30 minutes, it’s all over. My silent observer touched my shoulder and gave me a silent salutation. We spent the rest of the day together and he shared some of his war stories, which had a familiar ring to them, even though they occurred decades earlier.

Maxwell Maltz

We promised to stay in touch, but his death came shortly thereafter. Still, I had been touched and thanked him for all he had given me. I still feel it.

186

Kurt J. Wagner

55 REALITY IN PARADISE
I have made many allusions to hiccups that appeared during the first years of our marriage. (More to come.) Freed up from concern about the welfare of the children, I was immersed in managing a burgeoning career. When the problems of my physical deterioration (eye and hand) were combined with the failure to conceive another child (at least at home), an internal psychological meltdown occurred. With no one to share my frightening concerns (Kathie liked to avoid serious problems at the time), fear and fury waged a constant war to dominate my sleepless nights. I occasionally gave in to a weakness of the flesh as a soporific, but never at the expense of cutting time with the children, even after the addition of Joseph to the fold. He was my son and Kathie deserved him, if nothing else as a reward for being an almost perfect mother. My Mutti’s derogatory comments were easily discarded as the usual sour grapes. It was as though I had to fill every waking moment with some sort of activity to stop little internal Kurtie from thinking about the real possibility of an imminent demise. My blind partner tried his best to divert my attention. No conquests, just diminution of angst. I would need help to sort things out, but that was still not in the immediate future. For now I had to survive! How many wasted moments.

187

Making the Cut

56 THE BEAT GOES ON 1974-1975
No doubt about it, we are world-wide celebrities of a sort. I’m not dead yet, working night and day, an occasional moment of going astray, but nothing serious (at least for me). Even if I don’t show it, inner turmoil is growing. EST with Werner Erhard (nee Jack Rosenberg) is the latest rage. All that’s missing is this self-proclaimed guru in my life, so I take the training and send everyone, even a girlfriend. A lot of B.S., but I still use a few techniques (although not all the time) to communicate more effectively. I’m 40. Is that all that life has in store for me? If there is a recession, we don’t feel it. Next call to duty from Mutti: “Get a medical license for your father without him taking an internship. After all, he’s 65!” No sweat if your son has patients in the legislature who know whose pockets a political contribution of $50K should land in. Within days, the soon-to-be Governor Brown and Gray Davis are a call away. Although they don’t take my suggestions about curtailing Medicare and Medi-Cal, and building a fence at the Mexican border, dad gets his license
188

Kurt J. Wagner

and my lawyer Ben will soon be the head of the Horse Racing Board. Welcome to Los Angeles, parents. How about a nice house, near but not too close? Papa needs a job. Here’s one for $100K per year. Why not? Pay for brother’s schooling and misdeeds, sure. 1975: Enter Dr. Tom Gumas, the head of anesthesia at Sherman Oaks Hospital. There’s a malpractice crisis and he wants a life change. I worked with him and he’s slick, quick and experienced, particularly in office procedures (dentists). Guarantee him $65K/year and he’s mine for life. Let’s try. First year, $235K -- not bad for a 4-day work week with no night calls. The relationship will last for 20 years and I wish he were still here to share these days with me.

Why go out for lunch?

My persona is not shrinking from public view. I now rate half a chapter in Roger Rapoport’s Super Doctors, sharing billing with Salk, Cooley, Spock, Atkins and Bernhardt. Even my mother was impressed. You could bet on “What you see is what you get.”

189

Making the Cut

The prototype operating room

Napoleon slept here

My office is too small and there are a few buildings to consider. I should have bought, but listened to my attorney (cautious Ben) instead of my architect Eddie (not my first mistake). Soon the new Wagner palace is on the top floor of 414 North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, overlooking the roof tops of the “Golden Triangle (Rodeo Drive, Beverly Drive, etc.). Down $500K – no big deal, it is a show place for luxury and the newest operating suites that most offices do not match to this day. Its equal can be seen in “Nip and Tuck,” “Doc Hollywood” and other television offshoots.

190

Kurt J. Wagner

An afternoon dip

Self-improvement – do I want to look good in the casket or do I just want to keep busy to stop from thinking? The next great idea is a wrap-around silicone chin prosthesis, the prototype of everything in use today, but designed mostly for me. My associate Frank Kern does blepharoplasty on me (move over, Kathie) and the hair transplants keep coming as well. It’s over five years since the prognosis of gloom and doom and I’m still here. Maybe I am cured. Still …. Perhaps the Erhard Seminar Training wasn’t a cure-all, but it sure served as a wakeup call, even if Werner Erhard was not who he professed to be. Next on my selfsurvival list was a logical step in retrospect: How about a full-blown Freudian analysis with Dr. Rudolf Eckstein? His qualifications were beyond impeccable: Viennese (my own district even), same age as my parents, trained by Anna Freud, and a really nice guy. Like everything else, I plunge right in. This swim would last almost a decade.

191

Making the Cut

In spite of my schedule, I found myself in contact with him four days a week and it provided me with a haven of introspection and an occasional “aha.” Somehow my mother never saw the need. For what it’s worth, I still remember the four pearls of wisdom that do work well when applied to daily living. Although it cost me thousands, I’m glad to share them with all of you gratis: 1. Intellectual awareness is not a substitute for effective experience. 2. Never react when you can respond. 3. Never say yes if you cannot say no. 4. Never judge an Indian unless you have worn his moccasins and gone barefoot for awhile as well. The recurrent theme in my melodrama, aside from not wanting to die, is my constant inability to judge meaningful male relationships. I always imagined that if I did something as unimportant as saving a life or a face, there would be some measure of reciprocity. To this day, I am constantly reminded: this is not the way the cookie crumbles. Along the way, I did meet some interesting con artists, but never seemed to learn that lesson.

Mickey

192

Kurt J. Wagner

In the early ‘70s Mickey Rooney and I were taken in a stock scam courtesy of Ozzie C. I did get quite a few patients through that portal, so that folly probably ended up in the positive side of the ledger from a financial point of view. Then there was my education in the world of art, which was a direct consequence of the stock swindle. After making friends with a fellow swindlee, I was introduced to lithography, thanks to the guidance of Ross DeVean, an elderly and thoroughly honest instructor, who lived and loved to share his knowledge of prints.

One of our favorite posters

With his guidance, I learned its evolution from Durer to Rembrandt to Picasso to Dali. Somewhere along the way, I fell victim to the charms of the Art Nouveau era. Ross’ pace is steady but a little too slow for me. After all, there is a clock with a possible time bomb ticking away.

