Dan Rattiner's Stories

Who’s Here: Audrey Gruss, Philanthropist

On a warm day in the first week of April, a crowd gathered in front of Southampton Hospital to dedicate a new wing, and the elegant blonde who, with her husband, had provided the majority of the funding for that wing, $5 million, stood up and spoke. “With many of us spending months or weekends year-round in Southampton and the East End,” Audrey Gruss said, “Martin and I felt it was important that our local hospital have the capability to conduct stroke and vascular distress intervention.”

The center is state-of-the-art. It includes an advanced endovascular surgical suite, a simulation center for training of physicians and technicians, a non–invasive cardiovascular suite for diagnosis and an advanced monitoring center that enables doctors at this hospital to consult in real time with doctors in other hospitals. The construction of this wing took two and a half years and was much anticipated. The donation of $5 million came from Martin and Audrey Gruss of Southampton and as a result, the wing is named the Audrey and Martin Gruss Heart and Stroke Center in their honor.

Audrey and Martin Gruss are well known in the Hamptons and New York City for their extraordinary philanthropy. Martin, New York City born and bred, is the Senior Partner of Gruss and Company, founded by his father, Joseph, and developed by Martin into one of the pre-eminent private arbitrage investment companies on Wall Street. Audrey Gruss, to whom he has been married for 28 years, has a different background.

“One of my earliest memories as a little girl was picking chamomile flowers with my mother in a field in northern Europe,” she told me.

“I was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, the second largest city in that small country. My father, who was a career Cavalry officer in the Lithuanian army, escaped the Russians who had taken over the country in World War II. He and my mother hid on his father’s farm in southern Lithuania.”

World War II was winding down. The country was in turmoil. All of Europe was in turmoil. “FDR sold Lithuania down the river at Yalta,” Audrey said, referring to the conference with Churchill and Stalin toward the end of the war when Lithuania, along with the two other Baltic States, were “given” to the Soviets, who had already occupied them.

Indeed, all of Europe was not only in turmoil, but also largely in ruins after the war. Audrey’s parents and their infant daughter fled to safety in West Germany, where they temporarily lived in a displaced persons camp in the town of Fulda. That’s where she had that early memory of picking flowers. Her father became Commandant of the camp while they remained there for about a year. Then they were fortunate to move to the United States, to northern New Jersey.

“How did that happen?” I asked.

“After WWII, many countries had established quotas to receive those displaced by the war. My family was offered visas to Argentina or Australia. Luckily, we had distant relatives in New Jersey, who sponsored our acceptance by the U.S.” The family settled into an apartment in Hillside, New Jersey. Lithuanian was spoken at home. Soon they were speaking both Lithuanian and English.

“My parents also spoke some German and French,” Audrey said.

“Russian?”

“Never.”

Audrey started in first grade at Hurden-Looker Elementary School in Hillside. Her father at first was able to find work as a horse trainer in the horse country of northern New Jersey. “He was kind of a horse whisperer,” Audrey told me. “He started riding as a child and knew horses by instinct, so it didn’t matter that he didn’t speak much English at the beginning.”

Audrey told me that her father never stopped riding for his entire life. He even trained retired polo ponies to jump. “He died at 94, but he only stopped jumping horses when he was 90!”

His discipline as a rider and background as
an army officer served him well, and he eventually developed a career in the aviation electronics business.

Her mother, Hope, kept the household together. Audrey had a younger sister, born in Germany, named Lee. A third sister, Krista, was born in New Jersey. The household by this time was fully bi-lingual, speaking English and Lithuanian.

Her mother missed her family in Europe. Her father had been a banker. One of her aunts, an opera singer. Audrey remembers care packages being sent to them, often consisting of clothing and medicines. Eastern Europe in particular remained poverty stricken, under the domination of the Soviet Union, for nearly a generation after the war.

Audrey admired the enormous ordeal her parents went through in being uprooted in this way. “Imagine,” she said, “being suddenly sent to a country where you spoke not a word of the language, and having to survive and support two children.”

Audrey went to Hillside High School, where she was an excellent student. She also studied dance and music. She played the cello. Her parents, probably because of the experiences and hopes they’d had after losing both family and fortune, urged their eldest daughter to become a doctor. They instilled in her the value of an education and the work ethic. Audrey won a scholarship to Tufts, graduating with a B.S. in Biology with honors.

