S1: Before we begin, this episode contains some strong language her on the afternoon of August 5th, 1986. Doug McGill was sitting at his desk at the New York Times when his phone rang.
S2: I got a call from the news desk, which was the Uber desk right in the middle of the newsroom. You know, to please come up there, Doug.
S1: It started at the Times as a copy boy, but he’d worked his way up to arts reporter focusing on the visual arts. It wasn’t that often that there was an urgently breaking art story, but that’s exactly what the news desk wanted to talk to him about.
S2: Somebody up there had received a press release from Arts and Antiques magazine about their forthcoming issue. That press release talked about a cache of 240 paintings by Andrew Wyeth that he had kept secret from everybody, including his wife of a beautiful model, often naked.
S1: Andrew Wyeth was the most popular and famous painter in America at the time, though his critical reputation was complicated. He was a household name on the cover of magazines and tapped to paint presidents. His work was grounded in the two rural communities in which he lived, and that subject matter had established him as a paragon of Americana, sometimes referred to as America’s artist. And now here he was, nearing 70, apparently with a secret stash of intimate, provocative nude paintings of this one woman paintings and a woman that he’d hidden from his wife and the public for 15 years.
S2: This was hitting on all kinds of journalistic buttons. It had a secretiveness. It had art and beauty had had sex. It had big money. It had artistic celebrity. It was just punching all these buttons. And they literally told me what? We want to get this on. On the first edition page one. So you’ve got two hours go to it.
S1: Just a few blocks away in Midtown Manhattan to other news, desks would also make the determination that the Wyeth story was front page material. Time Magazine and Newsweek both decided to put it on their cover for the next week. With just four days to get the cover story done, time through all of its resources at it, at least four correspondents and stringers freelancers not on staff fanned out to report the story. One of those people with Jeannie McDowell, who’s still a working journalist who went on to have a long career at time. But back then it was a very ambitious stringer.
S2: I was so hungry to get hired. I mean, I would have found Jesus if they had asked me to find Jesus.
S1: Jeannie was tasked with going to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a Revolutionary War era town about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, where Andrew Wyeth and his wife, Betsy lived. Jeannie wasn’t going to talk to the Wyeth, so they were up in Maine for the summer. Rather, she was supposed to find out everything she could about the woman in the paintings, a woman about whom almost nothing was known, except that her name was Helga as Jeannie hopped on a train to Chadds Ford. She had a sense of what the story might be. A sense she wasn’t alone in having it. What made the Helga images an instant media sensation?
S2: Can I be explicit? My dream was that Helga and Andrew were fucking their brains out, and this was going to be like a great story. And Betsy was a, you know, kind of going to be the wife, you know, wronged. And it was going to be kind of a hot, salacious cover story. That was nothing what it was like.
S1: This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin for a moment in the late summer of 1986, the story of Andrew Wyeth Helga paintings took over the news. But in the days, weeks, months and years that followed what it first seemed like an honest to goodness high brow, low brow late summer scandal started to seem like something less sexy and more calculated. In this episode, we’re going to dive into this 35 year old media brouhaha, a story about artists and muses, husbands and wives, art and money. Privacy and publicity. It was pounced on as a sex story then became widely seen as a business one. But it might actually be something else entirely. So today on Decoder ring, what was really going on with Andrew Wyeth Helga paintings? Historically speaking, a painter and a model, having an affair is a pretty common occurrence. But Andrew Wyeth occupied an uncommon place in the culture, and that’s where I want to begin because that place goes a very long way towards explaining why this story was jumped on as juicy from the very start.
S2: His work was very much like L.L.Bean or Talbot’s Red Door.
S1: Gwendolyn Dubois Shah is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studied and written about Andrew Wyeth.
S2: His work was so out of fashion that it never went out of fashion. It was consistently American. And so you know why it had it had a really strong, enduring appeal.
S1: Andrew Wyeth was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1917. He was unusually devoted to painting from an extremely young age. He had his first show in New York City in 1937, when he was just 20. It sold out his paintings done in watercolor, dry brush watercolor, and the fussy ancient technique of egg tempera tend to be timeless pastoral scenes and portraits grounded in Chadds Ford and the rural area around Cushing, Maine. His most famous painting by far, is 1948 Christina’s world. I bet you can picture it. It’s one of the most recognizable and reproduced images of the 20th century. In the foreground is what looks like a young woman seen from the back in a lobster pink dress. Her legs are splayed in a yellowing field. Her arms hold her torso upright and there’s a farmhouse up a hill in the far distance. It’s modeled in part on Christina Olsen, an impoverished middle aged woman. Wyeth was introduced to by his wife, Betsy in Maine. Actually, on the very first day he and Betsy met, Christina had a degenerative muscle disease that had left her unable to walk because she was too proud to use a wheelchair. One day, Wyeth saw her out of a window.
