When he first saw her, the dean of Washington's diplomatic corps, Nicaraguan Ambassador Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, said Alejandro Orfila would marry her. When OAS Secretary General Orfila did marry her, the embassy set buzzed about the daring necklines of her evening gowns. Her husband complained that articles he wrote about Latin America received less comment than the appearance of his name with hers in personality columns.
She is Helga Orfila, the 34-year-old, German-born blonde with the high cheekbones who two years ago married the rotund, 53-year-old Alejandro Orfila. Since then the former television model has made a career of being a diplomat's wife. Little-noticed by the Washington press, she's the toast of New York's diplomatic set (she prefers New York parties to those in Washington) and not a week passes without her photograph appearing on the pages of society sheets such as Women's Wear Daily.
According to one Latin American correspondent, Helga complements the role her husband assigned himself, first as ambassador to Argentina and now as secretary general of the OAS -- Orfila feels parties are the way to give the part of the world he represents a high profile. And his wife is the perfect hostess: striking, unfailingly polite, the center of attention at any international gathering.
"Pilitics, I stay out of it," says Helga, whose days are spent overseeing the staffs of her OAS-provided home on Chlifornia Street, a horse farm in the Virginia countryside or the Orfilas' vacation home in Jamaica. Such is a woman's role in Orfila's Argentina, and Helga plays will to the folks back home.
Both Orfilas were married once before; he has four children by his first wife, she has none and is reluctant to talk of her first marriage. Helga says she has discussed children with her husband and, "If it happened, it would be fine. But with all of our traveling, it would tie me down."
The couple met at a dinner party given by mutual friends in New York, where Helga had moved after beginning a career as a model in Los Angeles.
"I don't believe in love at first sight unless you're 17," she says, noting that after several dates Orfila suggested she move to Washington. She told him there was no work for her there. She says that while attending a party in Washington, an apparently jealous woman Orfila once dated came up to her and said, "I hope you're not moving down here."
In 1977 she did, as Orfila's wife, and a few months later the gossips had a field day when Helaga appeared with Rosalynn Carter at the signing of the Panama Canal treaties. While the world may have been watching Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos, those in attendance at the signing -- not to mention some TV cameramen and directors -- watched Helga, who sat, hands folded in her lap, wearing a white silk brocade gown with a bodice line that plunged to a few inches above her waist. Some dubbed the gown "navel dress."
The stir her outfit caused led her to avoid reporters' questions about her sartorial taste; today she says the neckline didn't come anywhere near her navel and, anyway, "I am flat-chested."
Of diplomatic parties in Washington, Helga says, "It's always the same people. In New York you meet all kinds of people... writers, artists, a mixed group."
She also complains of gossip about her marriage to Orfila. "I've never seen the two of them talking together in public," says one woman who attends some of the same parties as the Orfilas.
Nonsense, Helga insists. She and her husband have plans to visit Japan and China in March and Rome in the spring to meet the pope. She says she sometimes attends one party while her husband is attending another for diplomatic rather than personal reasons. "My husband is a very impatient man," she says. "Sometimes I go to Jamaica a few days ahead of him to prepare the house, to see that everything is in order. That is how rumors got started...
"My husband is very jealous. You need a little pepper to make it taste good. But too much pepper, you can't eat it."