Leona Helmsley, NYC, 1988
|Born||Lena Mindy Rosenthal
July 4, 1920
Marbletown, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 20, 2007
Greenwich, Connecticut, U.S.
|Occupation||Hotelier, real estate investor|
|Net worth||US$8 billion|
|Spouse(s)||Leo Panzirer (m. 1938, div. 1952)
Joseph Lubin (Twice divorced)
Harry Helmsley (m. April 8, 1972 – d. 1997)
Leona Mindy Roberts Helmsley (July 4, 1920 – August 20, 2007) was an American businesswoman. She was known for her flamboyant personality and had a reputation for tyrannical behavior that earned her the sobriquet Queen of Mean. She was promoted by the Beber Silverstein Group and its co-founder Joyce Beber persuaded Helmsley to replace that title for Queen of the Palace Hotel instead.
After allegations of non-payment by her of contractors hired by her to build her home, Helmsley was investigated and convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989. Although having initially received a sentence of 16 years, Helmsley was required to serve only 19 months in prison and two months under house arrest. During the trial, a former housekeeper testified that she had heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes", an aphorism with which she was identified for the rest of her life.
Leona Helmsley was born Lena Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrants, Ida (née Popkin), a homemaker, and Morris Rosenthal, a hatmaker. Her family moved to Brooklyn while she was still a girl, and moved six more times before settling in Manhattan. She dropped out of Abraham Lincoln High School to seek her fortune. In a short time, she changed her name several times—from Lee Roberts, Mindy Roberts and Leni Roberts. Eventually, she decided on Leona Mindy Roberts. She legally changed her surname to Roberts. She was a chain smoker, consuming several packs a day. Helmsley would later claim that she appeared in billboard ads for Chesterfield cigarettes, but her claim remains unsubstantiated.
Her first husband was attorney Leo Panzirer, whom she divorced in 1952. Their only son was Jay (1940–1982), who had four children with his wife, Mimi. Leona was twice married to and divorced from her second husband, garment industry executive Joseph Lubin. After a brief period at a sewing factory, she joined a New York real estate firm, where she eventually became vice-president.
Career as a hotelier
Roberts was a real estate salesperson in 1964 when Abe Hirschfeld hired her to sit in the lobby and sell co-ops at 925 Park Avenue in New York. She was a condominium broker in 1968 when she met and began her involvement with the then-married multi-millionaire real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley. In 1970, she joined one of Helmsley's brokerage firms—Brown, Harris, Stevens—as a senior vice-president. At that time, she was already a millionaire in her own right. Helmsley divorced his wife of 33 years and married Roberts on April 8, 1972. Roberts's marriage to Helmsley may well have saved her career. Late in 1971, several of her tenants sued her for forcing the tenants of one of the apartments she managed to buy condominiums. They won, and she was forced not only to compensate the tenants but to give them three-year leases. Her real estate license was also suspended, so she focused on running Helmsley's growing hotel empire.
Supposedly under her influence, Helmsley began a program of conversion of apartment buildings into condos. He later concentrated on the hotel industry, building The Helmsley Palace on Madison Avenue. Together the Helmsleys built a real estate empire in New York City including 230 Park Avenue, the Empire State Building, the Tudor City apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan, and Helmsley-Spear, their management and leasing business. The couple also developed properties that included the Park Lane Hotel (New York), the New York Helmsley Hotel, the Helmsley Palace Hotel, and hotels in Florida and other states. By the beginning of 1989, twenty-three hotels in the chain were directly controlled by Leona Helmsley.
She was featured in an advertising campaign portraying her as a demanding "queen" who wanted nothing but the best for her guests. The slightest mistake was usually grounds for firing, and Helmsley was known to shout insults and obscenities at targeted employees just before they were fired.
On March 31, 1982, Helmsley's only child, Jay Panzirer, died of a heart attack resulting from arrhythmia. Her son's widow, who lived in a property Helmsley owned, received an eviction notice shortly after his funeral. Helmsley successfully sued her son's estate for money and property that she claimed he had borrowed, and she was ultimately awarded $146,092.
Tax evasion conviction
Despite the Helmsleys' tremendous wealth (net worth over a $1 billion), they were known for disputing payments to contractors and vendors. One of these disputes would prove to be their undoing.
