Out of the Corner: A Memoir
henever I found myself stuck in one of life’s big dips, I could count on my ever-loving mother’s familiar refrain, “In case of emergency, break nose.” And while she didn’t exactly say those words, the message was implied. So when I was still waitressing at twenty-five, unable to land the kind of parts I was auditioning for, she suggested, and not for the first time, that perhaps I should ask our family’s longtime dermatologist, Arnie Klein, for the names of the top nose-job docs in Hollywood. Arnie was the man, the crypt keeper of every star’s secret. I left his office with the numbers of three doctors handwritten on the back of his business card.
I went to the first consultation with my mother, always eager to offer her support. I had those butterflies from the promise of a silver bullet, the possibility that I could somehow look like a better version of myself, the version I saw in my head. But along with that nervous excitement was a soul-sickening dread.
We were ushered into the doctor’s lair by a waxen-faced, eerily pretty woman who spoke to me in the kind of hushed tones usually reserved for requesting sexual favors. The consultation would take place in what looked like a sumptuously designed living room, or a private bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Everything about the plush experience was curated to make you feel like the luckiest person in the world.
The surgeon, his starched white doctor’s coat buttoned up to his Hermès tie, made an entrance and wasted no time zeroing in on his plan of action. It would be “necessary” to “break the nose, reset it, shave down the bump, then define and minimize the nostrils.”
“What’s wrong with my nostrils?”
“People can see right into your nose.” He drove home his point with the corroborating evidence of his trusty vanity-sized three-sided mirror.
I guess I could see what he meant.
“But I kinda like my bump, ya know?” I looked to him to agree with me. How could he not? If someone likes something about themself, isn’t it somehow unethical for a plastic surgeon to disagree? “So, I was wondering…is there any way you could just ‘fine-tune’ it so I could be a little easier to cast, maybe a bit more photogenic? But you know, still look like me?”
He smiled ever so slightly. “Trust me. You won’t like the bump when it’s in a different context.”
I didn’t know what he meant by “a different context,” but I guessed he meant my bump wouldn’t work in the new landscape he was envisioning for my face. I felt myself fighting back tears. He stood up, a busy man on a tight schedule. “Well, that’s what I would do. I think you’d be very happy.” My two-hundred-dollar consultation was over.
The second doctor was more of the same.
Both times, I left shaken, and completely dismissed the way of the knife as preposterous and unsavory. While it was seemingly very effective for some people, it was not going to be my way. I tucked that business card into a small pocket in the back of my Filofax for the next few years.
I had always felt my nose needed protection, like a kid sister who regularly got bullied on the schoolyard. I was my nose’s keeper. It had survived my teens, when the other girls were modifying their profiles in time for their bat mitzvahs. I had been resolute, determined that it was my job to love myself as I was. By the time I was twenty-nine, I was a little long in the tooth to be still grappling with this inane issue. Plus, it was unfathomable, actually looking for trouble, to have a change of nose after becoming famous.
Oh, and, yeah, I had become really fucking famous.
After Dirty Dancing, I was America’s sweetheart, which you would think would be the key to unlocking all my hopes and dreams. Well, that’s what I had anticipated, too. But it didn’t go down that way. For one thing, there didn’t seem to be a surplus of parts for actresses who looked like me. My so-called “problem” wasn’t really a problem for me, but since it seemed to be a problem for other people, and it didn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, by default, it became my problem. It was as plain as the nose on my face.
So a few years after I’d met those first two doctors, I finally said uncle and did the thing I’d been resisting for a good part of my life. I went to see the third doctor. The granddaddy of nose jobs. He was a pioneer, seminal in his field, wrote the book on rhinoplasty. I mean, he literally wrote the definitive two-volume textbook, the bible used by every surgeon doing nose jobs. This guy was all nose all the time. Unlike other plastic surgeons, he didn’t mess with boob jobs or face-lifts. He was known for reconstructive surgery, after people had been in disfiguring accidents or as a last resort after multiple failed nose jobs. He was not a demolition man but more of a builder, and based on that, I liked him already.
