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The outdoor orchestra kicks up Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and she whirls onto the dance floor in white palazzo pants and a jungle-red organza blouse, her red-white-and-blue ostrich boa beckoning forward the kingpin of Manhattan real estate.
Harry Helmsley, rail-straight at 6'3", takes the birthday girl’s hand and gamely shuffles his feet, though his once-agile dance form has succumbed to the torpor of the July Fourth heat and a history of small strokes.
With 80 guests settled onto the manicured back lawn of the couple’s lavish Connecticut estate, Dunnellen Hall, the hostess sways, whispering into Harry’s ear, “And Harry’s wild about me … the heavenly blisses of his kisses, fill me with ecstasy….”
Tears fill her eyes.
Alas, the night—aglow with grandchildren, balloons and guest of honor Saudi financier Adnan Khashoggi, celebrating his recent acquittal—is bittersweet for a 70-year-old woman coming out of hibernation after five years of legal entanglements and personal misery. Harry, 81, returns to a festively decorated dinner table as Leona stands alone. “I love you. I love you,” she whispers to him across the lawn, still crying. She turns away. The dance has ended.
The nightmare hasn’t.
The “Queen of the Palace"—as she nicknamed herself in kitschy ads for the two dozen—plus Helmsley hotels still under her thumb—was guillotined on December 12, 1989: Found guilty on 32 counts of tax fraud, she was sentenced by Federal judge John M. Walker, Jr., to a four-year prison term, a $7,100,000 fine and 250 hours of community service. She’d been charged with masterminding a scheme that allegedly billed Helmsley businesses for more than $3,000,000 in furnishings for Dunnellen Hall—including a $220,000 jade water buffalo, a $130,000 stereo system, a $1,200,000 pool enclosure, an $800,000 red Spanish-marble dance floor, butlers’ vests and servants’ uniforms for $11,055 and china and silver worth $44,982—as well as personal items and services such as leg waxing, fur repair, hair rollers and a $10.12 bra from Macy’s. From 1983 to 1985, prosecutors claim, the Helmsleys had ducked close to $1,700,000 in taxes.
During a ten-week trial, a parade of maids, contractors, disgruntled secretaries and farmer Helmsley executives told tales of a venomous sovereign—rude, arrogant and heartless. Symphonic headlines hyped the trial: ” Queen Kong,“ ”Dragon Lady,“ ”Greedy, Greedy, Greedy“ and ”Rhymes With Rich.“ Vitriolic gloater Donald Trump took swipes, calling Helmsley "a vicious woman who destroyed the Helmsley name.” (“I can’t wait to read Trump’s new book,” she cracked in a return salvo, “especially chapter eleven!”)
Helmsley herself, even with 120 accountants in her employ, begs incredulousness—not ignorance—of her crime. She handed all purchase invoices over to her accountants, she says, and trusted them to do their jobs. Furthermore, she adds almost in reflex, she and her husband paid close to half a billion dollars in taxes and have given $143,000,000 to charity within fifteen years. Those figures, unfortunately, did not sway Judge Walker, who, at Helmsley’s sentencing, ascribed her actions to “naked greed.”
“Pleeease…” counters Helmsley bitterly. “Why would I try to cheat the Government? A million dollars to Harry Helmsley is like a dollar to anybody else.”
Believe it. Perched on the mountaintop of her husband’s five-billion-dollar real-estateand-hotel kingdom—27 hotels in ten states still run by Leona, plus several hundred skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Empire State Building—the Helmsleys bathe each month in a geyser of $100,000,000, cash. To date, more than $20,000,000 has been spent on legal fees.
Presently free on a whopping $25,000,000 bail (“I pulled it out of my stocking”), Helmsley says she is fighting for her life. She has fired her defense attorney, Gerald A. Feffer, who called her “a tough bitch” in court, and hired Harvard celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz to draw up and execute the blueprint for her state case and pending Federal appeal. Startling new evidence, Dershowitz promises, “includes unimpeachable documented proof that the Government’s theory;namely, that Mrs. Helmsley fooled her accountants—was not true and that the accountants simply failed to do their job.” [According to Dershowitz, this evidence is included in a motion for a new trial to be filed at the end of September 1990.]
“And there’s more,” adds Helmsley, ticking off her prize charges:
• Her books were cooked by employees, including some who forged her initials on spurious invoices.
• Former Federal prosecutor U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani—who’d previously chased the likes of Bess Myerson, Andy Capasso, John Gotti, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Mario Biaggi—went after Helmsley without even doing an appropriate tax audit on vital partnerships within her empire in order to further his campaign for New York City mayor:
• Crooked employees guzzled down kickbacks on items charged to her businesses.
• Frank J. Turco, a former financial officer of the Helmsley businesses and now in jail, was inept at his job.
• The Helmsleys actually overpaid their taxes in amounts ranging from $21,000 to $477,000 annually.
The once-vibrant hostess—who dazzled the likes of Barbara Walters, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Rockefeller and Gregory Peck each year with her extravagant “I’m Just Wild About Harry” birthday parties—has already paid a devastating price: She is now socially bankrupt; her reputation is in tatters.
“I have no friends,” she admits nonchalantly. “But I have my Harry"—a man browbeaten by Leona, according to the scathing account served up by New York Post reporter Ransdell Pierson in his book The Queen of Mean.
"Lies, lies, lies—sick lies,” Helmsley says of Pierson’s accounts. “What does he know about my life?”
It has been quite a life, landscaped with valleys of poverty and tragedy as well as summits of accomplishment and staggering wealth. Born to Russian Aneuta Pupko and Polish immigrant hatmaker Morris Rosenthal on July 4, 1920, Leona Mindy Rosenthal was a poor girl raised in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where she sold Eskimo Pies at the family’s candy stand.
When the Depression hit and Rosenthal lost his job, daughters Sondra and Sylvia and the plump baby, Alvin, made do at home, while ten-year-old Leona—athletic and razor-sharp in school—was sent to an uncle’s house to live, where, some say, she was traumatized by the six-month separation. At the age of 14, the pretty brunette—now street smart and determined to earn her own way—quit high school and modeled for four years until she met a 28-year-old lawyer, Leo Panzirer, whom she married in 1940. The couple moved to Flatbush, where Helmsley gave birth to her first and only child, Jay Robert Panzirer, on November 8, 1941. Thereafter, the marriage slowly soured as Panzirer, according to Helmsley, became more interested in law books and money than he was in his wife.
The couple divorced in 1950 and, according to Helmsley, she settled for a paltry $25 per week. In 1953, she married businessman Joe Lubin and moved up the social ladder—to a six-room apartment in Riverdale, New York. But this marriage, too, proved disastrous: Lubin claims that Helmsley “didn’t give a damn about me…only about getting to the top. Money was her god.” In 1960, she divorced once again and moved back home with her mother, penniless and depressed.
From this nadir sprung the drive to seek salvation, not in marriage but in hard work. After earning her real-estate license under the less ethnic name Leona Roberts, Helmsley funneled her ambition into converting Manhattan rentals into co-ops. Her self-esteem soared. By the late Sixties, the canny broker was earning a very comfortable living.
That’s when she met legendary real-estate wizard Harry Helmsley—then 60 and married far 32 years to his Quaker wife, Eve. Harry asked Leona to work far him, but she turned him down; then, in April 1969, the two danced together at a real-estate ball, and the dapper tycoon won her over. Three years later, they were married. At the age of 52, Leona Rosenthal from Coney Island was a billionairess.
She soon became indispensable to her husband and his businesses: pampering him, offering advice on conversions and decorating their mountaintop hideaway in Phoenix, their Palm Beach apartment, their Park Lane duplex in New York and, eventually, Dunnellen Hall. On June 10, 1980, she took over Harry’s entire hotel chain as president and chief operating officer.
Over the next five years, aided by a brilliant ad campaign and Hollywood chutzpah, Helmsley became an advertising icon, stamping her photo on decks of playing cards, marshaling to perfection her flagship hotel, The Helmsley Palace (“The only palace in the world where the Queen stands guard”), and gaining a reputation as a picky, demanding tyrant, heady with position and power.
Her world was “utopia,” admits Helmsley, until tragedy struck on March 31, 1982, when her son, Jay—three times married and in poor health—died of a heart attack. Devastated, she blamed her son’s third wife, Mimi, for his death and embarked on a lengthy vendetta against her—eventually ensuring that the woman received nothing from Jay’s estate. Four years later, in 1986, tax-fraud charges were leveled against Helmsley and, by then, she had lost trust in nearly everyone around her and had grown hostile and suspicious.
