Following several rounds of caipirinhas, a delicious lunch of grilled fish is served, along with a fine white Bordeaux. Flush with the convivial atmosphere, I press for stories of Pitanguy’s celebrated patients. The roster of luminaries rumored to have employed his services is long and diverse, ranging from the Duchess of Windsor, François Mitterand and the kings of Morocco and Jordan to Joan Crawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Brigitte Bardot. But Pitanguy refuses even to confirm a well-known story about late socialite Sao Schlumberger. It is said that she disobeyed his orders to remain in Rio for several days after her procedure and that, as a result, her stitches began to pop open on the plane back to Paris. Pitanguy does, however, volunteer one blind item from several years ago about a prominent New York lady, whom he describes as “a big, tall, strong girl.” Following her facelift, she checked in to one of the suites at the clinic. But carried away by the spirit of Carnaval, which was going on at the time, she procured a feathered mask and went out into the night, where she met a handsome stranger. Soon enough, in the throes of passion, he pulled her hair, with unfortunate results for the stitches at her hairline. “The whole thing came down,” recounts Pitanguy, referring to the skin on her forehead. “He was so traumatized he fainted, and she had to bring him to the clinic.” The lady, Pitanguy adds, unable to conceal his laughter, was just fine.
After lunch, Pitanguy leads a tour of the island. “She called to me like a siren,” he remembers of his first encounter with the place in the early Seventies, when it was an uninhabited wilderness. After purchasing the land in 1973, he reshaped the terrain, creating a series of gently rolling hills, building service roads and installing an electrical generator and other utilities. With well-known Brazilian architect Paulo Coelho, he designed about a dozen small bungalows, which are nestled discreetly in the landscape.
Strolling through the meadows or on the pathways that connect the bungalows, you never know what is going to fly or scurry past you. Pitanguy has assembled a collection of rare animals and exotic birds—saffron finches, rufous-bellied thrushes, green-winged saltators, capuchin monkeys and numerous others species—most of which wander free.
Although he is loath to name names, the doctor is happy to talk about how his profession has changed in the half century since he began practicing. “Today, we all talk a lot about self-esteem, but 50 years ago that was not very common,” he says, taking a seat on a terrace outside his personal bungalow. Growing up in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil, where his father was a surgeon, Pitanguy saw many accident victims and patients with genetic deformities. They were treated, their bones were reset and they were sent home, with little regard for how the disfigurement would affect the patient’s psyche, he recalls.