To step into the Palm Beach home of Audrey Gruss is to enter grace. Here, the stone is natural beige; the halls echo with sounds of water; and the details of craftsmanship bear the hands of the legion of artisans who brought the couple’s Italian Renaissance vision to life. Serving as both counterpoint and complement is the art. Their expansive collection, which ranges from Anish Kapoor to Lee Krasner, is a collaboration with the art advisor Kim Heirston.

Last year, Heirston sat down with Audrey Gruss, a guiding philanthropist and founder of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, to speak about her life’s work and her tireless pursuit of beauty in design. As Gruss prepares for her ninth annual Southampton Race of Hope, we revisit their conversation.

 

KIM HEIRSTON: How did you come to own a home in Palm Beach?
AUDREY GRUSS: My husband and I came to the Palm Beach area in 1986, because we were both equestrians and wanted to check out the Palm Beach Polo Club. We rented there first, then bought a turnkey home, and ultimately built in the Polo Club, when Martin started a high-goal polo team. We found that we were going to Palm Beach all the time, especially to black-tie events. We made many friends in Palm Beach through the polo world, and bought a house there in 1990.
What was the inspiration behind your home?
We loved Palm Beach so much and always enjoyed our winters here, so we decided to build on a perfect piece of land in 1997. Villa Delfino was designed by exterior architect James Carmo of Bridges, Marsh, and Carmo. We wanted a house that was pure Italian Renaissance, not a pastiche of French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Moroccan, etc. We hired Toni Facella Sensi, a leading interior architect and designer in Rome, to give us pure Italianate details in the interior design aspect as well.
The house was finished in 2000 and we turned to Palm Beach interior designer and friend Scott Snyder a few years ago to refresh the upstairs bedrooms and other rooms in the house. The house reflects a combination of old and new, both in its interior design and in our collection of art. We love the traditional details of the overdoors, columns, crown moldings, and ceilings, so we also placed some of our Old Master art collection in the living room: four Vanvitelli paintings of scenes of Rome, Piazza Navona, the Colosseum, the Vatican, and Piazza del Popolo. A Panini hangs over the fireplace.
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The house is called Villa Delfino. Where does the name come from?
It means the Dolphin Villa, because dolphins have historically always been a symbol of warmth and welcome. The Villa Delfino symbol consists of two entwined Regency dolphins, with a shell on top. It is on the outside front door and sets the tone for objects and accessories that are “of the sea.” The house is situated with the front facing the ocean and the back facing the inland waterway, and that gave us the idea of collecting objects that were inspired by water. One of the first objects we purchased and found in London were a pair of 18th-century “hippocampi.” They are beautiful terracotta dolphins that function as vases. We have them in the exterior entrance hall filled with yellow Oncidium orchids. And that theme continues throughout the house.
Yes. In the main entrance hall, a Regency mirror depicts two mermen at the bottom, with a dolphin on either side of Neptune at the top of the mirror. Next to it is a beautiful Jean-Michel Othoniel sculpture of silver and mauve glass balls.
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Do you have a favorite room?
Martin and I have always wanted something of a grotto feeling in the house. We were thrilled when our de- signer came up with the concept of an entire dining room in shells. Martin and I were walking down Via del Babuino in Rome, and we couldn’t believe we saw these 17th-century Dutch paintings that showed collections of shells. They’re now in the dining room.
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Your collection spans from Old Masters to contemporary art.
We’ve collected contemporary art because, as I’ve mentioned, we love that combination of old and new, and the energy it brings to any environment. It is a unifying design principle of both the house and the furniture and accessories that we have collected over the years. Contemporary art resides alongside Italian antiques and objects.
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Do you remember the first work we acquired together? It was the beautiful “Brown Glow,” by Adolph Gottlieb at Art Basel Miami in 2007.
That’s right. And it shows how well we worked together.

The funny thing was that our advisory had already put a reserve on that painting, because we had loved it so much. And then you and Martin stumbled upon it. We were in perfect sync. The same sort of coup de foudre happened with your 1962 Twombly and 1957 Mitchell. I call it Art Kismet!
Agreed. The Pistoletto room is, in some ways, the nucleus of Villa Delfino. At one point, we were going to focus only on con- temporary Italian artists. Then we had to open it up a bit. However, it’s in the atrium that everything comes together: Italy, past and present. The palette and mirrored surfaces unite everything.
Yes, in the atrium is the exceptional contemporary Pistoletto diptych, “Two Less One Colored.” One panel features Neapolitan yellow pigment, the other, Mediterranean blue, with a broken mirror and framed in a classical gold frame—a prime example of old and new working together beautifully. The atrium has handmade blue and yellow ceramic tile on the walls from Sicily that show birds that are surrounded by grapes and greenery. There are also antique 19th-century terracotta urns and a pair of niches. At the end of the gallery, there is a life-size 1st-century Roman statue, depicting a woman draped in her toga.

