High noon came early for plastic surgeon Daniel Baker. On the morning of Monday, Oct. 23, Dr. Baker, surgeon to the stars, strode right into the second-floor operating room of his Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat colleague, Alan Matarasso, wearing a scowl detectable through his surgical mask. His appearance came as something of an unwelcome surprise to Dr. Matarasso: “I’ve never walked into his operating room,” he sniffed.
Dr. Baker stood by and watched while Dr. Matarasso performed a relatively new procedure called the short-scar face-lift on the middle-aged woman on the operating table. It was a procedure that Dr. Baker felt he had a certain mastery of. He had performed about 750 of them in the last decade-around 500 since 1998-and had recently written two academic papers on the face-lift (which essentially reduces by half the size of a tell-tale scar that once stretched from the temple to behind the ear, all the way around to the side of the head, by making instead an almost undetectable incision in front of the ear) that were accepted for publication in the January-February issue of the Aesthetic Society Journal. The incision is not a new one-for years, younger ;patients would get a so-called mini-lift that used the same technique-but surgeons didn’t think they could work on problem necks with such a small cut. Dr. Baker was working on disputing that. He had been invited to present his findings at the 35th Annual Baker Gordon Symposium on Cosmetic Surgery, a plastic-surgery conference held in Miami in February (and co-hosted by plastic surgeon Thomas J. Baker, no relation to Daniel Baker). And although a handful of doctors around the United States had been working on the technique-notably, Joel Feldman from Boston, who had presented a paper on his version of the face-lift at the Aesthetic Society meeting last spring, and Gerald Imber, a Manhattan plastic surgeon who is well-known for performing a similar technique that he named “the LIFT”-Dr. Baker considered it common knowledge that he was pretty much the short-scar dude among the 50 or so plastic surgeons at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat.
So Dr. Baker had been shocked on that Monday morning, when colleagues who had been to the American Society of Plastic Surgery meeting in Los Angeles the week before reported to him that they had seen Dr. Matarasso reporting his findings on the short-scar face-lift without even a cursory tip of the hat to Dr. Baker. It bothered Dr. Baker to think that Dr. Matarasso had been assisted by the same group of residents and nurses that had watched him perform the procedure countless times.
“In medicine, we’re an open group and we do interchange ideas,” Dr. Baker said. “But normally we don’t have somebody stealing something that another guy’s been working on for a number of years and present it.” So Dr. Baker decided to do a little investigating himself.
In the operating room, Dr. Matarasso began to work on the woman’s SMAS, the layer of tissue that covers the deeper structures (such as nerves) in the cheek, while Dr. Baker, a nurse and an anesthesiologist looked on. “By the time I was on the SMAS, I got tense,” Dr. Matarasso recalled. “Everyone in the room could see it was getting very tense.”
He began sewing up the three-and-a-half- inch incision at the front of the left ear that he’d made before dissecting the skin from the woman’s face. “Is this how you do it?” Dr. Baker recalled him asking. The question infuriated Dr. Baker. “Alan, you know what I do,” he said as Dr. Matarasso stitched. “You know everybody’s been talking about what I’ve been doing for a couple of years. It’s exactly what I do.”
Then, according to Dr. Baker, Dr. Matarasso told him, “I presented this in Los Angeles and I gave you credit for it.” (Dr. Matarasso said he doesn’t remember saying that.) “Oh?” said Dr. Baker, as he turned and walked out of the operating room.
An ugly saga in the beauty business had just begun.
Dr. Baker and Dr. Matarasso are not just any plastic surgeons. Among cosmetic-surgery junkies-a disproportionate number of whom live on the Upper East Side and appear on the screens of multiplexes everywhere-both men have developed reputations as stars that equal their famous patients. Both make the kind of money that would put them in Tom Cruise’s tax bracket. Dr. Matarasso’s office at 1009 Park Avenue has a raft of Hollywood clients, though he refuses to name names. In plastic-surgery circles, Dr. Matarasso-who, at 47, is over a decade younger than Dr. Baker-is considered something of a press-generating, letter-to-the-editor-penning and academic-paper-writing juggernaut, perhaps best known for his work with abdominoplasty, or tummy-tucking. Dr. Baker, who also teaches on the faculty of New York University, has allegedly welcomed the likes of Barbara Walters, Sophia Loren and Courtney Love into his East 66th Street office. Since marrying socialite Nina Griscom in 1990, Dr. Baker- who is fit, soft-spoken and bears a passing resemblance to European playboy Thierry Roussel-has acquired a jet-setter profile of his own. And neither, they would both probably admit, suffers from a lack of ego or appetite for one-upsmanship. (“I have a C.V. that is far longer than his!” Dr. Matarasso interjected at one point. “I’ll go right on the line with that. It’s 50 pages long!” And according to Dr. Matarasso, when a phone conversation between the two became heated, Dr. Baker shouted: “You’re not competing with me! I don’t have any competition!”) So Dr. Baker’s battle with Dr. Matarasso over the short-scar face-lift-which is, depending on how you look at it, either a pissing match possibly born of pre-recession competition or an honest-to-goodness ethical dilemma-will not likely simmer down anytime soon.