Somehow and some way Michael B. enters my life. I’ve operated on him and his son; so therefore, he will be honest in his art dealings with me. Sure! Before you know it, I am convinced that collecting Toulouse Lautrec posters would be the thing to do. So, with

193

Making the Cut

my usual enthusiastic brio, I ask MIchael to become my agent. Only later did I discover that I was being wildly overcharged. My enthusiasm resulted in spectacular inflation of art nouveau poster prices in all the auction houses, with every dealer clamoring and bidding to buy product for a crazy plastic surgeon in California.
Glen

Did he have the last laugh? Not this time. After learning of his betrayal, I took the time to become a world expert on “Posters of the Belle Époque.” Before long, our home became the repository and the source of product at prices that more than justified the value of the “Wagner Collection.” No wall space in the house, many lived in the closet before continuing their journeys to other aficionados at a considerable profit. Let’s do some more good. How about forming a nonprofit charity, “The American Society of Therapeutic Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery” (ASTARS)? Its main purpose: give free surgery to those in need. I sent invitations to 200: only 10 brave souls climbed onboard. I did most of the work, defrayed the expenses, and even got sued for refusing to operate on someone. Let’s put that to bed for now; but it still functions. Now we have four Rolls-Royces in our garage and a townhouse in La Jolla. I am the darling of the country and western singers (they must love Merv) and good friends with Glen Campbell, Wayne Newton, Bobby Goldsboro and Jerry Reed, and we are more than welcome in Vegas. In one show there were over ten
194

Kurt J. Wagner

breast augmentations on stage at the same time that I could brag about.
Jerry Wayne

What else is missing for the new man of means? Horses. With my attorney having more than a passing interest in the “Sport of Kings,” it wasn’t long before a few were wearing the Wagner colors. Some great moments, some lucky breaks, good tax write-offs for awhile, even a dream about the Kentucky Derby. And that was all it turned out to be at the end – a dream. They may be pretty to look at, but they sure eat up a lot more than they earn most of the time. We did get more than a few shots in the Winner’s Circle, even me with Willie Shoemaker.

A winning day

57 THE RACE GOES ON
195

Making the Cut

AND DISASTER WINS
Elsewhere, projects appeared and then were cast aside. I really wanted to spread my wings, so for awhile we explored the possibility of moving to Montecito or Malibu. Commuting? No problem. They have helicopters, don’t they? The beach seems like a nice place because we own three acres on the water (one of the only smart deals I made) and there are plans for a modest 17,000-square-foot residence with indoor racquet ball court, swimming pool and theater. The dream ended when I was denied landing rights near the office and traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway in the morning proved to be a nightmare, even if I was being driven by my faithful chauffeur, Eduardo. The solution? Sell the land and move on. I don’t really like sand anyway. 1979: I co-authored another book “Beauty by Design” with Gerald Imber, one of my protégés who decided to try New York, where he has become a huge success. He left looking a lot better than when we met, and I am truly disappointed that he chose the Big Apple. The book was well-received although by now the ranks were filling with other competitors looking for a slice of the pie.

Well-received

196

Kurt J. Wagner

Another visit from BBC’s Whickers’ World “The Original Dr. 90210” – the first time Alan Whicker featured a repeat interview with a previous subject. He wished to know why we were still married, given all the temptations that surrounded our environs. Although the show was a bigger hit than the first one in 1971, thanks to a lot of excellent but slanted editing, there was more than a kernel of truth in the query. Our marriage was at a turning point. Joseph is behaving poorly in spite of constant attention. Argumentative bickering is the rule of the day. I am not blameless. While I am at the top professionally as far as the rest of the world is concerned, anger and dissatisfaction are growing in all the personal corners of my existence.

The start of the nightmare

1980: Enter Mr. Harvey Rader, a mechanic recently emigrated from England whose specialty was Rolls Royce repairs. Kathie got a referral from a local merchant and brought him over for a look-see at our yellow 1937 Rolls touring car that had stood silently in our garage despite valiant attempts by a score of so-called “experts” to get it up and running. A look under the hood, several twists and turns, a change of a hose connection and a turn of the key – it was purring like a kitten. After a brief interview, Rader was hired to be our trouble-shooter and even given a loan of $5,000 to start a local repair shop. After all, he was a displaced Jew down on his luck. As Papa said, “You must help everyone.” It was like killing two birds with one stone. Another problem solved – oh, yeah! He now becomes a frequent visitor to the house, tuning and dickering with all the cars. While I was at work he brought his roommate, another limey, Michael Ivan Luterhoff,
197

Making the Cut

for a tête-à-tête with Kathie. He was the chauffeur of Sheik Al Fassi, famous for painting the private parts of the statues in front of his Beverly Hills mansion. It seems that his former employer had skipped town owing the universe megabucks, leaving instructions to sell some of the furnishings, with the proceeds going to pay off the household help. Excited, Kathie got a private tour of the abandoned 20,000-square-foot cottage and immediately chose those objects that were absolutely essential to fulfill her whatever. At her insistence, I returned to view her selections. It was mostly garish junk but there were some pieces of value. I figured, “Pick whatever you want, it will be part of your half if there is a future settlement.” Luterhoff wants some surgery, particularly from the star of British BBC. After some dickering, we take a miniature boat collection, some ivory carvings and throw in some electronic apparatus: facial reconstruction and $10,000 – it’s a done deal and home the purchases come. Rainy season, the roof is leaking, and the alarm system is out. We’ll get around to it, but there is always someone around. Harvey has a key to the gate and even introduces another acquaintance, Peter Davis, an art dealer, to look at my collection. His offer is unimpressive, but the curiosity is keen. My mind is elsewhere. The next week is filled with a night of terror and a comedy of errors that almost resembles a Keystone Kops two-reeler. Kathie was in San Diego at a meeting while I returned to fulfill my surgical schedule for the next morning before rejoining her again. My present flame “M” picks me up at the airport to drive me to a supposed empty house. Jean is in Stockton and Stacy, Joseph and the household couple are at a school gala just around the corner that should last most of the evening.

198

Kurt J. Wagner

“Want to see the crap that Kathie chose?” I asked as she dropped me off at the front entrance. (Not very cavalier on my part.) While surveying the new treasures, there is a sound of a key in the lock. Jean is home and with a friend! In a flash we are upstairs in the safety of the bedroom figuring out an escape route. More voices, then the show is over and the house is filled with the joy of reunion and laughter. Teenagers have no sense of time and I need my rest. So, we delay departure until the morning hours and lie down. Once again, it’s the one-eye-open kind of sleep that had been an integral part of my previous life. Noises fill part of my senses during the night, but there are now kids surrounding the barricade, no need to investigate. 6 a.m.: Time for my quest to make tracks while the coast is clear. We head for the door, but there is something different: a statue is gone, a wall is empty, an ivory tusk has vanished – we were robbed! Get lost, M, while I call the police!! It didn’t take them long to get there and, in an hour, I willingly answered all their questions. Of course, my companion was left out of the discourse – she didn’t do it. Within a day, I not only gave the detectives names of whom I thought could be suspect, but also added a detailed description of everything that was missing, including PHOTOS. Total value: $180K, which consisted of art, statues, and some ivory treasures recently purchased courtesy of the sheik. The police were polite, then said that, since we were kind of isolated, perhaps a gun purchase would be in order to ward off future attackers. Of course, I did it with Richard G’s advice. Don’t like guns, but OK. The investigation goes on. The sheik’s house burns down, much to the delight of his neighbors. Rader is now
199

Making the Cut

persona non grata and of course, his name was on the list. Special investigators Detectives Purmer and Martin are now assigned to the case, and weren’t Luterhoff and Davis on the list too? They ask about the boat collection and of course I lie, because I don’t want to get involved. What a jerk! Good news. Most of the stolen goods are found in a pawn shop less than one mile from the house. They question my involvement again and I stick to baloney. Strike two. Rader is arrested and admits that he took the stuff with my permission! It was an insurance scam!! The cops didn’t waste a minute. An evening raid with cameras present, they didn’t cuff us but the booking was heralded in People magazine and the Los Angeles Times. We were released after being fingerprinted in less than 30 minutes. To say I was in a daze is an understatement. Lawyered up again; another attempt at police entrapment for variations of the same theme, shot down by a judge with admonishment to the overeager duo who seemed to delight “having their name in print.” My patients didn’t seem to mind. They thought the whole business was a little crazy. I needed a break. With everyone’s blessing, Kathie and I are off to Hawaii, leaving instructions to keep the gun safely locked away. June 1, 1980. We’re home and why is there such a large welcoming committee at the airport, including Barry Panter, a long-time friend and psychiatrist? Is anything wrong? In a word: Stacy is dead!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. She shot herself and Jean found her. It was my turn to faint. The turmoil that follows the death of a child is indescribable. Who, what, where, why, how? We are inconsolable. It is little consolation that I never took blame and still don’t know why this happier offspring of the two girls did what she did. Now there is family pressure – no more legal business: take a deal. For what? An affair?
200

