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The A-List Buddhist

"Oh, hon-ee!"
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.

In 1972, Gross graduated from the University of Houston and married Jenard, who is 16 years her senior. After a two-year career as a teacher, she made being Mrs. Jenard Gross her full-time job. Gail taught Shawn and Dawn (whom Jenard later adopted) to meditate, and began to contemplate the Buddhist tenets of compassion, mercy and service.

The Grosses are a close family. In fact, Shawn has become an apartment developer like his father, and Gail does interior design for their projects. Besides calling her for quotes on beauty secrets or the joys of eating liver (really!), local reporters regularly ask Gail for Valentine's Day copy on romantic gifts or lasting marriages. She happily obliges them with stories of surprise anniversary parties, renewed marriage vows and how Jenard is "so romantic that he carries me over the threshold at every new house."

"They're as close to one as you get with two," says Shawn, who has no dearth of admiration for his parents.

Jenard, who stepped in as emcee of the symposium when Robert Thurman had to leave unexpectedly, is by all indications supportive of Gail's activities, even accompanying her on trips to Tibet (and once, getting her out of Tibet in a hurry, when she contracted salmonella). When he took the mike, he recited "The Vision of Sir Launfal" from memory and told an all-walks-of-life story about an office messenger who was able to supply him with the title of Thurman's latest book. It became clear, though, as he pronounced words like "Tay-o-ism" in his sweet Nashville drawl, that he himself is not a practitioner. "My father doesn't need to meditate," says Shawn with some assurance. "One of the monks [with the Dalai Lama] even said that."

Some people describe both Grosses as visionaries. In 1980, they were one of a handful of prominent Houston couples who, at the urging of Henry and Carol Groppe, helped support Dean Ornish's early studies on how diet, meditation and exercise affect heart disease. "If it weren't for them, this work wouldn't have happened," says Ornish, whose best-selling books have won him national prominence. Ornish now refers to Gail as "Mother Theresa in Chanel."

During this period, Gail was honing her social and fundraising skills, but she had also gone back to school to get her master's -- one waggish scene-watcher remembers a report that when Gail was too busy to go to class at the University of St. Thomas, she sent her driver to take notes for her.

Around the same time, she began to work on a book: Beautiful Skin: The 8 Basic Steps to a Lifetime of Glowing Health. Skin care was, in fact, just a way to package Gail's ideas about affirmations, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, positive imaging and sardines (all good for your skin), not to mention sex, particularly the "maculopapular sex flush," which results from sexual excitement (very good for your skin). While "the first truly sensible guide to beautiful skin" included plenty of advice on makeup and moisturizers, it also recommended repeating "You deserve to be a total person; all parts of you are beautiful, and wholesome, and worthy of being loved" to yourself while looking in the mirror (also, apparently, good for your skin).

Gail enthusiastically promoted her book -- reportedly even following gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger to the ladies' room at Tony's and handing her a press kit under the stall. She did a book tour and the talk-show circuit, and the 10,000-copy first printing sold out.

Nothing recommended in the book's "Figure-8 Program" was particularly new, but the book's holistic approach and emphasis on nutrition were years ahead of the focus on alternative medicine and supplements so prevalent in the '90s. What's more, the things Gail was saying were just the things that some people wanted to hear.

 

Diane Marks, a prominent supporter of Houston's art scene, remembers going to a meeting of a Jewish women's group at which Gail spoke about her book, which was co-authored by Professor Honora Finkelstein. Sitting there, her luminous complexion her own best advertisement, Gail told the story of how she set out to prove her doctors wrong after her accident. When she ever so gently introduced the subject of spirituality, Marks says, "I was like, on the edge of my seat."

Marks had recently been through drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and says she was ready for a spiritual awakening. "The things that she was saying were the things that I had been lately thinking.... It was like Gail was sent to me as a support person at that point in my life when I needed a spiritual teacher. It was just like, 'Yes! Yes! I'm so starved for this.'"

After the talk, women crowded around Gail asking for advice about skin-care products. Marks stayed in her seat, waiting.

"When there was a clear moment, I got up, and she held out her arms to me. I walked over and she just held me, and she said, 'I felt your energy the whole time.'

"I never had anybody before say out loud the things I was thinking in my heart. It gave me someone else who I knew thought like that."

