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December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

It was almost 40 years ago, but Joan Kron has no trouble recalling the day she first saw pictures of a face-lift in progress. “I went to a lecture about it, and the doctor showed slides,” says Kron. “They cut the skin on the border of the ear and elevated it from the underlying tissue to work on it. I was horrified. I turned to the woman next to me and said, ‘Not me, ever!’ ”

Ah, the arrogance of youth. Now 70, Kron has made two trips to the face factory, as she calls it: She had a facelift and an eyelid tuck in 1992 and a nose job and brow-lift nearly five years later—experiences she discusses in her new memoir-cum-how-to-manual Lift: Wanting, Fearing and Having a Face-Lift. Cosmetic surgery is not just about vanity, Kron believes. “It’s an act of refusal to look older than you feel. Focusing on appearance can be fun if it’s not the only focus in your life.”

It hasn’t been in hers. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Kron worked as a TV costume designer and an interior decorator before the 1968 death of Leslie, her 16-year-old daughter with first husband Dr. Sam Kron, from a rare nasal infection. (The couple’s son Daniel is now 43 and an Internet entrepreneur.) Grief-stricken, she turned to writing as therapy, ultimately landing jobs at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Hired to write about the psychology of beauty for Allure in 1990, Kron was reporting a story on “shopping for a new face,” she says, when she decided she was in the market herself. Since then she has learned she has plenty of company: Approximately 100,000 face-lifts are performed each year in the U.S., Kron says, up from 60,000 in 1992. About 85 to 90 percent of the patients are women, though the number of men is growing, she says. “Plastic surgery used to be for socialites and ladies who lunch, but now it’s strongly middle-class,” says Kron, who lives in Manhattan and East Hampton, N.Y., with second husband John G. Marder, a retired advertising executive. “When I tell people at dinner parties what I do, it takes over the conversation.” Kron gave PEOPLE contributor Debbie Seaman an inside look at surgical face-saving.

Who is this sort of surgery for, and who should avoid it?

Face-lifting is not for someone who wants to be Ginger Rogers or Demi Moore. It’s really for the woman who once liked her own appearance and is mourning its loss. It could give you as much as 10 or 15 years in your looks, and it should give you a much refreshed look. But it’s not going to turn you into a movie star. Lots of people go to doctors and bring pictures of people they’d like to look like. The doctors laugh.

How did you decide a face-lift was for you?

When I went to see the first doctor for the Allure story, I was hoping he’d say, “What are you doing here? Go home. You look beautiful!” Instead he said, “Oh my God, you haven’t seen your jawline in years.” It was like this rude awakening—very rude! By the fourth physician consultation, I had signed up.

What didn’t you like about your looks?

When I was young, I worried about my weight, not my face. I had a sweet face and was always very young-looking. As you get older—although nobody wants to admit this—people tend not to look at you as much. As I aged, I had developed deep smile lines, my chin was hanging down, and I didn’t like how I looked in profile.

Did your husband think you needed a face-lift?

He said, “Are you crazy? I like you the way you are.” Husbands often fear that if their wives change their faces, they’ll also want to change their lives. I also think my husband was worried about my health and safety.

How did you choose a surgeon?

I interviewed four doctors in New York City who had top credentials. I chose the one who dealt best with my concerns and to whom I related best. But finding the right surgeon is hard for the layperson to do. You need to make sure a doctor is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery or the American Board of Otolaryngology—and certified in the procedure you’re having done. You don’t want a board-certified urologist doing your face-lift. Anybody with a medical license can legally do face-lifts in his office. And you’re entitled to ask questions. It’s perfectly fair to inquire, “Is this the first brow-lift you’ve ever done?”

What were you most afraid of before your surgeries?

I was most afraid of dying on the operating table. Deaths do happen, but very rarely, and usually from a problem the patient already has, like a heart condition. Other possible complications include hematomas—unsightly bleeding under the skin—and infections, which are also very rare. The other thing I feared was having my skin pulled too tight and looking as if I had been in a wind tunnel. But then I started talking to people, and I found out lots of my close friends had had work done and I hadn’t even realized!

Have surgical techniques grown more sophisticated in recent years?

Face-lifts used to involve tightening only the skin. Now surgeons tighten the underlying muscle as well, which helps avoid the wind-tunnel look.

How much do face-lifts cost?

The average for America is about $4,700. Eye-lifts average about $2,750, and brows $3,000 to $4,000. In New York City and California the prices are generally much higher.

How much pain do you feel after a face-lift?

Most people complain about discomfort. You have staples in the back of your head, and they itch. You have to sleep propped up. I was in pain after my brow-lift. Weeks later, when the feeling returned to my head, I felt as if somebody had dropped a brick on me. But Tylenol took care of it.

How did you feel the morning after, the first time you looked in the mirror?

The first time, my eyes were black and blue, and my face was swollen up like a bowling ball—sort of a combination of mumps and looking like I had gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I couldn’t find my own face there, but the nurse had warned me that everyone looks like that, so I wasn’t too shocked. The second time the swelling was worse, but I knew it would go away.

How long did it take before you ventured outside with your new face?

I was taking walks three or four days after the first procedure. I wore big sunglasses and a scarf tied under my chin. Within 10 days, I had gone from looking like a balloon to looking unusually pretty.

Before you healed, did people stare at you or make comments?

After the second lift, as I was leaving home to have the stitches out, a woman literally stared at me in amazement. I got upset and said, “Stop staring at me!” Our children would say, “Oh my God!…but you’re going to look great.” Right after the first surgery my husband said, “You couldn’t pay me to have that done.” But two weeks later he was amazed at the transformation.

Were you happy with the results both times?

Absolutely. It’s hard not to feel better when people constantly tell you how good you look.

Can having a face-lift change your life?

It’s not going to completely transform your life, but studies have shown that people are immensely happier and more hopeful for the future after a face-lift. I feel less anxious about the passing years now. I used to feel bad when I looked in the mirror, but when I hit 70 last January, I felt exhilarated. I looked in the mirror and thought, “This is what 70 looks like—and it’s not bad!”

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