In 1983, the Helmsleys bought Dunnellen Hall, a 21-room mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, to use as a weekend retreat. The property cost $11 million, but the Helmsleys wanted to make it even more luxurious. The work included a $1 million dance floor, a silver clock and a mahogany card table.
The remodeling bills came to $8 million, which the Helmsleys were loath to pay. A group of contractors sued the Helmsleys for non-payment; the Helmsleys eventually paid off most of the debt owed to the contractors. In 1985, during those proceedings, the contractors revealed that most of their work was being illegally billed to the Helmsleys' hotels as business expenses. The contractors sent a stack of the falsified invoices to the New York Post to prove that the Helmsleys were trying to avoid tax liabilities. The resulting Post story led to a federal criminal investigation. Also, Jeremiah McCarthy, the Helmsleys' executive engineer, alleged that Leona repeatedly demanded that he sign invoices to bill personal expenses to the Helmsley company and, when McCarthy declined to do so, Helmsley exploded with tyrannical outbursts, shouting, "You're not my fucking partner! You'll sign what I tell you to sign." In 1988, then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani indicted the Helmsleys and two of their associates on several tax-related charges, as well as extortion.
The trial was delayed until the summer of 1989 due to numerous motions by the Helmsleys' attorneys, most of them related to Harry's health. He had begun to appear enfeebled shortly after the beginning of his relationship with Leona Helmsley years before, and had recently suffered a stroke on top of a pre-existing heart condition. Ultimately, he was ruled mentally and physically unfit to stand trial, and Leona would face the charges alone.
At trial, a former Helmsley-Spear executive, Paul Ruffino, said that he refused to sign phony invoices billing the company for work done on the Helmsely's Connecticut mansion. Ruffino, originally engaged to assist Helmsley through the Hospitality Management Services arm, said that Leona fired him on several different occasions for refusing to sign the bills, but Harry would usually tell him to ignore her and to come back to work.
Another one of the key witnesses was a former housekeeper at the Helmsley home, Elizabeth Baum, who recounted Leona Helmsley telling her "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Helmsley denied saying this. By then, however, the trial was already highlighting Helmsley's abusive and micromanaging behavior towards family members as well as employees, contractors, and even senior executives. Helmsley's former employees testified at trial "about how they feared her, with one recalling how she casually fired him while she was being fitted for a dress". Most legal observers felt that Helmsley's hostile personality, arrogance, and "naked greed" alienated the jurors.
On August 30, Helmsley was convicted and sentenced of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three counts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and ten counts of mail fraud.
She was, however, acquitted of extortion—a charge that could potentially have sent her to prison for the rest of her life. Helmsley was instead sentenced to 16 years in prison, and eventually had that sentence significantly reduced when all but eight of the convictions were dropped. Nonetheless, when it was clear she was going to prison, Helmsley collapsed outside the courthouse. She was later diagnosed with a heart irregularity and hypertension.
Helmsley's new lawyer, retained to appeal the judgment, was Alan Dershowitz. Following the appeal, which resulted in a reduced sentence, she was ordered to report to prison on tax day, April 15, 1992. Her Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Register number was 15113-054, and she was released from BOP custody on January 26, 1994, after serving 19 months.
Helmsley's later years were apparently spent in isolation, especially after Harry died in 1997. He left her his entire fortune, including the Helmsley hotels, the Helmsley Palace and the Empire State Building, estimated to be worth well in excess of $5 billion.
Her few friends included Patrick Ward, Imelda Marcos, Rodrigo Handall, the Noriega family, and Kathy and Rick Hilton. A 2001 Chicago Sun-Times article depicted her as estranged from her grandchildren and with few friends, living alone in a lavish apartment with her dog. In 2002, Helmsley was sued by Charles Bell, a former employee who alleged that he was discharged solely for being gay. A jury agreed and ordered Mrs. Helmsley to pay Bell $11,200,000 in damages. A judge subsequently reduced this amount to $554,000.
She was forced to give up control of her hotel empire, since most of her hotels had bars and New York does not allow convicted felons to hold alcohol licenses. Mrs. Helmsley lived her final year at her penthouse atop the Park Lane Hotel.
Although Helmsley had a reputation as the "Queen of Mean", some considered her generous in her charitable contributions after her prison term. After September 11, 2001, Helmsley donated $5 million to help the families of New York City firefighters. Other contributions included $25 million to New York–Presbyterian Hospital for medical research.