Kurt J. Wagner

OK, I plead no contest to receiving stolen goods (although I paid for them). Three years’ probation plus community service (what I have been doing all these years?) Now everyone joins in the fray. My license is suspended/revoked with more service. There is finally joy in Mudville: Mighty Kurtie has struck out, at least for now. That’s not the end of this part of the tale. Luterhoff looks good and is seen in before and after poses of his face. Great result, I might add – but what about Mr. Rader? He made a deal and walked after our arrest. Wait – in 1982 he is re-arrested for six possible murders. You can google it. Peter Davis (the art guy), his wife and the Solomon family of four are missing. He took care of their cars as well. Two mistrials turned out he was a felon in England as well. He told a mutual friend how he burned down the house and admitted he would have had to kill me if I had investigated the noises during the night of the robbery. The police were reluctant to ask me if I knew anything – perhaps not wishing to admit their mistake in getting the real criminals. Here is an example of great police investigation about 6 people that disappeared. Peter Davis and his wife, Joan, were last seen in Los Angeles, California on March 17, 1982. They have never been heard from again. Harvey Rader was named as a possible suspect in their cases. Rader was tried several times on counts related to the 1982 California disappearances of Michalle Houchman and her family members. He was acquitted at the conclusion of his most recent trial in 1992. Authorities believe that Rader may have murdered Peter and Joan as the result of a business-related dispute. He was never charged in connection with their cases, which remain unsolved. As for me, only a mastermind, copying the techniques of the Pink Panther and being a fool who had $2 million of art that is listed on the insurance schedule, steals $182K of

201

Making the Cut

unlisted miscellaneous pieces. To make sure no stone is left unturned, he then supplies the investigators with exact photos of the stolen goods and then hocks them in the neighborhood. We never did decide how we split the proceeds between me, Rader and the pawn broker who confessed. He said that the head of the ring arranged what pieces were to be stolen. Rader had told him that piece of news as he unloaded the goods in the dark of the night. It was clever to put some of the pieces on display in the store window, so close to the house. As you can imagine, the next few years are lost in a haze. The insurance company demanded their money back and I refused to make a deal. There was a trial. Unfortunately I did not get the same jury of my peers like O.J., who lucked out in his first go-round. Our attorneys had a temporary mental shutdown (I broke down during cross examination before being able to talk about our real loss and my sage advisors let it slide). “Great,” the jury spoke, “show that Beverly Hills S.O.B. that there is real justice. $6 million in punitive damages for the down-on their luck insurance con” (Jurors Find Art Theft Faked, Order Claim Repaid) August 5, 1986 LA Times). Thank God for the judge who set aside the verdict, saying the jury was nuts and the lawyer should seek a different line of work! Still, they got their fees on both sides, more than $180,000. The story should have a better ending than it did. Fuck you, Al Fassi. He had the balls to add his name to the list of the injured. Not in my lifetime. It was the Wagners who got a $7 million summary judgment! We never were paid. Luterhoff had been telling the truth. Where was the coverage now? The front page spread had shrunken to a paragraph on page 6. At least my record was expunged. As for Rader – maybe he was deported to face time in England.
202

Kurt J. Wagner

Back to Joseph: He turned out to be not quite the gift from heaven, stealing and lying and even torching part of the house. Just great, and we are all in therapy. Thank you, Dr. Eckstein.

In spite of it all, the work goes on. No more La Jolla, it was intended for the girls to live in while enrolled in UC San Diego, but now there is a small house in Oxnard as well as a tiny cottage in Palm Springs. The Rolls Royces, except for the original, are missing but there’s still plenty of transportation. My place near the top of the rung has fallen down a few notches, but there’s still a 3-month wait for consultation.

203

Making the Cut

What a night at the museum!

How to whitewash my image? I decide to give part of my art collection to the Los Angeles County Art Museum, which they accept with glee after some wheeling and dealing. May 1985: Toulouse Lautrec and his contemporaries from the Wagner collection opened with Jose Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor and 1,000 other impressive members and guests being feted at the gala reception. We’re back! It’s time to get out of the place that Stacy blew herself away in. In addition, our dog Hercules was victim to the fire that a year later destroyed one wing of the house and caused $250,000 worth of damages. (No, we were not accused, and, in fact, we didn’t find the real culprit until our teenager’s admission years later.) After some quick searching about, we (or rather Kathie) found the right spot. How about rebuilding a house filled with true Hollywood memories built in the 1920s by D.W. Griffith (of Birth of a Nation fame), for his bride. After a year
204

Kurt J. Wagner

of reconstruction and $2.5 million in the ground and in the bank accounts of the architects and contractors, Kasa Kontenta is ready to receive its new tenants. Goodbye, Sherman Oaks.
Zsa Zsa

1987 sees us ensconced north of Sunset on Lexington Drive, now 90210 in every way. Ten thousand square feet, an indoor swimming pool and only ten minutes to the office. Back to receiving guests and partying, but it’s never the same for me. Have I forgotten to mention that the Wagner parties were something of a legend? Yearly get-togethers inviting hundreds of our friends and guests with a different theme on every occasion. Many of our circle arranged their vacation schedules to be in town for the storied events. Hawaii Mexican, Masquerade themes, but the Gypsy party (before disaster struck in Sherman Oaks) was my favorite.
Kasa Kontenta

Everyone at the parties got a pin

205

Making the Cut

Never orgiastic or drug-infested – just plain fun – and in keeping with the original homage to Hollywood which started it all.

Fred (my own hero)

In the office I am still a favorite with Hollywood persona.

Joan Astaire, Crawford (Mommy Dearest was too flattering) and Rogers all looked better, but deserve a right to their privacy even in death. But I was most proud of Gig Young, who lost his left nostril due to cancer. I restored it and it was good enough to win his only Oscar in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He went on to kill himself and a new wife, but I assure you his nose looked great. I surely can’t compare with some vivid descriptions that now fill the daily tabloids. Every now and then I see a familiar face starting at me from the checkout stand at Publix.
206

Kurt J. Wagner

At Barry Panter’s behest, I am now giving lectures about the connection between art and my profession and the idiosyncrasies of artists that have caught my fancy during my collections. I’m almost awake again – but not to worry – repetition compulsion was still riding high, at least in some facets of my existence. No matter how well my performance in the operating room may trick Dr. Mirror for awhile, Father Time inexorably marches on and things are a-changing again!! Everybody’s breaking down: My “father” Harry gets bladder cancer and after trying everything to avoid it, finally has major surgery, which turns his urinary tract into a Foley Catheter. I should have suspected something when the blood match between us failed to resemble any semblance of familiarity. My mother, the survivor of the unholy trinity of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, is rapidly becoming debilitated from aggressive over-radiation thirty years earlier and is now a cardiac cripple. With her internist chiming in agreement ten years ago, she had refused rehabilitative heart surgery, although Kurt had insisted that refusal would hasten her demise.