“I loved being a student at Tufts,” she said. “Campus life was wonderful—I joined the Chi Omega sorority, enjoyed the extracurricular life, but also studied hard. I appreciated the larger world of Boston, a community of more than a hundred colleges.”

When Audrey was 16 and a junior in high school, she became a photographic and fashion model to earn extra income for college. Her mother would drive her to New York City after school. “One summer I worked as a fit model in the NY garment district for Kim Kory Coats. I was tall and thin but I had broad shoulders, so I could carry even the largest coat size very well.”

Another summer during college she stayed in Boston and worked as a runway model at fashion shows. In her third summer between classes at Tufts, she lived at home and took classes at Rutgers, including organic chemistry.

“In college,” she told me, “I had all A’s in English. I loved literature and the humanities. In the courses I would need to become a doctor, though, I was only a B student. I talked to my parents and student advisors about this. At that time the scientific world wasn’t as supportive of women in the medical field. Many women who went on to medical school were seen as just taking the place of men who might otherwise become doctors.”

What should she do after graduation? Back then there were only limited choices for women. “It was retail training programs at Macy’s or Bloomingdales, getting a teaching degree, or going to secretarial school. Well, I knew how to type, anyway. I thought to find a job where I could combine science and business and found this wonderful job at the Revlon Research Center in the Bronx,” she told me. “I became assistant to Dr. Earle Brauer, Medical Director and Dr. Donald Updyke, the Director of Pharmacological Research. We tested new ingredients and submitted them to the FDA in Washington, D.C. for approval. Soon I was promoted to Assistant to the Vice Present of Marketing in NYC.”

For the next 20 years, Audrey moved up the corporate ladder in the advertising and marketing worlds. With her experience at Revlon, she was recruited by J.P. Stevens, the second largest U.S. textile company, to become Director of Advertising and Fashion at Stevens Hosiery, a new division.

“Stevens was launching three new hosiery brands at the same time and it was an extraordinary opportunity and experience. I hired innovative ad agencies, developed creative marketing programs and travelled to 90 of the top 100 retailers to present the new brands. It was like ‘baptism by fire,’ and I really paid my dues.”

After several years, she was recruited by Elizabeth Arden. Audrey started as Manager of Sales Promotion, designing innovative gift-with-purchase and purchase-with-purchase concepts. She traveled to Japan and Taiwan to approve production of these very successful items. “It was a challenging and fascinating position. Adapting advertising to the different cultural needs of each country was like shuttle diplomacy. We also discovered photographers and models who later became famous. And my science background was particularly helpful when I visited the Arden laboratories in Indianapolis to create ad campaigns using scientific data and language.”

Audrey married an orthopedic surgeon but they were divorced after five years.

In the mid-1980s, after being offered a Vice Presidency and more responsibility but no raise, which Audrey felt was an unfair offer, she left Elizabeth Arden and went out on her own. She created International Creative Marketing, a marketing consultancy firm.

“My first client,” she said, “was a division of Bracco, the third largest pharmaceutical company in Italy. They wanted to expand distribution of one of their brands into the U.S. I found for them an appropriate distributor and was given several other projects to handle.”

Her company thrived. She developed a tie-in with the Doral Hotel and Golf Resort in Miami and the Terme di Saturnia skin care line in Italy to create the Doral Saturnia Spa. She then became President and co-owner of the Terme di Saturnia skin care line and launched it at Saks Fifth Avenue.

And then she met Martin Gruss. “A friend introduced us,” she said. “I fell in love and married a man who lives life to the fullest. He not only is a brilliant businessman but also a gentleman and a sportsman. He was an equestrian and had an international high-goal polo team, which he played on for many years. He went helicopter skiing. He raced and now collects vintage cars; he enjoys golf. The year that I married was the same year I launched Terme di Saturnia. I had to travel to launch the brand at the key Saks branches. Sometimes I couldn’t fly home to be with Martin. So I realized that something had to be done. Martin never said anything, but my life had taken a new turn. And I went to my partner at Doral and asked if he’d buy me out, and he did.”

Martin Gruss entered into his marriage to Audrey with two children, a family business that he had bought and steered into a leading Wall Street firm, and a desire to do great philanthropic work. Audrey, with her corporate executive skills in marketing, was in a perfect position to help guide donations to education, science and the cultural arts, while encouraging others to do the same, and so became President of the Audrey and Martin Gruss Foundation. The pair have donated, and raised, more than $200 million for the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Audrey and a co-chair raised $38 million in Palm
Beach in one year toward a merger of the two hospitals there.

