On a cloudless afternoon in May, Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey was sitting on the floor in the living room of her Richard Neutra-designed home in the Hollywood Hills. Behind her, through retractable glass walls, one could see a panorama of the surrounding canyons and, closer in, a turquoise swimming pool, where Grey’s 3½-year-old son, Jules, from her marriage to Brad Grey, the late former chief executive of Paramount Pictures, was having a swim lesson.
Hanging on the wall to Grey’s left was a blown-up, life-size, black-and-white photo of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis, the latter glowering with stogie in hand, taken by notorious paparazzo Ron Galella. On the opposite wall was a Warhol silkscreen of Jackie O.
“Throughout history,” Grey said with a sly smile, “widowed mothers are a particular type of badass.”
Grey, 42, was wearing black pants and a shirt from the Row clothing line by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. The inside of her left wrist was tattooed “BG,” for Brad Grey. Around her neck she wore a gold ILUSM (“I Love You So Much”) necklace by a friend, L.A. designer Jennifer Meyer, which was given to her by another friend, the British actress and lingerie model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Sitting on her wood-and-stone Axel Vervoordt coffee table was an open spiral notebook. A high school dropout who sees herself as an eternal student, Grey is always jotting down book titles, quotes, names of people to meet.
Next to her on the floor was a stack of pages she’d torn out of magazines and saved for inspiration for Violet Grey, the Hollywood-chic e-commerce beauty site she started in 2013, which occupies a storefront in a John Elgin Woolf-designed townhouse on Melrose Place.
Billed as “the industry’s beauty edit,” Violet Grey has quickly become a go-to source for the kind of rarefied luxury products one might find in the medicine cabinets of Hollywood’s most sought-after makeup artists and aestheticians. Combining trusted European staples – Sisley, La Prairie, La Mer – with newer cult products like Vintner’s Daughter, Grey’s store isn’t a competitor with Sephora, Goop or Glossier so much as it is the beauty world’s answer to Colette, the legendary Paris boutique.
“When I met her in her shop, I thought, ‘Here is the great beauty curator,’” said Leonard Lauder, the 86-year-old billionaire chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder, who has lunch with Grey whenever he’s in L.A. “She’s a force of nature.”
Grey said she curates Violet Grey for a certain type of woman, an archetype she traces back to something Francis Ford Coppola told her when they became friends in San Francisco 20 years ago. The two would play the Italian card game Scopa at the sidewalk tables outside Coppola’s restaurant. One afternoon Grey asked him what he looked for in an actress.
“An actress who looks like she has a secret,” the director replied.
When she started working on a business plan, Grey was thinking about this and another alluring quality — strength paired with “an intangible kind of vulnerability.” The duality is usually found in women, she said, “but you can also find it in Steve McQueen or Brad Pitt or Obama. I think it has to do with a swagger, a certain sort of sex appeal, but I think it's really vulnerability. To feel moments of having that — either you're attracted to yourself, you feel that in yourself, or you feel someone else being attracted to you in a way that feels like no other way they've been attracted to you. And that's what we're always trying to help our customers achieve. In my case, I achieve it maybe two or three times a year.”
Grey has cultivated a similar sense of mystery about herself. “Cassandra is a mix of a CEO, a Buddhist monk and a madam,” said “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, one of her closest friends, who met her at January Jones’ birthday party a few years ago.
“Cassandra’s appeal lies in the fact that she can be both completely present yet mysterious at the same time,” said her friend, the journalist and former “Real Housewives of New York” cast member Carole Radziwill. “She has that ability to keep people slightly off balance.”
Her store isn’t commonplace either. Violet Grey’s bestselling product is a $260 face cream by Augustinus Bader, its secret being “a combination of natural amino acids, high-grade vitamins, and synthesized molecules — to activate regeneration of the body’s own stem cells,” according to the company’s website.
Other strong sellers include a $195, 24-karat, gold-plated vibrating bar by Jillian Dempsey, used to relax facial muscles, and a $64 body scrub from Carson Meyer’s C & the Moon that went viral when Kim Kardashian West called it “the best scrub ever” on Instagram. A Violet Grey spokeswoman said the brand did more than $10 million in revenue in 2018, doubling its business over the previous year.
“We have a little bit of a reputation for everything being really expensive and prestige,” said Grey, who founded the company with Tiffany Bensley and Ariella Feldman. “Beauty is expensive. A lot of it’s worth it.”
As Grey was talking, her girlfriend, deejay Samantha Ronson, loped in wearing jeans, a St. Paul’s school hoodie and high-tops. Grounded in shared sobriety and a wry take on fame, the couple tease each other but project a haimish domesticity. “There’s not a lot of teeth grinding when you’re with them,” Weiner said. “They really appreciate each other.”
