About the same time that America's affluent travelers became jet-setters, Brazil became better known for its plastic surgery than its coffee. Leading the charge was a compact dynamo named Ivo Pitanguy. During the seventies and eighties Pitanguy was everywhere, treating heads of state, Hollywood royalty, first ladies—whoever was of the moment. As a young plastic surgeon a generation or so his junior, I watched from afar as he recast our profession in his image. We were moving in- exorably into the public eye, and plastic surgery was coming out of the closet.
By all measure a visionary, the diminutive Pitanguy, who turned 80 this year, rose to iconic stature in Rio. Commander of a clinic staffed with numerous assistants and acolytes, he drew the wrinkling famous to his operating theater—and to a taste of his extravagant lifestyle. It was said that a visit to Ivo was a complete experience.
Yet for all his fame and accolades, Pitanguy seems proudest of the free clinic he heads at Santa Casa da Misericórdia general hospital in Rio. Here reconstructive and cosmetic surgery alike are made available to all at little to no charge. Indeed, it is said the whole city is queued up. The philosophy of beauty being one's right is a very Brazilian mind-set and one the good doctor frequently espouses. Even young surgeons benefit from his philanthropy, receiving a rare opportunity to cut their teeth at the master's table.
Pitanguy took his altruistic charge full force in 1961 after tending to victims of a circus tent fire. In the seventies he built a private island retreat in Angra dos Reis that to this day is considered a hot ticket for anyone who gets an invite. But according to Pitanguy, the island is primarily an ecological sanctuary. Named Ilha dos Porcos Grande, it's located in the Costa Esmeralda region on the southern coast of Rio.
"Angra's bay is one of the most beautiful areas in Brazil," says Pitanguy, "where blue sea meets dark green mountains that block the fierce southwestern wind."
The sanctuary is home to exotic birds such as saffron finches, rufous-bellied thrushes, banana quits, and green-winged saltators.
When detractors point to Pitan- guy's relentless self-promotion, he need only remind them that he has likely given back more than any of his colleagues. The attitude of other plastic surgeons has morphed from abject jealousy to overt reverence. And over the last four decades, the Man from Rio has become an international symbol with the rest of us riding his bow wave.
Some years ago one of Brazil's leading political figures accompanied his wife to my office. Why, I asked, had they traveled all the way to New York to see me when Doc-tor Pitanguy was at home in Rio? Without hesitation the gentleman said, "Because we do not want the whole world to know about this. Everyone knows him, and no one knows you." Deflated, I went about my business. I have never shared the secret with Doctor Pitanguy.