Gina Michael, of Southampton and West Palm Beach, died suddenly on March 21 after a short illness. Gina was sui generis: a friend, sister, auntie and healer to many the world around.
A child of the Bronx, Gina had a New York directness about her, which was softened at times by her desire to help people — something she did throughout her life, often as a vocation.
Growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s as the only child in a hardworking Jewish family, Gina had an entrepreneurial spirit entirely her own. A hard worker, Gina could create something out of nothing like no one else, with her special way of moving in the world and talking to people. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Gina owned multiple wellness and massage spas in Manhattan called Mille Fleurs, the first of which was funded by an angel donor she attracted after putting an ad in a public newspaper, describing her business idea. Always the consummate host, Gina spent her last few decades creating spa-like vacation rentals, which she owned and operated.
Gina’s father, a complicated man from the American South, kept his Native American heritage from her. Frustrated by this, Gina later journeyed to learn what she could from outside sources, treasuring what she found: She was part Pamunkey, a Native American tribe in Virginia. Gina thus had a kindredness with Indigenous people that earned her “sisters” throughout Indian Country. Indigeneity was a special thing to “G,” as many called her, who never had much blood family but made friends and “relatives” from the Shinnecock, Wampanoag, Onondaga and Ojibwe tribes. Never close with her own parents, Gina lived with her chosen family, the Salits, traveling with her best friend Cathy Rose Salit at age 16 on a month-long trip to Morocco and Paris. This experience stoked Gina’s fire for international exploration, and she stayed behind, finding work as an au pair in Europe, where she spent several years.
Gina spoke what some recall to be seven languages. As a young woman, prior to training in Japan and New York as an acupuncturist and herbalist, Gina made a living belly dancing for sultans in the Middle East. Given her keenness for languages and ability to adapt to different cultures, Gina made a great international travel companion. On any trip, she might be found conversing in German, Japanese, Portuguese, French, Arabic or Spanish. Though she never graduated from William Howard Taft High School, or cared for traditional school in general, Gina always made her own way as a self-employed businesswoman and activist committed to community engagement and political change. In the early 1970s, Gina and a group of other displaced teenagers created an alternative school called The Elizabeth Cleaners Street School in Manhattan (so named because it was located in an abandoned dry cleaners storefront). Their curriculum included the history of Cuba, comparative religion and other then-radical ideas. Together, the students authored a book called Starting Your Own High School, which was published in 1972 by Random House, featuring Gina’s original artwork.
Gina was kind, loved to laugh, and was generous, passionate and spiritual, quirky and funny. She loved her brown poodles like children, all her many “nieces and nephews,” travel, food and the family she created. And, this family, which lives on throughout the world, will miss her deeply.
A forthcoming celebration of Gina’s life will be held in Southampton. If interested in attending to pay respects, please email [email protected].
~ With additional research by Dyani Brown