Gig Young

Tough to agree on anything when it hasn’t first come out of your mouth, eh, Mutti? More fuel to the fire of chaos. Joseph, who in spite of everything is a step away from a full golf college scholarship,
207

Making the Cut

decides to skip all his finals and not graduate from Beverly Hills High. So it’s off to Cedu, a very private and expensive establishment for wayward kids. Not to be outdone, my brother Errol, now a chiropractor (had to have a “Dr.” one way or the other), has been in and out of rehab twice, expenses paid courtesy of his older brother. Mimicking my great uncle Arpad and his relationship to my Papa in Vienna, he will never get out of my pocket until his death.

We’re back

The frosting on the cake, which you already tasted at the beginning of the story: Mutti’s confession. Thanks a lot. What should I do with a half-crazed now-stepfather who has gone off the deep end concomitant with the loss of his (rarely used) pecker power?

208

Kurt J. Wagner

58 WHO AM I ?

Lookalikes?

Time for a review of the situation. Now my origin has changed to a great extent with Dr. Alfred Neumann claiming the title of Dad. His brother, Dr. Norbert, was always in the know and always gave me that extra hug when we were together, claiming that my brilliance emanated from his gentle touch on my forehead soon after my difficult entry into the world. I didn’t know the power of touching a person’s head. First my uncle, then Freud, too bad others didn’t follow suit more often - the possibilities that I missed growing up. If only someone had touched me with a little economic common sense! His previous fiancée, Trude, left my cousin Vera in my charge. She’s doing more than OK as a facial plastic surgeon to this date. Peter, Norbert’s son, also spent time in my office
209

Making the Cut

as a plastic surgeon. If nothing else, I guess I was a good role model. As for Bernard (Harry), did he know? I doubt it. Although my formal analysis was over (is it really ever over?) I rushed to tell Dr. Eckstein about my mother’s betrayal. Of course, he knows my real dad from the old socialist uprisings in Vienna, and then he more than made my day when he wishes I would have been his!! But wasn’t I really his in more ways than one? Without Sonia to apply the brakes (she dies in December 1989), Bernard is almost impossible to control. Hate letters to relatives and Kurt Waldheim (Austrian chancellor and Nazi – richly deserved), lewd phone calls to random numbers and poor hygiene to say the least. We never discuss the paternity matter. Errol, now divorced from #3, has moved into the house purchased by me for my parents and has succeeded in cashing in a $250,000 mortgage, using it for God-knows-what. At least some of my shit is in the same pile. Let’s backtrack a bit to the professional side. In 1985 I’m showing more than a little wear and tear after the closure of the sheik, Rader, aborted divorce, fire, revocation/suspension, insurance incidence … so maybe it’s time to cut back a little. After a negotiation with Beverly Hills Medical Center falls through, I build a Medicare-approved surgicenter with three operating rooms under Tom’s guidance, and move to 1125 South Beverly Drive. It’s next to the hospital, across the street from a four-star hotel. While not as fancy-schmancy, it has all the newest bells and whistles. It is open to others, so my income won’t stop entirely when I go on vacation. But there is always Stacy! Why, why, why?

210

Kurt J. Wagner

59 WELCOME TO THE 90s? NOT ENTIRELY GAY
My father (the real one) now knows that I know (I told him). To say that it was a little awkward (more so for him) is a mild understatement. What’s the sense of confronting Harry, who is living in his own twilight zone? The pain in my hips is increasing by the day. It seems that I have a peculiar kind of male osteoarthritis transmitted from mother to son (thanks, Mutti), but I am not alone. Some of my cousins have suffered the same fate. It didn’t help that I had survived several severe auto crashes (didn’t mention that, did I?) and I should have known that after three knee arthroscopies in my 40s, something was amiss. Finally, it was time to see the orthopod of my choice: Dr. John Moreland. He went on to operate on Liz and Liza after my surgical experience. Unfortunately, I was part of the complication Trifecta. I took a month off. Why not do something to brighten the day? A face lift by Dr. Frank Kern. I had trained him, operated on him (he lost the nickname of the Hawk shortly thereafter), and he was my associate before deciding to venture out on his own. The price is right: I helped him when he operated on Dinah Shore and a Mrs. Sinatra (none of your business which one). I ended up with a hematoma but don’t need to go back to the OR. I look good, not as good as I could have done, but OK – much better.

211

Making the Cut

Dinah

To digress, I do not want to be labeled a cosmetic surgery junkie – more of an explorer. I now have had a blepharoplasty, chin augmentation and hair transplants as well. If it’s not good enough for the gander, how can I sell it to the goose? It seems that the Sheik’s affair is long forgotten by the public because the Wagners are still the subject of several articles, Dr. Vanity being the best of the bunch! Oh yes, six months after my hip surgery, I bent down and you’ll never guess what slipped out of its pocket – oops! Didn’t I give him a piece of my mind about incomplete postoperative instructions? But that was small consolation. Jumping around a little since I’m writing part of this on St. Patrick’s Day, this particular anecdotal experience is worthy of mention. After the exposure of multiple reruns on Whicker’s World and with the general knowledge that Kathie Kelley was Mrs. Wagner, it was only natural that we were invited to appear on the Gay Byrne Show (a la Johnny Carson) on Irish television. In the course of a question and answer period, I made the casual remark that Nancy Reagan’s face was so tight that if she smiled it would crack. Kathie rose to her defense, and for about 30 seconds we debated the proper way to describe
212

Kurt J. Wagner

the First Lady. Within 24 hours some of the tabloids recounted the episode: “Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon says Mrs. Reagan may need further surgery.” Luckily, it never hit D.C. Getting back on track, our son Joseph is doing his share of muddying the waters as another decade opens. The psychiatrists and the lawyers are doing their part to make sure that money doesn’t stay in our accounts for long. Our prodigal son gets caught with a gun in hand during a friendly robbery in order to collect a debt. At Kathie’s behest, I paid 6 figures plus to keep him out of jail for ten years. Forget about the fire!

213

Making the Cut

60 MY FAMILY GETS BIGGER
Although the children bearing the Wagner surname were only three in number (that I know of), by no means were they the only ones that I considered part of my own. From their first meeting with me back on August 6, 1966, my nephew Steven and niece Sheri were part of the fold. Whatever I could, whenever I could, however I could, I did whatever was needed so they would know they had a firm anchor to hold onto in their sea of occasional turmoil. It was a joy to see them grow and take an active part in their development. It has brought me happiness and joy and unbearable pain on one tragic occasion. (More later.)

The Miller family

214

Kurt J. Wagner

About the time Joseph was beginning to display some of his worst teenage antics, David Miller entered our lives. A displaced Floridian teenager who was in California to continue his educational career, he had rebroken his nose and displaced his silicone chin in a dormitory accident. The surgeon in Florida referred him to two locals: he chose me. A little anxious at our first meeting, we were soon on the same wavelength. After an expert repair (better than the original), we stayed in contact beyond the usual post-op visits. He asked, I answered, and our relationship blossomed. Pretty soon his father Matt, a prominent divorce lawyer, was added to the patient roster, as was his younger brother Jonathan. So it went beyond the office to a more personal nature. How personal? During a home visit, Kathie and I arranged for a date for David with a neighbor’s daughter, Michelle. Too bad nothing came out of it, except a marriage and two wonderful children, who are like my very own to this day. And that was just the beginning. He is one of Florida’s top psychoanalysts. Could I say it was my sixth generation doctor? Ask him.

