Mismatch

Slammed with hefty court-ordered judgments in the Northeast, matchmaker Helena Amram has found no peace in South Florida either

How can I hope to make you understand Why I do what I do?

-- Fiddler on the Roof

Sitting in the waiting room of Helena Amram's plush Boca Raton suite, you can learn a great deal about the woman before she ever steps out of her office. The walls are crowded with framed newspaper and magazine articles written throughout Amram's career as a marriage broker: New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times. Through good times and bad -- and recently they've been primarily the latter -- Amram has courted publicity, thrived on it, in fact. Many of the stories are giddy, often riffing off the lyrics to the song "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof. ("Catch me a catch." "Make me a match.") Whatever other wall space could have been left bare is occupied by framed glossies of Amram with celebrities and aristocrats.

David Hollenbach
David Hollenbach

The feng shui of matchmaking intensifies in a small anteroom furnished with a black leather loveseat and a glassed, ebony étagère filled with photos of smiling, beautiful men and women. Beside one portrait is a wedding invitation. The seating provides an optimal view of a large-screen television, from which visitors are greeted with a video roundup of talk-show and local news coverage of Amram's matchmaking. The smell of perfume permeates the air.

On a recent April afternoon, Amram is talking enthusiastically on the phone in her office, its door wide open, when Maggie (not her real name) enters. A woman in her 30s from London, Maggie has long, light-brown hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a smile that could melt a chocolate bar. Her spaghetti-strap, flower-pattern dress is revealing but not vampish. In short, she's a head-turner. Now back in America after a lengthy visit in England, she's come to the office to review the dossiers of five men, any one of whom could become her third husband. She ends up waiting a bit for Amram, killing time in front of the television.

"I'm visiting for the moment, seeing what gentlemen I might meet," she chirps in an upper-crusty accent. "You see, all these awful things about the Web and these awful telephone dating agencies. It's not particular enough, not refined enough. You never know who you're going to end up with, do you?"

Maggie's been lucky in some respects -- she's quite well-to-do -- but alas, unlucky in love. "Basically, I date and get engaged to Fozzie Bear; then he turns into some kind of monster," she offers. "They're nice and polite, and then you find out they have a drinking problem or gambling problem or womanizing problem. The latter tends to be the problem I've run into." She giggles. "They're just not what they say they are."

Amram, Maggie believes, will protect her from another big, bad wolf.

When Amram finally emerges from her office, it is with a flourish. Her black hair is pulled back, and she's wearing a cream-colored pantsuit. At 52 years old, her roundish face has an almost glowing complexion. As she breezes toward Maggie, her arms outstretched, the source of the suite's flowery redolence becomes immediately apparent. The two retreat into Amram's small office, where she hands Maggie pictures and bios of would-be hubbies. Amram, however, shows little interest in discussing them, preferring instead to rail against the local media and the Boca Raton Police Department, which in February raided her office and took thousands of documents. A month later, one of her clients, Randie Kaiser, filed a lawsuit to get her $20,000 fee back from Amram for failing to find her a mate.

"What the Boca police did to me is a shame," she declares in her thickly accented voice. Distressed by the topic, her grammar grows more fragmented. "They're going to be sued. The police have nothing. Call the police and ask them, 'What do you want of this lady?' Do they want me out of here? I'm an American citizen. I'm Israeli, but I'm an American citizen. I came here in '79. I've been working 35 years in this business. I have thousands and thousands of couples who've gotten married because of me."

She springs from her desk chair and points to the framed feature stories from halcyon days past. "Look at this, all the papers, all the television shows... why are you destroying me now?" she pleads, seemingly to the media gods above.

"You see, the police don't understand what is spouse-hunting, don't understand a personal agent, don't know what a matchmaker is," she proclaims. "I'm a Yente," she adds, invoking the name of perhaps the best-known, if fictional, matchmaker from the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

The phone rings -- a female client -- and Amram morphs instantly into matchmaker. "Did you talk last night? Two hours! Wow! Saturday was his birthday? Oh my God, I forgot his birthday? I'm going to send him flowers today. What do you buy for a doctor as a gift? A tie? A doctor tie?" Hanging up, she says mournfully, "I've had so many things on my mind.

"I have lost so much money in the last two months that I'm holding my business in my teeth" -- she hisses the final words through clenched teeth -- "to not lose it."

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