Given that cynicism—and a gag order imposed on her during her trial—Helmsley has granted only a few print interviews, one of them earlier this year to New York Daily News writer and syndicated columnist Glenn Plaskin. We asked Plaskin to return to The Helmsley Palace for an extended audience with the Queen; his report:
“Although I’d met the reputed Wicked Witch of the West before, I was nervous at the prospect of seeing her again—that is, until she came to her door to receive me. As I handed her flowers, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized; she was a vision in pink: perfect skin, no wrinkles, ropes of gold around her neck, a soldier’s posture—and a disarming demeanor that allowed almost instant intimacy.
"At that session on the balcony of the Park Lane Hotel, we taped 40 minutes of conversation, only to discover that the machine hadn’t recorded a word. Red-faced, I wanted to jump. Helmsley walked me from room to room, holding my hand, insisting it didn’t matter. We’d start all over again, she told me. I’d get all the time with her I needed.
"Part brass-horn comedienne, Jewish mother and tragic heroine, Helmsley was soon pouring out her heart to me—one moment infuriated over the injustice of her conviction, the next crying over Harry’s failing health (the judge deemed him physically incompetent to stand trial in the Federal case), the death of her son and the terror of her jail sentence.
"Our sessions included seven lunches at Helmsley hotels, poolside chats at the Park Lane and pastoral tours of Dunnellen on a golf cart. We’d often he joined by Harry, invigorated from his daily ballroom dancing, massage and weight training.
”‘Hi, dreamboat, hi, lover…’ Leona cooed. Tlien: 'Monkey, push your chair in.’
”'Push it in.’ The chair moved.
“Then the playful banter would begin:
"Leona: 'Darling, do you love me?’
"Leona: 'I think you’re beautiful.’
"Harry: 'That’s not surprising.’
"Leona was also quick with the solo one-liners. To wit: when Harry entered the breakfast room, zipping his pants: 'Don’t brag, darling!’; when I told Leona she had beautiful green eyes: 'They get that way when I’m thinking about money, honey’; as Leona bid farewell to me and cast her gaze on my dog, Katie: 'She’d make a nice coat.’
"During one session, I asked her my toughest questions: about the death of her son, the allegedly cooked books, the contractors who despised her, the possibility of going to jail. Not once did she dodge a question.
"In the end, I sensed in Helmsley a craving for acceptance from a public that had once loved her. The tide is turning,’ she’d say hopefully, reading her fan mail curled up on a zebra-patterned couch in the family room.
"I began our first session by telling Helmsley that she was my first interview with a criminal.”
They say you’re a dangerous woman.
Very. I’m a real gangster—no, I’m the gun moll. [Laughs] I’m dangerous, I cheat, I do a million things. That’s why I’m out on twenty-five million dollars’ bail. They think I’m going to pull a heist—tuck the Empire State Building in my left pocket, the Helmsley Building in my right.
How did you pay the seven-point-one-million-dollar fine?
Cash. They wouldn’t take a bond. it’s disgusting. They’re spending millions trying to convict me over a bra!
We’ll get to your bra in a minute.
Do you know how long it took the IRS to cash my 1989 tax payment of sixty-five million dollars, or the state to cash my thirty-million-dollar check? Three weeks! They lost at least two hundred thousand dollars in interest. Foolish, stupid. Then they tax people for the same dollars.
This is going to be an angry conversation, isn’t it?
Angry? My God, I’m in-no-cent!
But pronounced guilty so far in Federal court. What was your crime?
Breathing. Our crime was the name Helmsley.
Lets put it another way: Given the humiliation you’ve endured and the five years of scrutiny you’ve undergone, you’ve learned that—
That you shouldn’t go into business, you shouldn’t be a woman and, certainly, you should not be successful. You also shouldn’t marry a very wealthy man. Have they said I married him for his money yet? They must have.
There is a double standard: When a man loses his temper, he is aggressive; I’m a pushy bitch. A man is confident and authoritative; I’m conceited and power-mad. Were I a man, I would be termed an excellent executive.
They have. If you were a man, how would you be treated differently?
There is definitely a double standard for men and women: When a man loses his temper, he is aggressive; I’m a pushy bitch. A man is confident and authoritative; I’m conceited and power-mad. Men don’t want women getting to the top. Period. Were I a man, I would be termed an excellent executive.
Take the CBS executive who went in and fired a thousand people; he’s a good businessman. I fire fifty people in eighteen years and I’m a rotten bitch.
And look at the difference in sentencing from a man to a woman. One of my neighbors in Connecticut charged off one million dollars in personal expenses to his companies. He got three years and probation. I got four years. Look at [Ivan] Boesky. He cheated. He stole from people. He got three years and was let out way before. But there isn’t any Christmas spirit for me. I’m Mrs. Bonfire of the Lost Vanities. Mrs. Bonfire—that’s my title. They want to put me in jail for a bra.
OK, let’s elaborate on that: An IRS agent testified that your hair rollers and pins, a twelve-dollar-and-ninety-nine-cent girdle from Bloomingdale’s and a ten-dollar-and-twelve-cent bra from Macy’s were all billed to the Park Lane Hotel between 1983 and 1986—this along with three hundred and twenty thousand dollars’ worth of personal goods and services, including a twenty-one-dollar subscription to a crossword-puzzle club and a fifty-eight-dollar Itty Bitty Book Light.
That was insane. I don’t wear a girdle and that kind of information should have been disallowed. I don’t know if those items were inadvertently charged to the business. I had three secretaries and I’m pretty busy running twenty-seven hotels, six of them in New York.
You were found guilty of evading nearly one point seven million dollars in taxes.
But I wasn’t tried on the evidence; I was tried on what they think is my personality.
A malicious, devilish personality.
I’m not malicious. I may be devilish, but I’m not malicious.
Then perhaps it was your advertising campaign as “Queen of the Palace” that helped create that reputation.
I didn’t think so at first; now I do. What was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign backfired—a joke turned into a nightmare. People thought, Some queen. That helped set the tone of the trial.
It has been said that you believed your own hype.
I was the queen to my mother and that’s it. I’m not a queen. Why would I deem myself one?
That’s sheer nonsense. I worked as hard as anybody, if not harder. Queens don’t work.
And the diamond tiara?
That was rented—for parties—and even if I owned one, it would be my husband’s prerogative to give it to me. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done in my entire life.
So Leona Helmsley—often portrayed as a victimizer of employees—is actually a woman betrayed and victimized.
Both. And if you can find other adjectives that mean the same thing, please, that, too. I was betrayed, vilified, whatever horror you can imagine. I wouldn’t have been in that courtroom had I not been a woman. There are no women in the hotel business.
Other than Ivana Trump.
Please, Ivana Trump came later. And she does not run a chain—I don’t think she’s running anything. I run these hotels, and they’re good. Every one of them. They’re like children. They’re beautiful. I love people. I love what I’m doing.
So where did the reputation come from? You were called “the Lady Macbeth of the lodging industry” by The New York Times and “the Wicked Witch of the West” by [former New York mayor] Ed Koch.
Ah, yes, the wicked, wicked witch. I don’t see anything wrong with firing people who aren’t doing their jobs. When I caught a security guard sleeping on the job—not once but twice—I fired him. Suddenly, everyone’s saying what a cruel lady I am.
And then came the famous Newsweek cover from August twenty-first, 1989: a picture of you alongside the three-word cover line “RHYMES WITH RICH.” How did that make you feel?
I wanted to cut my wrists. [Laughs]
Did you find humor in that?
No. No. As a matter of fact, I didn’t read it.
Then you didn’t see the caricature inside the magazine of a plump queen squashing one of her subjects beneath her foot. [Shows her the cartoon]
I never saw that. [Proudly] They certainly gave me big bazooms.
And a pretty bad image.
OK, it was a mistake going high-profile as a queen in the ads. It was all taken out of context. I know I’m not royalty, except to my husband. An executive’s attitude is, Do it my way or get out! This is not a queen’s attitude. Nobody bowed to me.
But many were fearful of you. Do you have a temper?
Yes, I have a temper! Why wouldn’t I have a temper? I’m normal. You scratch me, you bet I scratch back.
It’s alleged to be a killing temper.
