At last the story can be told.

After spurning a television crew, intoning a definitive no to several press photographers, declaring in perfect French to museum director J. Carter Brown that she wanted nothing to do with any aspect of the media, Lydia Delectorskaya finally acquiesced to give a quickie tour of the cutout art of Henri Matisse at the National Gallery yesterday morning.

As one of Matisse's studio assistants, Delectorskaya played the role of an ersatz Santa's helper: slopping paint on pieces of paper that the master would then attack with a pair of scissors and paste on various-sized canvasses. But lest the art world be misled to believe that Matisse created paper snipping as a new genre, his assistant set the record straight:

"The walls in the studio were dirty and stained, so he'd just cut out white birds and put them over the stains because he didn't have time to paint the walls."

All this, and a little more, was blurted by Delectorskaya as she lurched past the 55 pieces hanging in the gallery - occasionally stopping to offer a bon mot or two. The National had called a press conference for 11 a.m., but after a few words in French with director Brown, that idea was scotched in less time than it takes to get misunderstood in a Paris bistro.

"Downplay my role," the 60ish woman instructed the members of the press trooping behind her. With good reason. She is not, an official at the gallery whispered, exactly loved by the Matisse family. First serving as the artist's model in the early '30s and then, as one biography puts it, "as his loyal secretary and buffer against intrusion," Delectroskaya eventually became Matisse's mistress - a fact that she refused to even address herself to

"Where and how did you meet Matisse?" she is asked.

She smiles wisely, and answers:

"That is another story."

Then she disappears into the crowd of art gazers, eluding any further forays into her past and her personal life.