In The Magazine

Beauty in the Rain

by Bob Morris Photographed by Eric Striffler
Thursday, June 29, 2017
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It’s a miserable mid-May Saturday, cold, damp and gray. But in her stately 10-year-old home, built from the ground up in the Estate section of Southampton, Audrey Gruss is all sunshine and flowers. The on-the-scene social figure with homes in New York, London and Palm Beach has just arrived from a classic car rally in Italy to open the house for the season.




“I was the navigator for my husband because I speak Italian,” she says of Martin Gruss, whose father founded a top-tier private investment firm. “We drove from Brescia to Rome and ended at a black-tie dinner in the Ferrari factory in Maranello.” The only issue? Driving down a hillside of hairpin turns in the rain with no windshield wipers. “But Martin has amazing vision and can really focus,” she says.




While the man of the house, her second husband, is keen on his classic cars (kept in stables next to a tree-lined oval driving track and Ascot-style viewing stand) the lady of the house is all about  her gardens. She loves gardens so much that she lobbied to move to Southampton from the dunes of East Hampton in order to cultivate various “rooms” on her six green acres with the help of local landscaping legend Edwina von Gal.




“She did our twenty acres in Greenwich,” Gruss says in a controlled voice that suggests something between a purr and a flute, “so we had to have her do the property here.”




In rain boots, quilted jacket and vintage Hermès scarf that brings to mind Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren on a day without any stress or intrigue, Gruss shows off the all-white cutting garden between her flower room (with its own refrigerator and supplies for the elaborate arrangements she makes) and potting shed. She walks along endless pathways, pointing out lawns ringed by hydrangeas or viburnums, the whimsical Barry Flanagan hare sculpture, a bespoke pond, a massive maple that had been moved from another spot on the property and the orchard of apple trees von Gal planted—blossoming like a row of brides in white.




“Mutsu apples are fantastic because they’re so crisp,” she says. “I make applesauce from them and give out jars to everyone at Christmas.”




When she passes the fern garden to stop at an expansive glade of lily of the valley (just starting to bloom with tiny white bells), she pauses. Her smile fades and a wistful look crosses her flawless face. “Lily of the valley was one of my mother’s favorite flowers,” she says.




Hope, her charming music-, art- and poetry-loving mother, suffered from depression and was hospitalized many times because it had

become so crippling. She died in 2005. For Gruss flowers can be a trigger for either joy or a contemplative sadness.




“When I arrive from the city I sit out here and I always become very calm and focused,” she says. “This is where my resolve to make a difference gets reinforced.”




The year after her mother died, Gruss started an organization called Hope for Depression Research Foundation. Now considered the country’s leading nonprofit organization focused on depression research, it has to date invested more than $20 million through more than 125 grants. On Saturday, August 5, in Southampton, Gruss will preside over the Walk of Hope + 5K Run to Defeat Depression.




She and her two sisters were raised in New Jersey horse country. Her parents moved there from Lithuania (by way of a refugee camp in Germany) after World War II. Her father, a former army officer, knew about horses and found work as a trainer before starting an aviation electronics business. Her education-obsessed mother doted on her daughters and made sure they had music and dance lessons. It wasn’t until the future Mrs. Gruss was a teenager (she did some modeling at the time in Manhattan) that her mother had several “nervous breakdowns,” leaving her children mystified through their college years.




After her mother’s death at 83, Gruss was angry about her suffering and the lack of information available to all the families living with somehow who is clinically depressed. She was also unhappy with the limited treatment options: the same old medications but with different names, most of which had had bad side effects for her mother, or electroconvulsive therapy.




“For 35 years now, there has been nothing new for the treatment of depression,” Gruss says. “And for fifty percent of the population, the standard antidepressants don’t work, so I’m trying to change that by finding other ways to combat the illness.”




Gruss is as hardworking as she is well connected. A board member of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, FIT’s Couture Council and Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation, which operates the Watermill Center, she takes on leadership roles for numerous organizations, including Southampton Hospital, where a much-needed wing for immediate stroke and cardiac care bears her and her husband’s name.




