The woman owns a Duesenberg, a 1936 yellow Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes 450 SL, her own polo team, a condo in Palm Beach, a farm in New Jersey, a cottage in England, millions of dollars' worth of art, antiques and designer dresses, not to mention a gilt-complex of a suite at the Pierre Hotel, and says well, yes, honey, it's true. She might be "a little showy."
A little showy? Helen Boehm, 64-year-old widow of porcelain artist Edward Marshall Boehm, makes the Gabor sisters look like bag ladies.
"The secret to having beautiful things is to share them with people," says Boehm (pronounced beam), running her left thumb under her ring finger. The one with the 20-carat diamond the size of a small appliance.
"I bought a Duesenberg, okay? Gawgeous. I'm in Palm Beach with all my polo players, and that Duesenberg is in the winner's circle. It's a good feeling to be a winner. I would say everything else is second."
She is relaxing in her Manhattan pied-a -terre. On her wrist is a $10,000 gold and diamond Rolex. She wears a black Chanel suit slit down to the sternum, Ferragamo high heels, Vampira-length polished nails and half a pot of cranberry lip gloss, and it's only 11 a.m.
When they made Helen Boehm, they broke the mold.
She was known back in Brooklyn as Helen Franzolin, one of seven kids of Italian immigrants. Together with her late husband, she started the porcelain business in 1950 with $1,000. While he was squirreled away in his studio, she shlepped his animal figurines to Bergdorf Goodman on her lunch hours from Meyrowitz, where she worked as an optician, pushing and prodding and bulldozing her way to success.
From the $100 bluebirds socialites gave to their maids to the priceless swans President Nixon presented to Chairman Mao, Boehm became synonymous with the nouveau riche and was derided as "art for the dumb." But Boehm birds, known for their fine detail and lifelike quality, were bought up by shrewd investors attracted to the burgeoning "limited edition" market.
The Happy Hustler, Boehm now owns her own Fifth Avenue gallery in Trump Tower, selling more kitsch to the rich. She has presented porcelain pieces to seven U.S. presidents, three popes, Princess Grace of Monaco, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The company has sold more than 500,000 pieces in the past 35 years, and retail sales in 1981 were reported to be $35 million, making Helen Boehm an extremely wealthy woman.
Now Boehm, a bottomless pit of promotional possibilities, has published her autobiography, "With a Little Luck" (ghost-written by Nancy Dunnan), an upbeat, chatty memoir penned in Palm Beach society newsletter-ese. She wanted to call it "From Brooklyn to Buckingham."
Indeed, Helen Boehm came a long way. She took golf lessons so she could buttonhole wealthy clients on the links. She sent Al Capone's wife a porcelain bird when he was imprisoned. During the Eisenhower administration she heard Prince Philip was coming to America for an official visit, convinced her husband to sculpt a likeness of the prince playing polo, then cajoled her way into the White House to present the royal couple with the figurine.
One recent stunt backfired. In 1981, immediately following the flap surrounding the White House's purchase of $200,000 worth of state china, Boehm announced with great flourish that she was designing a special set of personal china for the First Family. But the Reagans refused to accept the Boehm-ware, priced at $200 for each nine-piece place setting. Although the White House says Nancy Reagan never ordered the china, Boehm says she and the first lady "discussed it. It was an understanding. I guess she probably changed her mind. We women do that."
There were other hazards along the way, according to "With a Little Luck."
The housekeeper and I rushed to the window and looked out upon a surrealistic nightmare. There was my lovely white Rolls, half sunken, half floating in the swimming pool. With a marked note of hysteria in my voice, I telephoned Ed for help.
Jewels were not the only thing on my mind as we became more successful.
Ask Boehm why she published such a book and she smiles like Mama Celeste.
"I want to be an inspiration to other girls," she says. Girls fortunate enough to find an eccentric, reclusive man with enough raw talent to propel both of them to the ranks of the rags-to-riches.
Ed Boehm may have been responsible for the famous Boehm birds, but it was his wife who was responsible for Ed Boehm. She bought all his clothes, cooked his meals and, in the great tradition of Italian mothers, not only told him what to mangiare but what to sculpt.
