Helene Von Damm's Flight to Freedom Is Taking Her Back to Austria—via the Oval Office
Helene von Damm was just 7 years old when Soviet soldiers tramped into her tiny village of Ulmerfeld, Austria after World War II. “They were an army without discipline,” she recalls. “It was more of a rampage than an occupation.” The mother of a friend went to pick berries one day and later was found stabbed to death in the woods. A second neighbor, knowing the soldiers were after him because of his Nazi past, shot his family, then himself. Helene remembers the pain of hunger and feeling “happy” that she was not older and was therefore less likely to be raped.
Since those grim days, von Damm has made an extraordinary journey. For a dozen years Ronald Reagan’s personal secretary, she rose with her boss to become a $69,800-a-year White House assistant and personnel headhunter. The first woman ever to direct the sensitive presidential personnel office, von Damm vets all applicants for ranking posts in the Administration, including the Cabinet. As a committed Reaganite, she combs the ranks of the Republican Party and corporate America to place like-minded people on the many presidential commissions. Now the onetime secretary has been nominated Ambassador to Austria, the country she left 27 years ago.
Von Damm came to the U.S. in 1959 as the 21-year-old wife of an American soldier whom she met in Erlangen, West Germany. “I had no career goals then,” she says, adding that she was “rather unhappy as a young person.” She settled in Detroit, where, because of her poor English, she could not get work as a secretary, only as a typist. Six years later, after her marriage dissolved (“I was not ready to live with myself, let alone with someone else”), she moved to Chicago and landed a job with the American Medical Association’s Political Action Committee. Preparing herself to become both a citizen and a registered Republican, von Damm stuffed envelopes as a volunteer for Sen. Charles Percy by night and listened eagerly to visiting politicos at the AMPAC workshops during the day.
One afternoon in 1965 an aspiring politician named Ronald Reagan appeared at one of the workshops. “Ronald Reagan was the most exciting candidate I’d ever seen,” she says. “He talks now the way he talked back then. When he speaks about preserving the opportunities in this country for anybody who is willing to work, or when he talks about the threats of Communism, these things mean something to me.”
Within weeks she had quit her job and headed West to work on Reagan’s first gubernatorial race. Finally hired after three months of badgering the Reagan staffers, she never caught so much as a glimpse of her idol during the campaign. Afterward, however, she was asked by William P. Clark, the Governor’s first Cabinet secretary and now the National Security Adviser, to come to Sacramento as his administrative assistant. Two years later, when Clark became a state judge, Reagan selected von Damm as his confidential secretary. “From then on,” she says, “I was always with the Governor.”
Von Damm always combined her career in Reagan’s service with an eventful private life. Divorced in 1975 after a second, five-year union with a German international banker, she tested the marital waters for the third time in 1981. New Jersey businessman Byron Leeds, 50, is, by Helene’s estimate, “perfect—and after three times I’m entitled.” Theirs has been a commuter marriage, centered on an 18th-century farmhouse in Morris County, N.J., to which von Damm retreats nearly every weekend. When Madame Ambassador flies to her new post (her nomination should pass the Senate Foreign Relations Committee easily next month), husband Leeds will be at her side. He plans to take a business sabbatical to play the supporting role full-time. “He’s thrilled for me,” says von Damm. “If anything, it will make our marriage stronger since he is going with me.” A romantic would see the couple’s journey to Europe as the completion of a circle: They first met in the late ’50s when Leeds was a Gl in the same unit as von Damm’s first husband. Says Byron, “She is an old love. Meeting her again was just a reaffirmation.”