Diane and Gail had known each other previously (Diane says she was "not impressed" by Gail at first), but after this experience, the two became fast friends. She and Gail occasionally lunch together at Anthony's -- "where I go with my fancy friends," Diane says. At the table, Gail sometimes takes notes during their conversations about reincarnation, astrology or other esoteric subjects. Then, says Marks, "Carolyn Farb or Lynn [Wyatt] or, I don't know, one of the other ladies will come by, and she stops and she's so gracious and you can see that she loves them and they love her. And then -- well, she kind of goes in and out, you know.

"She had to be really kind of secretive about what was going on in her life for a long time," Diane explains, because of the conservative crowd her husband ran with. "Now I think she knows who to share with and how much to share."

In Beautiful Skin, Gail jokes that her friends grew so tired of hearing that they should eat sardines, they told her to write the book and leave them alone. But in fact, acquaintances say Gail is a graceful proselytizer. "She doesn't try to force her opinions on you," says Dallasite Jackie Wynne, who met Gail in Aspen (and cracks that she found the food at a dinner Gail threw using Dean Ornish's recipes "totally tasteless")."It's more that she wants to expose you. I think that's the really smart thing that she does."

Close friends of Gail's find it easy to tell stories about her devotion. One woman says when she was pregnant and had to have an amniocentesis, Gail flew to Los Angeles just to be there with her. "Nothing of importance happens in my life without Gail there," noted author and conservative gadfly Arianna Huffington has said. "Whether it's baby showers, [then-husband] Michael's victory party, birthday parties -- Gail is always there."

Still, anyone who reads too much Richard Bach can be annoying, and not everyone can stomach Gail's unadulterated sweetness. "I know people who absolutely cannot stand her," says one in-the-know Houstonian who theorizes that people think Gail is insincere. "And I've said, 'Why?'

"I've never been given an answer that would justify such distaste."
One of Huffington's books, a spiritual rumination called The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul, details a tragic chapter in Gail's life. In 1990, her 24-year-old daughter, Dawn, died suddenly of a rare heart affliction. Gail and Dawn had been extremely close, and Dawn was already following her mother's charitable example by hosting her own fundraising events. Her death was, of course, devastating. Huffington details Gail's immediate desire to have another child; Jenard even had a vasectomy reversal, and the couple tried artificial insemination.

But when those attempts failed, Huffington writes, Gail was drawn even further along her spiritual path. Dawn's death led Gail on "a healing pilgrimage"; she visited teachers and doctors across the country.

The year after Dawn's death, the Dalai Lama came to Houston. Because Gail was already one of his disciples -- she had traveled to India in 1989 for a private audience with him -- and she had the nicest house of all the local Buddhists, he stayed there with his entourage of 11 monks. Gail had the house blessed before His Holiness arrived, and carried out the custom of providing the spiritual leader with new sheets and dishes.

 

Gail did not miss the chance to raise money for Tibet -- she hosted a small, $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner in her home so friends could meet His Holiness. She also stretched her hostessing capabilities to the utmost: John Coon, director of the Yoga Center and His Holiness's bodyguard on that trip, remembers Gail's preparations for the leader's interview with Quest Magazine. She covered her swimming pool with a tarp so the reflection wouldn't interfere with photographs, and set up His Holiness's chair by a carved Indian stele.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama came again, this time for an extended stay. So many of his followers wanted to see him that Gail soon had 22 houseguests. Some of them even slept in the closets.

Still, Gail insists that hosting those guests was a piece of cake. "They're all monks, and all they want to do is help you," she said.

When the first speaker at the symposium, the wild-haired and charismatic Robert Thurman, begins, Gail seats herself on the floor off to one side of the conference room and gazes upward like an eager teachers' pet, schoolgirl glasses perched on the end of her nose. This is where she remains, for the most part, stepping outside the door occasionally when Shawn, who is helpful to a fault, calls her to attend to some small detail.

Gail's helpers whisper proudly that every penny earned by the event will go to help Tibet -- everything, even the room at the Houstonian, has been donated to the cause. Indeed, for all the glamour present, the affair is so strictly no-frills, it doesn't even include coffee. During breaks, bold-faced types cop snacks from a corporate meeting down the hall. Instead of printing invitations, Gail used Houstonian letterhead, and the dinner was underwritten by restaurateur Gigi Huang.

The audience is by and large female, and husbands who are present have a stoic air about them. After a talk on relationships by Diane Cirincione and Gerald Jampolsky, authors of Change Your Mind, Change Your Life, one matron complains that her other half, who had ducked back to the office for a half-hour of business, missed the talk he needed most. Another woman wonders what Sogyal Rinpoche thinks of psychoactive medication, muttering, "You know two-thirds of the people in here are on at least one antidepressant."