She traveled 10 months of the year as part of her unrelenting public relations campaign, wearing borrowed rings from Caldwell's ("I wanted to look successful"), working the network of collectors and wealthy celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, convincing them that a Boehm duck tureen or $145 Pat Nixon camellia was just as important an acquisition as a Meissen plate or a Ming vase.
She doesn't mind telling you the reason they never had children was because her husband suspected he was illegitimate and distrusted his genetic background.
She also doesn't mind telling you about her dinners at the White House, her sojourns in Saudi Arabia, her nights at Buckingham Palace, her visit to the Great Wall of China in a full-length white mink coat.
The Height of Hype, she drops names like she used to drop vowels back on 85th Street in Brooklyn: Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner, Ed Koch, the late Lord Mountbatten, Betty Ford (as in "Betty Ford and I are very close."), gossip columnist Liz Smith and "Sultan something or the other. I get 'em mixed up."
She leans forward on her brocade sofa. "Prince Charles said . . ."
After Ed Boehm died of a heart attack in 1969, his widow quickly took over not only the business side but the designing aspects of the company, working closely with the artisans trained in the Boehm method.
"I am pushy. I'm thinking of one thing. My porcelain and my employes. I have a big obligation. I'm always right on top of it to make sure there are always new ideas or something to carry us."
But Helen Boehm says she has never forgotten her roots.
She says she does charity work with a church in New York, and tells the story of visiting some poor children on her birthday.
"I felt like Mrs. Michael Jackson. I went in there and they screamed, HELLen BEEM! I wore a sable coat. I looked like a movie star, draped with pearls. They'd come up to touch me. This little boy comes up and says, 'Miz Boehm, are you rich?' I says, 'You know, Timothy, I wasn't always. I was very poor when I was a little child, just like you. But I worked so hard. And the harder I worked the luckier I got.'
"He said, 'Is that real gold?'
"I said, 'You BET it's real gold.' " Helen Boehm admits she was always impressed by people with money, and even more impressed by people with titles. Even back in Brooklyn.
"I didn't realize I was going to get into the medium of kings, and the sport of kings. If you had told me when I was 18 that I was gonna own a polo team, I woulda said, 'You're crazy.' "
She was raised in a strict, Italian Catholic family.
"I remember my papa. No one could be missing from the table! Papa had to be at the head of the table. My mother would serve him. He was the breadwinner and he was served first."
Her father died when Helen was 13, and her mother kept the girls on a short leash.
"I dreamed of the freedom, the outside world. Other kids could go skating after school. I could not go skating. I had homework to do and house chores and had to get ready for dinner. Or marketing."
Her older sister went to work to help support the family, but Helen was sheltered from the realities of the outside world, constantly chaperoned.
"It was the old-fashioned Italian way. A girl could be hurt. She could come up the wrong way, go with the wrong person."
As a young girl, she convinced her mother to take her to audition for the Major Bowles radio hour. She chose to sing "I Should Care."
"I SHOULD CAAAARE," she croons in a deep, strong voice. "I should care. La la da da dee dada. I was so excited. We were going to the Loew's Theater in Brooklyn." But by the time her turn came up, the hour was over. She was crushed.
Helen soon discovered a talent for designing and sewing dresses. She made extra money by selling her frocks to classmates for 50 cents each. After high school, she got her optician's license and went to work in Manhattan at Meyrowitz. She loves to tell the story of the day Clark Gable walked in and Helen Franzolin, no shrinking violet, cornered the star and sold him a pair of sunglasses.
In 1944 she met Ed Boehm, an Air Force private and breeder of exotic birds, championship cattle and racehorses. They were married two months later.
Ed Boehm was a mercurial genius, by all accounts, a man who related better to his tufted titmice and golden font fruitsuckers than to friends and family.
"His mother and father were divorced before he was born," Boehm says. "Then, his mother died when he was 7 and a neighbor put him in an orphanage. He was in there until he was 15 or 16."
Ed Boehm and his father had a distant, strained relationship. Because of this "hurt," she says, her husband turned to animals for comfort. "The animals respected him and he respected them. He could talk to birds. We had 17 aviaries and a beautiful garden. I'd look at him and he'd remind me of St. Francis."