61 NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED
Don’t get too comfortable, Kurt, because there are more storm clouds on the horizon. One of my former patients, S. G. is a ring leader in a massive lawsuit against Dow Corning, the major manufacturer of silicone breast implants. It seems that silicone causes everything from chronic
215

Making the Cut

illnesses to hangnails. Although S. gave me a pass, that didn’t prevent thousands of others from joining in the parade against the manufacturer and some of the designers. (Remember my suggestion in 1965?) My attorneys are there to help themselves (you’ve got to protect your assets) moving to present briefs from state to state. Dow Corning does the smart thing and goes Chapter 11 (they refused to help me out, of course) – but too late: a judge rules that designers are blameless. It only took a year and there was no refund of the million gone down the drain. Maybe I ought to put my remaining eggs in other baskets. How about selling some of our art? There’s also a chance to get a piece of some Czech casinos. Add to this part of a nine-hole golf course near Goleta, California, and at least there’s a chance to depend on something else besides my hands. The years of getting subpoenas on a weekly basis have worn me out, particularly when several insane malpractice suits add weight to my load. They all go away, but each one is like a knife in my soul. But remember: “You must help everyone.” In the meantime, our charitable pursuits continue. We are active in the Thalians, St. Jude and ABC (breast cancer group). Enough of Kasa Kontenta – no more kids, huge mortgage and I’d like to move to Indian Wells where desert serenity seems like Eden. It’s 1995 and I want a break from the pressure, which is out of hand. A compromise – let’s stay in town. OK, the real estate market is crap (it usually is when we’re sellers) and we lose only a little. Downsizing with a big D, but the rented townhouse in Century City is soon a showplace, so there’s not much complaining. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

216

Kurt J. Wagner

Enter Ted Eccles and Electric Entertainment. He was a successful child actor and husband of a former employer, Robin. Ted had carved out a successful career working for Disney (remember…I love Mickey) and in the movie-editing business. In addition, he was my patient and I have saved his son’s life after a severe accident. I have always liked him through the years – warm, caring, affectionate and looking real good, sporting a Wagner chin. Ted’s latest company is expanding and he has a large contract with a new company: DirecTV. I think there’s a future in this way of transmitting programs (so why didn’t I invest in DirecTV?). Ted gives our son Joseph a chance to enter at a lower level and that seems to be a break. My son was quick to show his gratitude and is caught with his hand in the till. Oh, boy! But Ted is magnanimous and says he will give him another chance. “Is there anything I can do for you, Ted? Do you need any money?”

217

Making the Cut

“Not right now. But if you want to try your hand at writing trailers and scripts, I’m sure you’d be good at it if you ever quit.” Why not? If things work out, maybe Joseph will have a future. He didn’t finish high school in Beverly Hills, but don’t despair, he got his diploma a few years later – in jail! (Forget a sixth-generation MD from our house). 1996: I don’t renew my lease and sign over everything to Alon Pnini, an Israeli-born plastic surgeon who had his office next door and shared some of the expenses of the surgicenter. The price: nothing! What a putz! That’s not all – it gets better. Electric Entertainment is on the upswing for the time being. We need more equipment and I co-sign. Let’s get in bed with Robert De Niro Productions. I’m in a commercial, ponytail and all. What do you know? I really am good at writing trailers, scripts and I even did a voiceover in Wag the Dog. Joseph is behaving and he even has a girlfriend whose father was a doctor before an early demise. And besides, we’re going public.

Joan

The dream continues for awhile. I’m Man of the Year for ABC, sharing the stage with Joan Collins, who still looks pretty good, no thanks to me. We are involved with Italian

218

Kurt J. Wagner

bankers in an effort to get significant financing, and then things head south in a hurry. In spite of my warnings, DirecTV sends their representatives to work with us. How long did it take this burgeoning giant to give us the finger? We try our hand at producing a TV series about dumb criminals, but it probably should have been about dumb plastic surgeons. A co-venture with De Niro, “Wag the Dog” doesn’t exactly light up the box office either. Ted is getting more distant and is in a big hurry to finish a new house; financial reports are scant until he declares bankruptcy. Guess who is now on the hook for $5 million for leases? The Schmuck of the Year. Even Joseph leaves the sinking ship while I’m trying to save something. It’s all to no avail, and I am done. Getting out of bed is a chore. Our daughter is living in Florida with a girlfriend, and it’s time to get out – cowardly, I know, but I will die if we stay. Off to Costa Rica.

62 SOUTH OF THE BORDER
Another run for your life. No concentration camp or fear of extinction, but shame fills my being. It is obvious that I have left all economic sense behind as well as having sold most of our art and precious belongings including the beloved Rolls. Our new car, a Toyota Corolla; our new home, a two bed room townhouse in a country club about the size of the Barrington apartment. It’s the rainy season and the afternoon deluge resembles what Noah must have experienced waiting
219

Making the Cut

for the ark to float. I must collect my thoughts and plan the next step. But Kathie is here 100% and I more than regret occasional foolish behavior in our relationship. She is a great comfort. Costa Rica is beautiful when the skies don’t open up and there is a golf course and an Olympic swimming pool. It is a place where I see expansion in the future. Right now there are too many potholes in the road and this future isn’t on our horizon. It’s OK for a few months. I paid what I could, but there’s plenty left outstanding. Ground zero is not that far away. A fair weather friend is not just another phrase. Kathie and I are closer than ever. How about Costa del Sol? Nosotros hablamos mucho español. But we are Americans and AJ lives in Palm Beach Gardens, with a new partner. Florida was good enough for Al Fassi to hide out in. I can understand New Yorkese – so back to the shores of Florida we come! 1998 is almost over. We’re living in a 1200-squarefoot house and I’m recuperating mentally; no need to work, shell-shocked, but we’ve been through worse. At least we are together. Joseph is back in trouble after a major marital dispute. Yes, he got married along the way: a good wedding at the Bel Air Hotel with enough people attending to satisfy one and all, even Papa Alfred. Now there are no deep pockets to save him. 1999: I’m a senior citizen now. There’s money in Lugano from the forced sale of the casinos to the persuasive Russian Mafia, and some insurance, plus social security. Wow. My daughter wants her house back because it looks like Sheila will be her new life partner for some time to come. We will have to move – but where?

220

Kurt J. Wagner

In this respect we are not without some direction. We have a connection with a developer through my lifelong friend and traveling companion, Donald O., who lived in Florida for some time. His acquaintance, Jeffrey Phillips, is rebuilding part of a ghetto neighborhood next to the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale and he needs financial help to finish (who doesn’t?). Kathie likes the location and wants a new nest. To say I am guilty about my financial blunders would be the understatement of the year. After a “let’s make a deal” session, the checkbook is out, to be followed by a move into a small condo in order to wait for soon-to-bearriving townhouses across the street on the water. I’m not convinced, but has my judgment always been sound?

63 A NEW CENTURY
Welcome to the next century: 2000 is here and it’s time to do something about my hip again. It keeps slipping out and I’m not getting any younger. In contradistinction to some fine wines, there is no chance of improving with age. This time it’s Holy Cross Hospital and Dr. Marc Philipon, an orthopod on the rise. I am filled with a sense of optimism. I had given up tennis and racketball since the first debacle, but there’s still aerobics, golf and swimming to keep me in shape. Just to make sure my reflexes still work, a tire fell off a truck in front of us on the freeway one month after my surgery. Still

221

Making the Cut

lucky in some respects: a smash, a crash --- car totaled but Kurt and Kathie don’t have a scratch!
Cary

Watching the construction, which is moving at a slightly faster than snail’s pace, and before you know it 2001 appears. How about a U.S. Tour? We can see Papa Kelley in Oklahoma (did I mention that Kathie’s heritage closely mimicked Barbara’s?). He can come along as well. Then there’s Papa Alfred in Denver, David and Michelle in Fresno, and Joseph doing penance in upstate California, not to mention Mt. Rushmore.

