Leona Helmsley, Hotelier and Real Estate Icon, Dies
By Shannon D. Harrington
Posted: August 20, 2007
Leona Helmsley, the real estate developer and hotel operator convicted
of tax evasion and dubbed ``The Queen of Mean,'' died today. She
Helmsley died of heart failure at her summer home in Greenwich,
Connecticut, said spokesman Howard Rubenstein. With her husband,
Harry, she helped build a property empire that was once valued
at $5 billion. It included interests in the Empire State Building,
the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South and the Helmsley Hotel
on 42nd Street.
``She was a tough lady,'' said Edward Koch, the former New
York City mayor who first met Helmsley in the late 1970s. ``She
set standards for hotels and service.''
Her conviction in 1989 on federal tax evasion charges made
her a symbol of the excesses of the 1980s and put her on the
front pages of the tabloids. She and her husband were charged
with writing off renovations to their $11 million Greenwich
estate as business expenses.
Helmsley served 18 months in prison after an eight-week trial
in which former employees painted her as a cold-hearted boss
who fired workers on a whim and told a housekeeper at her estate
that ``only the little people pay taxes.''
The case was the basis for a 1990 made-for-television movie
``Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.''
New York Born
In a statement, developer Donald Trump said: ``Leona was definitely
one of a kind. Harry loved being with her and the excitement
she brought -- and that is all that really matters.''
Helmsley was born Lena Rosenthal on Independence Day in 1920
to a hatmaker and housewife, both Polish immigrants, in Marbletown,
New York, wrote Michael Moss, a New York Newsday reporter at
the time, in his 1989 book ``Palace Coup: The Inside Story of
Harry & Leona Helmsley.''
Her family moved to New York City as the economy in Marbletown,
a cement mill hamlet, started to decline, Moss wrote.
Helmsley claimed to have attended Hunter College in Manhattan,
although school yearbooks have shed little light on that period.
She later claimed to have worked as a Chesterfield cigarette
model before taking a job as a secretary at New York real estate
company Pease & Elliman.
She rose through the ranks to saleswoman, selling co-ops and
condominiums, and worked early in her career for residential
real estate broker Brown Harris Stevens, Rubenstein said. She
also headed the new co-op unit of Sutton & Towne Residential,
the New York Times reported in a 1988 profile.
While stories of how she met Harry Helmsley vary, she went
to work for a subsidiary of the Helmsley Organization in 1970
and married the real estate mogul two years later.
It was her fourth marriage. The first was to attorney Leo Panzirer,
with whom she had her only son, Jay Panzirer, and she married
garment industry executive Joseph Lubin twice.
After marrying Harry Helmsley, Leona's responsibilities within
the real estate empire grew.
``Her greatest contribution to life would be the very warm,
affectionate, comfortable life she gave to her husband,'' said
She took on day-to-day operations of the 950-room Helmsley
Palace when it opened in 1981. The palace, a 51-story gleaming
glass tower melded with the Madison Avenue landmark residences,
became Leona's signature project.
She gained control of the others after a wager, the Times reported.
She challenged the hotels' decorator to a competition: she and
the professional each designed three rooms. After her husband
picked hers, she was named president of the hotels, the Times
``The quality and standards that she invoked in her hotels
were appreciated by a lot of people, a lot of customers,'' said
Kenneth Patton, director of the New York University real estate
institute and a former senior vice president of Harry Helmsley's
management company, Helmsley Spear Inc. ``Her relationships
were not the greatest or the best, but on the other hand her
standards were exceptionally high.''
Soon Helmsley became known as queen of the hotel chain, as
she was depicted in advertisements ``standing guard'' over the
hotel and ensuring nothing but first-class service.
``They had wonderful ads conveying that she was the queen of
the hotels that Harry owned and you had the feeling that she
made sure that everybody did their job,'' said Koch.
Her attention to detail became legendary and so did her penchant
for tirades, employees would later say.
Those stories culminated in the late 1980s after a group of
employees and contractors on the Helmsley's Greenwich estate
went to the New York Post with records showing the couple dodged
taxes by billing their companies for renovation work on the
In 1988, a Manhattan grand jury indicted the Helmsleys on charges
that they evaded more than $4 million in income taxes by charging
furnishings and renovations for the 28-acre estate to the real
estate business. Prosecutors also alleged Leona Helmsley extorted
kickbacks from hotel suppliers and contractors.
Mr. Helmsley, almost 80 at the time of the indictment, was
determined not mentally competent to stand trial.
A jury convicted Leona Helmsley of evading $1.2 million in
federal income taxes, though it acquitted her of extortion.
During her trial, Helmsley's reputation as a cruel boss became
so well-known that her defense team cited it in arguments, with
attorney Gerald Feffer reminding jurors in opening remarks that
while his client might be an unpopular woman she wasn't on trial
for ``being a tough bitch,'' the New York Times reported.
Former employees testified at the trial about how they feared
her, with one recalling how she casually fired him while she
was being fitted for a dress. Housekeeper Elizabeth Baum testified
that after saying to Helmsley at the Greenwich estate that she
must pay a lot in taxes, Helmsley replied: ``We don't pay taxes.
Only the little people pay taxes.''
Helmsley's ``Queen of Mean'' image stuck during her later years.
When her husband died in 1997, Leona took over his empire and
began selling some holdings. She had an estimated net worth
of $2.2 billion, according to Forbes Magazine, which in 2006
ranked her No. 350 on its list of the world's wealthiest people.
A jury in 2003 awarded $11.2 million in damages to a former
manager of Helmsley's five-star Park Lane Hotel who claimed
Helmsley fired him for being gay. A judge later reduced the
award to $554,000, although Helmsley was also ordered to pay
more than $638,000 of her former employee's legal expenses.
Helmsley did show hints of a soft side from time to time.
Just before a judge sentenced her to four years in prison for
the tax-evasion conviction, a sentence later reduced, she pleaded
with him for leniency as she recounted the difficulty of losing
her son Jay, who died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 42.
``I beg you. Don't let me lose Harry too,'' she told federal
Judge John M. Walker Jr., the Times reported. ``Please don't.
Our whole life has been work and each other. We have nothing
More recently, she donated $5 million to the American Red Cross
for Hurricane Katrina relief. She also contributed $25 million
to New York Presbyterian Hospital and $5 million after Sept.
11 to help the families of firefighters. In the late 1990s,
she gave millions to rebuild African-American churches that
were set afire in the South, Rubenstein said.
Hospital facilities at New York Presbyterian, New York University
Medical Center and Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, bear the
family name in honor of donations.
Helmsley is survived by her brother Alvin Rosenthal and his
wife, Susan; four grandchildren, David Panzirer and his wife
Karen; Craig Panzirer and his wife Grace; Walter Panzirer and
his wife Tina; and Megan Wesolko and her husband Tom Wesolko;
and 12 great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
To contact the reporter for this story: Shannon D. Harrington
in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Article at: bloomberg.com