S3: I saw crawling out to a little crack garden. She had next to the house one day, and it dawned on me terrific. I mean, made a quick notation of this idea of Christine, the field house in the background and several days went by and it kept building in my mind,
S1: though there’s nothing in the painting that makes the subject’s disability explicit, like so much of Wyeth work. It’s full of yearning and melancholy and contains no hint of the modern world. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art bought Christina’s world for just $1500, which would be about $20000 today. At this point, Wyeth was already critically acclaimed and commercially viable, but the acquisition catapulted him to another level of success and fame. One that would last for decades. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw Again, people loved it.
S2: His work sold. He had tons and tons of money rolling in over those years.
S1: That success never flagged. He was popular. Beloved. Not some insular art world figure, but someone known to the American public at large. At one point, Michael Jackson wanted Wyeth to paint him. But by the late 1960s, Wyeth critical reputation had fallen off a cliff. He was a realist at a time when abstraction had become synonymous with modern art. He was dismissed as nothing but a glorified illustrator, a regional list, a realist, an American apologist, a Republican with a capital R.. He’s described as our greatest living kitsch meister and having a palette of mud and baby poop. For years, the Museum of Modern Art hung Christina’s world, one of its blockbuster paintings by the escalator, and this was very much still the state of play in the 80s. Wyeth fame as a popular a successful beyond measure. But the people in the know he’s the emperor who has no clothes. Middlebrow mainstream, old fashioned retrograde.
S2: He was a in the 80s.
S1: In 1986, Chris Lione was an art director at the upstart monthly magazine Art and Antiques.
S2: He wasn’t quite as corny as Norman Rockwell, but it’s sort of the same kind of genre. You know, I think the art world was just into totally different things. At that point, he was another generation’s artist.
S1: But the magazine Chris worked for was about to change all of that. So before going ahead, I just want to briefly situate the art world in the 1980s. It’s a real turning point the decade when it starts to look something like the art world as we now know it. And that’s because it’s the decade money started flooding in. It’s the go go Reagan era and Wall Street is flush with cash. That money, along with foreign funds, particularly from the Japanese rushes and driving up prices and turning art into investment properties. Why is prices alone balloon quintupling over the course of the decade, which ends with him selling works for a million dollars? It’s a booming, lucrative world, and on the edge of it is the aforementioned monthly publication Art and Antiques, which, though not a huge magazine, was about to make a huge splash. In 1986, Art and antiques tapped a new executive editor, a man in his 30s named Jeffrey Share. Jeff, who died in 1995, was up on the contemporary art world scene, which was minting stars like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the time. But he was also a collector, is a 100 square foot shoebox of a New York City apartment, was jammed with books and a trove of Sarah Bernhardt ephemera. This was fitting for the editor of Art and Antiques, which wasn’t focused on the art world’s cutting edge so much as on its moneyed middle Iran stories and how to spot a fake and appraise your work. Critical essays on Picasso and Winslow Homer and interviews with artists like Andrew Wyeth, who, as previously mentioned, was not thought of as being particularly cool. In September of 1985, the magazine ran a cover story on Wyeth, the first major press piece he’d done in a decade. Jeff Share wrote the piece Going to Chadds Ford to interview Andrew and meeting and corresponding with Betsy to art and antiques. Also read plenty of pieces about the other half of its title antiques and it was a pitch about an antique that brought Jeff share to the art director Chris Lione, his office in April of 1986.
S2: Jeff came into my office and told me, the man you collected carriages like 19th century carriages. What’s presenting it as a story idea?
S1: It was a bit of an oddball story, but it seemed worth exploring. So Jeff, the editor, and Chris, the art director, got into a rental car and drove down to see the carriages, which happened to be in Chadds Ford.
S2: And we went, we looked at the carriages. We had a lovely lunch and then the carriage guy said, Well, there’s something else you want to show you.
S1: They hopped back into the rental car and after a few minutes, Jeffrey thought he knew where they were going.
S2: Jeffrey said, My God, they’re going to the Wyeth, remember?
S1: He’d written about and met the Wyeth for a piece just the year before they arrived at the property and walked inside a building.