Sogyal Rinpoche, one of the highlights of the first day's roster, is a jolly fellow whose rotund belly actually wags up and down when he chuckles. He admonishes the crowd to monitor their motivations, abandon all harmful actions and try meditation. "You might be a little impatient," he says. "Particularly successful people." At the end of his talk, he demonstrates what a little chanting can do. The room falls silent as he yodels out a mantra, then goes silent himself and lets it hang in the air. It is beautiful, everyone later agrees. Amazing.

Another speaker -- the mysterious turbaned one, who was introduced only by the title Gurunam -- gets everyone to sing "Wah hey guru" over and over again in time to a recording, sending healing energy in the direction of Tibet. The resulting performance is as thin and reluctant as a Presbyterian choir's.

But still, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. At breaks, Gail squeals and introduces swamis to socialites. One poor man shakes hands while Gail explains over and over: "His brother wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus!"

At one point, Gail is asked how everything is going. "Hopefully," she beams like Maria in The Sound of Music, "Everything is just" -- she scrunches up her face and her voice compresses into a prayerful whisper -- "perfect."

The day concludes with a rousing, energetic tirade by Thurman, who talks about the need for the monastic tradition that Tibet supported before it was invaded, and who predicts disaster as a result of a government that doesn't carry out the will of the people. "This will end with smoke and starving people," he says. "You don't want that. You don't want people fighting their way into the Houstonian to get some of your, like, shrimp." The audience members shake their heads. No, they don't want that.

After the first day of the symposium, the VIP guests retire to the Bombay Palace Indian restaurant, where they occupy a banquet table the length of the restaurant and one whole wall of banquettes. At one end of the table are three women who say they met Gail in Aspen: a quiet Chicago clotheshorse; a kittenish blonde from Los Angeles who describes herself as a "mom" who used to be "in the fashion industry"; and a throaty Dallasite who entertains her new acquaintances with a story about playing golf with Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman the week before. The foursome is completed by a small, dark-haired woman who wears a flowing scarf over one shoulder, sari-style, speaks in a soft South African accent and displays a fetching bit of cleavage. When the other three find out who she is -- Helena Kriel, the screenwriter for Kama Sutra and tomorrow's speaker on tantric sex, they immediately begin clamoring for advice.

 

The Dallasite, a widow, explains that she hasn't really felt fulfilled in a relationship for some time -- that she'd often rather stay home and read a book than date. Kriel encourages this impulse, speaking in low tones about plumbing the depths of solitude in order to prepare for true intimacy.

"I read an article in a magazine about tantra," says the blond. "It says you're supposed to do things like sit for hours staring into your partner's eyes, or lie on the bed with your ears next to each other but your bodies going opposite directions. Is that tantra?" Kriel laughs and explains that those are tantric exercises designed to heighten the senses.

The blond turns to the Chicagoan and puts her palms up as if to play patty-cake. "Oh, wouldn't it be great if we stared into each other's eyes like this?" she asks, and the two clutch hands wistfully and giggle. Kriel says that such exercises can heighten one's yearning for the beloved, and that yearning is sometimes the best part of romance and sex.

"The problem," says the Chicagoan flatly, "is I want to yearn. He doesn't."
After dinner, a coterie drives to the Grosses' mansion. Gail, still hugging everyone in sight, seats herself on a footstool and scoots over to sit at the feet of Thurman and Professor Thomas Lin Yun, who she says is "the world's greatest master of feng shui." She practically lays her head in their laps.

Soon, Gail is persuaded to give everyone a tour, during which an 82-year-old man dressed in a long saffron kurta pajama wanders onto the landing to see what's going on. He's Sri Swami Satchadadananda, one of the longest-standing Hindu leaders in the West. Dean Ornish, his curly hair making him look a bit like a mad scientist, comes out of his quarters to politely point out that the fax machine is out of paper. Shawn promises to get some first thing in the morning.

Along the tour, Professor Lin Yun gives advice. Gail is not to let the light bulbs burn out in her closets, which have no source of natural light. In the bedroom, she and her husband need a strategically placed mirror so they can see who passes their door. Soon after the tour, Gail begins ushering those who are not house guests toward the door.