His office was noticeably lacking in decor. It wasn’t jazzy, it was like a real medical doctor’s office, more dentist than spa, a departure from those other plastic surgeons’ offices in Beverly Hills. Everything about the place was no-frills. His office staff didn’t look like call girls; they looked like real nurses, and the good doctor looked like a nondescript father figure. I was unfamiliar with this kind of man. He had no personal style. His affect, very dry and supremely confident. He was a real doctor doctor. When I walked in the room, he didn’t see an actress. All I was to him was a nose. A nose that demanded his attention.
Not a huge fan of having my nose stared at, but that’s what these guys do. For these hammers, every nose is a nail. They watch it move. They want to see it in action. Then they get out their nasal speculum to check under the hood and examine your septum. Of course, mine was extremely deviated. So I had that going for me, a legitimizing medical condition.
Right out of the gate I wanted to be clear about what I had come for. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. “I actually really like how I look. I know I’m not the prettiest girl, but I’m pretty enough for my purposes, and what I would want you to do is just fine-tune my nose, not change it. Leave the bump. Leave my look intact but make it so that I can smile and not have my nose smush down flat.
“You see, Doctor,” I went on, with a bit of a wink, “I was in a little movie called Dirty Dancing,” because it seemed that he really didn’t know who I was. It’s not that I was expecting a parade or anything, but there was a distinct lack of energy compared to what I had become accustomed to, and only recently, mind you. This was my new reality. My fame still had the dealer plates.
“Oh yeah, I saw that movie,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I wonder why that girl didn’t do her nose?’ ”
Oof! But overall, for me this surgeon’s cluelessness was a good thing. It gave him gravitas. Doctors in Hollywood tend to fawn over famous people, which has always made me feel a tad squirrely. Like, you save lives for a living, have some self-respect.
“Well, trust me. I’m pretty well established as I look today.”
But he really didn’t seem to be hearing anything I was saying. He was transfixed by assessing the challenge ahead.
Once he’d basically gathered all the information he needed, he moved over to sit on the front edge of his desk. “Look at this.” He leaned in toward me. “The problem here is, you have no tip at all.” His blunt, very clean thumb pushed up against where the tip of my nose would have been, had I been born with one. “We would have to build you a tip, which would act as a tent pole to hold up the end of your nose. Also, your septum is so severely deviated I’m surprised you can breathe at all. We’ll have to completely reconstruct the interior of your nose, but you’ll be amazed, because right now you’re only breathing at twenty percent capacity.”
I felt dizzy as I tried to make sense of how I had gotten this far in life with no tip whatsoever, breathing through airways narrow as cocktail stirrers. I had no tip! Why had nobody else said that to me? That was the issue. Most people who have their noses done have a lot of material to work with, but I had a deficit. Most people are looking to minimize what they have; theirs are your garden-variety, business-as-usual nose jobs. But building up the nose? Sold! To the oxygen-deprived chick with no tip.
It was clear this was the next right indicated action. I said to the good doctor, “I actually have a very particular preference. I have a thing about tiny noses, a real, I’m sorry to say, disdain for nose jobs. The only reason I’m even in your office is because I need to broaden my range so I can get work. So that I can, hopefully, someday be cast as something…other than a Jew.”
He stood and said, “Okay, so next time I see you, bring in photos of noses that you like.”
Did I dare even dream that it might be possible to have a nose I could forget about? “So, is that something you think you can do?” I asked.
He looked at me like, “Obviously I can. I wrote the book. I could build you a tip with my eyes closed.”
I knew I was an outlier, because there is an unspoken cultural agreement about what is considered beautiful, and a plastic surgeon is expected to facilitate this groupthink. With noses, like boobs, there is this very specific idea of what they are “supposed to” look like at their best. There’s an agreed-upon symmetry. A formula, a balancing act of facial features, in which noses never steal the spotlight. Most people go to a plastic surgeon to reap the benefits of such an approach, and fulfilling that popular expectation is the plastic surgeon’s bread and butter.
I could tell by the almost quizzical look on his face that I had made a rare request. I was asking him, imploring him, to color outside the lines, because I was almost thirty and had spent much of my adult life trying to love and accept myself as I was. And I was actually making strides. So going under the knife felt dangerously close to an admission of defeat. To capitulate after so many years of resolve felt like a loss of sorts, but I was willing to split the difference.
