Hotel Mogul, 'Queen of Mean' Leona Helmsley

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Leona Helmsley, 87, a self-made businesswoman who helped run the $5 billion New York real estate and hotel empire of her third husband before being convicted of federal income-tax evasion, died Aug. 20 at her summer home in Greenwich, Conn. She had a heart ailment.

Mrs. Helmsley's lust for media attention and her combative style earned her the tabloid nickname "the Queen of Mean." By any standard, she was a woman of moxie and accomplishment -- a college dropout who as a 42-year-old divorced mother began a successful career as a real estate broker.

In 1972, she married Harry B. Helmsley, whose property management business included dozens of apartment complexes, office towers such as the Empire State Building and a nationwide chain of hotels.

Mrs. Helmsley assumed the presidency of the hotel component and displayed an autocratic manner that she emphasized was geared to better customer service.

In advertisements for the luxurious flagship, the Helmsley Palace, she presented herself as tiara-crowned royalty with captions that read, "the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard." She was subsequently shown in the ads polishing silver, making beds and tasting the cuisine. "I wouldn't settle for drab-looking food," she said in one caption. "Why should you?"

Mrs. Helmsley's personality became a central part of the tax charges and her popular lore. Several disgruntled employees testified that her exacting ways scraped away the dignity of everyone on her payroll, from the menial staff to the top executives.

One of Mrs. Helmsley's personal maids testified against her during the income-tax evasion trial in 1989. The maid said Mrs. Helmsley had boasted: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Mrs. Helmsley denied having said that, but her reputation for high living made the comment seem convincing to many, and it proved a damning statement at trial.

Most of the charges stemmed from Mrs. Helmsley's ostentatious devotion to her husband. She threw lavish, celebrity-studded birthday parties for him with the theme, "I'm Just Wild About Harry." She once bought him a $45,000 clock, and she spent millions of dollars overhauling their Connecticut mansion, Dunnellen Hall, on 26 acres near Long Island Sound.

She reportedly wrote off the costs of such luxuries -- a $130,000 stereo system that piped music all over the Connecticut property, $500,000 in jade art that the couple claimed as antique furniture for their hotel business -- against the profits of the hotel chain.

The Helmsleys were indicted on charges of skirting $4 million in income taxes. Harry Helmsley, 11 years older than his wife and nearing 80 at the time, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial. He died in 1997.

As Mrs. Helmsley's trial began, it was revealed in court documents that she had participated a few years earlier in a sales-tax fraud scheme involving the exclusive jewelry company Van Cleef & Arpels. She had failed to pay taxes on about $500,000 worth of items but was granted immunity for her testimony against the company's officials, two of whom pleaded guilty.

Mrs. Helmsley was convicted in 1989 on the tax-evasion charges related to the hotel. (She was found not guilty of extortion charges related to kickbacks from hotel contractors and suppliers.) Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, then a U.S. attorney, was one of the two chief prosecutors in the high-profile case.

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