Al

Funny how writing stirs up old memories. Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter was in my employ many years ago, and I had spent several entertaining hours with the Master of Mystery. I knew Cary Grant (helped on a surgery), and have seen North by Northwest on more than a few occasions. Why not see the statued presidents in the flesh and it’s summertime! Besides that, there’s California where some semblance of our past life still lingers.

222

Kurt J. Wagner

A great month and all missions accomplished with everyone intact – for now. We’re in the new townhouse after the usual blips. Not bad – great view, but it’s hard to keep going up and down the stairs. Kind of boring and I’m thinking about going back to work. (We agree that I’m a pain in the ass 24/7.) Besides, I could use a “lift” in more ways than one. So, it’s back to California and Cousin Vera and another face lift. After all, if I have to charm the public, shouldn’t I look my narcissistic best? September 9th is the day, but what an event two days later on 9/11. Will the world ever be anything but a boiling cauldron? In order to get back in the saddle, I need a license, which can be tricky given my checkered legal past. Once again, providence is on my side. An old friend and former patient, Matt Miller, guides me through the ropes, holding my hand most of the way. I’m ready to go on. Through an acquaintance I get in touch with Jason Pozner, a well-trained young plastic surgeon (and I mean well-trained), who is just starting out on his own in Boca Raton. He knows everything about lasers and endoscopy (I score zero in those departments) and maybe I can fill in some surgical gaps if there are any. I think we can hit if off. His father, Murray, had a very successful weight-reduction spa in New Jersey and is part of the practice. He’s older than I, but even more vital. There’s also an age management expert and I love the concept. We’ll try and see how it goes.
My savior

2002: After a goodbye call in March, Alfred dies at age 91. I am finally an orphan. For a few years there was an intense bonding and we both realized what we

223

Making the Cut

had been missing. My sister Margaret (his daughter, who is a lot like my daughter as far as professional choices are concerned) is happy because I am no longer an unpleasant blot on the family escutcheon. (Like it was my doing!) Fade out from anything relating to Neumanns except for Phyllis, my father’s faithful secretary, who is still loyal and caring and always recognized uncanny similarities to her old boss. Things are going well at the office. It’s different being the assistant after holding the knife for so long, but Jason is great and lets me put in my two cents’ worth and do an occasional case as well. It’s funny not seeing Tom at the head of the table, but Ken Kushner is a whiz at keeping anesthesia trouble-free. Besides, he’s a great pilot and treats every case like an A-1 mission. No worries there: I’m at home again, in a place that is fittingly named “Sanctuary.” What a surprise! Our daughter is pregnant at the age of 42, thanks to modern medicine paid for by my mother’s jewelry bequest, the best use I can think of. Excitement reigns supreme. It’s going to be a girl. We’ve already had some practice going through Michelle’s first pregnancy last year, producing wonderful Amanda, and are counting the minutes. On December 30, Juliette enters the scene kicking and screaming. There’s a lot of her mother and Stacy (welcome back) in her features. For the first time I can appreciate the peculiar behavior patterns of grandparents and there are more chances for us in the coming months to act like parents. For awhile, it’s still some distance between Palm Beach Gardens and Ft. Lauderdale, but that is quickly solved. Both moms work full time. Wouldn’t it be easier for them to move into our old condo across the street and let Kathie be in charge during the day, just like my Omi in Vienna? I’m sorry that I can’t buy my little sweetheart the moon, but there is new life flowing in me again. Who is the only “man” around?
224

Kurt J. Wagner

2003: We’re building a new life with new friends, some with a ton of brains, and that makes for intellectual stimulation. Although money is tight and there is trouble with the developer’s agreements and Lugano, we are OK in our downscaled life and with darling Juliette, who may be more than a new chip of my old block. I cannot find enough superlatives to describe how wonderful my Kathie is. It’s great to feel like a young papa, albeit one generation removed. I must admit that crawling around the floor is not as easy as it used to be, but it’s still fun. 2004: For a change, there’s a moment without something like a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads – but only for a moment. I’ve had a lump on my left nipple for a time that’s quite sore, on top of a little (OK, not so little) gynecomastia, secondary to treatment of a prostate that’s following the usual male protocols: it’s starting to grow. Not to worry – the biopsy will be OK, like the prostatic ones. Painful lumps are not cancer (did I really believe that?). Now it retracts and I was wrong. So on March 10, the morning after my 70th birthday party hosted by my new circle of colleagues and friends, it’s a bilateral mastectomy and lymph node dissection for me. Pathology report: Stage 3 outside one lymph node. Let’s hope I was not DEAD wrong. The Kaunitz family curse that had claimed four generations of females had crossed over to the other side.

225

Making the Cut

Draft edition

So, it’s chemo and radiation for me. I don’t look too bad without hair (Jean did the final cut before it fell out completely). Yul Brynner’s prophecy was right -- I looked pretty good. I managed my sessions so that the intestinal upsets only occurred on the weekends and I even played role model at Dr. Patel’s (my oncologist) office while being therapeutically poisoned. At least I haven’t lost my persuasive charm even with an IV pouring god-knows-what inside of me. Everyone is supportive and cannot believe that I don’t miss a day of work. Can’t afford to die just yet, I still have a lot left in the tank and I need to stick around awhile for Kathie, Jean, Juliette and David. 2005: My hair is back, but I don’t like being a silver fox – neither does my bride – so it’s “Just for Men.” It’s a little hard being teatless, now it’s empathy, not sympathy, that I feel for the women in the same boat. Jason is gracious and caring, as are all my friends and family. I’m back on track and Juliette is a hell of a swimmer, just like her Papa! Amazing how fast people forget you when you’re out of the limelight. The practice is growing in all directions. It’s time for another book, this time featuring all facets of treatments offered to slow down the march of time. (The
226

Kurt J. Wagner

majority are offered at the Aesthetic Surgical Medical Center – our office.) Of course, it will be penned by me and Jason and so The War Against Aging (son of The Youth Game) is born. Not as easy to find a publisher, so we self-publish (a growing trend), thanks to the guidance of Janus and Stephan McCrea, close friends and smart as they can be. Our patients love it and it continues to be a great reference source, even today. Funny how my profession followed our lead in disseminating information. How many people are selfaggrandizing now? And who was really Dr. 90210 or Doc Hollywood? Another bump in the road, but this time it’s in the practice. Allyn Brizel, our age manager and dispenser of all the modern miracle hormonal pellets and other practices that Suzanne Sommers continues to push into the limelight, has the most aggressive case of prostatic cancer known to man, and he is in his late 40s. Time to re-evaluate life for the others. For me it’s a painful sigh. It’s tough to see a comrade take such a heavy blow. If that’s not enough, my brother Errol has pancreatic cancer, which is almost impossible to beat. We haven’t spoken in years, but I make the trip back to Los Angeles to say my goodbyes. It’s sad because genetically he’s still half me. So long, “Swallow.” I paid for his cremation since his four children were nowhere to be found. Back to Florida. Watching Jason prosper is satisfying and we’re going to expand. A medical spa is in the planning stages, much like I dreamed of almost 40 years ago. The air is filled with anxiety and eager anticipation that usually accompanies such projects. There is always a risk. In the meantime, Kathie gets another face lift, topped off with some great laser skin rejuvenation (a combined effort). More than one person thinks she’s Juliette’s mom when they are out and about, but the real moms are never passengers on the aesthetic surgery train (their choice.) As moms, they can’t be
227

Making the Cut

beat. Loving and caring is their credo in tending to the little princess. We are increasingly active participants in the lives of the Miller family which now includes little Emily to fill out the bunch.

