Face Time

Today a woman came to Dr. John A. Grossman to discuss getting her eyes done. Since Grossman is widely considered the finest cosmetic surgeon in Denver -- and arguably also in Beverly Hills, where he keeps an office -- she assumed she was in the right hands.

"I looked at her and saw right away that it was a brow problem," Grossman remembers. "Her brow was too low. I told her, 'Whacking off your eyelids is not the right thing.'"

The woman told the doctor it was. She insisted.

"I said, 'No, you wouldn't be happy. And I wouldn't be happy.'"

The woman left undecided. Grossman moved on to a schedule full of consultations.

"I have more than enough patients," he says. "I am not available to anyone, for any reason. Perhaps she'll think over what I said, because I won't do what won't work. I'm putting my Picasso on my work, my Monet."

Grossman enjoys art. He works surrounded by an extensive, eclectic collection of it. Across an expanse of conference table that he chose for its particular wood grain is a surrealist painting of a shooting target riddled with bullets, a grainy trompe l'oeil Polaroid taped against it. The Ken Bunn sculpture just behind him is completely realistic. Grossman likes to be around the creative work of others, and he can afford the best. After 27 years in practice, he often refers to himself as "a sculptor in the flesh."

Dolly Parton revels in the fact that she found Grossman's work on her breasts "an uplifting experience" and his ass job an example of true genius. When she lifts that ass from the sofa in his calm, Oriental-influenced VIP waiting room, her place is usually taken by a well-known supermodel, actor or socialite -- all of whom, unlike Dolly, prefer to remain anonymous.

So Grossman's work usually speaks for itself.

But first, his office does the talking.

Assuming you want privacy, it's as secure as an interrogation room at Quantico. Each waiting room suggests calm perfection supported by a bottomless wallet. The atmosphere is deeply sophisticated.

You look at the Salvador Dalí tapestry, an assortment of ceramic Xs, an ironic old-timey advertisement for Prosthetic Sally, Queen of Massage, and a photorealist painting of a movie theater in downtown Detroit. There are giant palm fronds in pots the size of small hot tubs, and three frosted-glass doors with no handles leading to the interior. The sculpture of a pensive ballet dancer at a barre has a perfect butt and legs, as you might expect, and scrawny arms and shoulders, which you might not.

Grossman is very clear about what he thinks looks good.

"This field was one of the few terrific decisions I've made," Grossman says, sounding every bit like a man who has made one terrific decision after another. "It's my good fortune to have settled on a field that allows me to amalgamate art and science."

Grossman initially wanted to specialize in pediatric surgery, but after his first day as an intern, he changed his mind, having found the experience "veterinary," he says.

"These poor creatures can't tell me anything," he remembers telling his wife. "I can't do it. If I have to see another child with leukemia, I'll shoot myself."

At the start of his residency at Harvard -- after undergraduate work at Princeton -- Grossman considered plastic surgeons to be "nothing but skin movers." But gradually, plastic surgery came to be his calling. "A gunshot wound to the abdomen, facial surgery, the reconstruction of hands, transsexual surgery. It was endlessly interesting, and you could make a visual difference," he recalls. "When you repair organs, people thank you for taking away the pain, but they are not visibly better."

And Grossman is always going for better with his practice, which he refers to as "aesthetic surgery," sometimes "psycho-surgery."

"People would suggest that it's glorified cosmetology," he says. "That is ludicrous and ridiculous. If you want to do it well, that's all you should do. Is it all about yanking skin tight on an aging face, or is there more to it? There's always more to it.

"An artist has a blank canvas," he adds, with a touch of envy. "I don't. A human being is not a blank canvas, and you actually can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. This morning I saw a 260-pound young woman who wanted to look as good as she could look. And that's fine, but the last thing I would want her to think is that she can look perfect."

And what defines perfection?

"It's entirely personal," Grossman responds. "There's a very famous model who's a patient of mine. I look at her a lot. She's probably as close to perfect as you can get, and it doesn't do a thing for me. But there's no question that I have among my patients actors and actresses who are so attractive as to take my breath away. I find myself staring. When they're asleep, of course. Otherwise it wouldn't be appropriate."

Pamela Hill, the registered nurse who runs Facial Aesthetics, the skin-care business associated with Grossman's office, also happens to be his wife. "I had been kind of a Kelly Girl of OR nurses, and that's where I met him," she says. "He likes to play a lot of James Brown when he's working. A lot of 'I Feel Good.' I kept getting called back."

Hill's office is elegant but lacking her husband's artistic obsession. "He gets pretty personal," she says. "There are pieces that make perfect sense for someone of his profession, and then there's that Prosthetic Sally. Or that bare breast in his office, with the drops of water on it. I was a little taken aback by that. Either that picture is art, or it's really gross. I can't decide."

Hill had received a few aesthetic adjustments from Grossman before he became her husband. But now that they're married, it wouldn't be right. Instead, she'd go to an esteemed colleague. But the thing is, she'd go.

"More and more people do, you know," she says, "and not just from the higher income levels. A credit card makes all the difference. Plus, there's this knowledge that since you can fix anything you don't like, why wouldn't you?"

"I had a big pile of fat on my stomach," offers one customer, a 33-year-old woman who recently had liposuction and a tummy tuck. "I worked out and it didn't go away, and I didn't want to live like that, so I went to Dr. Grossman, and I loved his work."

In order to give her a lean stomach, Grossman removed over seventeen inches of skin in a five-and-a-half-hour operation that the patient remembers for "horrible pain," she says. "Worse than having nine-pound babies without drugs, and I should know."

She's in no hurry for any additional work. "My nose is big, but I don't want a new one," she points out. "I'm still a size twelve, and I'll never be little, and I don't care. I just did not want that pile of fat anymore. He's an artist. Everyone knows that."


"Well, he charges double, if not more," she says. "And look at that office. He's got sort of a manner. Just call it confident. He does what he needs to do and gets out. He knows how important he is. But I would go to him again and no one else.

"I don't know anything about other doctors," she adds. "I don't need to."

Having discussed beauty, art and whether parents should give teenagers new thighs as a graduation present -- probably not, because it "borders on the unethical" -- Dr. Grossman, looking youthful and fit (he has had no surgery to accomplish this -- yet), now turns to the topic that tends to rise to the surface in a place where looks, necessarily, are everything.

"Vanity is overblown," he says. "It has such negative connotations -- that you're self-consumed to the exclusion of all the starving people in the world. Well, gee, then, don't have dessert, because there are others out there who could make better use of the calories.

"A psychologist would tell you," he concludes. "A reasonable level of self-interest is quite appropriate."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff