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For better or worse, Houston introduced the wider world to such 20th-century marvels as Astroturf, enclosed shopping malls and restaurant fajitas, and each of those creations says something about the city. But none evokes the place quite so precisely as the silicone breast implant, invented here in 1962 by doctors Thomas Cronin and Ray Brauer. "Silicone City," Texas Monthly once dubbed us, home not only to a high-powered medical center, but also to the world's first publicly traded topless bar and to more than our share of glitzy socialites and rich lawyers. The boom-and-bust story of implants is a particularly Houston story, and it is perhaps best told through a particularly Houston character: plastic surgeon Franklin Rose.
More than seven years ago, when I first wrote about Rose ["Breast Man," February 13, 1992], he was busily defending silicone breast implants. Concerned that the implants might be linked to autoimmune disease, the Food and Drug Administration called for a moratorium. The agency's dark pronouncements were directly at odds with Rose's flashy practice: His Health and Fitness ads featured big-breasted, scantily clad models posed in front of luxury cars ("Auto by David Hobbs BMW/Surgical sculpture by Franklin A. Rose, M.D."), and his patients included a highly visible contingent of actresses, skin-mag models and topless dancers.
Rose was proud of his work -- so proud that he dated some of his knockout clients, displaying their gravity-defying gazongas at Rockets games and expensive restaurants. I interviewed one of those women: Lynn Johnson, then 22, measurements 38(D)-24-36. In 1989 she'd been named Penthouse's 20th Anniversary Pet. Rose had accompanied her to the magazine's celebratory dinner in New York, where they mingled with Donald Trump, Dr. Ruth and Malcolm Forbes. About a year later Rose's divorce from his wife, Cindi, became final. Perhaps because of their two children, the estranged couple remained on reasonably good terms.
Franklin Rose didn't like that 1992 story -- in fact, he threatened to sue the Press -- and he declined, politely, to be interviewed for this one. But like the breast implants he so loves, he's once again on the upswing and as always, is hard to ignore.
Back in '92 the silicone gel inside breast implants was suspected of causing women's immune systems to attack their own bodies. Symptoms were said to include fatigue, muscle pain, arthritis, swollen joints and numbness; some former implant patients had trouble speaking, and others couldn't walk. Houston plaintiff's lawyers -- most notably, the firm O'Quinn & Laminack -- turned those complaints into a cottage industry.
The lawsuits' chief targets were implant manufacturers, but Rose, like many plastic surgeons, was repeatedly named in suits by his former patients. If you type his name into the computer at the Harris County courthouse, the lists of breast-implant suits against him occupy screen after screen. In 1994 Rose was even named in his ex-wife's O'Quinn & Laminack suit against implant maker Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Generally the surgeons were dropped from the suits before the cases went to trial, and true to form, Cindi nonsuited Franklin in '95. In return, he dropped his standard-issue countersuit against her.
After the FDA voiced its misgivings about silicone implants, most cosmetic surgeons' practices fell off. Rose has maintained elsewhere that his practice never faltered. Rather than putting in new silicone implants, he stayed busy removing old ones, and often replacing them with new ones filled with saltwater.
In the past seven years breast implants have returned to respectability. Most scientists believe that silicone gel hasn't been conclusively linked to autoimmune diseases; and besides, the saltwater-filled implants have proven similarly popular. According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, the number of breast augmentation surgeries more than quadrupled between 1992 and 1998, rising to 132,278; the procedure now reigns as the second-most popular form of cosmetic surgery. (Liposuction ranks first.) And unlike face-lifts and tummy tucks, "augs" are a young woman's operation: 60 percent of patients are between 19 and 34.
Rose recently claimed that his practice has aged along with him, that as his prices have risen (he charges $6,500 to $7,500), younger customers can no longer afford him. "There was a time when I had practically all the dancers in the city in here," he recently told Texas Woman/Texas Man magazine, "but now my average patients are 28 to 60. Ten years ago, it was early 20s."
