OCCUPIED AUSTRIA, just after World War II: She was a 7-year-old child when the Russians came, a young woman before they left. When they drank at night, sometimes she could hear them in the street, pounding for schnapps on the downstairs door. Their whims were law.
They marched into her family's apartment and took, as she remembers, everything. "Down to the silverware," says Helene von Damm, stroking a teaspoon that throws sparkles into the rich darkness of the White House dining room. "I was always afraid when I saw a Russian, yes."
There were rapes. "I remember being happy about not being older," she says of the first few months. "Most of the older girls were quite afraid."
There were stabbings, too. The mother of a friend went to pick berries, and the next day was found dead in the woods. Another neighbor, knowing the Russians would kill him, shot his family, then himself. "He got word that he was on some list," remembers Von Damm. "In the note, he said he and his wife talked it over, and they decided it was the better way to go. First the two kids, then the wife, then the husband."
In 1959 she immigrated to the United States, and, six years later in Detroit, first heard Ronald Reagan speak. He talked of American pride and the Soviet threat. Three months after, she went west -- his disciple.
Today, Helene von Damm's desk is five feet from the door of the Oval Office. At 42, her title is special assistant to the president and her office, one of high yellow walls and pretty paned-glass doors, is flooded with history. It looks out on the White House rose garden, gray and quiet this month. The room itself has its own reverential silence. As in church, you can hear it.
"To think that a foreigner ended up in a spot like this," she says, tall, dark and awed. "This whole office, everything, is mind-boggling . . . When I would go by the White House, I always had goose bumps. Probably because I was brought up overseas, to me, America is very special. And to think . . ."
She falters. Then stops. "Excuse me," she says, reaching for Kleenex.
Two tears fall to her cheeks.
It's the kind of story so full of unashamed patriotism and pathos that you think you must have seen it on a late movie somewhere. The dark-eyed Austrian girl, smitten by daydreams and ambition, grows up terrorized by war. With a little pluck and daring she leaves the old country, then comes upon Ronald Reagan in the new.
He announces for governor and she, as if on a pilgrimage, goes straight to California. A believer. She badgers the campaign people twice a week for three months until they hire her. Two years later, she's the governor's personal secretary.
Fourteen years later, the White House. She's a celebrity in Austria.
"I think they're a little astonished that this could happen," she says. "I'm not sure it could happen in Europe. It's like the old-fashioned American dream -- you come over here, and you do good."
She campaigned for Reagan in 1976, helped raise $2.5 million for him as an East Coast finance director from 1979 to 1980, and in between compiled a book of his letters. "When Ronald Reagan's message as candidate for governor of California reached me," she wrote in the introduction, "It changed my life."
She was right. As special assistant, she is manager of Reagan's White House office, handling his personal phone calls, arranging his papers, overseeing the correspondence unit, deciding who and what he sees and doesn't see. It is the screening job of secretary, but it is a screening job of enormous power.
Throughout, she is the fervent idealogue, "the boss'" ultimate apostle.
"It's like converting to Catholicism," says Nancy Reynolds, the longtime Reagan friend who lived with Von Damm for two years. "You're much more of a rabid Catholic after that. Helene is a convert -- and an early convert."
"She's absolutely the loyalist," says Mike Deaver, the White House deputy chief of staff who used to date her. "Anybody who would hear Ronald Reagan speak, and then immediately get on a bus to go work for him . . ."
"It was a plane," corrects Von Damm.
There are fresh flowers on her desk, American impressionist paintings on the wall, a shiny Swedish ivy on a side table. It is bright, airy and ceremonial enough to cause her to say: "This whole thing is very awesome environment. I said to the president the other day, 'The Oval Office is not a place where you can ever relax. Do you suppose they made it that way for a reason?'"
She is dressed in a striped silk blouse with a big bow at the neck, a brown skirt and big gold earrings. The look is classy. She has a way of cocking her head and smiling as if you are just the most wonderful person in the world. She looks at the president like this.
Her dark hair is short, her eyes moist, the accent heavy and lilting. Recently engaged to a New Jersey businessman, she has just completed mountaineering training with the Sierra Club. Her latest dream is a trip to Nepal.
Back in Austria, her dream was America. The daughter of a village engineer, she was born during a war that's now a bad, hazy memory. Much more vivid is the occupation.
"You always have to remember," she says, "that it was totally like a dictatorship. You always had to behave yourself. If you stepped out of line, there was no one there to protect you.
"My father," she adds, "died when I was 12, so when a lot of the families got back on their feet after the war, we no longer had a dad. Both my brother and I went to school and then started work as soon as we could."
After the Russians left, her first job was as a secretary in Vienna, then Sweden and Germany. "Adventuresome and ambitious by nature," she wrote in the introduction to her book of Reagan's letters, "I was determined to see more of the world before settling down and to achieve more than I thought was possible in a socialistic environment."
She met an American GI in Germany, married him in early 1959, then came with him to America later that year. The immigration, she says, "was on my agenda."
They settled in Detroit, but divorced six years later. While working for the political action committee of the American Medical Association, she heard Reagan speak to the group. The next stop was California.
"I would be lying if I told you it was one specific thing that did it," she says. "It was overall the thrust of his address. You know, the way he sees it with foreign policy and the Russians. I could literally identify with his view of the world. To talk about a threat, and then to live it yourself . . ."
Years later, she's become the kind of assistant who can tell you more about the boss than any congressman or Cabinet member. California insiders say that she -- along with aides Mike Deaver, Ed Meese and Secretary of State -- Designate William Clark -- is one of the few staffers who has a close personal relationship with the president.
"Bye-bye," she says to him as he leaves the Oval Office the day of his econimics speech to Congress. "Don't work too hard this afternoon." She sounds like a mother.