Do you see any dead bodies lying around? If my employees are not doing their jobs, they should be afraid, because they’re going to be fired. My hotels are immaculate—and with all the nonsense thrown at me, never once did anybody knock my hotels.
My hotels shine. Would you like dirty ashtrays and the smell of smoke when you walk into my lobbies? Do you want to sleep in a dirty bed? If that takes making my employees fearful, then, yes, I’m mean. It’s their job to mop the floors, to serve in the dining room, to clean the kitchen. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to take the job. This is the United States of America.
Why did Joyce Beber of Beber-Silverstein, your former ad agency, say, “Good luck to whoever takes on her case”?
Beber’s an animal. I made those broads rich.
But they did a great job on those “Queen of the Palace” ads.
[Shouts] It was not her brain! It was me. I fired her! Yes, sir, if I were the queen, you could say I gave her the royal flush!
She went to work for Trump and he fired her, too!
Let’s get back to the sexism issue. You’ve said that being a woman makes you an easy target. For what?
For being maligned. Anything and everything. And the women’s movement really is so negligible—I never believed in it.
Would the banks dealing with Donald Trump give me a break on the interest on a two-billion-dollar loan? A woman? I don’t think so.
You’re not a feminist, then?
I never thought of myself that way—always felt you earned what you deserved. But this case sure has changed my mind. Now I’m a big feminist. I think women are getting it in the neck. Would the banks dealing with Donald Trump give me a break on the interest on a two-billion-dollar loan? A woman? I don’t think so. If a woman is successful, she’d better duck, because they’ll be out to get her. I was the first, the only woman, to be the president of a major hotel chain, running more than two dozen top-grade hotels. Well, that did it. [Angrily] I was framed!
I was framed, honey—framed, baby. And now we’re going to prove it.
Why would someone frame you?
Because I’m Leona Helmsley! [Former Federal prosecutor] Rudolph Giuliani needed a political steppingstone to run for mayor, so he chose me! And [New York State attorney general] Robert Abrams helped him along. They returned practically identical indictments—one for the Federal Government, one for the state—on the same day. Wasn’t that a coincidence? I’d like to have an investigation of Giuliani’s life. He’s weird. There’s something very evil about this man. Thank God he’s lost his power base.
Also, the Government never did an appropriate audit before indicting me. Can you believe that? Ask a hundred tax auditors whether they’ve ever heard of a case in which a criminal prosecution was brought for tax evasion without an audit. But that would have taken one year and Giuliani didn’t have a year. When my own lawyers finally did the audit, we discovered an overpayment. Had Giuliani not insisted on bringing the indictment before his decision to run for mayor, there would have been no indictment!
New York State judge John A. K. Bradley threw out a hundred and eighty of the original charges against you.
Right. But after making such a hoopla, how are they going to save face? The whole thing is crazy. They are out to destroy the Helmsley name!
Your husband, Harry, is better liked than you, true?
There’s no question about that. But he’s married to me. And now look what they’ve done to him.
Are you saying that you blame Harry’s physical condition on the courts?
There’s no question that Harry would never, ever have had a stroke if they hadn’t been hounding us for five years. All from stress. Throughout the entire summer, the Government insisted Harry could still stand trial. Please.
Isn’t it possible he could testify?
He is not capable of aiding in his own defense. First of all, the man is eighty-one years old, God love him. To go to trial would kill him. It almost killed me and I haven’t had a ministroke. Harry has a dangerous level of labile hypertension. As soon as he has the slightest stress, his pressure goes way up. Another stroke could kill him. Leave the man alone!
Does Harry know what’s going on, does he read the newspapers?
I rip out the pages that say anything about me. Wherever there’s a hole, that’s where my name was. I rip to protect him. Still, the prosecution knows I love Harry, so they’re trying to hold him hostage.
In what way?
The government prosecutor wanted me to plea bargain—plead guilty to two felonies in exchange for leaving Harry alone. I said, “What’s a felony? I’m not guilty and I will *not plead guilty to something I didn’t do.”
But you were found guilty for cheating the government out of the one point seven million dollars.
Ludicrous. We paid three hundred and fifty million dollars during the period in question. I’d like to find five other people in the country paying those kinds of taxes. Harry Helmsley has a hundred and twenty accountants! They work on tax returns that can fill up a building. I get cramps signing them. I stink in math; I run hotels.
Do you think I’m capable of doing an income-tax return for income of half a billion dollars? My lawyers can now prove—I said prove—that all invoices, including the so-called dummied ones, were turned over to our accountants. The Government claims our accountants never knew. In fact, my lawyers have proved that I overpaid my taxes for the years in question. There’s a refund due of between twenty-one thousand dollars and four hundred seventy-seven thousand dollars annually for each of those years. If it’s a crime to overpay on your taxes, that’s my crime: I overpaid.
But let’s face it: You must have known something about the way your finances were organized; you’re not a stupid woman.
Do you think that I do the income-tax returns? The out-of-house accountants were supposed to sort out the personal from the business, and my lawyers will prove they didn’t do it properly.
Would you gladly correct any mistakes, if any were made?
Before her acquittal, Imelda Marcos spoke passionately about her vindication, suggesting that life without honor or a good name is empty. True?
Very true—Asian mentality, but it’s also the way I think. But even if I were acquitted, I think I would appeal the entire thing.
But can you ever really get back your good name?
Yes, Of course. I’ve been vilified for no reason. I walk down the street and every head turns wherever I go. I think I’m the best-known face in the world. It’s ridiculous. They know me in Australia, in Tahiti, every place in the world. Now they’re going to know the truth.
Newsweek conjectured that the IRS is exploiting your case as a warning for would-be tax cheats.
Baloney! Baloney! I am not a would-be tax cheat, or any other kind. Show me how I cheated when I paid close to one hundred million dollars in taxes this year alone. I’m a cheat? If everybody paid their taxes that way, the national debt would be wiped out!
OK. Let’s run down some of the details of your case. In The Queen of Mean, Ransdell Pierson outlines a complex money-laundering and invoice-signing scheme that enabled you to charge personal items to your New York properties.
He thinks he’s Dick Tracy. It’s a lie. Ransdell Pierson, Pierson Ransdell, whatever. Never trust anybody with two first names. Here’s a sleazy little reporter who didn’t have a quarter to his name, couldn’t rub two nickels together and never interviewed me. You know, this little boy wore a sweater originally. He made millions on me.
According to Pierson, you’re a vindictive bitch, a criminal, a woman disloyal to her own family and a liar.
How dare such a piece of slime concoct all these lies? Just to make money? He had the temerity to say that I’m insecure because of my childhood. Is he a psychiatrist now? He harassed and hounded people. He had a good time. And all you suckers—all you suckers went along with him. Just to hear lies. This lowlife took the tragedy of my son’s dying and made money from it. How dare you do this? You disgusting piece of garbage! That’s what you are!
But it wasn’t only Pierson who leveled charges against you: New York News-day crucified you as “QUEEN OF THE JEWS,” New York magazine called you “QUEEN KONG,” People dubbed you “DRAGON LADY” and Manhattan, Inc. ran the headline, “GREEDY, GREEDY, GREEDY.” If you’re such a sweetheart, how did you get such a rotten reputation?
I got that reputation by hiring a lawyer [Gerald A. Feffer of Williams & Connolly] who called me a bitch himself—in court! What kind of bitch was I when he collected all that money from me for his fee?
What did Feffer do to earn that fee?
I’d like to know, too. And he not only called me a bitch but also shouted my age in court; I’ve been lying about my age and he blew it in one second. I didn’t know that was coming, either. Suddenly, everyone’s calling his defense of me the “bitch defense.” I’d call it “the worst defense of all time.”
Why didn’t you insist on testifying for yourself?
[Shouts] I have never been in this position before! I was ignorant, not stupid. I’d never been indicted before; I’d never even had a parking ticket.
New York State supreme court judge Bradley said, “It has long been a concern of the public that white-collar criminals not be coddled by the criminal-justice system.” Were you coddled?
[Laughs] What do you think? I’m a hot potato. It’s difficult for me to get justice done, because so much has been written about me.
Difficult, but not impossible.
Look: Horrible publicity, prosecutors using the case for their own political motives and a lawyer who did not defend me strongly enough—all of that made it difficult, OK?
All right, let’s back up a bit. Much of your trouble began when The New York Times published your immunized 1985 testimony about your alleged tax evasion. According to the Times report, you purchased at least four hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels, which then sent empty boxes to your Florida home while you walked out with the jewelry to avoid paying the sales tax, which would have amounted to approximately forty thousand dollars.
