Putting one foot in front of the other is easier for some than for others. Clinical depression is ubiquitous. It dances with anxiety. It worships Thanatos. It comes in many forms. Sometimes its visits are brief. Sometimes it’s a constant companion. These days, it’s a quarantine side effect. The World Health Organization says it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.
And it’s out of the closet. Everyone from top executives to best-selling authors, Olympic ice skaters, star athletes, actors, and elected officials are coming forth. No harm has come to them, their images or careers. It may not affect you, but, chances are, at one time or another, it will touch a family member, love interest or friend.
It’s more than existential ennui. It manifests in the circuits of your brain and the proteins in your genes. Correcting that chemistry has proven allusive. But Audrey Gruss is giving us Hope for Depression. That’s the name of the Research Foundation she started 17 years ago, in honor and memory of her mother, karmically named Hope, who struggled with the disease.
In just 17 years, Audrey has created the country’s leading non-profit dedicated to advanced depression research. And in just ten years, the HDRF Depression Task Force she created has made groundbreaking progress towards better treatments.
“Of the 20,000 genes in the human body, they have identified the 20 genes that are involved in depression,” Audrey told me. “Can you imagine that?! Ten years is a nanosecond in scientific research. They are making incredible headway with real results in record speed. We are now able to go into clinical trials.”
The success comes from the new research protocol Audrey assembled. Rather than departments headed by individuals, she virtually linked ten neuroscientists at the top of their disciplines: from genetics to molecular biology, chemistry to neurology. Dr. Eric Nestler, Director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai, who chairs, and Task Force member Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, spoke at the symposium.
“Now we have to raise the money for up to 20 studies,” Audrey told me. “That’s a very big goal.” Audrey and Martin Gruss cover all administrative costs, so that every penny raised goes directly to research.
This year’s Annual Hope Luncheon drew 300 people and raised $700,000. The well-heeled ladies who filled the Plaza ballroom were impressed with the turnout. They left lauding the content.
Honoree Hollywood “It Girl” Dakota Johnson spoke humbly and sincerely of battling the darkness. “I’m so honored to receive the award for best depressed person,” she laughed. “Most of the time I speak about my depression in a self-deprecating way. I find it easier to look it in the eye if I wear a mask of comedy covering my pain of anxiety.”
Former honoree Brooke Shields and daughter Grier Henchy were also in the house. Previous honorees also include Aly Raisman, Michael Phelps, LeAnn Rimes, Ashley Judd, Taraji P. Henson, Richard Dreyfuss and Terry Bradshaw.
Biopharmaceutical company Sage Therapeutics was recognized for pioneering work in postpartum depression; philanthropist Michael Dudgeon for his commitment to the cause. After his own son committed suicide, working towards his own foundation, Dudgeon discovered HDRF and threw over his support.
Susan Gutfreund, Maru Hagerty, Gillian Hearst, Kim Heirston, Tania Higgins, Eleanora Kennedy, Kristen Maltese Krusen, Susan R. McCaw, Kitty and Bill McKnight, Peter S. Paine III, Barbara and Randall Smith, and Scott Snyder were co-chairs. Chuck Scarborough emceed. Louisa Benton is HDRF Executive Director.
“With the state of the world, I wake up every day feeling like my heart is being crushed,” Dakota Johnson told the room. “I feel so helpless, so hopeless.” She went on to share more nuggets of truth. “I guess that’s kind of the greatest lesson I’ve learned about depression is becoming okay with their never really being an immediate answer, never really being an immediate cure.”
The symposium, titled “Resilience: Emerging Stronger From Life’s Greatest Challenges” with keynote speaker Dr. Dennis Charney, MD, was a trove of information of what depression is and how to combat it. Charney gave examples of how prisoners of war, victims of landmines, even Charney after being shot, made it through their ordeals.
“Some people have more resilience than others,” Audrey told me. “Those who are resilient don’t get depression. Those who aren’t, can, when some of the genes involved in creating that depressive cascade and circuits in their brain are involved. The best treatment is a combination of therapy and medication.”
Laughter, as they say, can also be medicinal. ”A few weeks ago when I was having a low day,” Johnson quipped, “my partner asked me, ‘Babe, are you really struggling?’ I said, ‘no.’ And he said, ‘Babe, you’re wearing a Cats T-shirt!’ I mean Cats the musical!”
What makes me happy? Paris, the Cote d’Azur, Provence, castles, chateaus. French art and architecture is the raison d’être for the French Heritage Society. Liz McDermott Barnes, CeCe Black, Michael Kovner, Jean Doyen de Montaillou, Jean Shafiroff and Ann Van Ness chaired their glamorous gala.
FHS awards grants for architectural restoration. They have $500,000 earmarked towards that end this year, Executive Director Jennifer Herlein told me.
They’ll also contribute to a documentary film by Pierre Coulon, Reims, American City. “The film focuses on the large American humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Reims following the destruction of World War I,” Herlein told me. “It’s one of the first examples of how American philanthropy really helps support France.”
The glorious Reims Cathedral, where French kings were crowned, became a symbolic wartime target. During World War I, the Axis dropped thousands bombs on the city in just a few days. By war’s end, 60% of its buildings were destroyed. People returned homeless, possessionless. Their glorious Gothic cathedral had been bombed and burnt. Then, John D. Rockefeller stepped in and helped save it.
Among the buildings French Heritage will help save this season, are the one-of-a-kind stables at Château de Prye in Bourgogne, with ante rooms and marble paneling. In the Middle Ages, the Château de Prye was a feudal castle with moats and towers. In the 17th Century, home to a Polish queen. “The stables were known for its four hand carriage work,” Herlein continued “The finished stables will be able to promote tourism and equestrian activities around these carriages to help sustain the château.”
Further to the west — at Elizabeth Stribling’s home in the Hills overlooking Grasse — the seeds were sown for this year’s gala honoree: Gil Schafer III, an award winning architect, known for restoring and recreating classical style “New Old Houses.” His coffee table tomes (The Great American House and A Place to Call Home) are best sellers.
And he’s known FHS Chairman Elizabeth Stribling since he was twenty. She and her late husband were close friends of his parents and vacationed together.
“She’s part of my memories of the South of France,” Gil remembered. “We would explore the chateaus and castles in the nearby Loire Valley. It was very inspiring to a young guy who liked architecture but didn’t know he was going to be an architect, necessarily. The vernacular that you get in the South of France and the balance of high style architecture in Paris informed my career. The scale of the country houses set in olive groves, the way they sit on the land, with their elegant, rustic simplicity and the decorative arts, influenced my residential aesthetic.”
As for Stribling, she remembers him as “a young man with impeccable manners, quiet, but adorable. When he talked about his love of architecture and what he wanted to do, it was different than anyone in the ’80s, when everything was modern with color. Gil wanted to study the classics. He was wildly intellectual. Ultimately, he came up with something that was completely timeless: beautiful dwellings that look like they have been there forever and are so easy to live in. A Gil Schafer home will never go out of date. It doesn’t have the trends: the colors of the ’70s or the color that’s coming back, the beige or the white. I’ve been extremely proud of him and of course extremely envious to live in a Gil Schafer.”
The affection is mutual. “Elizabeth is such a lovely warm, woman,” Schafer told me. “I spent time in the American South and have a soft spot for Southern women. She has a true mix of being a New Yorker and a Southern lady.”