Normally, nothing too scintillating happens at plastic-surgery conventions, and the 69th Scientific Meeting of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons at the Los Angeles Convention Center was shaping up to be no exception. It was an opportunity for doctors to take the required number of courses (such as “Rhinoplasty: I’m Drowning and All You Can Talk About Is the Color of the Water”) to keep their ASPS memberships current and maybe pick up a new laser for the office. On Sunday, Oct. 15, the first day of the meeting, Dr. Matarasso was invited, along with three other plastic surgeons, to appear on an hourlong panel called “Primary Face-Lift in the Older Patient,” moderated by well-known Dallas plastic surgeon Fritz Barton, who had been Dr. Baker’s chief resident at New York University in 1976.
“Panels aren’t usually the forum in which to present new information,” Dr. Barton said. “If you think you’ve got something really important, and it has enough volume and experience to be scrutinized, then you submit it as an abstract and … if it is felt that the abstract has sufficient merit, it’s allowed to be presented at the podium.” Dr. Matarasso hadn’t done that. So there was some degree of surprise among those who know Dr. Baker’s work when Dr. Matarasso stood and, after making some preliminary remarks about the characteristics of saggy faces, launched into his findings about the short-scar face-lift. He projected onto a screen behind him before-and-after shots of some of a series of 50 consecutive patients on whom he’d performed the short-scar face-lift since he began giving it to “all comers”-even the really old, jowly ones-in his New York practice in early May 2000. He cited only two other surgeons who were performing the operation, Dr. Feldman from Boston and Dr. Foad Nahai from Atlanta.
Sherrell Aston, the chairman of the plastic-surgery department at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat, was also present at the panel in Los Angeles, and he was a little surprised that Dr. Matarasso didn’t mention Dr. Baker’s name. “It was well-known at our hospital that Dr. Baker was using this technique,” he said. And another thing bothered Dr. Aston: “[Dr. Matarasso] said he was doing ‘all comers,’ which meant that he was using the technique on all of his patients, which according to fellows who work with him at the hospital is just not the way it is.” On the Monday after he returned to New York, Dr. Aston mentioned the snub to Dr. Baker, who then dashed over to visit Dr. Matarasso’s operating room. (For his part, Dr. Matarasso noted that perhaps Dr. Aston isn’t exactly a friendly witness: “Sherrell and I have not spoken in over 10 years,” he said. After finishing his fellowship at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat, Dr. Matarasso went to work in Dr. Aston’s office, a relationship that both men acknowledge ended on a sour note. Dr. Aston said only, “It was obvious that it would be better for both of us if he had his own place.”)
Later, Drs. Baker and Matarasso had a conversation that the former described as civilized. “He called me ranting and raving,” Dr. Matarasso countered. Dr. Baker said that he’d called Dr. Barton to find out what had been said during his presentation. “You told me in the operating room that you gave me credit at the Los Angeles meeting,” he remembers saying. “So you lied to me.”
“Dan, slow down a second now,” Dr. Matarasso said. “You and I have known each other for 15 years.”
They went back and forth a bit, and at some point in the conversation Dr. Matarasso mentioned that he should not be surprised, but that the following week his name would be mentioned alongside Gerald Imber’s in a New York magazine squib about the short-scar face-lift written by Beth Landman Keil. It didn’t help. “Look, Alan, I’m really disappointed,” Dr. Baker told him. “You’re a good surgeon, you’re successful, you’re busy. To do something extremely unethical and plagiaristic and hype this up … is totally unethical.”
In the weeks that followed, a few things happened that discouraged either man, as they say, from putting his best face forward. The New York article came out, trumpeting the fact that Dr. Matarasso had “presented the new method” in Los Angeles. Three days after they’d had their conversation, Dr. Matarasso’s office issued a press release that was sent to journalists over the PRNewswire trumpeting that Dr. Matarasso had “presented” his “new technique” in Los Angeles-which, to many, sounded as though the ASPS had actually invited him to talk about it. (Dr. Matarasso initially denied any knowledge of a press release, but then relented that “the girls in my office got excited” and sent it out. Later, Dr. Matarasso told The Observer he had tried to intercept the press release, “but she told me it was already sent.”) Dr. Matarasso and “his short-scar face-lift” were mentioned in a W magazine feature on the world’s best plastic surgeons. Then patients began coming into Dr. Baker’s office asking if he was capable of doing Dr. Matarasso’s technique.