Grey and Ronson started dating in November 2017, six months after Brad died. While Ronson, 41, once had something of a reputation as a femme fatale for reportedly dating Lindsey Lohan, it was Grey’s first relationship with a woman. “I'd kissed women when I was a teenager or in my early 20s, but that was more like I was kissing myself,” Grey said.
“Samantha is cool,” Grey said when asked about her son's reception of Ronson. “And kids can feel that. I think Jules sees her a bit like the cool older brother-sister sibling. And I think now he really understands that we are his family, that Samantha is part of the family and she’s not going anywhere. And she’s great at the parenting stuff I’m not good at. He would have this whole racket of shenanigans at bedtime, because he doesn’t want to go to sleep. So Samantha created this star sticker system, where each step — bathroom, brush your teeth, bath, pajamas — gets a sticker, and he's so into it. It was getting out of hand, and now it's fixed.”
“And I have all the good candy," Ronson said. "My section of the cupboard is where all the good stuff is."
Grey’s parents were hippies. They divorced when she was 2, and her mother — a Montessori teacher inclined toward yoga, health food and getting arrested at anti-nuke protests — married another hippie.
“He was a stained-glass artist,” said Grey. “So we became like the traveling stained-glass artists. And the stained-glass pieces were expensive, so they would make maybe only three or four pieces a year. We lived in a place called Fines Creek [N.C.], which was in the Smoky Mountains and really rural, which I have such fond memories of. It was a big kind of Victorian-feeling house, and we lived on the land. I don't think we went to a store. We grew all of our food. There was a lot of cooking; there's a lot of art, animals and farming.”
She spent summers with her father in San Francisco, where he worked in “something to do with computers.” Her paternal grandmother, Marjorie Huysentruyt, was also around. “She was very glamorous,” said Grey. “She would have matching suits and always wear gloves and have her makeup and hair done. That was the first time I was exposed to beauty and polish.”
Back on the road with mom, Grey was home-schooled. “I always had one or two best friends, like we would die for each other, these really intense relationships. And then I would lose them because we would move.”
When she was 12, Grey moved in with her father and started middle school in San Francisco. “It wasn’t the best entry point for somebody who’d never been in a school,” she said. “I was very depressed and isolated. I knew, because people said so, that I was pretty, but I didn’t feel that way. I always wanted to be someone else.” The misery continued into high school, and eventually Grey dropped out and got her own place in San Francisco.
She did some catalog modeling — “so I had a little bit of cash” — and started working with real estate agents. “The real estate market was just insane; there were all these really young people with all this money because it was the dot-com boom. There were MBAs working as real estate agents. They made so much money, it was crazy. And I started working with them; I did the rebranding for one and then for several, and suddenly my depression was gone. I was the most happy, most social person.”
Around this time she and a friend made their first trip to New York. “We saved our money and stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. It was the first snowfall of winter, and we walked 40 blocks in the snow and went to this nightclub, Lotus, and danced, and I thought, This is where I need to be.” A friend connected her with one of the club’s owners, David Rabin. She and Rabin became poker pals — “He let me come and play in the guys’ games” — and Rabin recommended her to investors, including PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who had started a supper club in San Francisco called Frisson.
“I had developed a lot of relationships with dot-com people and entrepreneurs and anybody kind of moving and shaking who could afford to buy a house,” Grey said. “I became part of this network that I was marketing to, and I had a lot of relationships with people that people would like to have relationships with. So I started working with restaurants like Frisson to help program their establishments to attract these kinds of people. I had these accounts where I could basically buy people dinner and wine, put six people together and so on, and I couldn't believe someone was paying me to do this.”
Grey is not unaware of her chutzpah. “Since I was very young, I was always able to get to people,” she said. “I'm really interested in people that are the best at what they do or at least striving to be the best at what they do. And usually those kinds of people like to be told that they are those kinds of people. So that could be the entry line in the email where you ask them to meet with you. And you have something specific that you want to meet with them about. So I would have a list of questions that I wanted to ask them or a problem that I was trying to solve — how would they approach that? And that's fun for people. I think I was able to get into a lot of people's offices or meet with people or talk to people on the phone that would normally be maybe challenging for most people to get to, with sort of good old-fashioned charm and by complimenting them immediately. And being so passionate about how much of an impact it would make on me if I could just talk to them for a little while.”
Work took her back to New York, where she helped establish the Norwood Club in Chelsea. “My job was to find all of the founding members, and they wanted proper artists, like painters, sculptors and architects, and writers and actors,” Grey said. “That’s how I met Carole [Radziwill]. I put together a committee when I first started, because I didn't know how to get to all of these people, and Carole knows everybody and people love her. She used to have these parties at her apartment where she would be wearing a silver dress and smoking a joint and the room would be filled with all these different kinds of people, a mixture of high and low, and that was exactly the crowd we wanted at this club.”