Other observers point to another reason why Rose no longer specializes in dancers: He and Cindi remarried in September '97 (the same month, coincidentally, that Cindi lost her case against Bristol-Myers Squibb). That second marriage, many say, killed the Bad Old Franklin and gave birth to the New Reformed Model.
The Roses reconciled, they told the Houston Chronicle, after Franklin dislocated his shoulder and called Cindi at midnight to pick him up from a hospital emergency room. "As you get older, what you really want is companionship," Franklin said. "What was so important to me at age 35 is less important to me at age 45. I can't pick up some 23-year-old girl at night and squire her around. I like sleep too much."
He elaborated on the same theme to Texas Woman/Texas Man. The second marriage would be different, he said: "No wandering." At parties, the issue still seems to be a sore spot between the couple. Recently, when a striking acquaintance ran into Franklin at a party, he introduced her to Cindi with great delicacy, careful to indicate that the woman wasn't a) a topless dancer or b) a former girlfriend.
(Speaking of which: Rose's old girlfriend, Penthouse Pet Lynn Johnson, was last seen as the 1998-99 spokesmodel for CarQuest, an auto distribution company.)
The Roses settled into a Mediterranean mansion in Memorial and began to seek a more prominent place in Houston society. They chose the Houston Grand Opera as their pet cause. They served as "platinum underwriters" of April's production of Mefistofele, which means they ponied up at least $25,000, a level of giving more often associated with corporations than individuals. And in late August the Roses hosted an HGO benefit at the brand-new Masraff's on Post Oak. A storm knocked out the restaurant's power, including the all-important a/c, leaving sweaty society types to fan themselves; a My Table columnist headlined his report "The Titanic only hit an iceberg." But financially the party was a huge success. Where HGO had expected to score only a few thousand dollars, the Roses' social arm-twisting yielded ten times that much. Both Franklin and Cindi now serve on the opera's board.
Houston society has always been somewhat open to anyone with cash on hand, and the Roses appear fairly often in the city's gossip columns and party pix. Cindi's evening gowns seem chosen to display her well-maintained bod; at 50, she appears significantly younger. But even in Houston, good looks and money can't buy respect. On the party scene, she's dogged by a joke: As Franklin's wife she has had every sort of cosmetic surgery possible. Next, let's hope she marries a brain surgeon.
It's probably not the image Cindi had hoped to cultivate; she prefers to describe herself as a sculptor or silhouette artist (that is, the kind who cuts figures out of paper). "Body Baron," November's Texas Woman/Texas Man profile of Franklin, offers a few more clues about how the Roses would like to be perceived. The anonymous author describes Franklin's new domesticity in such tiresome detail -- quiet family life! encouraging the kids to go into medicine! spending time with Puff, the family Maltese! -- that you can't help but wonder about the story's connection to the surgeon's full-page ad later in the magazine.
The friendly interviewer asked Rose a softball question: whether it was true that he served as the model for the David Schwimmer character in HBO's Breast Men. The movie, set in Houston, billed itself as "a true story, slightly augmented." Schwimmer's character is a breast implant doctor who loses his wife and moral bearings amid the temptations of sex and money. At one point, he snorts coke off a topless dancer's obviously augmented breast.
Rose might have maintained that he was nothing like the character, or that the movie was a gross exaggeration. But instead, his reply indicated mostly annoyance that the likeness wasn't flattering. "Well," he said, "the writer-producer called me and did some lengthy interviews and watched me operate but when we talked, I could see where it was going."
In that profile, you can see Bad Old Franklin at war with New Reformed Model, the swinging surgeon who consorted with porn-mag models versus the opera patron who spends quality time with his Maltese. Obviously Rose wants us to forget his past, or at least chalk it up to the youthful indiscretion of a man in his (ahem) thirties. The strategy seems iffy, but if even breast implants can worm their way back into public favor, can their most ardent supporter be far behind?
E-mail Lisa Gray at email@example.com.