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Leona Helmsley

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Title: Leona Helmsley  
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Subject: Harry Helmsley, Suzanne Pleshette, 2007, Helmsley (disambiguation), Leona
Collection: 1920 Births, 2007 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Criminals, Abraham Lincoln High School (Brooklyn) Alumni, American Billionaires, American Businesspeople Convicted of Crimes, American Fraudsters, American Hoteliers, American Jews, American People Convicted of Fraud, American People Convicted of Tax Crimes, American People of Polish-Jewish Descent, American Real Estate Businesspeople, American Women in Business, Burials at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Businesspeople from Greenwich, Connecticut, Businesspeople from New York City, Cardiovascular Disease Deaths in Connecticut, Criminals from New York, Deaths from Congestive Heart Failure, Female Billionaires, People from Brooklyn, People from Marbletown, New York, Wealth in the United States
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Leona Helmsley

Leona Helmsley
Leona Helmsley, NYC, 1988
Born Lena Mindy Rosenthal
(1920-07-04)July 4, 1920
Marbletown, New York, U.S.
Died August 20, 2007(2007-08-20) (aged 87)
Greenwich, Connecticut, U.S.
Occupation Hotelier, real estate investor
Net worth Increase US$8 billion[1]
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.[2] She was promoted by the Beber Silverstein Group and its co-founder Joyce Beber who persuaded her to call herself Queen of the Palace Hotel.[3]

Following allegations by unpaid contractors that work done on her home had been charged to her company, she 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", a saying that became notorious and was identified with her for the rest of her life.


  • Early life 1
  • Career as a hotelier 2
  • Tax evasion conviction 3
  • After prison 4
  • Death 5
  • "Queen of Mean" 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • References 8
    • Notes 8.1
    • Further reading 8.2
  • External links 9

Early 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.[4] 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.[2] 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.[5] She legally changed her surname to Roberts.[6] 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.[7]

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 stint at a sewing factory, she joined a New York real estate firm, where she eventually became vice-president.

Career as a hotelier

Leona 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. Leona was a condominium broker in 1968 when she met and began her involvement with the then-married multi-millionaire real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley.[8] In 1970, she joined one of Harry Helmsley's brokerage firms—Brown, Harris, Stevens—as a senior vice-president. At that time, she was already a millionaire in her own right. Harry Helmsley divorced his wife of 33 years and married Leona on April 8, 1972. Leona's marriage to Harry may well have saved her career. Late in 1971, several of Leona's tenants sued her for forcing the tenants of one of the apartments she managed to buy condominiums. They won, and Leona was forced not only to compensate the tenants, but to give them three-year leases. Her real estate license was also suspended, but she focused on running Harry's growing hotel empire.

Leona and Harry B. Helmsley Medical Building, the main building of Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut

Supposedly under her influence, Harry 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.

Leona Helmsley 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 terminated.

On March 31, 1982, Leona's only child, Jay Panzirer, died of a heart attack resulting from arrhythmia.[9] Mimi, her son's widow who lived in a property Leona owned, received an eviction notice shortly after Jay's funeral. Leona successfully sued her son's estate for money and property that she claimed he had borrowed, and was ultimately awarded $146,092.

Tax evasion conviction

Despite the Helmsleys' tremendous wealth (net worth over a billion dollars), 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. Jeremiah McCarthy, a Helmsley executive engineer, was initially put in charge of the operation. McCarthy claims that Leona repeatedly demanded that he sign invoices to bill personal expenses to the Helmsley company. According to Ransdell Peirson's "The Queen of Mean", 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."[10]

The remodeling bills came to $8 million, which the Helmsleys were loath to pay. A group of contractors sued the Helmsleys for non-payment; they eventually paid off most of the debt. 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 work included a $1 million dance floor, a silver clock and a mahogany card table.[7] 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. 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.[5]

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.[5]

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."[11]
          –Elizabeth Baum, former housekeeper to Helmsley (October 1983) 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".[12] Most legal observers felt that Helmsley's hostile personality, arrogance, and "naked greed" alienated the jurors.[13]

On August 30, Helmsley was convicted and sentenced of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States,[14] three counts of tax evasion,[15] three counts of filing false personal tax returns,[16] sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns,[16] and ten counts of mail fraud.[17][18]

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.[5] Nonetheless, when it was clear she was going to jail, Helmsley collapsed outside the courthouse. She was later diagnosed with a heart irregularity and hypertension.[19]

Helmsley's new lawyer, retained to appeal the judgment, was Alan Dershowitz. Following the appeal, which resulted in a reduced sentence,[20] she was ordered to report to prison on tax day, April 15, 1992.[21] 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.[22]