That is not true. I was promised immunity, which means that that testimony was sacrosanct. Violating that testimony was a disgrace; it should not have been leaked. But it was.
The Government—for the purpose of indicting me so that Mr. Giuliani could run for mayor.
But let’s move beyond that. Doesn’t the testimony itself show that, perhaps, you’re a little bit of a crook?
I am not a little bit of a crook in any shape, manner or form. To start with, I did nothing wrong with Van Cleef & Arpels. Let’s say I go into a jewelry store and I see a ten-thousand-dollar ring and I say, “I don’t want to pay ten thousand dollars. I want a special price.” He says, “OK, I’ll give it to you for eight.” I say, “You have a deal.” Well, the invoice says, SPECIAL PRICE: EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS. Am I supposed to say to this man, “You know, you forgot to put on sales tax”? I’m not supposed to say that.
But didn’t you—
The special price includes sales tax. In my hotels, if I don’t put sales tax on, I’m responsible for it.
Didn’t you find it odd when empty jewelry boxes were mailed to your Palm Beach home?
Absolutely not. I never educated them on how to send empty boxes. But suddenly, I read the front page of the New York Post: “HELMSLEY SCAM BARED.”
That was the story in which Pierson trumpeted his findings, which led directly to—
The whole thing.
So you’re not a crook?
No, I am not a crook. I’m an honest, honorable person. My constitutional rights were usurped. Tomorrow, yours may be. Or yours or yours or yours.
Among those testifying against you in court was Milton Meckler, executive vice-president of Deco Purchasing and Distributing Company, a Helmsley subsidiary that did all the purchasing for your hotels. He says that at one point, you ordered six hundred RCA TVs for your hotels and demanded that three free ones be delivered to your Connecticut home, Dunnellen Hall.
Ridiculous! There was no extortion.
Yet Meckler also says that Deco became your own little store, that you ordered anything you needed personally for your house—one point one million dollars’ worth of merchandise in all.
What is it to him? I can order from my own firm. And I paid hotel prices. Yes, I ordered through Deco. But I had nothing to do with how the merchandise was charged.
So how does that explain the elaborate description in Pierson’s book of the way in which the books were allegedly cooked with this Deco merchandise?
Oh, come off it. I didn’t do any of that. If I wanted to do something devious, I wouldn’t order it through Deco, would I? No, darling. I would have gone directly to a supplier and said, “Listen, I want this or that….” But I don’t need the money. Don’t you understand, all of you? They had me down as greedy. Naked greed. Do you know what a million dollars is to a Harry Helmsley? Like a dollar to you.
You’re saying you never charged personal merchandise and furnishings to Harry’s company—on the sly?
Never. Frank Turco [Harry Helmsley’s former chief financial officer] would say, “We have to pay for this chair.” I would say, “Did we get the chair?” “Yes.” “Sure, sign it.” Now what happened with the invoice afterward I don’t know.
What about the testimony that white-out was used on invoices initialed by you?
I had never heard of a white-out in my life. A white-out? A green-out? A brown-out? I don’t know of these things. I wasn’t brought up that way.
Frank Turco and Joseph Licari [another former chief financial officer] eventually went to jail. If they were guilty, and they were working for you—
That does not make me guilty at all, just because they went to jail. I did not know what Mr. Turco was doing. But I’m sure if you checked the bank accounts of those who worked for me, you’d find they did very well by us.
Oh, yes, yes. Turco is not a nice man. We are the aggrieved party. We are the victims.
Would you ever forgive Turco?
[Sighs] I forgive everybody, but I don’t want him near me, OK?
Some say that you were at the center of the scam.
That’s ridiculous. My employees used an autopen machine programed to sign my name on dummy invoices. In other words, somebody was signing my name to a lot of things. In fact, someone in one of the offices was bragging that he could sign my name better than I could! And they say I was at the core of the conspiracy? The Helmsley empire is a large and very complex group of entities. It’s absolutely absurd to think that I was the mastermind of a tax-fraud scheme. I’m not a mathematician; I can’t even add! And why would I be greedy? I have enough money for the rest of my life.
Moving on, please tell us about the forty-five-thousand-six-hundred-and-eighty-one-dollar Helmsley Building clock that was given to your husband as a birthday present. That’s an expensive clock.
It was a gift.
But taken as a tax deduction.
How do I know? I just bought the clock.
And somebody paid the bill.
Yeah, I paid it. I don’t know what happened to it from there. Do you think I follow a trail of paper? It’s a big company. Harry had pay checks for thirty-eight thousand people every single month, and I’m going to say, “Who paid for this clock? Did you take a tax deduction?” This is nonsense!
What was your former secretary doing during all of this?
Ahhhh There were two checking accounts in my office: household and business. When I ordered the Itty Bitty Book Light, for example, my secretary should have known to use the household account.
But it was more than the book light: Also charged to the business were tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Ferragamo shoes and designer clothing, a seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fox stole, twenty-nine-hundred-dollar cuff links, fourteen hundred and thirty-six dollars for swimwear, pricey underwear from Saks and, of course, the ten-dollar-and-twelve-cent bra from Macy’s.
I’m entitled to buy what I want.
So what you’re really saying is, “Look, I bought the stuff, but don’t blame me for who charged it.”
Exactly right. You happen to have hit on it. Mr. Helmsley would get the bills at the end of the year and he would send his personal check to cover all such expenses.
Your secretary was a witness for the prosecution. Do you feel betrayed when people you’ve been kind to testify against you?
No, I don’t. I walk away from people who hurt me. It’s like the world stops, I get off and walk away. Leave me alone. That’s it.
Getting back to the allegedly cooked invoices, there were dresses costing two thousand dollars charged to the Park Lane Hotel as “uniforms”; there was five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of jade figurines decorating Dunnellen and charged to four of your Manhattan hotels as “antique furniture”; there was a one-hundred-thirty-thousand-dollar stereo system for Dunnellen, written off as a security system for the Helmsley Building. The list goes on.
[The public] is mad at the numbers. But I think I’ve earned it. I don’t have paintings in my home for ten million dollars. I was simply furnishing a home. I love music, wanted a good stereo system and, for our income, I don’t think a one-hundred-thirty-thousand-dollar indoor-outdoor stereo system is extravagant. Our income is enormous.
Harry paid eleven million dollars cash for Dunnellen and, because we do business in the house, fifty percent of that purchase price was deductible, and fifty percent of all renovations and furnishings were also deductible—including that infamous jade water buffalo.
But one could argue that although you didn’t need to save the money, you wanted to, anyway.
[Shouts] No! We’re good citizens! We have given a hundred and forty-three million dollars to charities over the past fifteen years. We are not sitting on our money! Take a look at the Helmsley Medical Tower, at the Harry B. Helmsley Medical Research Building, at a floor at Roosevelt Hospital, at the Helmsley Cardiovascular Center, you name it.
If you skimmed even one penny, even inadvertently, does the Government have a right to put you in jail?
No. The Government has a right to say they disallow it and I should pay it.
But they can put you in jail if they can prove that you purposely planned the whole caper.
Do you think that with a hundred and twenty accountants, I have the kind of mind to conspire?
Presiding over your Federal case was Judge John M. Walker, Jr., who happens to be the first cousin of President George Bush. After your trial was over, Bush promoted Walker to the Second Circuit Court, right?
I was a good steppingstone.
Tell us about your sentencing.
All they needed was knitting needles in that courtroom. Walker had a typewritten speech all prepared the day I was sentenced.
Like a political candidate.
Exactly right. He made me demean myself.
By making me beg for mercy for my Harry. I told him that I’d lost my son, that Harry needed me and to please, please not make me lose Harry, too.
Was he sympathetic?
No. He had his speech all prepared. He talked about naked greed. I’m not greedy, I’m philanthropic. People talk about Donald Trump giving the city of New York jobs, but in 1989, did he pay sixty-five million dollars in Federal taxes, plus thirty million dollars in state tax? That’s mostly personal tax—not corporate. It’s mind-boggling.
Still, Judge Walker fumed that you were not repentant, that you “persisted in the arrogant belief that you were above the law.”
What should I repent? I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I did not have a fair trial.
To complicate matters, your jury had to comprise New Yorkers who knew nothing about Leona and Harry Helmsley.