S2: There is a magnificent painting that was hanging over the fireplace, a rectangular picture I think she was wearing. A black turtleneck sweater is very dark and she was lying down and it was it was pretty spectacular.
S1: Then the man who had brought them there told them he wanted to show them something upstairs.
S2: I was very excited because it’s fabulous, you know? And Jeff was always having shakes so bad, very nervous and smoking like a chimney. And when you go in and there they are, stacks and stacks and stacks and Helga paintings.
S1: There were 240 pieces of artwork in the room, a collection now known as the Helga Pictures. Only some of them are finished paintings for temporize 29 watercolors and 10 dry brush watercolors. Another specialty of Wyeth. These were hanging and leaning on the walls. The rest of the collection was sketchbooks, pencil sketches and watercolor studies stacked in piles nearly chest high. The paintings are all of Helga, a blonde woman whose features and body subtly change depending not only on the light and the setting. The emotion and fantasy Wyeth was trying to capture, but also the age she was when Wyeth painted her anywhere between 38 and 53. In one, she’s in a dramatic hunter green Lowden coat, walking through the snow. Another foreground her strawberry blonde braided pigtails. But most often she’s naked, usually sleeping the night or the daylight washing over her. Her breasts full her pubic hair exactly tangled. There’s an erotic charge to many of the works in lovers Helga since naked on a stool, looking away from the viewer and a window as the light streams across her body. A shadow suggesting someone else’s presence in another painting called on her knees. She’s kneeling uncomfortably on a bed, also looking away from the viewer. Her arms clasped behind her, seemingly submissive waiting for someone. As Jeff and Chris were taking all of these images, then the man showing them around said almost no one has seen these paintings. Almost no one knows they exist. And then he made them an offer.
S2: The guy said, Bob Wyeth would like you to do a piece on this and introduce these secret paintings to the world. But the guy locked the door. We left the place and we went back to normal. I knew just males were trying to turn on the outside brains. You know, he knew this was a hot, a hot commodity.
S1: Over the next couple of months, Jeff Share worked directly with the Wyeth, speaking to Andrew and Betsy, both for a story that would run on the cover of the September 1986 issue of art and antiques. But a few weeks before the issue came out, art and antiques put out a press release touting it and as that press release, not the article itself that kicked off the whole hoopla because it’s that press release that inspired the New York Times news desk to get Doug McGill working on a front page story about the paintings.
S2: I was just a tiny bit ashamed that the story had come to me via a press release and not from Mike Gumshoes. You know,
S1: for the Times article, Doug McGill spoke to Jeffrey Share, who outlined the story as he knew it. Sick with the flu and fearing his death, Wyeth had revealed the collection to his wife only in 1985. Soon thereafter, it had been sold to a collector for many millions of dollars. The Wyeth had not disclosed any details about Helga beyond her name, but Cher believed she was a married neighbor. The Wyeth themselves declined to speak with McGill at this point, but the piece ended with a quote from Betsy Wyeth anyway. One she’d given to Jeffrey.
S2: Share Betsy, what do you think all these paintings of this mystery to them are all about? And there was a pause, and she said, Look,
S1: it was this remark love in the context of everything else that was most responsible for the widespread assumption that Wyeth and Helga must have had some kind of affair. Chris Lione of Art and Antiques Again,
S2: America’s favorite painter paints. This is provocative and somewhat provocative pictures, and Betsy says it was love. You know, it’s like a stage soap opera.
S1: So Betsy Wyeth is not some sideline figure in this story or in any story about Andrew Wyeth. The two met in Maine when she was just 17 and Wyeth was 22. They were married in 1940 and remained so for nearly 70 years. She was a force from the start. In 1943, Wyeth was offered a lucrative contract to paint 10 cover images for the Saturday Evening Post. Betsy reportedly told him while he was considering it, you will be nothing but Norman Rockwell for the rest of your life. If you do it, I’m going to walk out of this house. Why he didn’t do it and moreover, he would go on to credit her for being absolutely right. If you hang
S2: around in the art world long enough and you meet enough people, you recognize the character called the great artist Wyeth. This is a type. And Betsy, was that
S1: the New York Times Doug McGill again,
S2: the husband gets all the glory. The husband is a genius, but the great artist wife also often has the quality of running the show and making sure that all the business things happen the way they should, and protecting her husband and paying the bills and just creating a safety zone around that person so that person can can dive into the art is as deeply and for as long as as he wants.
