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"Liberace holds up his famous hands showing his many rings"

Liberace

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

-Mark Antony, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Beverly Hills cosmetic plastic surgeon Jack Startz, MD, specialized in facial cosmetic surgery and rose to prominence in the 1970s before bottoming out in the mid-1980s. Now, he’s on HBO.

Rob Lowe plays Dr. Startz in the HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra. The late Dr. Startz is significantly featured for performing cosmetic facial surgery on both Liberace and his male lover, played by Matt Damon. Michael Douglas plays Liberace, the grand showman.

I knew and worked with Dr. Startz and want to describe his past and particularly my relation to him.

Some have questioned if my brief professional association and stint of study with Dr. Startz somehow taints my reputation.

Because I gave him proper credit, along with other important teachers, in my book, SECRETS OF A BEVERLY HILLS COSMETIC SURGEON, a few may wish to somehow transfer Dr. Startz’s infamy to anybody who had any association with him. Sort of guilt by association, if you will. Unfortunately, Dr. Startz descended into alcohol, drugs and financial problems, and ultimately committed suicide in 1985.

Despite his later ruin, I count my working association with Jack Startz as one of the professional high points of my career due to his early history of talent.

In 1976, I was launching a career as a Beverly Hills facial cosmetic surgeon and needed affordable office space. By chance, my wife had met Dr. Startz; we later found we had a common educational experience; both of us had attended Northwestern University. Startz once said he was second in his class, a standing that took the highest order of studiousness and drive.

Jack Startz rented me a portion of his office, thus giving me an economical opportunity to house my embryonic practice. When I first became a subtenant in his Beverly Hills office on San Vicente Boulevard, I did not realize I had inadvertently dropped into a unique learning opportunity.

Previously, with excellent residency training at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois in Chicago, I nonetheless believed a young surgeon cannot learn too much. After the residency, I had a great expansion of  surgery skills as an Army surgeon in a U.S. Army teaching hospital that is part of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

After the service and already board-certified in head and neck surgery, I then pursued even more training in a Beverly Hills plastic surgery fellowship with Morey Parkes, MD, a faculty member at UC Irvine and a world-renowned facial cosmetic surgeon.

By chance, I fell into that important, albeit unofficial, second “fellowship” while working with Dr. Startz, an excellent surgeon with very innovative techniques.  I particularly benefited from his skill in deep chemical peeling to remove wrinkles. He also had a pharmacy degree, which explains his creativity and talent in non-surgical, chemical techniques of facial rejuvenation and wrinkle removal. Back at Northwestern, I had studied with Richard Ariagno, MD, one of Startz’s teachers and the doctor with whom Startz collaborated on the chemical skin peel.

Spending time with Jack greatly heightened my understanding and abilities in the field of non-surgical wrinkle removal, particularly the deep phenol chemical skin peel.

Another benefit befalling me was observing Startz’s technique for injecting non-surgical rhinoplasty, using the classic permanent filler, medical-grade liquid silicone.  Dr. Startz was a master of the method, having studied it in his visits to New York City, the home of the technique, now also known as injection rhinoplasty.

And then came Jack Startz’s downside and downfall:  After about 18 months in his office, I left that practice to set up my first independent practice. Several years later, I learned Dr. Startz had descended into the depths of alcohol and drug problems.

That’s the tie-in with the HBO biopic about Liberace, which apparently portrays Startz’s practice in the early 1980s. By that time, Dr. Startz was obviously having personal problems that would ultimately shatter his professional performance as a top cosmetic surgeon.

Later, Dr. Startz became unfortunately infamous for having injected large pools of liquid silicone into the face of a prominent realtor who later went public. It put Startz in a very bad light. But I can tell you that the better, younger, sober Jack Startz in the earlier phase of his practice would not have done those injections because it flew in the face of  the correct way to inject medical-grade liquid silicone, a product not intended for large-volume use in the cheeks. The only appropriate use is by micro-droplet injection.

I recognize that accomplished and often brilliant people may self-destruct.  In the medical world, we saw that with William Halsted, M.D., father of modern surgery at Johns Hopkins University who unfortunately was a cocaine addict.

So was a great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, M.D.  Often there is a thin line between brilliance and mental instability.

As Dr. Startz’s name and history are resurrected by Behind the Candelabra — despite Jack’s unraveling and poor professional conduct at his career’s end — I know that for many years he did extremely credible and accomplished work.

Despite his personal imperfections and professional failures, I am indebted to him for what I learned at his side. That, in turn, allowed me to bring to my patients techniques and skills from which they have benefited.

 

Showing 7 comments
  • Aureliagurl
    Reply

    This seems like a fair and honest assessment of Dr. Startz from a someone in a position to observe him. None of us are perfect and as stated, brilliance and talent does not make one exempt from problems and personal failure.

  • mary
    Reply

    Yes, in the late 70’s Dr.Startz gave me the most wonderful deep phenol face peel. It was a painful,
    complicated procedure with 10 days down time. It was worth it.

  • Carl F. Petty, Esq.
    Reply

    I commend you sir for pointing out to the world that Dr. Startz was indeed a gifted genius who helped others greatly before the disease of addiction took his career and life. Too often the good never gets mentioned or published….

  • Victoria
    Reply

    Dear Dr Kotler,

    I was married to Jack’s son Jeremy, who passed away in 2000. I just watched the movie and it brought up memories of Jeremy speaking about Jack.

    We used to visit Jack where he was put to rest , while Jeremy would speak about his life in great detail. Jeremy is with his dad, per his wishes, in the same resting place at Hillside.

    I just wanted to say thank-you on Jeremy’s behalf, for noting the innate talent Jack possessed, before addiction and misery destroyed him.

    Thank-you again and it would have made Jeremy happy, knowing that his father played a positive role in your early career.

    Kindly,

    Victoria

  • Connor
    Reply

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long while. Obviously there is a lot of interest in any characters associated with Liberace, with the recent movie release, and I think Dr. Startz is one of the most misunderstood. His story is an extremely human one that I think needs to be told more broadly.

    I’d love to do something with his story and would be greatly appreciative if the author and/or commenters would contact me at my email address.

    Thank you.

    -Connor

  • Alexis
    Reply

    How refreshing to read an honest character portrayal and to highlight the good things that Dr Startz did and not to jump on to the assassination bandwagon.
    Also for you to recognise the assistance and education you received and to value that and show your appreciation.
    I’m sorry to hear he had such a sad demise.
    You sound like a really decent person Dr Kotler or as we say in the UK ” a top man!

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