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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

1950s Face Peel Inventor Hit Legal Wrinkles

October 17, 1999|Cecilia Rasmussen

Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon may have searched in vain for the fabled Fountain of Youth, but Cora Galenti--good Angeleno that she was--knew the thing to do was to promote it into being.

In the postwar era, Galenti built a Hollywood-based skin care company and spa, primarily as a pioneer of so-called deep chemical face peels. It may not have been the Fountain of Youth, but it was a genuine pot of gold--at least until it ran afoul of the law.

Galenti defied the medical establishment with her "secret" recipe for "facial rejuvenation," guaranteed to take 20 to 40 years off wrinkled faces. Mysterious though it was, the peel quickly became the fastest-growing nonsurgical procedure of the 1950s.

It was an unregulated field until a group of physicians managed to obtain Galenti's formula and endorsed it as a medical rather than cosmetic procedure--a step that set in motion events that put the enterprising immigrant out of business and into jail.

She was born in a dusty Sicilian village near Catania in 1898, and grew up on the streets of Brooklyn as a saloonkeeper's daughter. Later, she served as an apprentice in her mother's fashion design company, then worked for a prominent Chicago dress designer and for Paramount and 20th Century Fox studios in Hollywood, where Galenti draped and swathed a series of glamorous stars. Nearing 50 and suddenly preoccupied with her own appearance, Galenti went to work for Antoinette la Gasse, who had clandestinely ministered to the facial wrinkles of fading movie stars since her arrest for practicing medicine without a license in 1939.

When La Gasse died of cancer in 1952, she willed her house, business and skin care formula to Galenti, who experimented, reformulated and developed a new treatment based on the product her benefactress, an African American, had "discovered" while trying to lighten her own skin.

After successfully treating two elderly Fox studio hairstylists with the new formula, Galenti drew a flock of celebrities vainly seeking, if not youth, wrinkle-free old age.

Actress Marlene Dietrich--one of the few celebrities willing to admit having her wrinkles ironed out--earned the moniker "The World's Sexiest Grandmother." Other clients who never seemed to age on the screen were Loretta Young, Gloria Swanson, George Raft, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Victor Mature and Bob Cummings.

Although Galenti was denied a business license for her Sunset Boulevard spa, she continued to expand into a $10-million-a-year business by mixing medicine and beauty. She offered a product line bearing her name that guaranteed smoother, wrinkle-free skin.

Moving to the Hollywood Hills, she promised a $3,000 miracle with a three-week sojourn at her three-story, 23-room Italian villa--purchased from a Coca-Cola vice president--perched on three acres overlooking Hollywood on Cartwright Avenue. Clients with hefty pocketbooks relaxed as the acid burned off layers of skin, blistered and formed a crust before peeling off over a two-week period.

While recovering, clients were pampered with healthful foods.

Galenti's business got a boost when a 1956 issue of Confidential magazine featured her with seductive "before" and "after" photographs of clients whose wrinkles disappeared "with very little discomfort."

Inundated with reservations and $1,000 deposits, she continued to treat for free scarred war veterans, indigent clergymen and seniors and acne-plagued teenagers who made up 40% of her clientele.

Long ignored by the skeptical medical profession, Galenti soon found her waiting room filled with FDA, Better Business Bureau and Board of Medical Examiner investigators, dermatologists and plastic surgeons, all wanting to witness her quick fix for aging faces. Walking out, one muttered: "I see the results, but I'm from Missouri. I don't believe them."

Surprising Results

Soon, a group of local physicians headed by Adolph Brown resurrected long-abandoned research on phenol--the key ingredient in Galenti's formula--and conducted tests of their own. What Brown found convinced him not only that a phenol peel was a useful tool, but also that Galenti's results were far superior to what he expected.

A bitter war began to rage over the formula's ownership. Brown led a campaign to put "chemosurgery" off limits to laypeople after medical journals published his papers.

Galenti's attempts to market her cosmetics in West Coast department stores were halted when a local plastic surgeon complained to the county medical association about permitting "such quackery" and even alleged "some deaths" had been caused by her chemical peels. While no such deaths occurred, all the stores dropped her products.

In 1959, she was charged with practicing medicine without a license. The next blow came when a handful of clients filed suits, claiming her process had disfigured them.

Though scores of celebrity clients and doctors rallied to Galenti's defense, seven plaintiffs ultimately were awarded monetary damages from $288 to $75,000.

By 1960, Galenti's legal problems appeared over: She was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $1,800, agreed to teach her peel technique only to physicians, and sold her cosmetic line, which continues to be sold in Hollywood under her name to this day.

Deeply in debt and feeling persecuted, Galenti moved to Las Vegas and opened the Fountain of Youth ranch and a mail order business, which also ran afoul of the law. The postal service then convicted her of mail fraud.

Out on bail, Galenti packed her bags, took her three white poodles and fled to Mexico. There, she married for the fifth time and opened a clinic and spa in Mexico City, where her facial peels continue to draw the beautiful, the aging and the vain.

More than three decades later, in 1993, the woman who once erased the lines that life had etched returned to Los Angeles, where she died three days later at age 96.

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