S1: Betsy was her husband’s muse, his collaborator, curator, Ed protector and business manager, which she was widely known to be very good at. She titled all of his paintings, signed the checks, managed the merchandising, oversaw the reproductions and maintained his catalog, taking meticulous notes on each piece in her little black notebook. She adored her husband’s work. Here she is speaking about it in a 1980 documentary short by King Vidor.
S3: Her husband, the master of metaphor. Just possibly this is the unique American
S1: achievement, but she was also her husband’s toughest, firmest critic. She would tell him what wasn’t working and what to take out of certain paintings. She once described Wyeth as being with his models, like a director like Ingmar Bergman, but she also described herself as a director. His director and Wyeth bridled against Patsy’s authority, even as he appreciated it. According to Wyeth biographer Richard Merriman in the book Andrew Wyeth A Secret Life, he was amazed by Betsy’s accomplishments on behalf of his work, but he also sometimes felt merchandised. You finish a tempera and right away she’s talking a reproduction, he said. The pair were very close, very intertwined, very impassioned, but also competitive and disputatious.
S3: We’re different. It’s not always peaceful, but nothing good is peaceful. Remember that, but we have a great time. We don’t have a dull moment, I can tell you.
S1: That’s Wyeth talking about his marriage in a documentary from 1995. Produced by Betsy Wyeth and his art were the center of the couple’s universe, and Betsy made that universe go round by, among other things, dealing with the outside world. So now I’m going to pick the narrative back up just as the outside world is going bananas about the Helga paintings. So we’re back where this episode started. The New York Times story is out, Jeff Share, the editor of Art and Antiques, is all over the news. Time and Newsweek have decided that their upcoming cover story. Reporters from all over the country descend on Chadds Ford and Maine or the Wyeth are staying. It’s probably worth noting that it was August a notoriously sleepy news time. But even so, helicopters supposedly buzzed around the Wyeth property looking for photos. Everyone’s trying to further the story to find out more. And it’s in these very early days, the Time magazine correspondent Cathy Booth now Cathy Booth Thomas gets assigned to try and speak to the Wyeth up in Maine.
S2: So I called the Wyeth house and a lady answered, Lady said, Well, I’m just the housekeeper. I’ll I’ll have them call you back. And then she hung up, and about 10 minutes later, I got a phone call and it was Betsy Wyeth same voice. But she had been screening calls from the press all morning.
S1: Betsy invited Cathy up to Southern Island, a 22 acre property with a lighthouse where the Wyeth have a home.
S2: Their caretaker takes me out on this boat, and it’s just this White House and this kind of bear Noel. It was like walking into an Andrew Wyeth. Painting and then they open the door of the house, and Betsy greeted me and they were super nice.
S1: Cathy had been expecting tension, but there didn’t seem to be any Wyeth surprised her too. He didn’t do interviews very often, which had helped him build a reputation as mysterious and above the fray. But Cathy found him to be kind of a ham a rogue, empeche. At one point in front of Betsy two, he joked that he and Betsy had sex twice weekly, and then he spelled it out. WEAA, K L Y Cathy and Wyeth talked for two hours all about the paintings and his process while Betsy was in the kitchen. Wyeth never used Helga name, and he didn’t want to speak about her directly, but there was something he wanted to address.
S2: He wanted to clear up the misconception about his wife’s quote that it was love
S1: as she was talking to me on Zoom. Cathy was looking over her notes a copy of the report she’d send to the writer at time back in 1986. It was on printer paper so old it had those strips you can tear off with the tiny holes on the sides. The part she’s about to read is what Andrew Wyeth said to her when they spoke.
S2: I know it’s a dangerous quote and it sounds sentimental. People are going to think, particularly with this group of paintings, that it’s sexual love. But it’s a love of warmth, of finding something that’s precious and real, it’s like a wonderful animal, a dog that will come up and sit in your lap and you pet its head. I think my wife’s statement is very beautiful and very real. But a lot of people will take it wrong.
S1: Cathy also asked Betsy Wyeth about the quote. She told Cathy she hadn’t meant sexual love but love of an object. Later, she would tell Doug McGill at the times, it’s like the love for hills, the love for breathing, the love for storms and snow. But Betsy did tell Cathy about when she’d first heard about the paintings. She said it was in 1985 she gone to pick Andy up from the airport.
S2: She said that’s all she remembered of him telling her. Was they had a bump in the road? I mean, it’s Senate showdown my back when she told me that because it it, it spoke, it spoke to me, I mean, how many times in our lives have we had news? We might not as well come and you just remember, like something physical that happened and you don’t even really remember the conversation all that well.
