Blackstone's Jon Gray, in Denim, Warms to the Social Limelightby
Benefit raises $8 million to fight cancers linked to BRCA gene
Jeans were the theme at `simple, small' event at Cipriani
Tony James, the president of Blackstone Group, made sure to comply with the jeans dress code at the Basser Center for BRCA benefit honoring one of his firm’s stars, Jon Gray.
Greeting him, James, in blue denim, jacket and tie, passed on a message: at an earlier meeting of Metropolitan Museum of Art trustees, Met Chairman Dan Brodsky said the museum should honor Gray, too.
Then Gray proved just how much he and his wife Mindy can be worth at a gala. The very first Basser benefit raised $8 million for fighting cancers linked to BRCA gene mutations.
"I like to go all-in," Gray said a few hours later, just after bidding goodnight to one more colleague, Michael Chae. "That’s how I am in business, too."
It takes money and moneyed friends who adore you and a worthy cause to make a splash on New York’s gala circuit at the very peak of the fall season. The Grays pulled it off, and the playful theme linking everyone’s beloved jeans to the BRCA gene didn’t hurt either. The event was also a rare public display of the power Gray has accumulated as global head of real estate at Blackstone and the man being groomed for a top leadership post.
It may be the first deal Gray ever set modest expectations for. To the amusement of 1,100 people packed to overcapacity at Cipriani Wall Street underneath two gigantic pairs of jeans hanging from the ceiling, Gray said he’d requested something simple, small.
That was vintage Gray, known for being unpretentious. “For most of my career I’ve been able to avoid the limelight,” Gray said a couple of days after the Nov. 10 event. He and his wife have made plenty of “sizable gifts that we didn’t publicize,” he added.
Things started changing four years ago when Gray joined Blackstone’s board and had to disclose his shareholdings, making public that he’s wealthy -- a billionaire even. At the same time, Gray began assuming a more public role as the leader of the firm’s biggest business by assets. This gave him more comfort with the limelight and its potential benefits.
It was against this backdrop that the Grays announced a $25 million gift to found the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.
It was personal: 10 years before, Mindy’s sister Faith had died of ovarian cancer related to a BRCA gene mutation. “When you lose a loved one to BRCA-related cancer, you imagine the unimaginable for generations to come,” Mindy Gray said.
The hereditary BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations put both men and women at higher risk of developing several forms of cancer. The mutations affect 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews and 1 in 400 people in the general population, according to Susan Domchek, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA.
Domchek has put the Basser Center on the map in medical circles in just a few years, for its own research and for funding others’ research. But the Grays want to make sure families that carry the gene know they have a place to seek guidance on genetic testing and treatments, and also a place to find hope for a cure or vaccine.
There aren’t many more effective ways of raising awareness and money than a New York benefit. And this one tested the Grays’ social and professional networks and entertaining mettle, not to mention the standard dress codes.
“It cuts against the grain for us, because we’ve had this life that is fairly low-key,” Gray said. “I guess we’ve come to realize, in this context in particular, having awareness and press can be a positive.”
No detail was left to chance, with Mindy, who has a background in marketing, working on a new website and logo -- an abstract double helix -- and Gray’s sister developing a series of touching videos to be featured on Facebook.
There was no need to recruit BRCA’s best-known celebrity, Angelina Jolie, who had a double mastectomy after learning she had an 85 percent risk of developing breast cancer linked to her BRCA gene mutation.
Instead, the Grays were the celebrities, taking to the stage in Rag & Bone jeans, hers with the Basser logo printed on the left thigh, to thundering applause and a customized rap by Freestyle Love Supreme, the group that nurtured every financier’s favorite musical, “Hamilton.”
Credit the team that works on the Robin Hood Foundation’s benefit, the one that raised $101 million this year, as well as volunteers and family members, for making it fun, with time to mingle and pose for a photo as if they were inside the pocket of a giant pair of jeans.
After dinner, the American Authors, straight out of Brooklyn, performed their hit “Best Day of My Life.” Bill Ackman, his arms around his wife, danced, perhaps distracting himself from the tumble this year of his largest holding, Valeant Pharmaceuticals.
Ackman said he became friends with Gray when their daughters, now seniors in high school, were enrolled in nursery school. “Bill has a different view of publicity than I do,” Gray said. “We laugh about it.”
Almost everyone really important in Gray’s work universe was there, from Deutsche Bank’s Jacques Brand, who worked on the Hilton IPO, to relatively junior staff at Equity Office, the operating arm of Blackstone’s real estate portfolio, to Blackstone’s Joseph Baratta, John Finley, Peter Wallace, Vik Sawhney and Tyler Henritze.
That is, everyone except Blackstone Chief Executive Officer Steve Schwarzman, who was at the Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria honoring the late JPMorgan dealmaker Jimmy Lee.
“He came by earlier in the day to say how badly he felt,” Gray said. “I said, ‘Steve, don’t worry about it.”’