“The 25-year-old Cassandra was an incredibly fun girl with a full dance card,” Radziwell said. “She seemed wiser than her years.”
When Grey met her husband-to-be, she was living in downtown New York with a professional pingpong player. “I was crazy about him, but not like in love with him,” she said. During a trip to L.A., she attended a dinner at the Chateau Marmont that her friend Jim Berkus, the chairman of United Talent Agency, had put together — so she could meet a certain celebrity.
“At the time I was completely star-struck over Larry David,” Grey said. “I watched his show all the time. And Jim said, ‘Well, let’s have dinner.’ It was incredible because Larry David is exactly the same person in person.”
Brad Grey was at the dinner. He flirted with Cassandra, but she didn’t bite. A month or so later she was back in L.A. “All these well-known guys were getting divorced, and they were all living in this building on Ocean Drive, in what my friend Carole dubbed the divorce towers,” she said. “Brad was getting divorced, Jim Berkus was getting divorced, Larry David was getting divorced, [music producer] David Foster was getting divorced. And they’d moved into this building with a concierge and all that. There were a few dinners, with different people, and at one of them I sat next to Brad and there was definitely chemistry.”
Cassandra went back to New York. She and Brad started texting. “It was like a teenage love crush kind of thing,” she said. “What’s great about texting is that you can document the start of your relationship. I still have all of those texts.”
Their 2011 wedding — attended by Robert Evans, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Gwen Stefani, Jack Nicholson, Sue Mengers, David Chase, Don Rickles and a host of Hollywood worthies — was held at Frank Sinatra’s Holmby Hills hacienda, which Brad Grey had purchased and the couple would later tear down. They then spent five years working closely with architect Howard Backen and design firm A.M. Atelier to create a jaw-dropping $70-million estate.
Cassandra quickly adjusted to the new lifestyle. “I had been living in a fourth-floor walk-up in the West Village with a housekeeper who came once a week for two hours,” she said. “I was like, ‘What do you mean the housekeeper is here every day? And what do you mean there are three of them?’ ”
Brad Grey, the super-agent-turned-producer who was instrumental in “The Sopranos” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and under whom Paramount released blockbusters such as “The Transformers” and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” and critical hits such as “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” was a one-man trove of Hollywood lore.
“He really was one of those last men standing in terms of really being completely enamored with talent and show business and the glamour of it,” Grey said. “That was always what he wanted to do from when he was a kid watching ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ‘The Honeymooners’ and Johnny Carson. He just thought, ‘Those guys are having a good time.’”
Six months after the wedding, Brad was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. The couple kept it quiet; he would live for five more years. When he died, in May 2017, even close friends were stunned. Grey herself went into shock, and clouds crossed her face when speaking of the final months.
“It’s still just excruciating,” she said. “It's so hard to go there. Up until 12 hours before he died, I didn’t believe he was actually going to die. And he died in my arms, which was a whole other experience.” They had lived in their dream home for eight months. To cope, Grey turned to friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, Eastern philosophy and her therapist, Phil Stutz, the bestselling author of “The Tools.”
Cassandra was in the midst of developing Violet Grey when Brad got sick. It took her two years to raise the $2 million in seed money. Only in the second and third round of funding, she said, did she feel comfortable taking money from people she and Brad knew. She credits Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-a-Porter, with providing inspiration. “I read an article about her, and I just thought, ‘Oh, that's it,’” Grey said. “Natalie said something along the lines of combining two addictive activities: Perusing a magazine and shopping.”
Grey is planning to expand into product development and collaborations. “Things that are new to the world, in the wellness and personal care field,” she said. “Doctor-approved devices you’d find in any aesthetician’s office in L.A. or Manhattan but you’ll now be able to use at home.”
She is also curating a selection of products at lower price points. “We’ve started what we’re calling ‘the drugstore,’ based on the idea of a French pharmacy,” Grey said. “What we want to do now is tell you, ‘OK, this is the cream we've seen the most results with and that people are seemingly addicted to and continue to buy and continue to be really happy with. It's $250. We understand this is not cheap and not everyone can afford this. Here’s the cream for a lot less but which is still best in class at this price point. You can graduate later to the more expensive ones.’ ”
At the moment, she’s looking at spaces in L.A. for what she calls Violet Lab, a sort of Warhol’s Factory-slash-Apple Store for the beauty world. “There will be a showroom, where you feel like you’re walking into a giant medicine cabinet, and you’ll be able to buy things using your phone,” Grey said. Another room will have Violet Grey’s “committee” of testers in an open floor plan, evaluating products and inviting clients to join in the process. If the prototype works, Grey said, she might replicate the medicine cabinet store in New York, Tokyo and London.