S1: Cathy left the Wyeth convinced that there was real hurt there for Betsy, but no physical affair by Wyeth, even as other reporters began turning up information that also made the story seem less splashy than it initially appeared. For one, the secret cache of paintings, it wasn’t all that secret, at least three paintings that turned out to be of Helga had been sold by the Wyeth over the years. One had been used to promote an exhibition wanted toward the world. One had been in an art magazine in 1979. One had been in art and antiques in the 1985 story. A few were on display at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which houses much of Wyeth work. Wyeth had even given one to Betsy in the early 1980s. The painting she had suggestively titled Lovers. Meanwhile, the time Stringer Jeannie McDowell, who’d been sent to Chadds Ford to find out more about Helga, was finally making a little headway. Reporters at other papers had identified the model as Helga Test Dorf, a married 53 year old from Germany. Her son was standing outside their house now with the family doberman, and she didn’t want to speak with the press. But then Jeannie heard Helga might work for Andrew Wyeth sister Carolyn,
S2: so I went to track down Carolyn. Someone gave me her number and I think I called her 50 million times
S1: by this point. It was Saturday morning and the editors at time were holding the issue open to the very last minute, hoping for some new information.
S2: Literally, in the last moments of of the time window, I got a call back from Carolyn, who told me that Helga was there cleaning woman and their housekeeper.
S1: How much of a secret could Helga be? How could Betsy not have recognized her and the handful of paintings she’d seen if Helga had been working for a member of the Wyeth family for years? On Monday, August 11th, both time and Newsweek appeared with Helga paintings on their covers, a rare double whammy usually reserved for presidents and geopolitical crises. Newsweek went with the headline Andrew Wyeth secret obsession, while time went with Andrew Wyeth stunning secret and one, in my opinion, is a particularly weak painting from the Helga collection is a crop version of the first nude of Helga Wyeth ever painted back in 1972, reportedly when Betsy finally saw it. Years later, she said, Now that’s a bad picture. It was less than a week since the original story had broken, but the backlash was brewing. Both pieces were more than a little skeptical of all the attention coming to the paintings, even as the pieces themselves continued to shower attention on them. To stick just with Time magazine, the cover story written by the magazine’s movie critic Richard Corliss, asked Could it be that Betsy’s public hint of the affair was part of an elaborate strategy to woo media attention and thus inflate both the price of the works and the value of Wyeth middlebrow eminence? It goes on to quote an anonymous employee at the Brandywine River Museum of Art as calling the whole thing the best stunt I’ve ever seen.
S2: I think it just became clear pretty quickly that it wasn’t as sexy as we all hoped it would be that it was, you know, Helga was she was secret and Wyeth had kept her secret in private. In fact, I honestly feel that it quickly became apparent that it was not completely, but largely a way to generate publicity for this trove of paintings that had never been seen.
S1: A week after the two cover stories came out, Michael Kinsley, writing in The Washington Post, described the whole thing as the Helga hype, attributing it all to the impresarios of Betsy Wyeth and Jeffrey Share saying would be news managers in Washington should sit at their feet. But there’s a key figure missing from this assessment. A person as responsible as anyone for everything that had happened to this point and the one when the months to come would make the whole thing seem even more calculated. The guy who actually owned the paintings. The man who bought the Helga collection was a businessman born and raised in Texas named Leonard Eby. Andrews. Andrews died in 2009 but made his first fortune at an early credit card company in the 1960s. He started a newspaper that ran during the New York City newspaper strike, and in the 70s he started a series of micro-targeted print newsletters. These niche trade papers grew his fortune and included titles like the Asbestos Litigation Reporter and the swine flu claim. Probably my favorite detail about Andrews, though, is that for nine years he had a column in the New York Daily News called Ponder This, for which he wrote semi poems like What message do you get when you contemplate a lovely little flower? I hear a very quiet message. Be like me. Make beauty a part of your life. Andrews was an art world outsider, but he had purchased six Wyeth paintings. He didn’t know the Wyeth very well, but when they decided to sell the Helga collection, ideally hoping to keep it all together, they invited him to Chadds Ford to take a look. He spent two hours alone with the treasure trove of pictures and decided he wanted them all. This was in March of 1980, six months before the paintings were announced to the public. Andrews negotiated with Andrew Wyeth, who unusually sold Andrews the copyright to all of the works. The rights to reproduce the images, Andrew paid something around $6 million and assured Wyeth he try to keep the collection together.
S2: Leonard made sure that that collection was very, very, very visible.
