Olivia Goldsmith
(Filed: 17/01/2004)
 

Olivia Goldsmith, who has died in New York aged 54 after complications following plastic surgery, was the author of the best-selling novel The First Wives Club (1992), the tale of ex-wives wreaking revenge on their rich husbands; in 1996 it became a hit film starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler as the vengeful trio.

Olivia Goldsmith had been inspired to write the book when her own "extremely nasty" divorce left her broke and bitter. Her husband had come away from the marriage with an apartment in Manhattan, a beach house in the Hamptons and a Jaguar; she received $300,000 and spent the entire sum on lawyers. "I hate divorce lawyers and judges more than I ever did my ex," she said in 1996, adding, "no, that's not right. I hate them all, and I want them dead."

But although attracted by the idea of both murder and castration, she decided that her revenge would be sweeter (and more protracted) if she wrote a blockbuster book inspired by her experiences. Struck by an article in Fortune, a glossy financial magazine, describing how rich older businessmen swapped their ageing spouses for young, sleek and beautiful "trophy wives", she created Anna, Brenda and Elise, three well-heeled New York ladies who find themselves unceremoniously dumped by their ghastly husbands.

Unlike the murderous heroines of classical literature, however, Olivia Goldsmith's protagonists plot a more modern revenge and go for their menfolk where it will hurt most: "the ego and the wallet". After almost 500 pages of energetic plot twists which begin with a suicide and weave in alcoholism, obesity, handicapped children, lesbianism, trips to Japan and countless New York society balls, the three women triumph and their ex-husbands are left bankrupt, humiliated and abandoned.

After the book had been rejected a number of times, Olivia Goldsmith, a diminutive and slightly plump brunette, took to donning high heels and a long blonde wig to convince potential publishers that she was a marketable author. But it was not until three (female) Hollywood producers took an interest in the story that she eventually found a publisher.

The presentation of the book made it as sellable as possible. The cover featured a woman's hand, immaculately manicured, holding two golf balls in such a tight grip that they are beginning to crack; the author's biographical blurb included the line "Olivia Goldsmith is a first wife". It became a best-seller, described by one critic as "an exquisite tale of retribution".

The film, a crude, cruel and more slapstick version of the book, was equally successful, and although lacking in substance and subtlety, it had its moments, as when Bette Midler's character meets her husband's thin and beautiful mistress, and remarks that "the bulimia has finally paid off".

The success of The First Wives Club and subsequent books earned Olivia Goldsmith some $4.5 million in royalties and, having acquired houses, cars, money and even affairs with younger men, she vowed never to marry again. As Ivana Trump, making her cameo appearance as the patron of The First Wives Club, explained: "Don't get mad - get everything".

Olivia Goldsmith was born Randy Goldfield in New York in 1949. One of three daughters of a civil servant and a teacher, she grew up in Dumont, New Jersey, and attended New York University. Having changed her name to Justine Olivia Rendal, she became a successful businesswoman and was one of the first women to be a partner at the management consultant firm Booz Allen Hamilton before she married and decided to write children's books. But the marriage collapsed after five years and she found herself homeless and jobless.

After the success of The First Wives Club, she wrote Flavour of the Month (1993) and Fashionably Late (1994), satires on the film and fashion world respectively, before turning her pen on the publishing world with Bestseller (1996).

Subsequent publications included Marrying Mom (1996), the story of a widow whose children attempt to marry her off in order to get rid of her. Switcheroo was the tale of a wife who agrees to swap places with her husband's mistress.

Olivia Goldsmith described her books as "cabin-class Dickens", and with their brightly coloured covers and liberal doses of sex, money and glamour they definitely belonged to the "holiday read" genre. But her work had more edge, humour and satire than many of her peers and it was not without some merit; she never failed to include her own moral convictions and was outspoken about the issues close to her heart.

"It's a terrible shame that after all these years of feminism, women should be back in the place where they are regarded as expendable," she said when The First Wives Club was published. She also lamented an increasingly ageist and sexist society. "The stereotypes presented to women are more tyrannical than ever. While the median age of women in America is rising each year," she explained, "fashion models are becoming statistically younger and thinner than ever."

She was appalled that Hillary Clinton stood by her husband after the Monica Lewinsky affair. "I am desolated," she said, "that the American people didn't want a stronger image for Hillary Clinton, that her popularity went up as she was more victimised."

Charismatic and witty ("I make my living writing cheery little comedies about women who get shafted by men"), her only regret was that she had spent many of her child-bearing years dealing with her divorce and by the time she was free again, she was not able to conceive.

But she lavished affection on her cats and dogs and cited her favourite hobbies as "reading, sex and sleeping". "Living well," she once declared, echoing the words from The First Wives Club, "is the best revenge".

In a recent interview Olivia Goldsmith joked that after her death she would have cosmetic surgery so that her friends would be able to say that she "never looked better". She died on Thursday after falling into a coma following a face-lift operation.