And he did it. He did exactly as I wished. He expertly sculpted a tip with repurposed bits and bobs of my septum. Ultimately, my nose was actually bigger, which was fine by me. I was beyond grateful.
This man changed my life. He answered my prayers. I loved him. (I’ve always had a soft spot for a savior. Selfishly, I find that unmitigated, unrelenting suffering is not my jam, and I love nothing more than for somebody else to swoop on in and solve my problems.) Oh, I had done such a good job finding a surgeon. I had done the impossible: I had gotten the job done with my integrity intact, and my soul seemingly unscathed. I hadn’t cut off my nose to spite my face. It was like a magic trick, and no one was the wiser. I was so relieved. I couldn’t believe I’d actually pulled it off. I had long been on a mission, which was now accomplished. I had been relentlessly specific, unflinching.
I don’t think I was ever as scared as I was going in for that surgery, but my doctor so successfully made good on his promise in giving me exactly what I had asked for that my trust was complete. I had never trusted a doctor more. He was my hero. My nose still reigned supreme, taking up a bit more real estate than it had previously. If it erred on the side of bigger, it was better than the alternative.
After this brilliant surgeon had his way with my nose, I finally made real money for the very first time in my life. I started working nonstop, also for the first time in my life. It seemed that all I had ever been missing was the tip of my nose. Who knew?
I’d signed with Creative Artists Agency and immediately started booking TV movie gigs, and then I was cast as the female lead in Wind, a big-budget movie directed by Carroll Ballard, the visionary behind The Black Stallion, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It was like a dream. And if that wasn’t enough, I was playing the first woman ever to sail in the America’s Cup, something no woman had yet done in real life. I wore cable-knit sweaters; the wind whipped my sun-bleached curls. Let me just say, she was not Jewish. We shot on a giant racing sailboat—in Australia, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. After shooting for six months out at sea, naturally, I was tan. Very, very tan.
One day, John Toll, the brilliant cinematographer, came up to me and said, “So I’ve been meaning to ask you about something. I’m noticing, there is this little white—I don’t know, it looks like a bump, on the end of your nose.”
He stared at the tip of my nose, a little too close for comfort, and then moved in even closer, as if studying a rare butterfly he was trying to name. “What is that?” As soon as he said it, I knew what he was talking about. I’d been telling myself that it was probably nothing anyone but me would ever notice. There was this tiny corner of cartilage close to the surface protruding from the tip of my nose.
The doctor had informed me my nose would, “just look better and better as the swelling subsided, but it would take about a year to see the final result.” As predicted, around the year anniversary of my new proboscis, this thing appeared. This minuscule irregularity, looking like a tiny bit of white knuckle making itself known, poking against and contrasting with my tanned skin.
I had this sinking feeling; a dread came over me. I thought I had closed the book on this chapter. Was it possible that it was not over?
At the end of six months, production on Wind went on hiatus. The filmmaker was going to edit the footage they had, then we would reconvene to shoot whatever additional scenes might be necessary.
I came back from location feeling great. I loved this job. I loved my new life. And I had made enough money to buy my first home. A charming Spanish 1920s bungalow in Benedict Canyon. I even had the money to buy myself a Mercedes. I was thirty.
I called my trusty doctor to report my concern over this new development. He sounded unfazed and reassured me, “Sure, that’s no problem. Happens all the time. Just come on in and let me have a look.”
I was so stoked. I couldn’t wait to see his face when I told him about all the great stuff that had been happening over the past year, eager to share my success because I genuinely felt I couldn’t have done it without him. I wanted to take a victory lap with him. We were a great team.
When I saw him, I made sure he knew how grateful I was. He had been a key player in changing the landscape of my life, altering my destiny. He took a beat to bask in my exuberant appreciation, and beamed while surveying the finished product, which had settled in, as promised.
He initially seemed pleased with his work, but it took him no time to home in on the real purpose for my visit.
“Oh yeah. This is nothing to worry about. As I told you, once the swelling goes down sometimes a little bit of the graft might need to be smoothed out. It’s very small, but we can see it because your skin is particularly thin there. We just need to go in and shave down that little bit.”