S1: Peter Ralston grew up in Chadds Ford, right next to the Wyeth, who he describes as second parents. He photographed Wyeth work, and he was there the day that Andrews brought the cheque over for the paintings. In early April of 1986,
S2: whatever was going on and on about how this is a national treasure and he was going to defend the integrity and the utility of this collection to his dying day national treasure, we must have heard national treasure. Half a dozen times and in every time he said it. And you know, if we could, we’d look at each other and kind of like there was a really subtle little rolling of the eyes because we weren’t really sure how that was going to play out.
S1: Very swiftly, Andrew lined up a number of high profile showcases for the collection. Three to be precise. First, even before the sale went through, he was connected with a respected art book publisher who is eager to print a catalogue of the Helga images. Second, that publisher reached out to a number of museums with the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., deciding to stage an exhibition that would then tour other museums around the country. And then there was the third showcase the art and antiques piece that kicked everything off. That piece came about the same day that Leonard brought over the check, and Peter and Wyeth were there rolling their eyes at each other. They were toasting the purchase with champagne and chatting about the collection.
S2: We all talked, and Leonard said, This can be a book, you know, I think I said, you know, if going to be a book, you know, you’re going to want to release this, you know, maybe launch the story with a magazine piece. Yeah, we were talking about what magazines like you said, OK, so I said, Well, you know what? This is pure coincidence, but people from Art and antiques magazine are coming down from Manhattan. I swear to God tomorrow morning,
S1: Peter had done some work with art and antiques before, and he recently in good faith, had pitched a story about 19th century carriages. Peter was the carriage guy Wyeth, for his part, new art and antiques. He’d done that piece with them just the year before, and he liked how it turned out. So the next day, Peter with Andrew Wyeth and Leonard Andrew’s blessing took Jeffrey Cher and Chris Lione to the Wyeth estate, showed them the Helga and offered them the story. One thing I want to note here is that Betsy Wyeth was not there when Andrews and Wyeth and Peter Ralston came up with this plan.
S2: Betsy wanted no part of all she was, you know, she was hurt. It was very tumultuous at home. Overallness, this was a big, big, deep thing.
S1: In fact, Betsy never much liked Leonard Andrews. She was suspicious of him and didn’t think they should sell the copyright. But Andrew Wyeth was always ultimately the person who decided who his painting sold to. And he liked that Andrews was the decisive outsider who seemed to love the work, which Wyeth was eager to get out there. He was hoping to shock people a bit, shake them up, push them to stop thinking of him as some fuddy duddy, as America’s straight laced artist. And at first, it worked on the art and antiques press release came out with all these other showcases already in place. It kicked off the whole media hoopla. I’ve been chronicling by May of 1987, when the catalog and museum show arrived. The skepticism that had started bubbling up almost instantly had bubbled over. The paintings came accompanied with much fanfare. The book was the first art book to be selected for the Book of the Month club. Charlton Heston narrated a video about the paintings that you could buy at the museum shop, but the reviews were bruising. A referendum on the whole frenzy,
S2: the critics went to town on what they considered to be an orgy of marketing.
S1: Neil Harris is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and the author of among other books, one about the longtime director of the National Gallery.
S2: They saw this as a sort of medley of overstatement sometimes occasional lies, all of the interest of again selling selling books, selling tickets to the exhibition, showing the reputation of the artist and sold.
S1: Remember, this was the 1980s when art and commerce and marketing were cozying up to each other in earnest. A PR play this successful and brazen still seemed unseemly. Gauche. And then it got worse. In August of 1989, just as the Helga exhibition was finishing up its final stop at the Brooklyn Museum, Leonard Andrews announced that he wanted to sell the whole thing. I just want to divest myself of it, he told The Washington Post. Critics think the whole Helga thing was orchestrated. They think I’m making a bundle on it. Nothing could be further from the truth. But by November, Andrews had sold the whole collection to an undisclosed Japanese buyer for somewhere between 50 and $60 million, a tenfold profit. Fine art museums are fairly strict about not exhibiting work that’s for sale. Andrews had initially told them and the press he had planned for the collection to be the cornerstone of his non-profit foundation. Now it seemed it had all been part of a scheme to jack up the worth of the paintings. One of the museum directors would put on the Helga show said simply, We were used. It iced the whole thing as a crass marketing exploit. In the words of the art critic Robert Hughes, the greatest and perhaps defining art world hype of the 1980s. In the years since, this has been the prevailing narrative about the incident, it was choreographed, staged, puffed up, but not just by Andrews, though the Wyeth did not explicitly profit from any of this. Remember, the paintings were sold before they were announced to the public. And they did not have the copyrights. The sense was that none of this could have happened without their participation and assistance, especially Betsy’s. She may not have liked Leonard Andrews, and she may not have dreamed up the rollout, and she may not even have invited Jeffrey Cher to do a story. But she did speak to him, and she was the shrewd, canny on top of it, business manager. Moreover, she was the one who had propelled the whole story into the stratosphere, finessed the whole thing onto the front page with that one word love. If that wasn’t a commercial calculation, what could it possibly be? Why did she say that? So to give you a provisional answer to this question, I want to explain what was going on before the paintings were shared with Betsy in 1985, why started painting Helga in the early 1970s and for years he told no one he wanted to paint something just for himself. And so he did. By the end of that decade, his secrecy was slipping a bit.