Which was impossible. They’d have to be literally dead or illiterates without televisions.
So your jury was brain-dead?
They were ignorant, not stupid. There’s a difference. An ignorant jury is suicide. Had they understood the overpayment-of-tax issue, there would have been an acquittal. But the jury didn’t understand it.
Let’s get back to your sentencing and Walker’s use of the term naked greed.
Spare me the psychiatry.
Are you greedy?
How could I be greedy? In food? I’m not that fat. In charity? Look at the donations we’ve made.
Maybe it was a simple matter of personality. Even your present attorneys admit that one reason your sentence was so tough was that nobody likes you.
Nobody liked me—past tense. The press detested me because I wasn’t letting them do their job; the judge put out a gag order, I followed it and then the press said I was arrogant for not talking to them. And after the gag order was lifted, I opened my mouth and had thousands upon thousands of supportive letters.
The most devastating blow delivered at your trial was the testimony of your former housekeeper Elizabeth Baum, who claimed that you said, “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.”
That doesn’t sound like anything I would say. Can you imagine me sitting down with all my help and asking, “What do you pay in taxes?” And them saying, “What do you pay?” Let me tell you about Elizabeth Baum: She came to Dunnellen to work as a housekeeper, asked if her daughter could stay for dinner; and the girl never left—that is, until I fired her mother. The daughter lived in my house with her stinky cats. I finally kicked her out; enough was enough. So I guess Elizabeth Baum didn’t like me very much. She testified like the Statue of Liberty, with one arm extended. It was a joke.
Pushy? A businesswoman is pushy. I’m a businesswoman.
According to Gerald Kadish, former vice-president of your Harley Hotel chain, “Leona always suspected that everyone was screwing her, that there wasn’t one honest person out there.” True or false?
Huh! I like to be kissed if I’m being screwed.
He also claimed that you’d brag, “I’m so wealthy and beautiful.”
I never said I was beautiful in my life. I don’t feel that I’m that beautiful today. I’m not beautiful.
So you didn’t require that twelve pictures of you be in every hotel room?
That’s the biggest lie. I hate extra things in the room.
How about the charge that you brandish the vocabulary of a stevedore, using four-letter words with your employees?
Never? You didn’t typically call employees idiots?
Never. I have different words….
Are you pushy arrogant?
I don’t think I’m arrogant. Pushy? A businesswoman is pushy. I’m a businesswoman.
So you’re pushy.
I guess I’m pushy.
According to one report, you would become enraged when you saw water droplets on lettuce in your hotels, and that on one occasion, you nearly went into a convulsion, spraying the faces of waiters with the lettuce in hand. True?
Oh, please, the waiters had nothing to do with the lettuce; if there was anything wrong with the lettuce, I would talk to the chefs in the kitchen. And, no, lettuce isn’t supposed to be wet in a good restaurant; it should be dry and crisp and perfectly clean.
Like your homes.
I don’t see anything wrong with people being neat and clean.
So you’re a clean queen?
Well, I have a system, but I don’t think it’s a crime to be clean.
Are you picky?
No! Absolutely not!
I’m not compulsive, but I watch details. I’m always paying attention to them. Details, details, details: A mirror should be placed perfectly; a piece of soap is where it should be; a towel is where it should be; A-one food. I’m in that kitchen to see what they’re doing, and we’re always experimenting. That’s what we’re good at. If somebody is allergic to feathers, you can bet your bottom dollar he will never get that feather pillow again—even if he comes back a hundred times.
Let’s continue with some of your former employees’ charges. From your former butler Carlos Bedoya: “She wanted everyone to work all the time. She would inspect every room every day. If she saw a spot or a wrinkle, she’d scream, 'This is dirty! You stupid!’”
Please! He called me recently. “Hello, Mrs. Helmsley,” he said. “I always thought you were so beautiful….” He was trying to make out with me on the phone! He must think I’m a jerk.
Bedoya said that in his six months of employment, he trained at least fifteen employees and none stayed because you screamed all the time.
Maybe sometimes I scream. Is that enough to put me in jail for four years?
There was also the comment, “When she was away, all we ate was rice and pizza, because she didn’t leave any food for us.”
Oh, my God! I would never stint on food! Never! Go look at their freezer. They make a list every week and a truck delivers whatever they concoct—not what I like, what they like. Ask them. Ask them.
How about the story of those four little lambs that you sent off to slaughter after they were pictured grazing at Dunnellen in Mike Wallace’s 1985 60 Minutes profile of you?
First, lamb is high cholesterol, and I’m on a low-cholesterol diet. [Laughs] I gave them to a contractor on the premises and said, “Please, will you take care of them?” He said, “OK.” What eventually happened to them I don’t know.
And the story about your daily laps in the swimming pool, in which you allegedly instructed your butler to pop a shrimp into your mouth as a reward for every lap you swam?
[Angrily] Oh, please, it’s a total lie. My God, look at the stories concocted about me. Why am I so important? What have I done?**
It has also been said that you have a long history of stiffing contractors—that you’re impossible to please and you don’t like to pay up.
That’s a lie. I overpaid on every one of the goddamn jobs.
The renovations at Dunnellen, for instance, cost more than three million dollars. They included the stereo system, a one-point-two-million-dollar swimming-pool enclosure and an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar Spanish-marble dance floor.
Listen to me. For the taxes he pays, Harry Helmsley is entitled to a very nice home. We don’t flash. We worked very hard for it. We’ve earned it. We don’t have yachts. We don’t have a big summer home.
But Pierson says you thrive on materialistic pursuits.
Please! He’s no journalist. He’s a sleaze.
A real sleaze, yes. He’s a sleaze.
He says you’re not easy to please. For instance, there was a problem with your former painting contractor, Jay Nickberger?
Mr. Nickberger is a filthy little worm! Ask anybody about him. I kept warning him about his outrageous prices. I said, “The diamond pinkie ring and the watch are going to go unless you straighten out.” He was just a house painter and I gave him millions in contracts to paint every room in my hotels. I’m good to people, then they get too big for their breeches.
According to Jerry McCarthy, former vice-president of engineering at Helmsley-Spear, you hired another contractor to build a barbecue pit but refused to pay his bill. When told he had six kids to feed, you answered, “Why doesn’t he keep his pants on?”
I’ll tell you why the contractor didn’t get paid. He charged thirteen thousand dollars for work on a barbecue pit and, no, I didn’t want to pay those prices; I want to pay what everybody else pays. As for the six kids, let’s stop the bull: All I said was, “Tell him to keep his fly zipped.” So what?
All of this brings us back to Gerald Kadish’s charge that perhaps you really do believe everyone is out to screw you.
Well, wouldn’t you say that I’m justified? I’m a very firm believer that a liar is a cheat and a thief and a crook. I don’t like liars. I never lie. I always told my own child, “If you murder somebody, tell me. I’ll help you hide the body. But don’t you lie to me.”
So whom do you trust now?
Edward Brady, director of security; my lawyers; my secretary Hubie; and Barbara, my housekeeper. They’ve proven themselves to me.
And beyond those few, you’re a woman betrayed.
Aren’t you getting any special treatment because you happen to be rich?
Yes, I absolutely am. They’re crucifying me.
Like Marie Antoinette.
Yes. Except they’re not using a very sharp blade.
You know, you’re not the only billionaire having problems these days. Look at Donald Trump.
I won’t say anything bad about him. If somebody’s down, you don’t kick him.
A nice sentiment, but one that’s not being returned: Donald Trump has called you “a disgrace to humanity” and “a vicious, horrible woman who systematically destroyed the Helmsley name.”
Oh, and I’m sure that his father, a respectable man in real estate, is enthralled with what his son has done to his name. He’s smeared it. I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue was notarized. I don’t know what he wants from me. He’s obsessed with me—crazy—and yet he modeled his wife on me. When Ivana came into my bedroom, she called Scalamandre Silks and told them she wanted everything exactly the way I had it. And the Trumps were always the first to R.S.V.P. to my “Wild About Harry” parties.
How did they act at those parties?
I noticed that Ivana would not stay near me for any length of time—though Donald would. I think Ivana felt insignificant.
Donald Trump said that you had “brought businesswomen twenty years backward” and some say that the difference between you and Ivana is that she charms employees and that you badger them.
Then why does she try to imitate me?
Does she? After all, you look completely different.
