When a woman born in Brooklyn of humble parentage has five heads of state concurrently addressing her as ‘Helen,’ there must be some magic in her life.” The Helen is Helen Boehm, the late head of the Trenton-based Boehm Porcelain company — founded by her sculptor husband, Edward Boehm. The words come from Letitia Baldrige, the first female executive at Tiffany’s and Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House chief of staff. The statement opens Helen Boehm’s 1985 autobiography, “With a Little Luck.”
Yet a more appropriate title for the book may be “You Make Your Own Luck.” When Bohem died in 2010 at the age of 89, the New York Times referred to her as “a self-made businesswoman known as the Princess of Porcelain for her company’s elaborate sculptures, which have graced the coffee tables of royalty and heads of state for six decades.”
Boehm used her instincts to propel her talented husband and herself into a world seeming beyond their humble reaches. The following anecdote from her book tells it all. It’s early in their marriage. Edward was working in their Trenton studio. Helen was holding down a job at an optical center in New York City. And the porcelain business was failing to take off:
I was still working at Meyrowitz when I had one of those totally impossible brainstorms. There had to be some way to shorten those 100 years everyone said it would take for Boehm porcelain to become famous. I wanted some glory for Ed and me much sooner than that: Propelled once again by Ed’s dictum, ‘Work only with the best,’ I went straight to the top: I decided to contact the country’s leading authority on porcelain, and I was not going to let the fact that I’d never met him intimidate me.
On my next lunch hour, I dropped a coin into a pay phone on Fifth Avenue and reached Mr. Vincent Andrus, the highly respected curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. I could scarcely believe my luck — he answered his own phone!
“Mr. Andrus?” The rest tumbled out in a rush: “I’m Helen Boehm, the wife of Ed Boehm. My husband is the only maker of hard-paste porcelain in America, and we would like you to see the handsome “Percheron Stallion” and “Hereford Bull” he’s created in our Trenton studio. And we also have a boxer dog, Leghorns, and other fancy fowl.”
I paused for breath and suddenly realized I hadn’t heard so much as ‘Hmm’ from him. I shivered in the cold phone booth. Had I gone too far this time? I began to feel a sinking sensation, but then a firm, cultivated voice came across the line: ‘But, Mrs. Boehm, we don’t make hard-paste porcelain in this country.’
At last I got a response!
Mustering a tone almost as firm as his, I countered quickly, “May I show you, please? I think you’ll be very surprised and amazed at my husband’s accomplishment. We have a very small collection at the second floor of a shop at the corner of 44th Street and Fifth Avenue.
At last he arrived, a tall elegantly dressed man in a beautifully tailored blue suit and vest. Without a word, he went straight to the display, and I saw his eyes focus on one piece after another. He appeared singularly unimpressed. I crossed my fingers behind my back and said a little prayer.
“Mrs. Boehm,” he said, after what I felt was an eternity. “I’d like very much to buy these two pieces,” and he pointed to the “Percheron Stallion” and the “Hereford Bull.”
He drew out his pen and wrote a purchase order totaling $60 — $30 for each porcelain.
With this major victory for our tiny Trenton studio, I returned to previously reluctant buyers to relay the news. Now they listened. Within a short time, they would all be back to buy.
In the meantime, I decided to make another dream come true and worked up the courage to call the New York Times. A story from them would go a lot further than my legs would in 10 years of lunch hours. If the definition of marketing is “wanting to get somewhere in a hurry,” then I had a talent for it from the start.
The Times assigned the late Sanka Knox, their leading art critic, to write an in-depth story on Ed Boehm and his work.
To this day I can quote most of the article by heart. “Boehm,” wrote Mrs. Knox, “is a farmer turned artist.” She also quoted Mr. Andrus, who said, “the realist ceramics are equal to the finest of superior English work.” The story appeared January 20, 1951.
With the prestigious endorsement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the major New York Times story, the acceptance of Boehm porcelain greatly increased among important collectors and buyers.
Excerpted from “With A Little Luck” by Helen Boehm, 1985, Rawson Associates.