“What do you mean ‘go in’?”
“Just a follow-up, to fine-tune the original.”
I was trying to wrap my head around what “going in” might entail. He said, “The tip is really quite bulky.”
“Oh no. No, no. I love it.”
“I know, I know. You like a prominent nose. But your other features are so delicate. If I refined it a little, it would be more in balance with the rest of your face—”
I cut him off as quickly as I could without being rude. “Oh, I can’t do that. I just did this big movie where I’m the female lead. I can’t look any different.”
“Fine. If that’s what you want. But we do have to take care of that. You can’t just leave it there.”
“The movie is not actually finished. They still are going to be shooting some additional footage, not exactly sure when, but soon, and I can’t show up even the tiniest bit swollen.”
“Then let’s get you in right away. I can do it for you outpatient at our surgery center in Beverly Hills.”
This was a new wrinkle. I’d assumed this tiny bit of cartilage was something so minor he could take care of it in the office. Like a mole removal. “I thought you could just maybe—inject it or something?”
He could see my trepidation about going under the knife again, but tried to assuage my fears by explaining, “I have to put you under because I have to go into your nose. Schedule it with my nurse and we’ll take care of it this week. I’m not going to charge you. Great to see you doing so well.”
A day or two later, I went to the private surgery center on Brighton Way in Beverly Hills with my mother, ever my copilot in these matters. I was wheeled into the frosty, brightly lit OR in my adorable regulation hospital gown and little paper shower cap. Having survived and triumphed after betting the farm the year before, I couldn’t have felt more at ease and trusting of this gifted doctor.
He came over to the gurney in his scrubs and greeted me warmly, like we were old pals, his hand on my shoulder. “Good morning, sunshine. How you doing? Are you ready?”
I looked into his kind, paternal eyes. “Absolutely. Feeling good. Just shivering because it’s frrreezing in here!”
“Let’s get her a nice warm blanket. So, what kind of music do you like?” He was looking down at me, unsubtly focused on one feature in particular.
“This is your house, Doc. Play whatever you like.”
“Just to be sure, before we send you off to dreamland, you’re happy with your nose, right? As it is?”
“Uh. Yeah. I told you. It’s great. Couldn’t be happier.”
“Okay then. Well, you have a good sleep now.”
The anesthesiologist started the drip, and I remember loving the feeling of “eight” in the countdown from ten. Wanting to languish in that cocoon forever, suspended in a blissful opiate high, like nothing bad could ever happen to me.
Coming to, post-op in the recovery room, I was lolling in the hazy twilight, that newly out-of-anesthesia yummy feeling where all is right with the world. The doctor came over to me. “It went very well.” His confidence made me feel confident. I was so grateful that it was finally done. I would never have to think about my nose again.
“Just don’t be alarmed when we take the bandages off. Initially, it might look a bit high because of how I taped it, but don’t worry, it’ll drop. I’ll see you in a week.”
I remember thinking, “He’s so nice. I looove him. Wait! What’s he talking about? What’s ‘high’ and why is it ‘dropping’? Aww, he’s the best.”
My mom had been in the waiting room, and when I was lucid enough, she and the nice nurse helped me put my clothes back on. I don’t remember whether I walked out or was pushed in a wheelchair, but I distinctly remember there was this smoked-mirror paneling in the elevator. And I noticed, in the mottled unflattering light, some discoloration around the perimeter of my bandage. I said, “What’s that? Oh my god, Mom. Look.”
“Honey, relax. He was working in there; bleeding is completely normal. I had black eyes after my nose job. Everyone does.”
“Well, I didn’t last time.”
A week later, my friend Pamela took me to my doctor’s appointment to get my bandage removed. First, the cast comes off. There’s this sensation of intense suction pulling on your nose, which might as well be attached to your brain, being brain adjacent. A nose in this state is the very definition of tender—the shock of the sudden exposure is like removing the protective shell off a turtle’s back.
The next order of business is the internal unpacking of the nose. The dried blood has cemented a bounty of bandages to those delicate mucous membranes lining the narrow tunnels of your nose. In my memory, there were also these very thin straws placed up the center of the packing, so you could breathe, but just barely.
