Helga

updated 12/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/1986 01:00AM

Even before the story broke, shattering the soporific calm of summer, her neighbors in rural Pennsylvania knew little about her. A mother of four, she was a near recluse; a German immigrant, she and her husband, John, had quietly settled some 20 years ago in Chadds Ford, the rolling farmland community that Andrew Wyeth shares and celebrates in his paintings. Then, last August, Helga Testorf, 54, the shy, lushly built woman with cheekbones as fine as Julie Christie's, unwillingly became the sensation of the art world.

Testorf's cherished anonymity vanished after Leonard Andrews, a wealthy Newtown, Pa. publisher and collector, announced that he had bought 240 previously unknown paintings and drawings by Wyeth—all but two of them having Helga as the subject. From 1970-85, Wyeth had secretly painted her again and again: She was lying down, standing in doorways, leaning against trees, wearing a crown of flowers, or nude with a black ribbon around her neck. Like hounds after a hapless hare, reporters raced to Chadds Ford, questions poised. Who was Helga? Was this 15-year relationship simply that of artist and model? The questions died on the soft Chadds Ford air.

Even now, Helga has not been cornered. Who is she? "She's a very modest woman, a very private person," says a member of the area's art circle. "Her family says, 'Leave us alone,' and people have. Chadds Ford is a very private place. She hasn't gone underground. She never was above ground." Another observer reports that Helga hasn't been well because the publicity "was too stressful for her." One neighbor hasn't seen her in five years; another thinks she went back to Germany. "I wouldn't know her if she came in," says a clerk at the Wawa market.

In Chadds Ford it is winter now, and the rolling hills are cold and brown. The Testorfs live across town from the Wyeths, in a white ranch house they enlarged from a prefab. They have built a swimming pool on the property, which they call Zum Edelweiss after the mountain flower, and the land is bordered by hemlock and blue spruce. John Testorf, who drives a red convertible, works nearby at Longwood Gardens, where he is a gardener. His wife, who has stopped working as a housekeeper for Wyeth's sister Carolyn, stays behind, guarded by two—or is it one?—black Dobermans. Helga Testorf, once retiring and unknown, has become the Greta Garbo of Chadds Ford.

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