But he was also a difficult man.
"Ed Boehm was hell on people," Reese Palley, an Atlantic City art dealer, once told a reporter. "He had a violent temper. It was impossible to be around him."
Helen Boehm says yes, there were times when she thought the marriage was not working.
"I guess at times I'd say, 'You know, Ed, this has got to be an equal partnership.' He never bought a stitch of clothes, shoes -- everything I bought for him. He wouldn't go into a shoe store. He had shoes with holes in them this big."
After their marriage, he never wrote a single check.
"Maybe he was eccentric, but I admired his mind. His talent. You gotta remember, he gave me one thing. I did not know what freedom was. Supposing I had married an Italian man and had six kids! I would never have known that there was such a thing as freedom."
"Or money. But I never thought of money in the beginning."
It wasn't money, she insists, "it was getting Boehm in front of the public. They told me it would take 100 years. I didn't have 100 years!"
Perhaps the key to Helen Boehm's success is that she managed to convince people they needed something they did not.
"Maybe that's my secret," she says, brown eyes twinkling.
But Palley, the flamboyant dealer who sold Boehm birds from 1955 to 1978 and is conspicuously absent from "With a Little Luck," knew what the real secret was.
"You want to know who buys them?" he once asked a reporter. "I'll tell you. You already own six houses with a Cadillac in each garage. You've been twice around the world. You've bought your wife a mink. But nothing really satisfies. People are lonesome. They want some recognition, something to believe in. I sell them birds by Boehm." Helen Boehm gives a visitor a tour of the suite. There are two huge suitcases in the dressing room, packed. She always keeps several ready. Just in case.
"Isn't this a comfortable apartment?" she says. "I decorated it myself."
On the walls are gilt-framed paintings. "I don't know whether it's a real Watteau. Reese Palley sold me that. He said, 'Helen, that's going to increase in value.' I knew damn well it wasn't a Watteau."
On the antique tables are Boehm birds, Boehm tureens and a bright pink Helen Boehm rose. She is now designing most of the figurines.
"I had the best professor in the world," she says. "You go into the Vatican, in the Sistine Chapel, here's Michelangelo's work. Ten feet after that is Ed Boehm. Not Ed Boehm, but my swans I did after he died to prove that he taught me well. My swans are right next to Michelangelo's work! Do you know what that means to me? To an artist? What is left?"
Well, there's the polo team for one thing. She admits that the attraction is mainly snob appeal. "I would say so."
She says she still feels guilt over her husband's death. He died, at the age of 55, while she was in New Mexico setting up a show. "I just felt that if I were there, maybe I could have helped."
She has ruled out marriage, even to her longtime companion Frank Cosentino, the 51-year-old president of Boehm. Several years ago, Helen Boehm announced their engagement. But it was quietly terminated, although Cosentino still lives in the guest house on Boehm's Washington Crossing, N.J., estate.
"Frank is still my fella," she says. "I said to myself, would Frank accept the freedom that your husband gave you? I'm not going to be lucky enough to have another Ed Boehm. Frank's Italian. Would a macho Italian think like Ed did?"
Ask Helen Boehm what's behind her obsession for freedom and success and she shakes her head.
"I don't know what's driving me," she says. "I don't know. It's not money and it's not recognition. I want to achieve. Everybody wants to leave something behind, whether it's a book or a child. I want to leave beauty. And when I hear people say, 'Mrs. Boehm, if it weren't for you, my son would never have gone to college. I paid $1,500 for a Boehm bird years ago and just got $4,500 for it,' I say, 'Gee, that's good. I've done something.' "
But to really learn what's driving Helen Boehm, turn to Page 191 of "With a Little Luck."
My hair had been put up in a French twist, and I had chosen a black taffeta Caroline Herrera ball gown with white puff sleeves and tiers of ruffles forming a billowing skirt. The competition tonight would be very tough, I knew, but I felt as well dressed as anyone there. My emeralds and diamonds would hold their own against the antique and ancestral jewels on the royals and peers who were attending the evening's events.
That, of course, doesn't stop Helen Boehm from renewing her optician's license every year for $4.95.
"I keep it up," she confides, "just in case."