Her career résumé is as impressive as her record of philanthropy and service. After earning a degree in biology from Tufts, Gruss found a job at Revlon’s research center, and went on to executive positions in international marketing and advertising at J.P. Stevens and Elizabeth Arden. As the former co-owner of Terme di Saturnia, an international skin-care line, she launched the product at Saks Fifth Avenue. And as a high-profile figure swimming in the well-lit social fishbowls of the elite, she learned to take the occasional gossip drubbing too.




In 2013 she became tabloid fodder when she went to court in a  houndstooth Chanel suit and freshwater pearls, according to the New York Post, to testify for her friend Lionel Geneste. He had been fired from his job as creative director at Naeem Khan and was suing the fashion designer. Gruss claimed that Khan, who has dressed Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, was designing “mother of the bride” dresses before her friend came along. When asked by a lawyer what made her an expert, she said, “I purchase haute couture in Paris.”




This kind of haute frivolity seems to have nothing to do with the measured, laser-sharp woman talking about depression from the living room of a gracious new home made to look old and sprinkled with contemporary artwork by Anselm Kiefer, Anish Kapoor and others.




“Research shows that the best treatment today is a combination of medications with cognitive behavioral therapy,” she says. “And causes can be genetic; epigenetic, which means environmental; or from trauma. Socioeconomics can have a lot to do with it.”




And of course, there’s the biological aspect that she feels is not understood well enough. “Do you know how serotonin works?” she asks, holding her beautifully manicured hands in front of her face and wiggling her slender fingers. With the enthusiasm of a natural teacher, she explains that when serotonin is depleted, the nerve endings cannot transmit the hormones associated with feelings of well-being, hence the antidepressant acronym SSRI for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. “Serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine are the three neurotransmitters,” she says, “and without enough in our systems we become nervous wrecks.”




Although there were reports last winter of some Trump-averse nervous wrecks in Palm Beach, where Gruss is a reigning social figure, she is not one of them. Occasionally photographed with Melania Trump, who is a friend, she has had the president to her home for dinner, and once weighed in when he asked about the controversial size of the flag he was flying over Mar-a-Lago. If she has any strong opinions, she isn’t sharing them. She isn’t about to burn any bridges.

“I may have to go to him or someone in his administration for funding,” she says. “The pharmaceutical companies don’t want to do brain science research because it’s too expensive, so it really requires a combination of private and government money.”




She’s pleased to say that one of the seven scientists on her organization’s task force, the electrophysiologist Joshua Gordon, was appointed head of the National Institute of Mental Health in September. And her dream of raising awareness that depression is behind almost all mental illness is not beyond achieving, she believes, as her organization is thriving. “Bipolarity, postpartum, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and suicide are part of what we’re thinking about,” she says. “When you talk about depression, our umbrella is big.” Her rain umbrella is pretty big as well: she needs it to go outside. In a silver Jaguar coupe with Florida license plates, she drives from her house through empty preseason lanes to Lake Agawam near the center of Southampton Village.

She wants to show off the site of her Walk of Hope, which drew 200 participants for its first outing last summer. “My mother must have been smiling, because she brought us sunshine,” she says. She stands with statuesque grace on the imposing steps of the Veterans




Memorial Hall, where participants will register for the event, led this year by field marshal Jay McInerney, the novelist, a friend and a supporter. She hopes that the mayor of the village will participate again.




“That was really so nice of him to show up for us,” she says.




She can’t contain her pleasure when thinking about what she has been able to accomplish. But she has to get home and get ready for a photo shoot, then a dinner party at the home of friends. She wonders if she has any clothes warm enough for an unseasonably cold spring night. On the wet field across the street a father and his son play soccer, oblivious to the rain. “Exercise is very important if you want to feel well,” she says. She breaks into a smile, then laughs as she watches the pair, who are totally soaked and happy in the rain.




“Those two must have a healthy amount of serotonin flowing,” she says.




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