With all the agonizing over who’s in and who’s out in Washington these days, the fate of Alex Orfila is still unclear—but hardly unimportant. Orfila: let’s see, isn’t he the No. 2 man in the Department of…No. The 54-year-old Argentinian is secretary-general of the Organization of American States, and if he is not reelected to that post in October, the capital social scene will be infinitely poorer.
Giving elegant dinners—more than 40 a year, plus cocktail parties and small soirees—has earned Alejandro Orfila and his stunning wife, Helga, a reputation as Washington’s most social diplomatic couple. Orfila has long recognized the political value of partying on Embassy Row. As Argentina’s ambassador to the U.S., “He gave lunches in the darkest days of the Peron regime, when our relationship with Argentina was not so good,” a State Department official recalls. “He kept Argentina alive.” Society writer Betty Beale adds: “He knew how to create the celebrity image that would help put his points across. He would have bankers to lunch, and loans for his country would follow.”
In his present job, Orfila’s concerns extend well beyond his native country or the proper vintage of wine to serve. Elected secretary-general of the OAS in 1975, he has pumped life into the previously moribund assemblage of 27 Latin American nations and the U.S. He lobbied for approval of the Panama Canal treaties, investigated charges of human rights violations in Chile in 1976 and criticized President Carter in 1977 for raising U.S. sugar tariffs. More recently, he monitored the OAS emergency sessions over the Nicaraguan civil war—and was criticized by Paraguayan officials (unfairly, many thought) for continuing to give parties while Nicaragua endured a revolution and Jamaica was ravaged by heavy rains. (In 1976 Orfila embroiled himself in a different sort of controversy when he told a reporter the women’s movement “amuses me, but it is ridiculous…[women] will be losing more than they are gaining.”)
That same year Alex met the lively lady who would eventually become Señora Orfila. Before Helga Leifeld, 35, a German-born former model, came into his life, he was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in town. While dancing with Jackie Onassis, his date at a Kennedy Center gala, he spotted Helga on the arm of Peter Malatesta, a sometime Sinatra pal. “She was a very beautiful woman,” Alex says, and he immediately began asking friends about her. Helga, then living in New York, recalls, “His date didn’t like it very much.”
He saw her again the next night at Pisces, a private Washington disco. “I watched her dance,” Alex says. “She was totally uninhibited, which meant to me, here is a girl who doesn’t care much what people think.”
He got a mutual friend to ask Helga if he might call. Flattered, she replied, “Well, he seems to be a nice gentleman.” Their first date was lunch with friends at his 316-acre Middleburg, Va. farm. They courted for a year.
Alex still savors his proposal: “I am a professional diplomat, and I was moving all around to reach my objective without making a final commitment. When I thought everything was right, I put it in the way of a suggestion, so that she said, ‘Yes, why don’t we get married?’ and I said, ‘Well, in that case, I accept.’ ” The quiet ceremony took place March 12,1977 at his farm.
Helga has proved to be an ideal complement to Alex, though she made her first big impact on Washington that fall by wearing a bosom-baring dress at the Panama Canal treaty signing. The reaction—in which all possible jokes comparing Helga’s cleavage and the canal were explored—was “ridiculous,” Alex fumes.
Helga likes to refer to herself as a “free spirit.” Born in Munich, she lost her father at 3 from complications of a war wound; her mother later married a Düsseldorf shopkeeper. At school she was “always being punished,” and “at home they were strict,” she says. So at 18 she moved in with a girlfriend and began free-lancing as a TV extra and model in Munich. At 23 she wandered into a marriage that broke up after two years. “I was too young,” is her explanation.
She visited Los Angeles on vacation, liked it and moved there in 1971, but could not break into movies. One director said her accent was too strong. It’s still noticeable in English; she speaks no Spanish (and has yet to visit Argentina). A screen test was canceled, she complains, because “I was not friendly with one of the high people upstairs.”
After three years she moved to New York and found both steady work as a model and a flashy social life. She had one long-term relationship, but explains, “I still had my life. I would date other people. Nothing wrong with it. Obviously I’m not 17 years old. I have my past and Alex has his. I told him there are certain people I am very fond of—some I had affairs with. But not anymore.” She was living in a modest Manhattan apartment when she met Alejandro. She bristles at gossip that she was searching for a rich man to marry. “Somebody can be loaded with money and power,” she says, “but be a real bastard.”
Alex was born into an Argentine family that had made a fortune from cattle ranching and the Jose Orfila winery. His father, a lawyer, was governor of the province of Mendoza at 32; his mother died when Alex was 6 months old. “I’ve been on my own practically since I was born,” he says. His father sent him to an American school in Buenos Aires to learn Engish; there he also learned about “the 4th of July and barbecues and hot dogs,” and excelled in track and school politics. He studied law and joined the Argentine army while aspiring to the foreign service. Then a family friend was appointed ambassador to Moscow by President Juan Perón.
“Frankly, politics in Argentina meant that you had to know someone,” Alex says. He joined the embassy staff in Moscow (where he met UP reporter Walter Cronkite, still a friend) and worked his way up to Washington. He became ambassador in 1973 after an 11-year layoff from diplomacy to work as a financial consultant in Buenos Aires and Europe. Meanwhile he married an American, Jean d’ Aprile, and they had four children before separating in the late ’60s. They were divorced in 1975. Now, he says, “I have no idea what she does.” He remains closest to son Alex, 27, who lives in the OAS residence in Washington and is studying to be a pilot. His other children all live in Virginia—Martin, 25, is a state trooper, Linda, 23, a horse trainer, and Michael, 20, a farm product salesman.
Orfila says his marriage to Helga “is a good study of how two strong personalities really fit each other without clashing.” She accepts his long hours and says, “I like my man to be a boss,” but still escapes to her Manhattan pied-a-terre twice a month, often to shop for designer clothes. Though the Orfilas have a beach house in Jamaica, both feel most comfortable in Middleburg, where he rides and breeds horses (they own five) and she paints and dabbles in cooking. “Alex doesn’t enjoy German dishes,” Helga jokes. “I’m the only one he likes.”
They say their differences are all minor. Alex isn’t wild about Helga’s friendships with her New York ex-beaux. “I don’t believe in this totally platonic relationship between sexes,” he chides. She smokes; he says, “I think it’s stupid.” Helga seems wistful about not having children: “I would be a great mother. But I don’t think he wants to go through that at this point in his life.” She’s also romantic enough to lament that only once has Alex given her flowers. He retorts, “Enough money to do what we want, my whole life—this is my flower for Helga.”
Still, the aristocrat and the beauty possess a certain chemistry. “Helga has a philosophy I learned in this country,” says Alex. “To have fun. I never thought about having fun.” Helga sees something else. “I have common sense. I am not impressed with power. I think Alex likes that.”