Dr. Baker began talking about his beef-a lot. “He was making all these crazy phone calls all over New York,” Dr. Matarasso said. Strange stories began to circulate, such as the contention that for a while Dr. Matarasso, a Sephardic Jew, was telling people he was Italian. Friends of Dr. Matarasso were not shy about saying that Dr. Baker’s ire had more to do with personal troubles that he’d had last spring, which culminated in an embarrassing Page Six item claiming that he had considered committing suicide. The publicity, some claim, has cost him some business and social footing.
On Oct. 30, Dr. Baker sent a letter to Gerald Pitman, the features editor of the Aesthetic Society Journal-where he is publishing his short-scar face-lift papers and where Dr. Matarasso is also an editor-requesting confirmation that “Alan Matarasso will not be permitted to see or have access to the manuscript and illustrations until the completed Journal issue has been mailed.” Dr. Baker c.c.’d six prominent plastic surgeons and three ASJ editors.
At Dr. Baker’s suggestion, The Observer talked to Park Avenue plastic surgeon Michael Kane, who happens to rent space in Dr. Baker’s office. Dr. Kane said that while he was assisting Dr. Matarasso in his office in 1996, he showed him a then little-utilized way of injecting botulism toxin (Botox) into the neck, which he was using to prevent so-called turkey-necking. Dr. Kane said that Dr. Matarasso didn’t buy it. “He said, ‘Oh, no way. It can’t really work that well in the neck. The neck needs surgery,'” Dr. Kane recalled.
“He was like really against it, and I’m saying, ‘No, no, it really works for some people.'” At a plastic-surgery meeting about a year afterwards, Dr. Kane said he bumped into Dr. Matarasso. “Alan was on the schedule talking about injecting Botox in the neck,” he said. “He just presented it like he’d had this great idea.” (“That’s bullshit!” Dr. Matarasso countered, claiming that Dr. Kane had never scrubbed with him in his office, only in the hospital, and that his brother Seth, a dermatologist in California, had introduced him to the idea of injecting Botox into the neck. “I never had that conversation.”)
On Dec. 3-at about the time Dr. Matarasso was putting the finishing touches on a note he was going to send to Dr. Baker, both to apologize for not mentioning his name in Los Angeles and to express his hopes that, “in the spirit of the holidays,” the pair could put the issue behind them-New York Times writer Alex Witchell published a column about plastic-surgery consultant and author Wendy Lewis. (Dr. Matarasso wrote the foreword to Ms. Lewis’ book.) In the article, one of Ms. Lewis’ face-lift clients is quoted as saying, “Wendy suggested Dan Baker and Alan Matarasso, and I saw them both and liked them.” Mr. Witchell’s piece continues that the woman “chose Dr. Matarasso after he showed her a short-scar incision (a new face-lift method).” Dr. Matarasso said he had no idea the piece was coming out. “I was sick about it,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, because I knew that this was going to get him crazy.”
Though Dr. Matarasso didn’t seem like the sort who would back down easily, he did sound conciliatory. “I didn’t invent it,” he said of the short-scar face-lift. “I didn’t invent it even a little bit. I got it to work for me. If I could do it all over today, when I got up in the national meeting and I mentioned my two colleagues, Feldman and Nahai, I certainly would have mentioned Dan’s name.”
While Dr. Baker feels wounded and indignant, and Dr. Matarasso feels unjustly persecuted and a little bit sorry, one guy seemed to be getting an enormous kick out of it all. “I had written about this thing in my book, The Youth Corridor, before either of these guys even thought about it,” said a bemused Gerald Imber, father of the LIFT. He said he’d heard “all about” Dr. Matarasso’s performance in Los Angeles and the attendant stink it created. He said it prompted him to start digging out through his 1,500 LIFT procedures in order to prepare a paper of his own. He said he was doing it “pretty much for the same reason Dan Baker’s doing it: It’s at least disconcerting to see somebody steal your thunder.” But Dr. Imber, unlike his two competitors, wasn’t getting worked up. He was chuckling.
“Let them fight it out,” he said. “Who gives a shit? It’s too small an issue for them to get all exercised over this.” Dr. Imber didn’t seem to share either Dr. Baker’s seething distaste for Dr. Matarasso or Dr. Matarasso’s knack for attracting press. (Dr. Imber, unlike the other two doctors, has a press agent on the payroll and is unapologetic about it.) “Good for him,” Dr. Imber said, speaking of Dr. Matarasso. “As long as he doesn’t come into my waiting room and take my patients, what do I care?”