|By Joanna Molloy, Daily News, New York|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 15, 2004 - Friends and business associates of Leona Helmsley are worried about her -- saying the controversial billionaire hotel queen has become increasingly forgetful in recent months.
She has failed to recognize longtime associates, gotten lost on several occasions and often appears confused, several sources told the Daily News.
Helmsley, who turns 84 on the Fourth of July, continues to run the hotel business that her late husband Harry Helmsley left to her with the iron scepter that has earned her the epithet the "Queen of Mean."
But one friend, who has been a guest at several of Helmsley's palatial estates, said: "I spoke to her recently, and after a few minutes, she asked, 'Now, how do I know you?'"
Irving Fields, whom Helmsley personally hired to be her pianist at the Park Lane Hotel after hearing his rendition of "I'm Just Wild About Harry," told The News, "I saw her just last week at the bank. She didn't recognize me."
Helmsley also could not identify one of her longtime decorators recently, another source says.
People around the octogenarian autocrat describe other episodes of confusion.
"She gets mad and asks, 'Who moved the furniture around?' when nobody did," one said.
Helmsley was seen coming out of her New York hotel residence and telling her driver, "Take me home."
A source told The News, "He drove her around for awhile, and then just brought her back."
Another time, she reportedly came downstairs in a bathrobe at her hotel -- and then could not find her way back to her penthouse apartment. "She didn't know where she was going," a source said.
Helmsley's brother, Alvin Rosenthal, defended his sister, noting, "The woman is in her 80s."
But he also conceded: "I see occasional forgetfulness. ... We'll be talking and discussing something and she'll say, 'No, I don't remember that. What are you talking about?'
"I would say she doesn't have total recall. Maybe 80 percent. Maybe 85 percent, 90 percent is still there."
Helmsley seems especially to have changed since an incident on Jan. 25, when staffers called an ambulance after she complained of feeling faint.
After the arrival of Helmsley's personal physician, Norman Orentreich, the paramedics were sent away.
Friends who have tried to call say that Helmsley's apartment phone now has been disconnected -- and that all calls are screened through the switchboard.
Huberta Weyer, Helmsley's executive assistant of 18 years, brought her concerns over her employer's mental state to Orentreich, several sources reported. Helmsley's confidant John Codey was consulted, they say. The next day, Weyer was fired without explanation.
Meanwhile, sources also say that Helmsley -- who insiders say may be worth as much as $4 billion -- has changed her will at least twice in the past year.
At stake also is control of her charity, the Leona and Harry B. Helmsley Foundation, which gives away millions.
She has four grandchildren -- Walter, Meegan, Craig and David Panzirer. Sources say she has maintained ever-changing degrees of closeness with each over the years.
"There are perhaps three or four people, perhaps half a dozen people, who she trusts implicitly," Rosenthal told The News.
Helmsley's inner circle includes Rosenthal, Codey, lawyer Harold Hoffman and Orentreich.
Asked to respond to reports of Helmsley's mental condition, Howard Rubenstein, Helmsley's spokesman of 40 years, told The News:
"I just spoke to Leona. I had a cogent, direct discussion with her. She said that those claims that she's disoriented are absolutely false. She told me to adamantly deny the assertions that she isn't in charge."
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