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Former Front-desk Staffer at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South
 Sets the Record Straight on Leona Helmsley
By Ellis Henican, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 21, 2007 - He's the star of the perfect Leona Helmsley anecdote.

No, not the tale of how a hatmaker's daughter out of Brooklyn courted and won a Manhattan real-estate billionaire.

Not the old chestnut about the day the haughty hotelier was dubbed the "Queen of Mean." Not even the story behind her famously snobbish comment, a comment she hotly denied, that "only the little people pay taxes."

This story is better than any of those. It involves a lavish indoor swimming pool, a silver platter of shrimp and a svelte Leona Helmsley in bathing cap and swimsuit.

And Victor Colicchio was standing right there.

These days, Colicchio is a well-regarded actor and screenwriter. He wrote "Summer of Sam" for Spike Lee. His acting credits include Lee's "Inside Man" and the upcoming Jodie Foster thriller, "The Brave One."

But before all that, Victor Colicchio was a front-desk staffer at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South and Leona Helmsley's sometime butler and houseman. Michael Moss, in his Helmsley biography, "Palace Coup," doesn't use Colicchio's name. But he describes Leona's lap-swimming routine quite vividly.

"She had one of the house servants stand at poolside with a gleaming platter full of glistening, freshly cooked shrimp," Moss writes. "'It was a big tray, silver and polished,'" the staffer recalled. " 'The captain had me stand at the end of the pool, and each time she came around, I offered her a shrimp.' " They were Leona's rewards for doing her laps.

"'So I would bend down, and she would take it or not. And if she took one and cocktail sauce splattered, I would have to take the whole tray back to the kitchen to be cleaned up. And I'd have to do that and get back in time before she made her lap.'"

Now wasn't that just perfect for a self-appointed queen? Expecting a union hotel staffer to crouch at poolside and plop shrimp into her mouth!

I caught up with Colicchio yesterday in Pennsylvania, where he lives now. He'd already heard the news when I got to him.

But to my surprise, he wasn't doing cartwheels at his evil boss' demise. He wasn't humming, "Ding dong! The witch is dead!" He sounded more like a man who had one last chance to set a record straight.

"She was a millionaire long before she married Harry," Colicchio said. "She would not have gotten as far as she did in real estate with the kind of personality that was painted as being her. She was intelligent, dedicated. She could be charming if she wanted. And her hotels were union hotels. She didn't have the authority to just fire people left and right. The union would have held a hearing. Those people would have been hired back with back pay. It wouldn't make business sense."

The famous Helmsley tantrums, her former shrimp-plopper said, were almost always aimed at conniving hotel managers -- not the maids, bellmen and other union workers who staffed the hotels.

"Back in the 1980s, a lot of those managers didn't believe a woman belonged out of the kitchen -- much less as the boss of a big hotel. They said awful things behind her back."

As for the shrimp-at-the-pool story, Colicchio said, we really shouldn't make too much of it. "I remember she caught me eating the shrimp," he said. "She asked me if it was any good. I said, 'Yes, would you care to try one?' We both got a laugh out of it."

Leona Helmsley could surprise you like that, he said. "She would throw these Christmas parties for all the employees," he said. "I remember a dishwasher, a man from Haiti about 60 years old -- she asked him to dance. And there she was, dancing with a Haitian dishwasher in front of all her employees."

Some Queen of Mean!

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Copyright (c) 2007, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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