The next day, Gail is outfitted in an olive pantsuit, looking tired but blissed out. A blemish is beginning to erupt on her otherwise pristine nose -- her only sign of stress, and one she cheerfully ignores. Sogyal Rinpoche speaks again in the morning on wisdom and compassion, even leading a brief meditation. The day goes smoothly, with Dean Ornish scrupulously avoiding the dreaded word "vegetarian" and spiritual psychologist Jacqueline Small listing her prescriptions for responsible spiritual behavior. When Kriel gets to the part of her tantra talk about developing a state of infinite ecstasy with one's beloved, Gail sidles up to Jenard and gives him an infinitely cute little kiss.

When the symposium is over, Gail seems even more deliriously happy than ever. She poses for photograph after photograph with the speakers, including Professor Lin Yun's coterie of chattering Chinese women. When she spots a bevy of friends from Aspen, she yelps, "Group hug!" and the women, plus Jenard, oblige her by locking arms and huddling in a momentary circle, butts outward. The women congratulate Jenard on being such an exemplary specimen of the male gender, and he smiles beatifically. Gail concurs. "You are such a good man," she says.

Seemingly minutes after disappearing to change for dinner, Gail is back at the Houstonian, dressed in a dazzling white satin jacket. Her hair is swooped to one side, and her dark-rimmed glasses have disappeared. "Oh, hon-ee!" She takes a participant's hand. "You got it! I can tell you got it! Your eyes are sparkling."

Gail squeezes the newcomer's face, announcing, "She's one of us!"
"I thought we were all One already," the participant protests.
"That's right!" Gail says, pleased. "You know the expression 'You are your bruthah's keeper?" she says, with a Jersey accent you could hitch a truck to. "Well, you are your bruthah!"

 

Everyone, looking swankier than ever, takes a seat. Waiters hand out party favors: copies of the novelty book Love, Loss and What I Wore from Tootsies.

After dinner, Richard Gere takes the podium. When he first grew interested in Tibet, he says, his comrades "were just a bunch of hippies like me," he says. Now, he travels around speaking to gatherings of "people of substance." He asks if he is in "Republican territory," and the crowd clamors in assent, so Gere talks about how he's learned to work with Republicans and discovered that the freedom of Tibet is not a partisan issue.

After Gere tells of the Dalai Lama's first viewing of Martin Scorsese's movie Kundun ("They got the glasses wrong," His Holiness said) and of the plight of Tibetan refugees who flee over the mountains, Sogyal Rinpoche and Swami Satchadadananda join him on the podium. People ask questions, mostly about what they can do to help Tibet.

Then at the back table, a young man named Oscar Sierra stands up. The token ghetto-kid-turned-yoga-instructor, Oscar was brought to the symposium from south-central Los Angeles by movie producer Lynda Guber to address the crowd at the symposium. Oscar is the product of an inner-city school where children learn meditation as well as math, and bringing Buddha to the underprivileged is a cause dear to Gail's heart. Along with her friend Barbara Hines, wife of developer Gerald Hines, she is planning to open a Buddhist-influenced boarding school for homeless children, The Dawn School. In preparation, Gail finished off a doctorate in education in 1995.

Oscar has already proven himself fairly gutsy, striding up and down the center aisle during his speech the day before. Now he hems and haws a little, and apologizes if his suggestion is inappropriate, but he's wondering if everyone might like to do a little exercise that he does with his yoga classes, that is to say, would everyone stand in a circle and hold hands?

People in the room blanch. Singing "wah hey guru" over and over was one thing, but look at each other? Touch each other? Helena Kriel smiles mischievously -- she likes this idea. Gere leaves the podium and confers nervously with Rinpoche, then comes back and thanks Oscar for his comment. Sogyal Rinpoche will try to do something like that at the end of the evening, Gere says, to the room's collective relief. Off the hook.

At the end of Gere's talk, all thoughts of a circle are expressly forgotten. Everyone stands and applauds. People start to gather their things, but Gail wants Professor Lin Yun to end with a blessing, so everyone sort of stops where they are, politely waiting.

Then Gail gasps. She's remembered. She leans into the mike."The circle!" she says. "We can't forget Oscar's circle!"

Everyone gulps. Clearly, a woman who can order her husband to participate in a group hug cannot be ignored by a gaggle of mere civic leaders. And so they shuffle into a kind of a finicky rectangle, with an island of stragglers who, finding themselves marooned in the middle, gingerly take hands and stand there while Professor Lin Yun blesses the house. It's not quite a circle. But at least they're trying.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila.dewan@houstonpress.com.


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