Leona Helmsley died from congestive heart failure at the age of 87, on August 20, 2007, at Dunnellen Hall, her summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Cardiovascular disease ran in her family, claiming the lives of her father, son and a sister. After a week at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, she was entombed next to Harry Helmsley in a mausoleum constructed for $1.4 million and set on ¾-acres in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Westchester County, New York. Among the few distinctive features of the mausoleum are three wall-embedded stained-glass windows, in the style of Louis Tiffany, showing the skyline of Manhattan.
Helmsley left the bulk of her estate—estimated at more than $4 billion—to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. In addition to providing directly for her own dog in her will, she left separate instructions that the trust, now valued at $5 to $8 billion, be used to benefit dogs. The courts have ruled that the Trust is not legally bound to wishes separate from the Trust documents.
The will left her Maltese dog, Trouble, a $12 million trust fund. This sum was subsequently reduced to $2 million as excessive to fulfill its purpose. Her choice was branded 3rd in Fortune magazine's "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" of 2007.
Trouble lived in Florida with Carl Lekic, the general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel, with several death threats having been received. Lekic, Trouble's caretaker, stated that $2 million would pay for the dog's maintenance for more than 10 years—the annual $100,000 for full-time security, $8,000 for grooming and $1,200 for food. Lekic was paid a $60,000 annual guardian fee." Trouble died at age twelve in December 2010, with the remainder of the funds reverted to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Although Helmsley's wishes were to have the dog interred with her in the mausoleum, New York state law prohibits interment of pets in human cemeteries and the dog was subsequently cremated.
Helmsley had four grandchildren. Two of them each received $5 million in trust and $5 million in cash, under the condition that they visit their father's grave site once each calendar year. Their signing a registration book would prove that they had visited the grave. Her other two grandchildren, Craig and Meegan Panzirer, received nothing.
In a judgment (published on June 16, 2008), Manhattan Surrogate Court Judge Renee Roth ruled Helmsley was mentally unfit when she executed her will. Hence, the Court, amid settlement, reduced the $12 million trust fund for the pet Trouble to $2 million. Of the $10 million originally bequeathed to Trouble, $4 million was awarded to the Charitable Trust, and $6 million was awarded to Craig and Meegan Panzirer, who had been disinherited by the will. The ruling requires the Panzirers to keep silent about their dispute with their grandmother and deliver to the court any documents they have about her. It has been alleged that they were omitted from the will because they failed to name any of their children after Helmsley's late husband.
She left $15 million for her brother Alvin Rosenthal. Helmsley also left $100,000 to her chauffeur, Nicholas Celea.
The "Queen of Mean"
Helmsley acquired the moniker "The Queen of Mean", reportedly inspired after an advertising campaign promoting her as the "Queen of the Palace" of the Helmsley Palace Hotel. Helmsley became known by this nickname in the mainstream press.
Helmsley was known for "tyrannizing her employees". According to Alan Dershowitz, while breakfasting with her at one of the Helmsley hotels, the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. She grabbed the cup from him and smashed it on the floor, then demanded that the waiter get down on his hands and knees and beg for his job." In another account of Helmsley's behavior, she had a barbecue pit constructed for her home. The work was performed by Eugene Brennan, a personal friend of Jeremiah McCarthy, the chief engineer of Helmsley-Spear. When the final bill came to $13,000, she refused to pay, citing shoddy workmanship. When McCarthy pleaded with her to honor the bill, citing the favor done on his behalf and informing her that Brennan had six children to support, Helmsley replied, "Why didn't he keep his pants on? Then he wouldn't need the money".
In 1989, an unauthorized biography titled The Queen of Mean: The Unauthorized Biography of Leona Helmsley was published by Bantam Books (ISBN 978-0553285581). The 1990 TV movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean starred Suzanne Pleshette as Leona and Lloyd Bridges as Harry. Pleshette was nominated for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for the portrayal.
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Leona Helmsley, the self-styled hotel queen, whose prison term for income tax evasion and fraud was greeted with uncommon approval by a public who had grown to regard her as a 1980s symbol of arrogance and greed, died today at her summer home in Greenwich, Conn, She was 87. The cause of death was heart failure, her longtime spokesman, Howard J. Rubenstein, said.
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