Your 1962 Frankenthaler, “Hommage À M.L.” (referring to the late 19th-century Parisian avant-garde painter, Marie Laurencin), in your master bedroom is one of my favorite art moments, ever. With its soft palette, it felt as though the painting had been commissioned for the space. What is it like to wake up to this Frankenthaler every morning?
Heaven!

And then you have Martin’s office, which feels quite traditional.
It has contemporary leather walls and a fabulous classical ceiling. It also contains a collection of beautiful leather-bound books. There is a 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat work on paper, entitled “Batman,” and a Jean Dubuffet from 1963 hanging over the fireplace, depicting an amorphous figure on a car chassis. Martin is a highly respected car collector. Do you find there is an overlap between art collecting and car collecting? Martin has a distinctive collection of vintage cars and [has] said that it is based on collecting the cars of his youth, that he couldn’t afford at the time. We have enjoyed doing car tours and rallies all over the world in these vintage cars. In a way, Martin’s car collecting is very similar to the collecting of art.

How so?
Martin and I have enjoyed collecting art from the time we went to our first art show together. We travel to most of the shows, and especially enjoy Frieze in London, Paris Plus, Art Basel in Basel, and Art Basel Miami. It’s something we love to do together, and we find it enriches our life and is also a great learning experience. You’re our wonderful art guide in this endeavor. Whatever we bought before you, we have deaccessioned.

You and I bonded over the circumstances of our upbringings. My mom, Victoria, suffered from depression, as did your mother, Hope. In 2006, you founded the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
I started the charity 17 years ago in memory of my mother, who struggled with the debilitating illness her whole adult life. Our dual mission is to raise awareness and to educate people that depression is a medical illness that can be helped. The key part of our mission is to fund advanced brain research into the diagnosis and prevention of depression, and into new and better treatments and medication.

On the research front, is there anything in particular that you are most excited about as we speak, in terms of possible treatment developments?
HDRF brings together top neuroscience researchers from various research institutions, with areas of expertise that complement each other. Our approach differs from the more conventional research pathway, in which separate investigators at separate institutions work independently. At our Depression Task Force, all the researchers must collaborate with each other. In November, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of this Depression Task Force. In that time, scientists have identified—from the more than 3 million genes in the human body—the 20 genes that are involved in depression. And many of them will be able to go into clinical trials as potential medications. This could be world-changing. Audrey Gruss You also started a fragrance collection in honor of your mother, with proceeds that help fund HDRF. Where did you get the idea to do that?
Hope Fragrance grew out of my mother’s love for fragrance. She said that it uplifted her the same way music, art, and cultural events did. She layered fragrances by spraying one on top of each other. I decided to do a collection based on those memories. I worked with Firmenich, one of the leading fragrance companies in the world, to design the classic Hope fragrance, which is a fusion of four white flowers: lily of the valley, gardenia, jasmine, and tuberose. One hundred percent of all net profits go directly to depression research at HDRF. One of the events to launch Hope Fragrances in Palm Beach was having a tea in my home, surrounded by white flowers with the four essences of Hope.

Gardens and flowers have always brought you such joy. How has that manifested at your Palm Beach home?
The land here gave us a wonderful opportunity to do a series of outside levels. So we have four levels of land going from the upper terrace, which is a wonderful place to entertain after dinner. And then our second level down is a parterre with white roses. Our third level is the pool, with a wonderful Italianate gazebo that’s made of white marble columns. They were all inspired by our travels in Italy. There’s a great view from the lake, where you see the double staircase, and the beautiful symmetry of the stately date palms on either side.

Do you entertain often?
Our home is our sanctuary, but we love to welcome friends and entertain them. I find that I like to invite key supporters of the Hope Foundation, and the several committees that are associated with our Race of Hope event in February. I enjoy having our committee members over for lunch, and we’ve invited our Board Members and HDRF psychiatrists to dinners at the house with our key donors so that they might get mental health information in a quiet environment. It’s our way of showing our gratitude to those who have supported us. We deeply appreciate the generosity of our incredible donors! You’re also passionate about supporting local art institutions. In Palm Beach, you’re on the board of the Norton Museum of Art. And you and Martin are both on the board of the Society of the Four Arts. How did you get involved with the Norton?
We’ve attended events since the moment we were in the Palm Beach area. So, for 37 years we’ve been enjoying the Norton. And I chaired the 2000 bicentennial gala. When I met the new CEO, Ghislain d’Humières, I was so impressed with his vision for the museum that I was delighted when they asked me to join the board.

What is your happy place?
Each and every one of our homes is a happy place when we are in it.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of becoming a collector and supporter of the arts?
Martin and I have learned how important it is—it’s not just art appreciation, but it’s also the knowledge behind the painting that makes for a wonderful involvement when you own it. We’re constantly learning, and by purchasing art, we’ve learned so much more about ourselves and what we like. It’s this understanding process, this learning process. To see that the mind can grow and be stretched, and to see aspects of how other people see the world, is so powerful.

Read the complete interview and see more exclusive photos in PALMER Vol. 4, available to purchase now.