Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Leona Chronicles

Published: August 21, 2007

The news that Leona Helmsley died yesterday at 87 reminded me of the time I interviewed her husband, Harry, the real-estate magnate who owned a vast empire of Manhattan hotels, office towers and apartment complexes in the 1980s. He was over 70, the first billionaire I had ever met, and I asked him whether he had ever thought about devoting the final segment of his career to good works, like helping the homeless.

“What the hell would I want to do that for?” he said.

This was an instance of decades colliding. It was around 1981, but I was stuck in the idealistic and irritating ’70s, when it was considered perfectly normal to ask rich people how they were planning to use their wealth to help the downtrodden. Helmsley, on the other hand, was working off one of the great philosophical underpinnings of the ’80s: that the point of making money was ... you made money.

He had been a low-profile, behind-the-scenes kind of guy until he married Leona. She was the one who understood that they were living in a time when wealth needed to be married to a sense of celebrity and self. He put her in charge of his hotel subsidiary, which ran endless ads picturing Mrs. Helmsley in a tiara and ball gown, announcing that at the Palace Hotel “the Queen stands guard.” The gift shop sold decks of cards with Queen Leona’s picture on them.

She was an unusual combination of ’80s excess and a Depression-era pathological cheapness. Her Majesty charged her underwear from Macy’s — along with $500,000 in jade knickknacks and a marble floor for the pool room — to the company. Leona also developed strategies for avoiding the sales tax on jewelry purchases that would have seemed chintzy if employed by your elderly aunt who lives on Social Security.

She rubbed some people the wrong way — including, it appeared, almost all her relatives and virtually every person she had ever employed or done business with. They talked to the newspapers, then the prosecutors, and eventually the Helmsleys were charged with 235 counts of tax evasion and other financial misdeeds by the state attorney general and U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. (Every single thing that happens for the next year is going to turn out to be connected somehow to presidential politics.)

Given the tsunami of rancor before, during and after the trial, you’d have thought that Leona had bankrupted the steel mill, thrown the whole town out of work and run off with the church poor box. Ed Hayes, who was representing one of her former employees, called the prosecutor’s office to try to delay producing his client for questioning as a potential witness. He heard hysterical laughter on the other end of the line. “I can’t get through the room full of people I got,” the prosecutor told Hayes. Men and women no one had ever heard of were walking in off the street, volunteering to testify against Leona. The office looked like Yankee Stadium on the day World Series tickets go on sale.

Leona wound up serving 18 months in federal prison, while Harry, who was getting feeble, was judged incompetent to stand trial. She felt she was the victim of a sexual double standard. “Men don’t want women getting to the top. Period,” she said in a Playboy interview.

While the country has had trouble adjusting to the idea that female chief executives dress down subordinates just like the men do, there seems to be progress. If we wind up with a woman in the White House, I doubt any American will be under the delusion that the most unpleasant thing going on behind closed doors is an occasional burnt cookie. But the Leona Helmsley rule will still stand: If you are a woman, you do not want to be caught demanding way, way more than your share. We cannot get away with greed.

Since she’s gone now, it seems only right to end on an up note. Leona really did seem to care about Harry, who she wed in 1972. (This would perhaps not be seen as a positive by the first Mrs. Helmsley, whose 33-year marriage had to give way in the process.) After he died, she filed suit against the cemetery where he was buried, claiming that construction was ruining the view. The suit compared Harry’s tomb with one built for King Mausolus in 353 by his beloved wife. Leona noted that the original was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, although she failed to mention that Mausolus’s beloved wife was also his beloved sister.

Now, that’s the kind of litigation that really brightens up your day. The ’80s look much better now than they did when we were having them. True, our current crop of rich people is much more discreet. But if they avoid flaunting their money it is probably because they know that if we got a whiff of how much some of them are making for how little work, we would all march on the palace waving burning torches.

And it would be nice to go back to the day when one of our worst problems was rich real estate developers. You’ve got to say this for Leona Helmsley: She had nothing to do with global warming and she never got us into a war.


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