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It is the morning of the "Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century" seminar, and Gail Gross has just sighted another one of her very best friends in the whole world entering the posh conference room at the Houstonian. Squealing with excitement, she smothers the newcomer with a hug and plants a robust kiss on her cheek. Then she sees another smartly dressed woman: "Oh, hon-ee!" The exclamation is pure Jewish New Jersey, and Gail acts like a post-rude, raven-haired Joan Rivers. Her neat black suit with peach sweater-as-accessory is so blindingly expensive, it seems gauche to gawk long enough to determine its exact make. But as a Houston Chronicle Best Dressed Hall-of-Famer, 52-year-old Gail is known to prefer Chanel, Carolyne Roehm and Valentino.
The new arrival is swept into a tight hug, as is anyone else who shows the slightest inclination to be so treated. As prominent bold-faced types such as Laura Sakowitz, Becca Cason Thrash, Susan O'Connor and Lynn Wyatt arrive, they each receive the same aggressively affectionate welcome. Obviously, Gail Gross has never heard of the air kiss.
When the crowd settles in, the reserved seating at the front of the room contains a strange mixture of shellac-haired ladies, on the one hand, and saffron-robed swamis, swarthy yogis and a black man wearing a stunning white turban, on the other. This is no Southern hospitality luncheon or diabetes tea. Colorful Tibetan thankas -- holy tapestries -- flank the stage. The impressive array of speakers includes Robert Thurman, a leading Buddhist scholar and father of actress Uma Thurman; Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying; Dean Ornish, the heart-disease-reversal advocate and recent Newsweek cover mug; and Lynda Guber, the producer of the Brad Pitt vehicle Seven Years in Tibet. In fact, the much noted Hollywood/Tibet connection is in full view here -- actor Richard Gere will host the following night's gala dinner.
The speakers volunteered to come to the symposium -- even paying their own airfare -- for two reasons: Tibet and Gail. And a fair portion of the guests paid $500 (the cost to Buddhist practitioners was $75) to get in, and up to $2,000 a plate for the gala, for two reasons: Gere and Gail. But mostly Gail.
Only Gail Gross could make a seminar on Tibetan Buddhism the place to be on a Tuesday morning in Houston. Wife of apartment developer and former savings-and-loan chairman Jenard Gross, Gail is at the tippy-top of Houston's A-list. She's chaired the opera ball, throws dinners for royalty, summers in Aspen and has a framed photo of herself walking past Elizabeth Taylor at a party. But Gail Gross is not only a social queen bee, she is Houston's most prominent bodhisattva, the devoted student with whom the Dalai Lama himself stays when he is in town.
Looking around the room, with its cluster of smoothly groomed butterflies seated in a reserved section at the front, it's easy to think that Gail Gross has something to gain by planning this event. After all, there's not a lot of competition among top Houston fundraisers to chair an annual touchy-feely session to benefit a far-off country controlled by an economic giant like China. Tibet is one issue that Gail could make her own -- indeed, has. But when the symposium begins, Gail does not ascend to the podium -- nor does she at any other time during the conference. Is it possible that Gail Gross is not doing this for attention?
Later in the day, Gail is in the bathroom with yet another of her very best friends. Asked how long they've known each other, Gail calculates 14 years. "That's when we fell in love," she says moonily, giving her friend a quick cuddle.
"Gail, thanks for doing this," the woman says, referring to the symposium. "This is great."
"Oh, hon-ee," Gail says, giving herself a quick once-over in the mirror. "It wasn't me. It was God."
It's easy to question the motives of someone involved in a cause that attracts celebrities as handsome as Richard Gere, but it's not as though Gail Gross leapt onto the Tibet bandwagon in pursuit of Hollywood. A spiritual seeker for nearly three decades, Gail was New Age before New Age was cool. In fact, she lives in a city where New Age might never be quite cool. For years, the local smart set merely tolerated her kooky macrobiotic diets. They politely purchased her 1985 book on spirituality and skin care. By 1989, a Chronicle article had Gail, Lynn Wyatt and Joe Jamail rubbing elbows at a macrobiotic restaurant, but people still rolled their eyes when gossip columnists announced that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibet, would "houseguest" with the Grosses during his 1991 visit.
In recent years, Gail has not opened up about her own spiritual experiences, saying she prefers to direct attention to her teachers and the plight of what one seminar attendee called Ty-bet.
But for all Gail's modesty, it may have been vanity that initially led her down a spiritual path. A New Jersey native, she came to Houston in the late sixties with her two small children, Shawn and Dawn. In 1971, she suffered a terrible accident -- a gas oven exploded in her face, burning it so severely doctors said the damage was both deep and permanent. Her skin's aging process would be greatly accelerated, and she would wrinkle long before her time. But Gail refused to accept the prognosis, and instead began researching alternative methods of skin care. That's when, friends say, Gail discovered the spiritual component of healing. And heal she did -- her skin, allegedly untouched by the surgeon's scalpel, is porcelain white, and it glows as if lit by an invisible halo perched atop her head.