Audrey Gruss’s philanthropic efforts have both a U.S. and international dimension. In New York, she is a board member of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and is a former board member of The Public Theater/NY Shakespeare Festival. She is on the Chairman’s Council of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Advisory Council of the Guggenheim Museum and the Advisory Council of Literacy Partners. She is a major Benefactor of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund and a Patron of The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theater, The New York Botanical Garden and The Horticultural Society of New York. In Palm Beach, Mrs. Gruss is a board member of The Hospice Guild and The Preservation Foundation. She is a Founder of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and a member of the Benefactor‘s Council of the Society of the Four Arts.

Internationally, Mrs. Gruss is a board member of the American Friends of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She is on the Advisory Board of FAI, the premier architectural preservation group in Italy and is a member of the International Council of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Nine years ago, Audrey Gruss founded a charitable organization called the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

“There had been a situation right under my nose that I never thought needed my help,” Audrey said. “It was my mother. My late mother. When she was in her late 30s, she began struggling with bouts of depression. They didn’t call it that in those days. They said it was a ‘nervous breakdown’ and she was hospitalized. My father, sisters and I weren’t told much more. [My mother] Hope was given numerous medications over the years, but they all had side effects and she never returned to being the talented, funny and energetic mother we knew.”

Audrey’s mother suffered the classic signs of depression—loss of hope, loss of pleasure, loss of energy, too little or too much sleep, inability to focus, change in eating habits and body and mind function. And then, in 2005, after many years of suffering, her mother died. She was 84.

Audrey had to look into this. Why was so little effective? What she found was that doctors still used electric shock therapy treatment as a primary weapon against depression. But this procedure was over 100 years old. There were also anti-depressants such as Prozac, which had been on the market for more than 30 years. And that was it. Prozac and its related SSRI + SNRI medications helped only about half the people who took them. And what Audrey thought were “new” drugs that might work better were only variations of SSRIs and SNRIs, the serotonin and norepinephrine-type anti-depressants.

“I also found that Big Pharma had virtually stopped doing research on mind/brain medications. This had happened, it seems, because when patents expired and generics largely took over, the money for research dried up. Who’s researching? Very few.”

Her mother’s name was Hope. The foundation was started in 2006 and is named in memory of her—Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF). In its first four years, the charity has funded 130 grants in 12 countries, 18 U.S. cities and at 48 universities.

“I decided to do my very best to create this foundation to bring attention to this situation, and at the same time find new ways to do research to stop this illness. It is my life’s work, to help find a cure for this disease that is the leading cause of disability for people age 14 to 45. Twenty million adults have depression in the U.S. each year. Over 350 million are estimated to have it worldwide.

Audrey described to me how research was currently being done. “It is glacial,” she said. “There are research labs at most large universities. Each one wants to be the recipient of the largest funding. They work separately. They make a discovery; they publish it; then they present it at a conference. It takes years for ideas to be assimilated by other scientists.”

Audrey decided to create a new way to do this research and formed the Depression Task Force. It is made up of eight of the leading neuroscientists in the U.S. and Canada, pioneers in their field, who have created a strategic plan of what is missing and needed in depression research. Each is executing a piece of the research plan. The individual results are reported in real time into an HDRF Data Center at the University of Michigan. In four years of this accelerated research, they have found three genetic areas that show evidence of being involved in depression. The work of the Depression Task Force is considered to be the most advanced depression research in the U.S. today. On November 10, HDRF will hold its annual fundraiser at a converted church at 583 Park Avenue. Speakers at previous fundraising events have included Brooke Shields, Richard Dreyfuss, Candace Bushnell, Linda Hamilton, Terry Bradshaw and Loraine Bracco, all of whom have dealt with depression in their personal lives.

The Grusses have a home in Southampton, in Palm Beach and in London. Audrey loves gardening, flower arranging and entertaining. She and Martin are both avid contemporary art collectors and travel to key art shows such as Art Basel and Frieze. Every year, the Gruss family goes on a skiing vacation in Aspen for a week. Last year, the family totaled 11. This year it will be 15, including a 1-year old grandson.

Facebook Comments

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *