Helmsley, Leona

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Helmsley, Leona

The Helmsley Palace Hotel


Dubbed by many in the press as the "Queen of Mean" due to her demanding, aggressive persona, Leona Helmsley reigns supreme over one of New York City's most luxurious hotels, the Helmsley Palace located in midtown Manhattan. Married to the late billionaire Harry Helmsley since 1972 and berated by some due to her seeming lust for the spotlight, Leona has sometimes found her personal accomplishments as a savvy businesswoman overshadowed by the mystique that has grown up around her since marrying the much older Helmsley. Leona's ultimate fall from grace occurred in 1989, when she was accused and then convicted of income tax evasion. Forced to trade her luxurious penthouse apartment for a prison cell while serving 21 months of her four-year sentence, Helmsley has since returned to New York City and to business as usual.

Personal Life

Leona Helmsley was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in New York City on July 4, 1920. The daughter of a local hat manufacturer, Helmsley graduated from New York City public schools and then enrolled in the English program at the city's Hunter College. The ambitious and attractive young woman decided after her sophomore year, however, that there were quicker ways to achieve success, so she left Hunter for the more lucrative profession of modeling. After working as a model for a number of years—Helmsley would be one of several Chesterfield cigarette girls to grace that company's print ads—she married attorney Leo Panzirer in 1939, and had a son, Jay.

After their son was grown, Helmsley and Panzirer divorced, and the 42-year-old Leona was forced to reenter the job market. In 1962 she got a job as a receptionist at the New York real estate firm of Pease & Elliman, working under the name Leona Roberts. At Pease & Elliman she quickly advanced, moving into positions as saleswoman, broker, and ultimately senior vice president during her seven years with the firm. From there, Leona founded her own firm, Sutton & Towne Residential, where she again proved her abilities, earning as much as $400,000 in sales commissions during a single quarter of 1968.

Two years later, Leona was offered a position as vice president at Brown, Harris, Stevens, a subsidiary of the Helmsley-Spear property management concern. The company's co-owner, Harry Helmsley, was attracted to much more than Leona's professional abilities; within a year Harry—a kindred driven spirit who had begun his own successful career in New York City real estate in 1925 as an office boy and rent-collector—divorced his first wife of 33 years and made his new vice president his new wife.

Leona Helmsley did not let being married to a man worth approximately $5 billion stop her from continuing to advance her own career. While she continued to devote her time and energy to her job with Brown, Harris, Stevens during the first few years after her 1972 marriage, she also became increasingly interested in the creative opportunities that presented themselves in another line of her husband's business: hotel ownership. After Harry built the Harley Hotel near Grand Central Station in the mid-1970s (naming the hotel after a combination of the first syllable of "Harry" and "Leona"), Leona grew even more fascinated. When a face-lift was scheduled for the interior spaces of the prestigious, Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, Leona drew up and presented her own design ideas, which her husband liked far better than those of the professional interior designers he had originally contracted for the project. As her flair for management became increasingly apparent, Helmsley soon found herself in charge of her husband's newly acquired national chain of Hospitality Motor Inns, selected Sheraton Inns, and assorted other hotels scattered throughout a dozen states. In 1980 Leona was named president of Helmsley Hotels, Inc.

Under Helmsley's capable management, occupancy rates among the Helmsley-owned hotels around New York City topped the city's averages within three years. Her relentless attention to detail and her diligence in ensuring that her own high standards have been maintained by the nearly 5,000 employees she oversees has paid off in financial, if not always personal, terms. Considered a harsh taskmaster by many Harley Hotel staff, Helmsley has always maintained that her greatest joy in her work was not making money or amassing power, but rather the opportunity to work near the man to whom she remained devoted until his death in 1997.

Career Details

Coming from a background in real estate, with little college and several years spent at home as a wife and mother, Helmsley worked hard to have her accomplishments taken seriously when she was made president of the 21-hotel Helmsley chain. But the consistent rises in occupancy rates accomplished under her direction forced people to respect her capabilities as a manager, even if many quibbled about her methods. Helmsley has kept a firm hand on almost every aspect of running the hotels. "I can tell you what's going on at each hotel, when a life-guard's goofing off or when a maid's not doing her job," she told an interviewer in New York. "You're dealing with people who don't live here, whose name isn't on the building, who get away with what they can. I give them reason to want to get away with less. If something is wrong, the first time, I ask them to change it. The second time, I ask an octave higher. The third time, I ask the person if they want me to do it. The fourth time, if things aren't absolutely right, they're fired."

Tales of Helmsley's unexpected visits, white-glove inspections, and job-related interrogations have become legendary, but perhaps less well known has been her motivation: her ultimate concern for customer comfort. She taste-tests food prepared in her hotel kitchens, anonymously phones hotel reservation desks to monitor staff efficiency, and keeps a close eye on customer comment cards. As the caption states in one of the many ads in which she appears touting the quality aspects of the Helmsley chain: "I wouldn't settle for a staff that didn't put guests first. Why should you?"

The print adds appearing in most of the nation's upscale glossy magazines during the 1980s transformed the photogenic Helmsley into something of a media star, and the reaction they received from the press did little to enhance her public persona. Portrayed as aggressive, paranoid, and despotic, the "Queen of Mean" received little sympathy from a disgruntled media when she was charged with income tax evasion in April of 1988. Although her husband would be charged with her, when the convictions came down the following year it would be Leona, then 68, who would take the fall and serve out a 18-month sentence in a Danbury, Connecticut, prison; Harry was deemed incompetent to stand trial.