"It's been said that nobody really knows Ronald Reagan," she wrote in her book. "While he is an open, warm and thoughtful individual, he is also an intensely private man. He was always the governor, never one of the boys. A Ronald Reagan in a smoke-filled rap session after hours with his staff, or political friends, sitting behind the desk with rolled-up shirt sleeves, open collar, feet on his desk, is . . . inconceivable to me . . ."
Now, she says, "when things come up, I handle it the way he would handle it. I act sort of as a buffer. He's a very disciplined person when he comes to his work habits. He has great power of concentration, so I don't run back and forth with questions. I save things together, and I think I provide a certain comfort, because I know the way he likes to work."
Von Damm has also worked for Nancy Reagan, and by all accounts, gets along well with a wife who has a large say in the selection of her husband's staff. "Gosh," says Von Damm, "we've never had any problems." But she points out that she started her job with Reagan before she ever met Nancy. By then, what one friend describes as "a genuine bond" was beginning to grow.
"At first my attraction was with what he had to say," Von Damm explains. "You know, his political philosophy. And then after I got to know him, that's when I learned what a very, very nice human being he is."
She recalls a time, early on in Sacramento, when a man walked casually into the "inner sanctum" with Reagan and his top aides. Just when the governor and aides realized the man was a guest of no one and so didn't belong there, Von Damm, acting on intuition, came immediately in and escorted him out.
"The next day," she says, "the governor was so cute. He came up to me real formally with a billy club and a big gold star and said, 'I make you a sergeant.'" She kept the star as a paperweight. Sometimes she seems like other women whose lives are defined by the men for whom they work, as much worshipper as aide.
"Oh," Von Damm says easily, "I've heard stories about where a certain gal never married and stayed with one boss for her entire life. But I've always had a very full personal life, because the president is not a person who really imposes on people. Like he tries to say to us again and again, 'Do something on the weekend, no I don't really need you.' And even if something comes up, he pushes us away . . . in the evenings, sometimes he goes home and he comes back and if he sees me still here, he says, 'You're still here? Please go home.'"
So she does. But it often takes him to tell her, and without that, friends say she would work evenings. Saturdays, Sunday. She is warm, but also driven and tough.
"I remember during the transition," says presidential assistant Pendleton James, "that there was a decision made in California. A major personnel decision. Well, Helene felt it was wrong, and discussed it with the senior staff. In her gut, she didn't agree with it."
James won't say who or what the "major personnel decision" was, but he will say that Von Damm eventually got her way.
"She stewed over it for three days," he continues, "then one day, came in and said, 'I feel better. I called the president-elect.' And I said, 'You did?' Well, she went over me, over Ed Messe, and just took it straight to the boss."
"Very tenacious," is how Deaver puts it. "I mean, she gets a bee in her bonnet and she keeps at it until she gets it resolved. Sometimes she drives me nuts. She's always coming in with some guy who's written some letter 10 times and says, 'Can't he please see the governor? Or the president?'"
In Sacramento, aides remember how she kept a rigid eye on the governor's schedule -- but with honey. "She'd gently come to the door with a sad little smile," says Peter Hunnaford, the Hannaford Co. chairman who was then a Reagan assistant, "and she'd say, 'Oh, I'm sorry I have to break up this nice conversation. But your next appointment is here.'" In those days, too, she was often at her desk until 8 at night.
"I do think in the old country," says Von Damm, "or at least when I grew up, that the work ethic was still a big thing. Which means you stay at a job until it is done. And as you can imagine, when you are in a campaign, the job is never really done. I do also think it's habit-forming to work those horrendous hours. It becomes really part of you."
She looks at an office clock. It's just a few minutes before 1 p.m. For a change, she won't have lunch at her desk.
The White House dining room is wood-paneled, and has the intimate, expensive look of a men's club. But it's not at all quiet. Staffers, still heady with victory and the new habitat, laugh and make jokes. At one table is Richard Allen, the national security adviser, with a few of his children. They all say hi.
A waiter in a white coat arrives takes the order, and then Von Damm, more relaxed here than she was outside the Oval Office, begins talking of Byron Leeds, her fiance. It will be her third marriage. A second one in California also ended in divorce.
"I'm afraid the demands were, you know, political," she begins. "Well, he was of the old school.When you travel a lot, I'm afraid it doesn't sit very well." She has no children.
During this campaign and transition, she managed to maintain a five-year-long relationship with Leeds. They saw each other about once a month when she lived in California, and on weekends when she moved to Washington. After they're married, he'll stay there and she here in her apartment in Foggy Bottom, at least for the time being.
"There's no alternative," she sighs. "It's not an ideal way."
Lunch is won-ton soup and a small salad. Friends say she is as disciplined in her diet as she is in her work habits. Spending, too. "Helene," says one, "is the kind of person who if she only made $100 a week, somehow would manage to save $25."
"I used to be," laughs Von Damm. "When I came from Europe, for the first 10 years I lived over here, it was just like that. I had a little budget, so much goes for this, so much goes for that, and you stick to it. But now, I've become very American. All these credit cards!"
The coffee comes, and cigarettes. Then a phone call to the table. She laughs again. "These things make you look very important, right?"
She takes a last drag on her cigarette. "The biggest thrill," she says, "was the president's birthday party. I think it's going to take me a while to come down from that cloud. It was the first dinner I had in the White House, and it being also his birthday party. It was almost too much to bear."
Still, the quintessential thrill had to have been at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. As Pendleton James remembers, the staffers had come down to hear Reagan's Nov. 4 acceptance speech in the ballroom.
There were balloons, applause, laughing and hysteria. The Reagan staff itself was more or less screaming.
"I turned around and looked at Helene," says James, "and she was just standing there, with tears rolling down her cheeks."