Like my original cluster

(Sort of like my original cluster) and David’s practice is booming. We talk almost daily and it is clear to me what having a caring son is really like. His concern for our wellbeing occasionally brings tears to my eyes in those moments of retrospection. 2007: How about some life insurance? It’s almost 4 years since the breast debacle and the cat scans are negative. Take a stress test – uh-oh – heart blockages in an important artery. More agitation but the arteriogram is A-OK, much to the delight of Kurt and crew. The money in Europe is evaporating and the Austrians finally admit that they may have not been blameless in their roles as mega-Nazis in WWII. How grandiose: did they wait until most of the survivors had died off? To make matters worse, they did not share Germany’s post-war generosity. After all, there are so many of the originals still alive (fewer than 100,000), and we have to be fair to everyone, including the insurance companies. Do you think a penny on the dollar would be OK? A fair interest rate after 70 years? Or we could litigate. Lawyers are lawyers everywhere; too bad they run most of the governments.

228

Kurt J. Wagner

2008: Uh-oh – one of my lawyers didn’t defend me in California on a malpractice case, although he was paid. Judge Ito (pretty familiar) decided to make an example of me. How did they know about Austria? Clean up Electric Entertainment and we’re through with the suits (is it ever over?) from Los Angeles. The lawyer who didn’t show up for the trial to defend me did show up for his funeral. Oh well, at least he missed his malpractice suit. Joseph continues to fight his inner demons, losing more than emerging victorious. We dread phone calls from strange California prefixes, but our major thoughts are in Florida. How about a downturn in the economy? That’s all that’s missing. Our townhouse is suddenly worth half of what it was a year ago, and guesses who needs lawyering again? But the spa is beautiful and Whicker from the BBC is back (I guess I’m not the only survivor). We’re soon to be in another sequel. It’s a little disconcerting to remember what was compared to what is, but I’m still here and all of my parts are still working, and Kathie is by far my best, best friend. 2009: Enter Obama. How could the citizenry be so blind? He’s written and done or is about to do his best to shoot the USA down.

229

Making the Cut

Sanctuary Medical Aesthetic Center, Boca Raton, Fla.

The children are prospering (Juliette, Amanda and Emily) and I treasure each day. And then another haymaker: My nephew, Steven, now one of the most successful pharmaceutical reps in the country after a 12-year stint in the Army, has a brain tumor. The family is in for it again. More visits to the coast, none for pleasure. Stevie had come to see me during my therapy. Kathie’s father leaves us at age 91, a good egg most of the time, better as he got older. Not enough? My prostate decides it is its turn at bat, and the Gleason score is not great (9 out of 10). Failed operation to freeze it. (Would you believe the machine broke?) So it’s radiation for me again. We won’t need Christmas tree lights if this keeps up. Seems OK for now. I still don’t miss a beat in the office. 2010: Goodbye to dear Steven. What a loss – not even 50. Poor Patti has been the best sister-in-law through

230

Kurt J. Wagner

thick and thin. She’s a survivor and so is my niece Sheri. The ranks close up seeking comfort in our love. The medicines to keep my prostate at bay are doing their job at the expense of a dormant libido. It’s a small price to pay. Then a new project appears. How would Kurt like to be chairman of the board of an emerging company called Stem Cell Assurance? Stem Cell Assurance names Kurt Wagner MD as Chairman of the Board

It’s time again

Funny, but I tried to get involved with stem cell treatment 20 years ago, only to be frustrated by the premature death of my scientific genius partner at age 42 of a brain aneurysm. Why not? Nothing to lose but time and my interest is peaked. We’ll start slowly and, with a little luck, who knows? I even coin the name of a proposed skin care line – Stem Pearls. Stem Cellutrition™ Officially Introduces Newest Addition to Stem Pearls™ Cosmetic
231

Making the Cut

Skincare Line: Wrinkle Remover with Matrixyl™ 3000 Not bad. Oh yes, there was a great opportunity to give a keynote speech at the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery entitled “The History of Cosmetic Surgery,” at the invitation of Mark Berman, its president and one of my protégés. It’s fun being in the limelight and now there’s a new beauty magazine spawned by the Association, called New You. The summer issue features the “Original Doc Hollywood” recalling my many moments of glory. Do I really look that old? Dr. Mirror agrees, so it’s another lift for me and Jason hits the jackpot with a great job in October. If nothing else, our prospective clientele marvel at the 77-year-old youngster with barely-visible scars. Now Kathie and I are a matching set again.

Known and sewn

232

Kurt J. Wagner

My special lady

233

Making the Cut

64 A NEW BEGINNING

Each day brings a new dawn, perhaps in more ways than one. If you’ve come this far, you can marvel, laugh or boo at my ups and downs, much like a ride in a carousel. I held the golden rings in my hands many times, only to let it slip away. Would I change some things? Be crazy not to. But on the whole, most people would agree that my positive side of the ledger outweighs the negative. Jason’s stature is growing and I’d like to think that some of my good points have rubbed off on him. I still know how to calm most patients down, replacing anxiety with confidence and inspiration without creating unrealistic expectations. I bask in the wonder of still being alive and rejoice that the purpose of my existence still dances in my thoughts. Kathie and I delight in our relationship, not having to speak to know every fiber of our being. The stem cell express is gaining momentum and I am one of the conductors. The track is clear and it’s full speed ahead. And the original non-profit society is being coupled on. It will become the AMERICAN SOCIETY OF THERAPEUTIC

234

Kurt J. Wagner

and AESTHETHIC REJUVENATION and REGENERATION (ASTARR for short). A fitting addition to explore more roads leading to a healthier tomorrow. Now I’m at one of the main controls, Papa, so maybe now I can really do what you told me to do so many years ago. “YOU MUST HELP EVERYONE!” With stem cells, I just might...
ASTARR American Society of Therapeutic and Aesthetic Rejuvenation and Regeneration 453 SW 5th Avenue Fort Lauderdale, FL 33315 ASTARR.us

235

Making the Cut

CAST OF CHARACTERS
(In Order of Appearance)
Sonia Kaunitz Wagner - Mother to the author Oskar Kaunitz – Father of Sonia Wagner, grandfather of the author – a.k.a. “Papa” Olga – First cousin of Oskar Kaunitz and later his wife - The grandmother of the author – a.k.a. “Omi” Wenzel Anton Kaunitz-Rietberg – Grandfather to Oskar Kaunitz Barbara Fredericka – Sister of Sonia – aunt of Kurt, a.k.a. Fritzi Paul Kaunitz – Brother of Oskar Hans Moldauer – First husband of Sonia Trude Spitz – First cousin of Sonia Norbert Neumann – (Bertell) Friend of Trude Alfred Neumann – Brother of Norbert and more than a friend to Sonia -a.k.a. Freddie Bernard Warhaftig, a.k.a. Bernard Wagner, a.k.a. Harry Wagner – Husband of Sonia Kaunitz Wagner Edward Warhaftig – Father of Bernard Charlotte Warhaftig – Wife of Edward, mother of Bernard Brothers of Bernard: Joseph, Ernst and Siegfried (a.k.a. Uncle Sig) Dr. Berger – A colleague of Dr. Kaunitz who delivered the author Sigmund Freud – Father of Psychoanalysis Steffi – Neighbor of Freud, great-aunt of the author Adolph Hitler – Nazi, The Fuhrer Senator Robert Wagner from New York Bobby G – Childhood friend of the author Mrs. G – Mother of Bobby G Mrs. Young and Mrs. Old – Early schoolteachers of the author 236

