It was, verily, a love letter that soared above the usual fare on the New York Times editorial page, its impassioned prose proclaiming "the fervor of his longing, her dark beauty and entrancing traits," a heartfelt message penned to one woman -- "his lady, as fresh, beautiful and mischievous as the day he met her."

Who was the mysterious Valentine's Day editorialist? That's what numerous callers to the Times wanted to know. One woman even offered a secretary a handsome sum of money for the identity of the incurable romantic.

After an exhaustive investigation yesterday, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Philip M. Boffey confessed that he had used the august page for his own personal agenda, to wit, sending a public valentine to his wife, Ronda Billig, a New York lawyer. While he could not summon the "mythic lyricism" of his first valentine to her, when she was in Washington and he in New York, the editorial page proved a passable substitute. "She was absolutely amazed," Boffey says.

Boffey, 54, says he was "nervous sort of letting things hang out in public," but that he had received "an avalanche of response compared to what I usually write" on such scintillating subjects as health care and nuclear weapons.

One female reader sent him a note: "Your valentine will have to understand. I love you. Your secret admirer." But she misspelled Boffey's name.

Another woman asked his secretary, "This is all fine, but did he give her any roses, and does he know where Tiffany's is?" "A question best left unanswered," Boffey says.

Editorial page chief Jack Rosenthal says that "we often personalize editorials," citing one he wrote for his wife, Holly, a Christmas baby, about "that sad category of human beings that are born on Christmas."

Rosenthal detects a loftier purpose in the editorial valentine, something about how "men are apt to be dismissive about a mere greeting-card holiday. ... The test is not whether it's personal or freaky or frivolous. The test is whether it has something to say to a large audience."

But Boffey offers no heart-shaped fig leaf. "I probably dressed it up as if it was legitimate for others to read, but I primarily had an audience of one in mind," he says.

The anonymous wet kiss also prompted a call to fellow editorial page scribe Joyce Purnick, who happens to be married to Executive Editor Max Frankel. The caller enthused about how "it was so lovely that Max had written this."