As the nurse is tugging at the stiffened gauze, it’s like a clown car of bloody paper products. You can’t believe how much they’ve shoved up there. How in the world did they get seven miles of mesh up my nose? She’s like a magician pulling at the never-ending scarf, unearthing untold lengths. I couldn’t decide if this sensation was one of the best or one of the worst feelings I’d ever experienced. But I had been here before, a year ago. I just never expected to be here again.
When the nurse had finished cleaning me up, she cheerfully handed me a mirror. “Looks great. The doctor will be with you shortly.”
I almost didn’t know what I was looking at. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. As my adrenaline was cresting, I was sliding down a slo-mo well of calm. I knew something bad had happened. I just didn’t know what it was.
Pamela was there, sitting on the extra chair intended for the patient’s plus-one, a few feet away. Was she seeing what I was seeing? What was it I was looking at? Something odd. Distorted. The way the nose was oriented on my face was all wrong. Twin unfamiliar holes staring back at me. Are those my nostrils? This nose looked truncated or dwarfed. Something about the proportion was off. The placement. I wasn’t expecting this. I’d had invested so much in it not being what it was now. It was like I was on mushrooms, having a bad hallucinogenic trip.
In the distance I could faintly make out Pamela’s sweet voice trying to reassure me. “It’s okay. Your doctor will be here any minute. Just wait.” She was trying to do what a good friend does, which was to stay calm.
The doctor came in. He couldn’t have been more upbeat. Cheerfully soaping up his hands in the sink, happy to see me. Jolly. He sat down on the rolling stool and wheeled over until our knees were almost touching. His gaze trained on my nose, carefully checking out his work. So painful I couldn’t help but wince with every touch.
I blurted out, “It looks really different. I don’t get it.”
“Well, I told you it’s going to drop. You’re still really swollen. It’s only been a week.”
“But wait, I don’t get it. What happened? Why do I look so…different?”
He coolly studied my face, puzzling it out. “You know. You really do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dramatic change in anyone before.”
This isn’t happening. I can only hope to God this is just me freaking the fuck out, being exceedingly neurotic, panicking, overreacting. Maybe it is just that swollen and will go back to the way it was before.
“It looks good. It really fits your face,” he said, admiring the anatomy of my nose from every angle. He asked the nurse to hand him a roll of Scotch tape and he proceeded to demonstrate my homework assignment. He wanted me to place a piece of tape across the end of my nose from cheek to cheek. This primitive technique was supposed to “train” the tip to drop and encourage a sexy little indentation just north of the graft. The doctor told me to tape my nose like this every night, “or just whenever you think of it when you’re home alone. You’ll see. It’s very, very swollen still. Just give it a couple of weeks.”
This dream was getting exponentially weirder. And knowing me, I was probably crying, or trying very hard not to, because it really hurt my nose to cry.
A few weeks later, I was invited to attend an event at the Director’s Guild honoring the director and actress Lee Grant. For the first time since Dirty Dancing opened, as I walked the gauntlet of paparazzi, the photographers looked right through me, their cameras hanging slack down by their sides, their necks craning to grab a shot of the next star coming in. I walked the endless length of the red carpet, all the way into the theater, without anyone so much as looking at me.
Once I’d settled into my seat, I spotted Michael Douglas in the row in front of me, so I leaned forward over his shoulder to say hello. I’d recently bonded with him on a ten-hour plane ride home from London, where we’d sat side by side talking, our faces so close we could feel each other’s breath.
He turned around to see who was cooing in his ear and stared back at me blankly.
“It’s Jennifer. Jennifer Grey?”
In the days and weeks that followed, I’d walk into Kings Road Cafe on Beverly Boulevard, a place I’d been going to for years, and the waiters looked at me like a stranger. I would see the same panicky look on the faces of old friends, even an old boyfriend or two, family friends, everyone. The look that says, “Who the fuck are you, and why are you talking to me like you know me?” I felt like Emily in the third act of Our Town, or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The first time I saw my father after this latest development, I went to his rental house in West Hollywood for dinner. He hadn’t seen me because he’d been out of town, but I’d been talking to him on the phone about how freaked out I was. I was looking forward to him reassuring me that it wasn’t so bad. What I really was hoping to hear, of course, was that I looked beautiful. As I walked in the door, I tried to read his face, but it gave nothing away. He volunteered nothing about my appearance. After ten minutes of predinner small talk, I finally got up the nerve to ask him point blank, “So, what do you think?” He said, “I think it would probably be best if you just didn’t go out in public for a while.”
