City Pulse

By Lili Eros-Sarnyai

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The notorious “Queen of Mean” of New York real estate, Leona Helmsley, died Monday of heart failure at her summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut, her publicist Howard Rubenstein confirmed. She was 87.

Ranked the 369th richest person by Forbes in 2007 with an approximate net worth of $ 2.5 billion, the hotel magnate personified the “greed is good” culture of the 1980s. Along with her third husband Harry Helmsley, whom she married in April 1972, she ran a sprawling $ 5 billion real estate empire that included the management of the Empire State Building.

Despite being, in the words of her long-time rival Donald Trump, indisputably “one of a kind” in terms of personal and financial success, she will no doubt be remembered by most for her 1989 trial, where both she and her husband were accused of charging millions to their businesses in personal expenses and costly home improvements. Convicted for tax evasion, she was sentenced to four years in prison of which she only served 18 months. She was also fined $ 7.1 million as well as having to serve 750 hours of community service.

After being released in 1994, Mrs. Helmsley soon disappeared from the media spotlight; however, her reputation as a brutal and self-interested employer had already been sealed during the course of a highly publicized trial. This trial had included extensive testimony from employees who attested to Mrs. Helmsley’s tendency to terrorize both executive and menial help, as well as relating several wonderfully scandalous comments, the most infamous one being “We don’t pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.” Although she later denied having said it, it was perhaps this comment more than anything else that caused the public to view Leona Helmsley as over-privileged, money-grabbing and mean.

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Nevertheless, not even her detractors can deny that she did have a more altruistic side; she supported several charities including New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, the former receiving a gift of $ 25 million in 2006. Even on a personal level Mrs. Helmsley does not appear to have been nearly as mean as portrayed in the media, as is apparent in the following anecdote related by a certain editor. The scene: the Park Lane Hotel. The occasion: the editors’ birthday. Background circumstances: having abandoned her date who turned to be Mr Bad Manners himself, the editor sits alone in the empty bar, staring listlessly into her far-from-first drink. Mrs. Helmsley, also alone in the empty dining room and noticing said melancholy figure, upon learning of her rather lackluster birthday sends over a glass of champagne. Now surely a woman capable of such feminine camaraderie could not have been all that terrible?

Perhaps then it would not be entirely unfounded to suggest that at least a fraction of the antipathy generally felt towards Mrs. Helmsley was due in part to jealousy. After all, with a spacious duplex on Park Avenue, complete with a rooftop swimming pool, a penthouse in Palm Beach, and an estate in Connecticut, not to mention the 100-seat private jet with all the luxuries, she was bound to become a prime target for the frustrated envy of the masses.

Leona Helmsley should be remembered not only for her wealth and irate temperament, but also for her achievements in life. There are as of yet relatively few female power players in real estate, and so rather than dwelling on her bad points we should focus on the accomplishments which perhaps would not have been feasible without a little bit of nastiness. After all, if so many wealthy and powerful men behave aggressively in order to “get ahead” without anyone so much as batting an eyelash, why can a woman not do the same?

Originally published August 2007
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