After prison

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.[23] 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.[24] In 2002, Helmsley was sued by Charles Bell, a former employee who alleged that he was discharged solely for being homosexual. A jury agreed and ordered Mrs. Helmsley to pay Bell $11,200,000 in damages. A judge subsequently reduced this amount to $554,000.[25]

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", she was 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.[2] Cardiovascular disease ran in her family, claiming the lives of her father, son and a sister.[26][27][28] 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[29] 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.[30] In addition to providing directly for her own dog in her will,[31] she left separate instructions that the trust, now valued at $5 to $8 billion, be used to benefit dogs.[32] The courts have ruled that the Trust is not legally bound to wishes separate from the Trust documents.[33]

The will left her Maltese dog, Trouble, a $12 million trust fund.[34] This sum was subsequently reduced to $2 million as excessive to fulfill its purpose. Her choice was branded 3rd in Fortune's "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" of 2007.[35][36]

Trouble lived in Florida with Carl Lekic, the general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel, with several death threats having been received.[37][38] 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."[39] 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.[40][41]

She left $15 million for her brother Alvin Rosenthal.

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.[42] 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.[43] 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 her late husband.

Helmsley also left $100,000 to her chauffeur, Nicholas Celea.[44]

"Queen of Mean"

  • "Lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he once had breakfast with Leona at one of the Helmsley hotels and the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. Dershowitz says Leona 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."[45]
  • Helmsley had a barbecue pit constructed for her home.[46] The work was performed by Eugene Brennan, a personal friend of Jeremiah McCarthy, the chief engineer of Helmsley-Spear.[46] When the final bill came to $13,000, she refused to pay, citing shoddy workmanship.[46] 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."[46]

In popular culture



  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ Joyce Beber, advertising executive, dies at 80
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d The Queen of Mean from Court TV's Crime Library
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ New York Times, August 1989
  11. ^ "'"Maid Testifies Helmsley Denied Paying Taxes: Says She Told Her 'Only the Little People Pay, Associated Press (AP), carried in New York Times, July 12, 1989, pg. B2. See also "Number 27743," The Columbia World of Quotations (Columbia University Press, 1996).
  12. ^ Leona Helmsley, Hotelier and Real Estate Icon, Dies Bloomberg News (August 20, 2007)
  13. ^
  14. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 371.
  15. ^ 26 U.S.C. § 7201.
  16. ^ a b 26 U.S.C. § 7206.
  17. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 1341.
  18. ^ United States v. Helmsley, 941 F.2d 71, 91-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,455 (2d Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1091 (1992), at [1].
  19. ^
  20. ^ Trutv Crime library
  21. ^ Start of prison term
  22. ^ "Leona M. Helmsley." Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved on January 8, 2010.
  23. ^ "Guilty of being rich—victimization of hotel magnate Leona Helmsley," Paul Craig Roberts, National Review, November 15, 1993.
  24. ^ "Empty riches of the 'queen of mean'", Chicago Sun-Times April 8, 2001
  25. ^
  26. ^ USNews update, August 16, 2004.
  27. ^ Leona Helmsley Dies, Obituary from WCBS Newsradio 880 (WCBS-AM New York).
  28. ^ Hotelier Leona Helmsley dies at 87, AP, 2007-08-20
  29. ^ (Reuters) "New York's Helmsley to rest in $1.4 mln mausoleum" 21 August 2007
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Strom, Stephanie. "Leona Helmsley's Fortune May Go to Benefit Dogs." The New York Times. July 2, 2008. Retrieved on September 1, 2009.
  33. ^ Strom, Stephanie. "Not All of Helmsley's Trust Has to Go to Dogs." The New York Times. February 25, 2009. Retrieved on September 1, 2009.
  34. ^ James Clench Rich bitch leaves £6m to dog The Sun – August 30, 2007
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^, Judge takes a bite out of millionaire pooch's fortune
  38. ^, Leona Helmsley's Dog Loses All but $2 Million
  39. ^, NY judge trims dog's $12 million inheritance
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^ Trex, Ethan. "Dogs, Ferrari, strangers – weird stipulations." CNN. August 31, 2009. Retrieved on September 1, 2009.
  43. ^ Helmsley's dog loses $10 million – Animal weirdness –
  44. ^
  45. ^ Conradt, Stacy. "6 Tyrannical Bosses Far Worse Than Yours," mental_floss blog, 10 January 2008.
  46. ^ a b c d Hammer (1990), p.243.
  47. ^
  48. ^ Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading

  • Author Steve Peacock was former Helmsley Palace house detective

External links

  •, Leona Helmsley
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