In the world’s eyes, I was no longer me. I had unwittingly joined the Witness Protection Program. And if that wasn’t bad enough, soon I would be due up at Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa Valley estate to shoot additional scenes for Wind.
Pacing the length of my beautiful green kitchen in Benedict Canyon, I made the dreaded call to my director, Carroll Ballard, to warn him of the recent development. “Listen, we got a problem. I had a minor procedure that has had some unexpected complications, and it might be fine by the time I get there. I just wanted you to know what’s up. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. I’m super freaked out but I’m hoping it’s all gonna be fine.”
I arrived in Napa a few weeks later, wearing a “funny nose and glasses” to greet everyone. After the big reveal, I said, “I know. This is weird, right? I don’t know how this happened. I really don’t. But I am so unbelievably sorry. Just tell me what I can do. How can I fix this?”
They ended up having to shoot me through mirrors, from a distance, scrambling to make it work. But it didn’t work. When the movie came out, in the press, Carroll Ballard declared my botched nose job the reason for the movie’s commercial and critical failure.
I knew how much shit people were talking behind my back, about how I represented everything silly and vain and tragic in show business. I felt so much shame about finding myself in this surreal position. People just assumed I never liked how I looked, or that my “dysmorphia” was in full bloom, or that I had become addicted to the knife. To the outside world, this imagined compulsion to eradicate my defining facial feature became a cautionary tale, a punch line.
It seemed that I had committed an unforgivable crime: willfully stripping away the only thing that made me special.
For years after my nose’s surgical “fine-tuning,” I will remain in this purgatory, unrecognized and unseen. I no longer look like myself. I am unable to get work. Strangers come up to me in grocery stores and conspiratorially whisper in my ear, “I still think you look pretty. I know everyone else doesn’t, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.” Holding a stalk of celery or a carton of milk, I look back into their eyes, unsure how to respond. “I mean, of course I liked you better back then,” they add. “But you still look nice.”
I am as I was at the beginning, not a whole person but a nose. There is no rest of me worth knowing. Overnight, I lose my identity and my career. Eventually, this will be one of the single best things that ever happens to me. But I don’t know that yet. I found myself at the entrance of the cave I most feared to enter.
“Oh, Jennifer Grey, like the actress,” says the woman checking me in at the airline counter one afternoon.
“Well, actually it is me,” I tell her with a small smile.
“No, it’s not,” she says, like I’m trying to get away with something.
“Well, actually, it is me,” I tell her.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
“Yes, it is. That’s me,” I lob back. “See my driver’s license?”
She studies my ID, puts it down, and glares accusingly at me over the counter. “I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a dozen times,” she says. Her words cut like a knife. “I know Jennifer Grey. And you are not her.”
Chapter 1: Life Is a Cabaret
Chapter 2: Who Jew You Think You Are?
Chapter 3: Keep Care of Me
Chapter 4: Spin the Bottle
Chapter 5: “Interesting”
Chapter 6: August 9, 1974
Chapter 7: Gypsies, Tramps, and Sleaze
Chapter 8: Good Headshot
Chapter 9: I Started with Men
Chapter 10: Acting “As If”
Chapter 11: When My Baby Goes to Rio
Chapter 12: Reasons to Be Cheerful
Chapter 13: The Time of My Life
Chapter 14: Back at the Ranch, a Triptych
Chapter 15: Rough Cut
Chapter 16: Ireland
Chapter 17: The Premiere
Chapter 18: Mrs. Broderdepp
Chapter 19: Heeeere’s Jenny!
Chapter 20: Baby Love
Chapter 21: Dancing with the Scars
Chapter 22: Unbridled
About the Author
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|Epub||May 9, 2022|
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