Helen Boehm, the Empress of China, Dishes Up Her Best for the Reagans' Private Table

updated 12/07/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1981 01:00AM

During their whirlwind courtship 37 years ago, Edward Marshall Boehm promised Helen Francesca Stefanie Franzolin, "You're going to see the world, be free and do what you please." At the time, she recalls, "He had no idea how it was going to happen." Ed Boehm was then a 31-year-old Air Force private. He turned out to be a breeder of exotic birds, championship cattle and racehorses and a sculptor of fine porcelain. As he predicted, his widow, Helen (Ed died in 1969 of a heart attack), does just as she pleases. At 59, she can well afford to. She is the sole owner and overseer of Boehm (pronounced "beam") Porcelain, the company the couple founded in 1950 with a $1,000 loan. This year retail sales should top $35 million.

She has personally presented delicate Boehm figures to seven U.S. Presidents, three Popes, Princess Grace of Monaco and Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf. Boehm's latest coup: supplying the First Family's personal china. Although not as expensive as the controversial state china being purchased from Lenox Inc. for more than $200,000, the Reagan family service for 24, which Boehm will deliver next month, is hardly dime-store stuff. It costs about $200 per nine-piece place setting, and the Reagans are paying for it personally. "The White House china is a great honor," declares Boehm. A cheaper version will eventually be put on public sale.

Boehm has long had connections in the White House. When President Richard Nixon made his historic 1972 visit to China, he presented Mao Tse-tung with a Boehm sculpture of swans entitled Birds of Peace. The birds were so lifelike that Chairman Mao turned to an aide and asked, "Why is President Nixon bringing me stuffed swans?" (Five years later an identical set of Boehm swans sold at auction in London for $150,000.) Prince Charles was equally impressed with the delicate floral sculpture when he visited Boehm's studios in Malvern, England in 1979. Marveled HRH: "Only the fragrance is missing." This summer Helen's wedding gift to Charles and Di was a porcelain arrangement of roses, orange blossoms and forget-me-nots.

Helen Boehm, who closely supervises the work of her art department, says she is guided by her husband's "perfectionist" spirit. Since his death (they had no children) she has enlarged the main studio in Trenton, N.J. and added the English operation, which specializes in bone-china flowers. Boehm pieces—ranging in price from $18 for a dessert plate to $35,000 for a limited-edition Prince Rudolph's Bird of Paradise—now sell in nine countries. They are also exhibited in the Tel Aviv Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Vatican.

Born in Brooklyn, Helen was the youngest of an Italian immigrant's seven children. She was an optician (who once sold a pair of sunglasses to Clark Gable) when she met Ed Boehm in 1944. They married two months later, and after World War II he became a veterinarian's assistant. But sculpting wildlife in porcelain was his true passion. Helen tried, with limited success, to peddle his work to stores up and down Fifth Avenue. Then in 1957 President Eisenhower presented a Boehm sculpture of a polo-playing Prince Philip to Queen Elizabeth II. "The skies opened up," remembers Helen. "It was a great endorsement."

These days she shares her 10-acre New Jersey estate with 47-year-old Boehm president Frank J. Cosentino, "a very special gentleman in my life." He lives in a guest house on the grounds. A car enthusiast, Helen keeps two Rolls-Royces—a 1937 Yellow Phantom III and a 1973 Corniche—at her condo in Palm Beach. In New Jersey, she makes do with a chauffeured Cadillac limo and a 450SL Mercedes sports coupé.

Boehm attributes the company's success to a winning combination. "Ed and I joined our ABCs: Ability, the Breaks that came our way, and the Courage to start in something we knew little about."

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