I don’t mean her looks, thank God. Ivana’s not a Leona, Trump’s not a Harry. But they tried. We have a Palace, he opened the Castle; we bought Dunnellen, he bought Mar-a-Lago; Harry made me president, Donald made Ivana president. Now he says she was just a figurehead.
Ivana tries hard, she gets an A for effort. But I don’t think she knows what she’s doing. I’m constantly getting letters from people who stayed at the Plaza, telling me it’s awful. Meanwhile, my hotels are impeccable. And what Donald Trump says doesn’t hurt me.
Not even his comment “She’s a living nightmare, and to be married to her must be like living in hell”?
Well, that’s real sweet. But true to nature, isn’t it? He’s a sick, sick, sick, sick boy. He lies—for his own benefit, of course. He paid Harry seventy-eight million for the St. Moritz Hotel but claimed to have paid only thirty million dollars! The nerve of this s.o.b., the skunk. His wife was in London last summer shopping for antiques; is he going to deduct that trip from his taxes? I bought a bra and got four years.
Why did it take so long for anyone to look into his books?
Good connections, I guess. Meanwhile, I’ve never given a quarter in political contributions and won’t. He says he employs fifteen thousand people in the city of New York; I doubt it. But now he’s in court on charges that he had undocumented Polish immigrants working for him and sleeping on the cement floors of Trump Tower. That’s a horror! [In court, Trump denied knowledge of undocumented workers.]
Trump has often been referred to as the next Harry Helmsley.
Oh, please! Donald Trump is no Harry Helmsley. Can you imagine Harry assuming two billion dollars in debt and guaranteeing five hundred million dollars of it personally? Egomaniac. Just plain stupid. All so he could have his little airplane, his little hotel and his little boat. He’s great at playing O.P.M.—other people’s money. Why not? It’s not his. Then the egomaniac has the nerve to think that putting his name on everything makes it better. You watch: He’s going to be left flat on his can and it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
Precisely how are Donald Trump and Harry Helmsley different?
No comparison. One is night, one is day. One is gorgeous—my Harry—and one isn’t. And Harry has humility, which is a thousand light-years away from Trump’s ego.
Whatever we did, Trump tried to imitate us. Every time we’d go to a function, Trump would try to sidle up to Harry so he would have an air of respectability. He thought of himself as a young Harry Helmsley. I finally told him that could never happen. He couldn’t he a Harry Helmsley in ten trillion years.
What doesn’t he know about being a businessman?
How to be a gentleman, that’s for certain. His style is to scare people into doing things. Harry, meanwhile, did everything quietly and with class—he’s a Quaker. He always said, “I will try to outsmart thee, but I will not cheat thee.” And that’s what he practiced. You don’t see any banks running after us, do you? Why doesn’t someone start checking into Trump’s finances? That would be a real pip, because he’s been supporting Marpa Meeple, Mario Mipple, whatever her name is.
Some analysts predict that as real-estate values rise, so will Trump.
Please, he’s gotta go down. He’s gotta be so leveraged out it isn’t even funny. He created a myth with other people’s money. Now he has no control over anything and the banks are probably going to make him sell the Plaza and the [Trump] Shuttle. In fact, he tried to sell forty-nine percent of one of his properties, but what kind of jerk is going to put up all that money and let him be the boss? He still believes in the tooth fairy.
No, he’ll never come out of it. Everybody knows he’s in trouble. And they’re rubbing they’re hands with glee.
Why is everyone so delighted at his troubles?
Because he’s a snake, that’s why. He blew his horn so much everybody was just waiting for this—because when things were good, he hit everybody. Well, now he doesn’t have any money. If Ivana gets one million dollars, she’ll be lucky.
But Ivana is having a good time—buying. She spent thirty-five thousand dollars on a Lacroix gown. Holy cow, it was ugly. I wouldn’t wear it. She’s a mess. The most I’ve spent on a gown is three thousand dollars—and that dress came with a coat!
Still, Trump gives millions each year to charity.
That miserable s.o.b., that little bastard. He gives away air; ice in the wintertime is what he gives away. Meanwhile, we just gave a hundred thousand dollars to the city for park benches—and they asked for only five thousand. We also lit the Empire State Building for gays this year; we did it in lavender. That cost us a lot of money, because we had to buy lavender lights, install them, the whole thing. But they called, they wanted it and, of course, I did it. Why not?
Last December, Ivana said her husband has to hold on to his money, that he can’t give away more than two million dollars a year, because he’s still young and growing in business.
Oh, stop it. Do you think that Harry Helmsley waited till he was eighty to give away money? That’s ridiculous. And now Trump’s favorite charity is Marble Maple, Maple Marble, whatever.
Should Ivana have settled for the twenty-five million dollars guaranteed in the prenuptial agreement?
I doubt that Trump ever had the twenty-five million dollars to give her—and he won’t be able to get rid of her! I don’t blame her; she’s not going to settle. After twelve years of marriage—twelve years of her being business partner, wife and mother—he certainly owes her much more than twenty-five million dollars.
Do you believe in prenuptial agreements?
No. My Harry tried that—said I would get two million dollars if we divorced—and I handed him back the engagement ring. I wouldn’t accept his calls for fourteen days. It broke my heart to do it, but why get married? Fourteen days later, he came back. I made him get on his knees and he proposed. Marriage doesn’t come with an insurance policy.
What are your objections?
The reasons are twofold: First, I think it gives a woman an incentive to be insincere—for example, because she knows she ain’t going to get more than the bottom line, she will squirrel money away. Second, you don’t have a business arrangement in an emotional relationship.
Not even when billions of dollars are involved?
What difference does it make?
So let’s say in the second year of your marriage, Harry had wanted to divorce you. Would he have had to give you half his money?
Why would he want to divorce me? And, no, I wouldn’t expect half for two years of marriage. I would expect to get my million dollars back that I gave him when we married. That’s it.
And as for Donald and Ivana?
There’s nothing deader than a dead love.
Meaning Trump should have left Ivana if he didn’t love her. But the way it was done—publicly—was disgusting. I mean locking her out of the Plaza was just unfair. I think she’s really tried to be a very good wife to him.
Still, you have to give him credit for honesty in leaving his wife for the woman he loves.
Isn’t that touching? Maypo Marla, Marla Mipple. Last year, she earned next to nothing and spent a fortune. She sure makes a buck stretch, huh? I wonder who paid the rest. Her suite at the St. Moritz was paid for by you-know-who. I also hear that she goes crazy over seafood, so he put an oyster bar in the Taj Mahal for her; that he’s now fixing up an apartment for her at the Regency in Atlantic City; and that he’s been picking up her credit-card bills. All of that is more expensive than a bra!
This girl’s smart, but now he’s probably going to lose her.
Do you feel any compassion for Ivana?
I wouldn’t have done what Ivana’s done. I wouldn’t leave a young, good-looking, very rich husband [alone] to work in Atlantic City four days a week. Gorgeous girls go after a cripple if they hear he’s got billions. He was fair game. And she was foolish—she permitted him the freedom. People get lonely. Look, I run twenty-seven hotels and don’t visit any of them unless Harry goes with me.
Who’s in charge in your relationship, you or Harry?
Harry’s word is always final—always. Though I’ll present my case, yes.
How’s your sex life with Harry?
The very finest. I wish it on my grandchildren, that’s how good it is. Any marriage has to have good sex. And we always sleep naked. We like the touch of our bodies. I like to reach out in the night and touch this man. He’s beautiful.
Some have said you pamper your husband to the point of nausea—that you have made him so dependent on you that he wouldn’t so much as get a haircut without your supervision.
Right. What’s wrong with that? I’m interested in hint. He’s a beautiful-looking man, so why should somebody ruin his looks with a bad haircut? I don’t think that’s being bossy. He asks me to go with him, so why wouldn’t I go? I pick his clothing, too. A lot of wives do that, but when I’m doing it, I’m a bossy bitch.
According to Louis Hautzig, former general manager of the New York Harley, Harry stood by meekly while you fired executives without cause. Hautzig said Harry “was a wimp first class.”
That’s not true. Harry would never butt in the hotels and I would never butt in his business. Harry does not like the nitty-gritty. Never did.
And in the course of your work, you never told him, “Shut up, Harry”?
“Shut up, Harry”? You must be fooling. I respect this man. I could never marry someone I did not respect. His word was always law.
Before Harry, had you ever found true love?
Of course not. Harry has given me the only happiness I’ve known in my entire life.
