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Landmark in the News

Vows, Gail Marquis and Audrey Smaltz

The New York Times, by Abby Ellin, November 27, 2011

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Gail Marquis, left, and Audrey Smaltz, partners of 
12 years, at their ceremony

AUDREY SMALTZ said that she wanted to stop being a “complainer,” as she put it, and that she needed to know who she was. “I really had no idea,” she said.

So in January 1997, she signed up for a seminar with Landmark Education, a personal training and development program in New York.

During one session, Ms. Smaltz was asked what she was looking for in a relationship. A black man, she replied, “someone taller than me, who likes to dance and travel.”

When she met Gail Marquis in February 1999 at another Landmark seminar, she thought nothing of it. Why would she? Ms. Marquis, after all, was a woman. And Ms. Smaltz, who had been married briefly and had shared a 14 1/2-year relationship with the musician Lionel Hampton, had never dated a woman.

Still, there was something she liked about Ms. Marquis, a former professional basketball player who had won a silver medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and is in the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. Maybe it was her quiet strength. Maybe it was her gentle disposition. Or maybe it was her 6-foot-2 frame, no small thing for Ms. Smaltz, who is an even 6 feet.

Ms. Marquis, in turn, was intrigued by the Harlem-born Ms. Smaltz, a former model and the chief executive and founder of the Ground Crew, a backstage management company for the fashion industry. Ms. Marquis liked her energy, her easy laughter, her opera star charisma.

As David Martin, a former model who has known both women independently for nearly 30 years, said: “Audrey’s got one of those personalities that you either love her or you get out of her way. She lets you know exactly what she’s feeling.”

At the time, Ms. Marquis, an insurance and financial services professional, had been struggling with life issues. “I just felt my love life, my relationships, my money — everything was kind of stagnant.”

She had never had a long relationship before, she said, in part because she always questioned other people’s motives. “I never knew if they wanted to be my friend or just be out with the pro ballplayer,” she said. “I played it very close to the vest. I didn’t know if they wanted me for me. I wasn’t a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, but I was well situated. That’s what held me back.”

She thought Ms. Smaltz was “nice,” but romance never crossed her mind. “I was a gay woman, and I didn’t know if she was ‘in the family,’ as we say.”

The two women struck up a conversation, and Ms. Smaltz, who has closely cropped blond hair and has been named to the International Best-Dressed List three times, invited Ms. Marquis to a class she was teaching at the Learning Annex called “Look, Feel and Act Like a Million Bucks.”

Both thought the other was much younger than she actually was.

“I was 44, she was 61, but I didn’t know her age,” Ms. Marquis said. “I really thought she was about 55. She thought I was in my late 30s.”

Ms. Marquis attended the seminar, and Ms. Smaltz promptly dissected everything she was wearing, from her watch (too small for someone her height) to the shade of her pantyhose (the wrong shade of brown).

Ms. Smaltz, now 74, chuckled at the memory. “She had on her best everything, and I ripped her apart! But I was gentle.”

At their reception

Ms. Marquis, 56, said she wasn’t upset. “I thought, That’s what she’s about.”

A few days later, Ms. Marquis called Ms. Smaltz, who promptly invited her to church. After the service, they went for a $75 champagne brunch at the Peninsula hotel. Not long after that, Ms. Marquis, unfazed by the difference in their ages, called her again and said, “I want to take you out on a date.”

“What’s a date?” Ms. Smaltz asked.

“I said: ‘I’m going to pick you up, buy you dinner, and when we’re done, I’ll bring you back to your apartment,’ ” Ms. Marquis said. “ ‘But I’m a lesbian.’ ”

Ms. Smaltz was not bothered by this, and on May 1, Ms. Marquis arrived at Ms. Smaltz’s penthouse apartment at 55th and Fifth. They shared a glass of Champagne on the terrace, and then drove to the Spirito Grill in Weehawken, N.J., with views overlooking the Hudson River. “We didn’t shut up,” Ms. Smaltz said.

At the end of the night, Ms. Smaltz invited her up for a drink, but Ms. Marquis demurred. It was after midnight, and “I didn’t think it was right,” she said.

So Ms. Smaltz took a different approach. “Well, are you going to kiss me good night?” she said.

“I really wanted to kiss you hello!” Ms. Marquis said.

It was the first time Ms. Smaltz had kissed a woman. “I’m kissing this woman, and I’m feeling the same thing as when I kissed a man!” she said. “I was shocked at my feelings.”

Ms. Marquis was in her own daze. After Ms. Smaltz left the car, she looked in the rearview mirror and inspected her lips, to see if she had imagined the whole encounter. “And sure enough, her lipstick was on my lipstick,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Whoa.’ ”

They’ve been together ever since, dividing their time between Manhattan and Jersey City, where Ms. Marquis, who grew up in Queens, owns a home.

Still, there were issues, at least in Ms. Marquis’s head. She wasn’t “100 percent out” to her family, and she worried about their reaction. Soon after they met, she brought Ms. Smaltz to a family party, where, among other people, were three of her aunts, ages 65, 70 and 75.

“Audrey asked them if they wanted something to drink, and she went to get it for them,” Ms. Marquis recalled. She braced herself for the barrage of questions. Instead, her aunts said, “ ‘Is that Audrey Smaltz?’ ” Ms. Marquis said. “They remembered her as a fashion commentator for Ebony magazine. They all had stories about Audrey Smaltz.”

Ms. Smaltz, on the other hand, practically took out a billboard in Times Square announcing her new love. She introduced Ms. Marquis to all her old boyfriends, including Mr. Hampton. “He loved Gail,” she said.

“She said, ‘I have a marvelous new person!’ ” said Eddie Alfaro, Ms. Smaltz’s longtime hair colorist. “I said, ‘What’s his name?’ And she said, ‘It’s a her!’ I said, ‘Are you happy?’ She said, ‘I’ve never been happier!’ ”

It was Ms. Smaltz who proposed, three months into the relationship. Same-sex marriage hadn’t been legalized in New York back then, and neither woman (“Lifelong New Yorkers!” Ms. Smaltz said) wanted to marry outside the state. Nor were they interested in a civil union. “It sounds like you should put on the rubber gloves and a face mask,” Ms. Marquis said.

They were married on a brisk and sunny Nov. 11, at the pool off 103rd Street, in Central Park. The Rev. Mariah Britton, a Baptist minister and the founder of the Moriah Institute, officiated. The two women walked through the park arm in arm, Ms. Smaltz in a white pantsuit and chunky pearl necklace, Ms. Marquis in black pants and a yellow jacket, a yellow calla lily in her lapel.

About 75 friends and family members whistled and clapped as they approached, notes from a saxophone echoing in the breeze. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, with whom both women are friendly, sent a congratulatory message. (Ms. Smaltz is on the board of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.)

“He sent beautiful flowers last night!” Ms. Smaltz bellowed after Mr. Bloomberg’s note was read aloud.

After the ceremony, the two women joined 25 family members for a luncheon at Robert, in the Museum of Arts and Design, on Central Park South. On Nov. 18, they held an open house at Ms. Smaltz’s penthouse.

“She’s my life partner, my lover, my Sweetheart Gentle Giant,” Ms. Smaltz said.

Photos courtesy of Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times