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Helmsley, Leona


HELMSLEY, LEONA (1920– ), U.S. hotel operator and real estate investor. Leona Mindy Rosenthal Helmsley was born in Marbletown, n.y. A high-school dropout, she was a model as a young woman under the name Leni Roberts, and a successful real-estate saleswoman. She was a real-estate agent when she met and began her involvement with Harry Helmsley (who would become her third husband), a then-married multimillionare real-estate investor who amassed his fortune as sole owner or in partnership with others in real estate worth about $5 billion. At his zenith, he held or controlled some of the most famous and admired office buildings in New York, including the Empire State Building; the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Avenue; the Lincoln Building at 60 East 42d Street; the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue; 1350 Broadway; the Flatiron Building; the Toy Center; and the Fisk Building at 250 West 57th Street. There were also large residential developments: Tudor City and Park West Village in Manhattan, Parkchester in the Bronx, and Fresh Meadows in Queens. He also had a stake in such major industrial properties as the Bush Terminal in Brooklyn and the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan. By 1989 he had become just as well-known for his hotels, particularly the Helmsley Palace on Madison Avenue. Leona was featured in many advertisements for the hotel as its demanding "queen," standing guard over the welfare of her guests. Other Helmsley hotels included the Park Lane on Central Park South and the Helmsley Windsor on West 58th Street. A supremely self-made man, Helmsley began his career in 1925 as a $12 a week office boy and ended it with great wealth as the head of far-flung Helmsley Enterprises but in the shadow of his forceful second wife, Leona, whom he married in 1972. Both were indicted for income tax evasion but Harry was found mentally unfit to stand trial. After legal moves to avoid prison failed, Leona began serving a four-year prison term in April 1992; she spent 18 months in a Federal prison in Danbury, Conn., before being transferred to a halfway house in Manhattan. She completed her sentence under curfew in the Helmsley apartment in the Park Lane. Harry died in 1997. He had no children and he left Leona his vast fortune.

With Leona in charge, Helmsley Enterprises began to divest itself of some non-hotel investments, including Brown, Harris, Stevens, Inc., a residential brokerage that Helmsley bought in the early 1960s. In 2002 she was sued by Charles Bell, a former employee, who said he was discharged solely for being homosexual. A jury agreed and ordered her to pay Bell $11.7 million in damages; a judge reduced this amount to $554,000. The story of her adult life was dramatized in the 1990 tv movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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