It has been said that when you met him, you went after him like—
Listen: They’ve had me seducing my husband, going after him for his money….
The story goes: It was 1969, you set your sights on this Quaker who had been with the same woman, Eve Helmsley, for thirty-three years—
And that you were a home wrecker—a divorced real-estate broker going after a very rich married man.
Oh, that’s ridiculous. I had one million dollars of my own! I was a successful broker converting rentals into co-ops on a Helmsley-Spear property and Leon Spear, Harry’s partner, liked me and asked me home to dinner one night—I had an apartment he was interested in. “I want you to come meet Harry Helmsley.” I said, “I don’t want to meet Harry Helmsley.” He said, “Then I’m not signing for the apartment.” I said, “If I meet him, will you sign?”
I meet Harry Helmsley. I say, “Good afternoon.” He says, “Come work for me.” I say, “I can’t work for you.” He says, “Why?” I say, “I’m in a bad tax bracket now. Goodbye.” He says, “I’m going to Barbados. Call me when I get back.” A few weeks later, I’m at a real-estate ball and Harry Helmsley is headed toward me.
For me. Again he says, “Come work for me.” I was good. And maybe I was pretty, maybe he was attracted to me. I’m not gorgeous, but I’m not that ugly. But I turned him down again.
What eventually changed your mind about working for him?
Harry told me, “I’m buying Imperial House. Come work for me and I’ll give you part of the commercial space,” a guaranteed salary, which meant I would be set for life. So I took the job as senior vice-president at Brown Harris Stevens. I was not near Harry. I was on Forty-seventh Street, he was on Forty-second Street.
But somehow, you found your way five blocks downtown.
Right. I liked Harry. At first, I didn’t know if he was married or not. 'There wasn’t a picture of his wife in the office—I looked. At business meetings, I’d always put on more mascara.
So you did slowly move in on his marriage.
I did not. I never saw his wife. I never met her. I never spoke to her. Big difference. One night, Harry just called and said, “Would you have a cocktail with me?” During drinks, he asked, “Would you date me?” And I said, “No. First, you’re married. Second, you’re a Quaker. Third, you’re my boss.” He said, “I’m getting a divorce.” And I said, “Oh, are you, now? Swear with your eyes.” And he blinked three times. He was adorable.
Did he love you?
[Long pause] I don’t know if he loved me. His first wife was four years older than he was and had announced that she was going to an old-age home and wanted Harry to go, too. Harry was sixty years old! He wouldn’t go. That’s where she went—
And that’s where you came in.
I found him very attractive. I still do, darling.
Would you say that his status as a businessman was part of the attraction?
Of course! Let me ask you something: If a man sees a woman and says, “Ahh, she’s pretty,” does that stop him from marrying her? No, it’s an asset. Well, a man who has money is an asset, too. What’s wrong with that? Money enhances a man, yes, as beauty enhances a woman. No question about it. So what if I fell in love with a wealthy man? Is that a sin? I didn’t take the money and run to Venezuela. I’m right here—for eighteen years. I work with him side by side. I take care of him when he needs me.
But if you were a gold-digging opportunist, then you’ve certainly gotten more notoriety—
Comeuppance—yes, dear, more than I bargained for. Much more.
Suddenly, Harry Helmsley was a different man—having giggly lunches in his office with you on his lap, dancing the nights away.
[Shouts] He was happy! I took better care of him than his other wife. I went out and bought him loads of clothes. He used to wear one black suit with black shoes and a white shirt every single day. He used to eat in restaurants by himself every night. I cooked for this man, I catered to him, I cleaned.
Had you always been such a hard worker?
I sure wasn’t a callgirl. I put my son through school and got twenty-five dollars a week from my first husband; from the second one I got nothing. So I had to work. See, we’d gotten into this bad habit: We ate.
Do you appreciate the money you have now?
I could always make money. Today, even, if I started from scratch.
But what were the chances that Leona Mindy Rosenthal would become a billionairess?
Ten billion to one.
Tell us about your parents. What was your father like?
He was a hatmaker, a milliner. He was a sick man. He had a heart condition for fourteen years before he died.
What about your mother?
My mother was a real mother. When I came home from school and yelled, “Hey, Ma,” she was there with the cookies and the milk and the how-was-everything and the go-out-and-play.
But you were not particularly close to your two sisters, Sondra and Sylvia. Not much of a family person.
My foot! Who says that—my niece Diane? As far as I’m concerned, she’s a sick child.
Her version of it is that her mother, Sondra, was the family beauty, with a porcelain complexion and blonde hair. Gorgeous.
She was. Sondra was beautiful.
And that Leona sat in her sister’s shadow.
How would she know? She wasn’t even born. My family, especially the girls, were very, very close—until everybody got married.
According to Pierson’s book, when Sondra died in 1987, you didn’t so much as go to the funeral, let alone visit her in the hospital before her death.
Wait a minute. I didn’t go to her funeral because I was forbidden to go! They forgot to tell you that, huh? Shucks. Sondra had had a heart attack while we were in Barbados. I didn’t know she had died; they didn’t call me. Shame on them. Shame on them.
Sondra’s son Mark had worked for you at Deco. The two of you didn’t get along, right?
Right. Maybe he thought he was the heir apparent to the Helmsley fortune. Maybe he didn’t like having a boss. Maybe he wanted the whole ball of wax, how do I know?
He was just a nephew, after all.
And not a very close one.
So this friction between you and Mark was the reason you were kept from attending your sister’s funeral?
[Shouts] How the hell do I know? It’s a disgrace, it’s a bad scene. I don’t even know where my sister is buried. That hurts me very much. I’d be a real stinker not to go to my sister’s funeral. Listen, God knows I haven’t done everything right in my life. But what I am telling you is so.
Early in your childhood, you were separated from your family. How did that affect you?
I was heartbroken. It was the Depression, I was about ten, my father couldn’t find full-time work, we didn’t have enough food and one of us had to go. It was me. I was always amenable. Wherever you threw me, it was all right. So I went to live with my mother’s brother. I missed everybody and wanted desperately to go home. But I knew that they hadn’t sent me away because they disliked me; they loved me. When I finally went home, six months later, I slept in the kitchen on a cot. It was better than anyplace else in the world.
In his book, Pierson insists that this poverty led, much later, to your thirst for money and security.
Oh, this sleaze thinks he’s a psychiatrist. I think he needs one. Desperately. I never knew I was poor. I cut my hair in a boy’s bob one summer and caddied at a golf course—I made a good-looking boy. I was saving for skates, but Momma needed the money, so I gave it to her.
Then, we had a candy stand when I was about thirteen and we all worked. I sold Eskimo Pies. At nights, we’d listen to the radio. I’d sit on the floor and write these crazy, funny limericks about everybody’s shortcomings. None of this was terrible.
By the time you were a teenager, impeccable grooming was your trademark.
I was always clean. And if you’re clean and put together and have good posture, there’s hope. I was also a very good student, especially in English, and I wanted to be a lawyer. [Laughs] But when I was fourteen, I had to drop out of high school because we needed money.
At first, I wanted to model, but they told me I was too flat-chested. So I went to Woolworth’s for a special bra, stuffed some cotton into it and went back a few weeks later. They said, “Weren’t you here before?” I said, “No, that was my twin sister.” I got the job—twenty-five dollars a week; a lot of money then.
But that summer, it got hot and I kept pulling the cotton out of my bra. One day, my boss screamed, “You’re the twin! You’re fired!” I wouldn’t go home and tell Momma I had no job. The next day, I went through all the ads and got another job modeling.
Did you have boyfriends?
Yeah, there was a kid named Iggy. He used to push a laundry wagon. And every time I knew he was coming by—I could hear the wheels of the wagon over cobblestones—I ran upstairs, got into my gym suit and crossed my legs real nice.
When you were seventeen, you met a young lawyer, Leo Panzirer, ten years your senior, who was supposedly your ticket out of poverty.
Oh, that’s nuts. I was not poverty-stricken anymore. I was working. I was a model for the Ceil Chapman dress company. Leo was a blind date. We went up to somebody’s penthouse and they played Deep Purple. He was a nice-looking man.
Why did you marry Leo?
All my friends were getting married. I had my son, Jay, almost right away. I didn’t have to have a child so soon, but I thought it was the right thing to do: It kept Leo out of the Army.
