Leona Helmsley, a Manhattan hotelier with a reputation as the “Queen of Mean,” died on Aug. 20 of heart failure. She was 87.
Helmsley was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in Ulster County, N.Y. The daughter of a hat maker, she attended college for two years before dropping out to become a model. Leona wed attorney Leo E. Panzirer, and had a son Jay Robert Panzirer. The pair divorced in 1959; their son died at the age of 40 in 1982. She later married and divorced garment industry executive Joe Lubin. Their union lasted for seven years.
Leona was working as a real estate agent in 1969 when she met Harry Helmsley at an industry ball. Within a few weeks, she went to work for the “King Kong of Big Apple real estate.” Leona and Harry wed in 1972 after he divorced Eve Helmsley, his wife of 33 years. Society pages soon filled with glamourous images of the couple, who were said to be utterly devoted to each other. Leona annually hosted a party for his birthday in which all of the guests donned buttons that read “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” His button said, “I’m Harry.” For her birthday in 1976, Harry spent $100,000 to have the Empire State Building illuminated in red, white and blue lights.
The couple lived in a 10,000-square foot penthouse high above Central Park, a mountaintop home near Phoenix and a penthouse in Palm Beach. The Florida estate lost some of its luster in 1973 when the Helmsleys were stabbed by an intruder. The assault resulted in two life changes: the hiring of bodyguards and a reconciliation with Leona’s son, with whom she’d been estranged for five years.
The Helmsleys increased their fortune by selling commercial and residential properties in Manhattan. Their $5 billion empire included management of the Flatiron Building, the East Side residential complex called Tudor City, the Empire State Building, the Palace Hotel, the Park Lane and the New York Helmsley. In 1980, Harry made Leona president of Helmsley Hotels, a subsidiary that operated more than two dozen hotels in 10 states. Her appearance in glossy advertisements promoting the hotels’ first-rate service helped increase occupancy from 25 to 70 percent.
Leona was also a generous philanthropist, giving away millions to those in need. Her charitable activities included a $25 million gift to New York Presbyterian Hospital, $5 million to Katrina relief and $5 million to help the families of firefighters after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite these activities, Leona was known in the New York press as the “Queen of Mean.” She had a reputation for being a harsh task master with a hair-trigger temper. Employees were so afraid of Leona that they created a warning system to signal her comings and goings. Detractors say she also nickel-and-dimed merchants on her personal purchases and stiffed contractors who worked on her summer house in Greenwich, Conn.
Then in 1988, federal and state authorities indicted the Helmsleys on more than 200 counts of tax evasion. Leona was also charged with defrauding Helmsley stockholders by receiving $83,333 a month in secret consulting fees. Although 80-year-old Harry was deemed too ill to stand trial, Leona faced the music, and the wrath of the public.
In the highly publicized court proceedings, prosecution witnesses described Leona as extravagant, stingy, mean and spiteful — the kind of woman who terrified everyone around her. Her former housekeeper, Elizabeth Baum, testified that she heard Leona say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” Leona denied having said it, but the statement cemented her reputation and helped convict her of evading $1.2 million in federal taxes.
The judge gave Leona a four-year prison term and fined her $7.1 million. She also had to pay $1.7 million in back taxes. When the trial ended and the couple left the courthouse, a crowd taunted and jeered them. The infamous case, which showcased the “greed is good” mentality of the 1980s, became the basis of several books and the 1990 TV movie “Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean” starring Suzanne Pleshette.
Leona was incarcerated on April 15, 1993, and spent 21 months behind bars. Although she was ordered to do 750 hours of community service, a judge added 150 more hours after learning employees had done some of the chores for her. Upon her release from prison, Leona relinquished all executive involvement in the Helmsley Hotel organization because as a convicted felon, she could not be an officer, shareholder or partner in any entity holding a liquor license.
When Harry died in 1997, he left Leona his entire fortune, worth about $1.7 billion at the time, and made her the chief executive officer of Helmsley Enterprises. During the final years of her life, she managed the company’s real estate and hotel portfolio, sold most of her property empire and fought off numerous law suits from former employees.
Despite all the bad press, Leona truly loved her dog, Trouble. In her 14-page will, she bequeathed the 8-year-old Maltese to her brother, Alvin Rosenthal, and provided a $12 million trust to pay for the dog’s care. Rosenthal will also get $10 million in a trust and another $5 million outright. Her grandsons, David and Walter Panzirer, will receive $5 million each outright and another $5 million in trusts, provided they visit their father’s grave every year. Her other two grandchildren, Craig and Meegan Panzirer, and all 12 of her great-children were disinherited. The rest of her fortune, including the proceeds from the sale of all her residences and belongings, will be given to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.