S4: They came to me and asked me if I would put them away if I could be involved in hiding, so to speak.
S1: Jim Duff was a director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art for almost four decades, and back in 1978, Wyeth asked Duff to take the Helga paintings out of his studio and secure them safely at the Brandywine
S4: was a secret. Yeah, I needed to keep my look, but
S1: Jim wasn’t the only person at the Brandywine to know about the paintings and the years that followed an increasingly large inner circle learned about them, but not Betsy. This became increasingly difficult for Wyeth, though, because, among other things, Betsy was his most essential critic. He needed her feedback, so he started showing her some of the paintings by passing them off as one offs, not part of a series.
S4: He told Betsy in each case that this was a blonde woman here or a blonde woman there that he’d found as a model, and there was nothing unusual about that.
S1: When Duff says there’s nothing unusual about that, he means that Wyeth was very secretive about his work, even with Betsy. He didn’t talk about what he was painting, and he didn’t show works or series in progress. But the length of time he kept Helga private was unusual, and the subterfuge he deployed to keep the painting secret could be unusual, too. In 1976, Wyeth camouflaged a drawing of Helga lying in bed naked from the back by changing her hair and skin tone by making her black. As much as Andrew Wyeth head, what he was doing from Betsy, it also seems like Betsy tried not to know
S4: those two people were joined at the hip and in person. They loved each other, needed each other, couldn’t do without each other. But Sandy could have painted it better. He did, and he said this over and over it, but she didn’t give him the speech and then she gave him the space.
S1: But that wasn’t always easy or simple. One of the precipitating incidents to the Helga series had to do with another one of Wyeth some uses and models, Siri Erickson, who he began painting soon after Christina Olson died. Siri was 14 when Wyeth started painting her sometimes nude with her parents permission in 1968. On the one hand, Betsy pushed him further with these paintings. She pooh poohed an early image in which a topless series still has a washcloth over her lap, but then was shocked when he went ahead and took her advice and painted Siri fully naked. According to Wyeth biography, a few years later, in 1972, Betsy hired Siri as a live in maid when she found Siri posing for Wyeth naked while he rubbed her back. She lost her temper. Siri fled back to the house. Andrew berated Betsy for interrupting his work the whole way home. Once there, Betsy asked Siri if she and Wyeth were having sex. They were not, she told Wyeth he had to be done with Siri anyway. Soon after, Siri stopped sitting for Wyeth and he started painting Helga nude. This time he kept it from Betsy. No one knows for certain if Wyeth and Helga relationship was physical. It seems not to have been a typical quote from Wyeth on the subject is people say, Well, you’re having sex. Like hell, I was I was painting and it took all my energy to paint. But in a 2018 documentary, Helga said There are many ways of making love, you know, and one takes her point. When Wyeth finally showed Betsey, the paintings in 1985 worried she would find out about them after he was dead and be furious, it hurt. She was not sure their marriage would survive, even if the relationship wasn’t physical. It was intimate, and Betsy was on the outside of it, and Wyeth had kept her on the outside of it, not just as his wife, but as his collaborator, his curator. It was a double betrayal and when Betsy, a proper new Englander who didn’t believe in wallowing, who hated for people to feel bad for her, who was a tough cookie, finally saw these paintings. She got to work. She started titling them, cataloging them, trying to figure out how they fit in with all the other work from this 15 year period. By the time she spoke to reporter like Doug McGill from the New York Times. She seemed calm.
S2: Accepting Betsy, she was all ready for the interview. She was cool, calm and collected and had obviously reached a point of equanimity within herself about this whole thing. She was settled and clear in a very articulate, even transcendent, poetic way. You know, this is what happens in the art world. It’s all mixed up together. It’s poetically transcendent and it’s commercial at the same time.