Kurt J. Wagner
Mrs. Gillespie – The principal of the school Uncle Igo Wachtel – “Friend” (or more?) to Sonia Uncle Oscar – Visitor to the apartment of the Wagners Errol Steven Wagner – Brother of the author - a.k.a. the “Swallow” Jessie Lanier and Raymond W – Friends of the author in Little Rock, Arkansas Travis Jackson – Friend of the author in Little Rock, Arkansas Janet Love – Friend of the author in Little Rock, Arkansas Larry Parks – Movie star who portrayed Al Jolson Maxwell Maltz – Author of New Faces, New Futures Vickie F – Author’s first serious girlfriend Shelly – Another girlfriend of the author Vinnie – Early friend from Kosciusko Street and later Las Vegas contact Laura – Friend of author from college Marriage and Family class Dr. Jefferson Browder – World-renowned neurosurgeon and Chief of Department at SUNY Dr. G and Big Bertha – At Kings County Hospital – Big Bertha the blowup model for OB-GYN studies Marilyn G – Author’s girlfriend #5 Amnon Wein – Friend of author from medical school Lester Lee – Patient of the author, and Vice President of United Artists Records Barbara Jean Wallace – First wife of the author, a.k.a. B.J. Frank W – Professor of Radiology at Harvard University Hazel and Shorty Wallace – Grandparents of Barbara Jean Wallace Sammie Lyons– Sister of Hazel Wallace wife of Richard Lyons Richard Lyons – Vice President under J.P. Getty Edgar – First husband of Barbara Jean Wallace Marty Delman and Frank Wald – Classmates of the author in medical school Irving Penn – Witness at wedding of Kurt and Barbara Jean Harry Karl – Employer of Barbara Jean and husband of Debbie Reynolds 237

Making the Cut Juanita – Birth mother of Barbara Jean Juanita, Melody, Faith and Celia – Alter-egos of Barbara Jean Nina Simone – Singer and friend of Barbara Jean Christine Jorgensen – Friend of Nina Simone, well-known as a man who became a woman through transgender surgery Dr. Leon M. – Chief at Cedars Jean Wagner – Daughter of author Dr. Yonchar – Office where author moonlighted during residency Dr. Nat Hiatt of Brooklyn – Anatomist and expert researcher Dr. Felger – Canine physician Fred Sahar – One of the candidates at Cedars Dr. Perzik – Head and Neck Surgeon Dr. Gurdin – President of the Plastic Society Dr. Franklin Ashley – Plastic Surgeon Irving and Arlette – Godparents to Jean Wagner Dr. Kimble – The Chief at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City Dr. Savage – Psychiatrist in Oklahoma City Stacy Lynn Wagner – Second daughter of author Greta S. – Married to an anesthesiologist. Larry S. – Husband of Greta, and cousin to the Chief of Surgery at the Bronx VA Hospital, Herbert Conway – Director of NY Hospital, Cornell Dr. Jacques Dansereau – Surgeon, sculptor and painter Dr. Ashley – Former resident at NY Hospital Jacques Joseph – Jewish orthopedic surgeon John Williams – Ex-husband of Eva Gabor Dr. Walter Pories – Surgeon Dr. Melvin Yahr – World-famous neurologist at the New York Neurological Institute Dr. Richard Grossman – Contemporary of the author Kathie Kelley – Second wife of the author

238

Kurt J. Wagner
Steven and Sheri – Nephew and niece of Kathie Kelley – son and daughter of her sister Patti Joel Zisk – Chief resident at Cedars Harold Chalef – Holocaust survivor and stylist to the stars Diana – Referred by Vinnie, see Mr. 1250 chapter Mike Gavin – Producer Paula – Fiancée to Mike Gavin Helen Gould – An author Lily – Employee of author Kurt Wagner, who tried to blackmail him Ben Felton – Attorney and friend of author Joseph Wagner – Adopted son of author Joanne Meredith – Goddaughter of Maxwell Maltz and patient of the author Werner Erhard – (née Jack Rosenberg) EST guru Tom Gumas – Anesthesiologist and friend of author Andrew Ordon – Plastic surgeon, star on The Doctors Eddie – Architect and friend of author Frank Kern – Plastic Surgeon and associate of author Dr. Rudolf Eckstein – Psychiatrist Ross DeVean – Art expert Eduardo – Chauffeur for the Wagner family Gerald Imber – Protégée of author and plastic surgeon Alan Whicker – Whicker’s World BBC production Harvey Rader- Mechanic thief and murderer? Michael Ivan Luterhoff - Chauffeur of Sheik Al Fassi Peter Davis – Art dealer Barry Panter – Psychiatrist and friend of the Wagner family Arpad – great-uncle to author Vera – First cousin of author and plastic surgeon in San Fernando Valley Dr. John Moreland – Orthopedic surgeon

239

Making the Cut David Miller – One of Florida’s top psychoanalysts and good friend of the Wagner family – wife Michelle, children Emily and Amanda Matt Miller – Father of David Miller Jonathan Miller – Brother of David Miller Ted Eccles – Husband of Robin – involved in Electric Entertainment venture Shyla – Life partner of Jean, daughter of author, and co-mom to Juliette Donald Ochacher – Attorney and friend of Wagner family Jeffrey Phillips – Friend of Donald Ochacher Dr. Philipon – Orthopedic doctor Papa Kelley – Howard Kelley – father of Kathie Kelley Wagner Jason Pozner – Plastic Surgeon Murray Pozner – Father of Jason Pozner Margaret Neumann – Half-sister of author and daughter of Alfred Neumann Phyllis – Secretary to Alfred Neumann Dr. Ken Kushner – Anesthesiologist Juliette Wagner – Granddaughter of author, daughter of Jean and Shyla Dr. Sunil Patel – Oncologist Dr. Allyn Brizel – Associate in Florida Mark Berman – President of American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery

240

Kurt J. Wagner

ASTARR is a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1975 to support research and education of the public about regenerative and rejuvenative techniques. The purposes for which this corporation is formed are: 1) performing research and dispensing medical treatments using the newest emerging modalities relating to the various applications of regenerative and reconstructive techniques now available, then to disseminate the information acquired to the medical and related professions and to the general public as well;

2) providing educational opportunities for those individuals wishing to acquire more knowledge in our scientific and technical endeavors.

ASTARR American Society of Therapeutic and Aesthetic Rejuvenation and Regeneration

ASTARR.us

241

Making the Cut

THANKS

It’s not hard to know where to start. My wife, Kathleen, has been my savior in more than one hour of need and has kept me afloat through many a storm. Her sister Patti has been an invaluable shipmate in helping me find the words to describe my progress. Newer friends, but just as dear to my heart, are Stephan and Janus McCrea, without whom this work would have never have found a lifeline. Thank you, Jason Pozner, for bailing me out in these last years of looking for a safe shore. And a special hand to my lifelong friend Donald Ochacher, who has been my rudder in many hours of need. I hope you all will be proud.

242

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful