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Straine-On-Success — A Man Who’s Looked Power in the Teeth

Published on October 22, 2015

Dentists can do well in this town. Some can do very well. But Dr. Marc Benhuri, when we first met at a coffee shop near his East 60th Street office, appeared to be in a league of his own. He was wearing a Brioni suit and tie, and a watch whose make I didn’t note but which nonetheless radiated prosperity.

“Patek Philippe,” he told me when we got together at his office on a more recent occasion. “I’m a watch collector. I have 34 watches. Cartier. Jaeger-LeCoultre.” Dr. Benhuri, an Iranian Jew who moved to the U.S. in the 1960s, has written the “Price for Freedom,” a fictionalized account of how the fall of the Shah of Iran, who became a personal friend, and the rise of the ayatollahs, shattered his own family’s dreams.

But that also didn’t necessarily explain the dentist’s excellent taste in ties and wrist wear. However, some of the sartorial mystery started to vanish as Dr. Benhuri, 70 years old, explained the roots, both dental and personal, of his relationship with the Shah.

As he bit into a grilled-cheese sandwich, he recalled his first visit with the ruler of Iran, in 1976. By then, Dr. Benhuri had succeeded at two careers: as an engineer who started a successful booster-cable company and as a pioneer of dental implants.

That’s how he came to meet the Shah, who had fractured his jaw during a skiing accident in Switzerland. Dr. Benhuri was part of a team of experts the Shah summoned, but the only native Iranian and the only one who spoke Farsi.

“My hand was trembling, literally,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Thank God I knew self-hypnosis. I took a deep breath. In Farsi I said, ‘Will you please open your mouth.’ ” The Shah was apparently so satisfied with the results after having lived with a partial denture before his skiing accident—“He didn’t want removable teeth,” Dr. Benhuri explained—that he recommended the dentist to King Hussein of Jordan.

King Hussein, in turn, recommended him to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia. “When I went to get a visa at the Saudi consulate in Rockefeller Center they asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ Dr. Benhuri recalled of his 1983 trip. “I said, ‘Jewish.’ He apologized and said he can’t give me the visa.”

A call from a member of the Saudi royal family resolved the issue, the consul general on his return visit offering him tea, a bowl of fruit and an apology. “He said, ‘By the way, you’re the second Jewish person to get a visa to Saudi Arabia.’ I said, ‘Who was the first?’ He said, ‘ Henry Kissinger.’ ”

The dentist has treated numerous kings, presidents and prime ministers, among them Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and the ruling Al Sabah family of Kuwait. Needless to say, they don’t typically come to him. He goes to them.

“Everyone of these world leaders in their residence have an emergency room, ICU, CCU,” Dr. Benhuri explained, referring to intensive and cardiac care units, “and a dental office.”

He said Russian President Boris Yeltsin had among the worst teeth he’s encountered. “I did a full mouth reconstruction,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Many of the Russian hierarchy had very bad teeth.”

Back at home, he has treated Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Luciano Pavarotti. Unlike other implant surgeons who take months, if not years to complete the job, Dr. Benhuri boasts he can provide a patient a new set of teeth in only three appointments. “A lot of these people don’t have time,” he explained. “I use IV sedation. I do all the work one day on the upper jaw, and the next day I do the lower jaw.”

He demurred about discussing current patients. However, the walls of his office are decorated with gold records—tokens of appreciation from rock stars—and celebrity photographs, among them a former Yankee player and future Hall of Famer.

At our coffee-shop meeting, Dr. Benhuri had confided he was forced to bow out of a meeting at the Harvard Club the previous evening concerning the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran—he opposes it. The participants, he said, included Dr. Kissinger and grocery-store magnate and former mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis. A patient, who’d been in a taxicab accident, required emergency dental surgery.

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