Released in 1994, Helmsley and her by-then ailing husband retired to their second home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Leona was still required to perform 750 hours of community service as a condition of her early parole. At the conclusion of the full 21-month sentence, she returned to New York City to celebrate, throwing a party for 35 loyal friends at the Park Lane Hotel. Observers were impressed by her ability to rise from her humiliation seemingly unfazed, acting in the proud, confident manner characteristic of her during the strongest years of her rule. Quipped guest Mike Wallace to People Weekly, "I was astonished at how good she looked. I hear she did 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups that day." The only break in Helmsley's cool came when a guest proposed a toast praising Leona's grace under pressure; at that point she clung to the arm of her beloved Harry standing at her side and burst into tears of emotion.

Helmsley's two-year jail term did not soften the media's attitude toward her. After her return to the business world, her alleged transgressions once again dotted New York City papers. The Village Voice accused her of conning fellow prison inmates into doing her chores for her while serving out her sentence. Accusations by Helmsley's attorney, Nathan Dershowitz, that the hotel queen's legal bills remained unpaid, also found their way into the headlines. In 1995, reports circulated that the then 74-year-old Helmsley was ordering the domestic staff at her Scottsdale home to take over completion of the annual 250 hours per year of community service she was obligated to over three years, which included such tasks as stuffing envelopes and wrapping presents for patients at a local hospital.

By the late 1990s, her prison term completed, Helmsley began to take a strong role in managing not only the hotel chain of which she was still president, but her now seriously ailing husband's other numerous business interests as well. The core of Harry Helmsley's empire is Helmsley-Spear, a property management firm that renovates and maintains all the buildings owned by the real estate tycoon—including the Empire State Building and the Flatiron Building—through a web of limited partnerships. Leona's sudden, aggressive interest in property management was seen by other partners in Helmsley-Spear—particularly those to whom she had once promised to sell the company after her husband's death—as what an Economist writer characterizes as an attempt to "loot" the parent company before those partners could have an opportunity to purchase the firm. When her husband died in January of 1997, a suit was in process against the Helmsleys, charging that Leona had either overcharged Helmsley-Spear for products and services or transferred money-making management assignment to her own firm, Helmsley-Noyes. For her own part, Mrs. Helmsley was viewed as maneuvering assets to retain control over the highly profitable company in anticipation of her husband's death. The comment that she was once reported to have made, that only the "little people" pay taxes, caused many in the press to anticipate yet another chapter in the continuing saga of Leona Helmsley versus the Internal Revenue Service.

Chronology: Leona Helmsley

1920: Born.

1962: Began nine year career with the New York City real estate firm Pease & Elliman.

1967: Founded real estate firm Sutton & Towne Residential.

1970: Named Woman of the Year by the New York Council of Civic Affairs.

1972: Married real estate developer Harry Helmsley.

1980: Became president of Helmsley Hotels, Inc.

1988: Received 47-count indictment for tax evasion.

1989: Convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 21 months in prison.

1994: Released from prison and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona.

1997: Husband, Harry Helmsley, died at age 87.

Social and Economic Impact

Helmsley's rise to fame—and infamy—has kept her a controversial figure. While some admire her competitive drive and claim that the media has unfairly criticized her for qualities that are admired in men, others point out that Helmsley has only herself to blame for her downfall. Many feel that she has flaunted her wealth and power to diminish those around her. Even the lavish "I'm Just Wild about Harry" parties Helmsley threw each March to celebrate her husband's birthday seemed to stretch beyond affectionate gestures into purposeful ostentation.

The media coverage of Helmsley's trial for tax evasion many claimed seemed to focus more on personality than legal matters. While charges against Helmsley and her associates included fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records, the media focused on elements of ostentation and extreme bad taste. Examples included numerous high-ticket items (including a $45,000 clock intended as a birthday gift to Harry), a satin and chiffon "hotel uniform," and millions of dollars worth of renovations to the couple's 26-acre, 28-room estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, which were all written off against the income of the hotel chain, according to triumphant media reports.

A woman of clear contrasts, Helmsley has throughout her career been portrayed by the press as ruthless, difficult to deal with, and dishonest. This version of Helmsley, however, remains in stark contrast to the loving, affectionate wife that interviewers would sometimes uncover if they asked about her relationship with her husband. Although Harry was many years older than his second wife, not even the media could successfully paint her as a gold digger. "Other men wouldn't put up with my getting all the attention," she once told New York magazine in praise of her beloved Harry. And when asked about the best part of her job, the hard-nosed business-woman would answer, "At 4:30 or so when Harry picks me up." Despite the controversy that surrounded them, after Harry's death in 1997, a resilient Leona would characterize their life together in one word: "magical."

Sources of Information

Contact at: The Helmsley Palace Hotel
455 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10022
Business Phone:


Bohner, Kate, ed. "Leona's World." Forbes, 20 May 1996.

"Harry Helmsley's Legacy." Economist, 11 January 1997.

"Love of Her Life: Right to the End, Leona Helmsley Was Just Wild about Harry." People Weekly, 20 January 1997.

Luscombe, Belinda. "Helping Hands." Time, 26 June 1995.

Maas, Jane. Adventures of an Advertising Woman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Newman, Julie. "Leona, Free at Last." People Weekly, 14 February 1994.