S1: And you could say the same thing about the love quote. It was provocative and commercially effective, but it also recast Betsy not as the clueless wife kept in the dark for a decade and a half, but as the knowing one the one in control. And it worked not only in getting the painting’s attention, but in bringing the backlash for something Andrew Wyeth had done more on his own than just about anything else in his 69 year marriage to Betsy, the great artist wife who to the end promoted and then protected her artist. Maybe in retrospect, the story wasn’t the tabloid sex scandal the press was primed for or the bloodless Lee well-executed business stunt it came to be perceived as, but an intricate and tangled tale about a long and complicated marriage and the people in it and right outside of it, bound together by art and commerce and decades of devotion. There are a lot of paintings in this story, but what it really reminds me of is a good novel. The story of the Wyeth and Helga didn’t even end after the whole thing was largely written off as a PR stunt. In the years that followed, more and more became known about Helga, a German immigrant and mother of four. She’d been the nurse for one of Wyeth other major subjects. Karl Kerner When Wyeth started painting her, she was an uncommonly devoted and accommodating model, willing to pose in uncomfortable positions for hours on end, and she worked herself to the bone modeling for Wyeth, secretly all while tending to her children and his sister, Carolyn. She really had been her housekeeper and nurse. Here’s Helga talking about the experience in a 2013 documentary he
S5: needed to be painting for himself,
S3: and he knew that the paintings he had done with you.
S5: You didn’t have to show them to anybody. He could learn he could. He needed to feed himself. Not always have some critic tell him, or this is good. This is not good.
S1: Back in the 1980s, Helga was blindsided by the announcement of the paintings. Wyeth had promised her they wouldn’t be made public until his death, and she was gutted and distraught to be so out of the loop. But by 1991, she’d become Wyeth assistant caretaker nurse, and she would remain so until his death in 2009. After everything that had gone on between the Wyeth and Helga, they all stayed in each other’s lives. It remained complicated, Helga got a house up in Maine to Wyeth said it was like, I’ve got two wives and Betsy Hurt, as she was, could still spin the situation as one in which she had the control that
S2: she loves to play with the situation that and she said, Oh, I feed him breakfast and then I send him off to
S1: Helga. That’s Joyce Stoner, Wyeth painting conservator. She started working with him about a decade after all of this happened, but she knew the Wyeth well and Helga, too. If Betsy could be playful about the arrangement, she wasn’t always. Joyce says Betsy once didn’t speak to her for six months after she saw Joyce’s car parked outside of Helga house. She also said that Tho Helga worked tirelessly for Andy. Betsy paid the bills and no one wanted to ask her directly for the money, so they’d pay Helga in sketches that would then emerge onto the market. And Betsy, as Wyeth curator, would have to date them, label them, deal with them.
S2: It would like being stabbed all over again, so it was a continuing horror from the 80s. Straight on,
S1: Betsy died in 2019. Joyce said towards the end, she didn’t remember who Helga was, and that was probably for the best. People who knew Andrew Wyeth and who admire his work and there are way more of them there used to be tend to say that the moral of the Helga story is the paintings. Peter Ralston.
S2: In the end, it’s only. And I’m bumping up against them. I’m so sappy, but it’s all about those paintings.
S1: There it is. I can understand what he means. There’s something powerful about the attention that Wyeth paid to this one person and her body and its changes over 15 years. An act of great intimacy, but also of great observation. But give or take a few of the best ones. I can’t say I’m wild about the Helga paintings myself. In fact, the comment about them that resonated with me most came from Joyce Stoner, Wyeth conservator.
S2: I don’t want to antagonize my colleagues, but in my opinion, they are not as strong as other things. He would talk about this, and he needed a hard wall to kind of work against. And it’s missing in the Helga painting. So the Helga paintings, oddly enough, are missing the Betsie into
S1: thinking about them. This way, I like them more. They really are paintings about love, not only because of what’s inside the frame, but because of everything outside of it, too, shaping what we see. This is Decoder Ring and Willa Paskin. You could find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin and you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode. You can email us at Decoder ring at Slate.com. You haven’t yet. Subscribe and read our feed and Apple Podcasts or ever you get your podcasts. Even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin Frisch and Gabriel Roth. Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Leo Levin is our research assistant. A very special thank you to Paula Share. This is the first episode of our seven episode
S6: season, so we’ll see you next.