But we were incompatible. I loved music—could spend the night in a record store—and he was tone deaf. His clients were first, second and third, and that wasn’t for me. I have to be loved. I was not getting the kind of attention I needed. He had no capacity for love—loved the almighty buck more than he loved me. So I went to him and told him I wanted a divorce because I didn’t love him.
He said you were obsessed with money.
Yeah? And ask him how much money he gave me in alimony—twenty-five dollars a week for my son and me! That’s all I got!
You met Joe Lubin, husband number two, during your marriage to Leo, and you married him almost immediately after your divorce.
Yes, I did. Let me tell you why. I was scared. I had no money and I had a son to bring up. So, yes, I married him as soon as I could.
For quite a while now, you’ve kept the nine years you spent with Joe Lubin out of your official biography. Why?
I’m ashamed even today.
Lubin has been quoted as saying, “Leona was an opportunist and knew I was rich. Money was her god…she didn’t give a damn about me…only about getting to the top. [After] Panzirer and me…Harry Helmsley would be her bonanza.”
He is ill, ill, ill, ill, ill. Sick. And I’m not very proud of staying with him for as long as I did. That’s why I was single for twelve long years after him.
But wasn’t there at least more love in that marriage than in your first?
Maybe. I’ll tell you why. He was a very homely man. Very homely. And I had a need—not a desire—to be loved. I thought he would love me because he was so homely.
Didn’t you think you were good enough to be loved by a good-looking guy?
I don’t know. Perhaps I was insecure, especially because Leo didn’t love me, all right? Anyway, I eventually divorced Lubin and went home to my mother.
At the age of forty, you were broke and living with your mother. What was that like?
Hell. She would get up at five a.m. to make me oatmeal. I hate oatmeal, but she wanted me to eat. My mother loved me and I loved her, but I’m telling you, it was hell. She’d say, “Why don’t you go out, Leona?” So, one night, somebody invited me out to a country club and I went. I got home at one in the morning and there’s my mother holding a blanket across the windows. “What are you doing, Momma?” I asked. She said, “I don’t want my neighbors to see what time my daughter gets in.” Eventually, I got myself out.
I got my first job in real estate. It was 1962, and I worked as a secretary at Pease and Ellman, earning seventy-five dollars a week—sixty after taxes. And I earned every single quarter.
And then you went on your own as a real-estate broker specializing in the conversion of rentals. How good were you?
I was the best, darling. But I wasn’t out to make a career. What I wanted was the money—and to be left alone. I wasn’t getting married again, so I would sit until nine at night typing the same letter four hundred times.
Back then, a female real-estate agent was not a common sight.
Right. But whatever I do, I work it, sleep it, eat it and drink it. I got a hundred dollars a week, plus commissions, and slowly started to make big money. By the late Sixties, I had made four hundred fifty thousand dollars in just three months doing conversions. And that’s how Harry Helmsley heard of me. If I had known Harry back then, I would have co-opped the whole city in a week! I was on a roll and I had one million dollars in the bank. I never had a greed for money; the one million was for my old age. I had the money stuck away in my bazooms!
Yet you wound up a billionairess.
I’m still the same person. I don’t think I’m spoiled. I’ve worked for it. And I’m paying a very heavy price for it.
So before your legal problems started, your life was a bowl of cherries.
My life wasn’t a bowl of cherries—it was utopia. I had a man who loved me, a man I loved. And we were happy just being together. It wasn’t the luxuries.
Tell us about your son, Jay. At one point, you were estranged from him for many years.
I was never estranged from him. Sure, I yelled at him, but I also kissed him, held him in my arms and danced with him. Jay was my life.
Pierson’s book implies that Jay was a careless administrator of Deco.
He had charged his honeymoon to the company—fifty thousand dollars—and I was the one who went to him about it. I’m very strict with my own, I want you to know. I made him pay back every cent. It was my money, not his. But he did a fantastic job of purchasing for the hotels.
You had a falling out with Jay’s first wife, Myrna. What happened?
I was invited to a family dinner one night and, because I was working, I was a little late—forty-five minutes. I came in with a gift and they had already eaten! There was a dried piece of roast beef lying on the plate. I chewed it. I didn’t say boo. I said, “It was a lovely dinner. Thank you.” I wouldn’t hurt Jay.
And you never went back.
Never. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. A very strange lady. I don’t understand her, nor do I care to.
Jay’s second wife, Ruth. was—
A nice girl. I still talk to her regularly and I see my grandchildren.
Do the children call you Granny?
[Shocked] Never. I have a name: Mindy.
Are your grandchildren provided for?
Every one of them had a trust fund established one year after I married Harry. And although they will not inherit millions and millions, they will have enough. But they are going to have to work. Idleness makes a lot of trouble.
Your son’s third wife, Mimi Doyle, has said you don’t have a very good relationship with your grandchildren.
That’s ridiculous. How the devil would she know? She was in the family for a whole year. Death walked in when she did—Jay died twenty-six months later.
He was only forty when he died of a heart attack. One Helmsley executive said, “The grief hit her in the solar plexus…she was never the same after…she became angry more easily….” True?
Who knows what hurts me and what doesn’t? It didn’t hit me in the solar plexus; it hit me in my heart and all over my whole body. It still does.
Some say you expressed your grief through rage toward Mimi—especially in your lawsuit, which was dismissed on appeal, in which you charged that Jay’s signature had been forged on a financial document after his death. The amount in question was only $68,000, which to you is nothing. Isn’t that a little vindictive?
No, no. It’s not vindictive. I don’t think she took care of my son. He had breakfast at Burger King—French-fried onions. I told her the Christmas before he died, “Jay looks terrible, his lips are blue and bloated. If anything happens to that boy, you’ll go out the way you came in—with nothing.”
Your son had had a heart attack before he met Mimi. He suffered from arrhythmia, drank and smoked two packs a day. But Mimi wasn’t a doctor.
She wasn’t a wife, either, as far as I’m concerned.
So there you were, a mother who had just lost her son, and you were angry.
I’m angry at everything.
Did Mimi remarry?
Oh, sure. Right away.
Getting back to Jay’s physical condition, it has been written that your son loved to party, that he was a womanizer, that he ignored everything his doctor told him to do.
I’ll tell you why. I think he knew he was going to die. Jay was a virile man—tall, six foot three, looked like Sean Connery. I think he was scared. As for womanizing, I know he was cheating on Mimi; I know he was actually in a room with a girl at the moment he died. If he was so in love with Mimi, why was he cheating on her? The girl got frightened, went downstairs to the desk, stood in line and finally left word that something might he wrong up in that room. It was too late. [Starts to cry]
If I’ve done things wrong in my life, they haven’t been deliberate. But I am strong. I have a lot of faith in what I do.
Could he have been saved?
All my hotels have pulmonary resuscitation units and every security man who works for me must pass a test to prove he can use it. We’ve saved a lot of people.
Do you miss Jay?
Horribly, always. [Cries] I loved him very much. Very much. He was a wonderful kid. This may sound kookie to you, but one reason I never had another child was that I loved Jay so much I was afraid I might take some of the love I felt for him and give it to somebody else. I couldn’t bear it. I loved this child. And now I have a big hole in my heart that will never mend. It’s the wrong succession. I was supposed to go first.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
Yes, I do. Why do leaves come back on trees? I think I’m going to be an angel soon, for taking all this punishment. My husband believes that when you’re dead, you’re dead; he doesn’t know it, but I’m going to find him again!
You’ll see Jay again, too.
Yes. I have to believe that.
Look, if I’ve done things wrong in my life, and I guess I have, they haven’t been deliberate. But I am strong. I have a lot of faith in what I do. I believe that my innocence will absolutely surface.
How long would you like to live?
As long as Harry does. We still have fun together. When Harry and I went to see our mausoleum in Woodlawn, we noticed that there were little angels on the stained-glass windows. We thought, My God, these won’t give us a good laugh after we’re gone. So we took down the windows with the angels and had ones put up with pictures of the Empire State, the Helmsley, all of Harry’s buildings. That was fun. Our whole existence in business has always been for fun.
Do you believe you will go to jail?
If you do, what will happen to your husband?
He will die. He needs me and I need him. That’s the way we live.
And if they send you to jail just the same?
It wouldn’t matter. I’ll probably die, anyway. Harry is my life.
What about your friends?
Harry’s my only friend in the whole world. The rest are acquaintances. I’m telling you: He’s my life, darling. He’s my whole life.
And if you are acquitted, what will be the first thing you will do?
And the second?
Kiss my husband.