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Hotel Queen Leona Helmsley Dies at 87

By Hoa Nguyen, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 21, 2007--Dubbed the "Queen of Mean" by some but known as a generous benefactor to local nonprofit agencies, Leona Helmsley died yesterday at her backcountry Greenwich estate on Round Hill Road.

Mrs. Helmsley had been in declining health the past few weeks and died of heart failure yesterday morning, her New York publicist Howard Rubenstein said. She was 87.

Mrs. Helmsley and her late husband, Harry, carved out one of the most recognizable names in the hotel and real estate industry, though her own notoriety reached new heights following a 1989 tax evasion conviction for fraudulently billing $4 million in personal expenses, largely for renovations to her Dunnellen estate in Greenwich.

Former employees testified that Mrs. Helmsley was a mean-sprited Greenwich baroness who supposedly quipped that only "little people" pay taxes, though she denied making that statement.

After her imprisonment, including 18 months in federal prison in Bridgeport, Mrs. Helmsley stayed in the spotlight as she battled with contractors, business partners and others who said she had short-changed them in court. Mrs. Helmsley was acutely aware of her notoriety, though she and her supporters believed it was misplaced.

"She always said, 'I want what I'm owed, I want what's due to me,' " Rubenstein said. "A lot of times she would say to me, 'If I was a man, they wouldn't say this about me. They would just say that I'm tough.' "

Despite her litigious and combative reputation, Helmsley also left a philanthropic streak that in some cases was unrivaled. Her $10 million contribution to Greenwich Hospital, which came after her late husband was hospitalized there, remains the largest single donation, hospital president Frank Corvino said.

The money was used to open the Leona and Harry B. Helmsley Medical Building in 1999. Over the years, Mrs. Helmsley donated an additional $4 million.

"Now and then, we would request financial donation for certain things," Corvino said. "Sometimes a check would arrive unsolicited."

Mrs. Helmsley was known to be cordial and generous to charities and nonprofits that came calling, including the Round Hill Volunteer Fire Co., which received $33,000 in donations during the past two years, said Ron Brien, a fire company board member. Brien met Mrs. Helmsley at a Manhattan party hosted by Rubenstein and who also shared with her an affiliation with the UJA-Federation of New York.

"She was always philanthropic with UJA and she was always supportive of Round Hill and so we only have good things to say about her," Brien said.

Mrs. Helmsley was born July 4, 1920, in Ulster County, N.Y., to the late Ida and Morris Rosenthal. A former model who later worked as a real estate broker, she was married and divorced twice. Her first marriage resulted in her only child, Jay Panzirer, who died in 1982 of a heart attack.

Mrs. Helmsley met and married Harry Helmsley in 1972. Eight years later, she was named president of Helmsley Hotels, famously marketing herself as a "queen" who stood guard over the couple's hotels and made sure they maintained a high level of service.

She bragged about her attention to detail in a 1985 interview with Savvy magazine.

"I know if a bulb is out in Room 14 of the Harley (hotel) before the manager does," she said. "I know if there's a torn pillowcase at a suite in the Palace. I read every card guests filled out from every one of the hotel, especially the negative ones. And I answer them personally."

In April, 1988 "the billionaire baron and baroness of the hotel industry" -- as a story in Los Angeles Times called them -- stood accused in federal and state indictments of evading $4 million in income taxes between June 1983 and April 1986.

A year later -- in August 1989 -- 69-year-old Mrs. Helmsley was found guilty of 33 felony counts, including tax evasion, filing false tax returns and mail fraud. She was convicted of evading $1.2 million in federal income taxes by charging personal expenses to Helmsley-controlled companies.

Harry Helmsley was found incompetent to stand trial because of his failing memory.

Much of the two-month trial focused on references to the couple's luxurious lifestyle and Mrs. Helmsley's imperious personality.

In 1992, after being freed on $25 million bail, Mrs. Helmsley began serving a four-year sentence for income tax fraud at a medium-security prison in Lexington, Ky.

"I'll do what I have to do to get back to Harry and to get on with my life," said Mrs. Helmsley, who served less than two years and reportedly paid about $8 million fines and restitution.

In 1983, the Helmsleys purchased a country home in Greenwich for $11 million, a real estate record at the time.

The estate, which the Greenwich tax assessor values at $13 million, is perhaps one of the best known in town, dating to 1916 when Daniel Grey Reid, president of the American Tin Plate Co., commissioned it at a cost of $1 million for his daughter upon her marriage to Henry Topping, a steel magnate's son, according to "The Great Estates, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1880-1930."

When the Helmsleys moved to Round Hill Road, they befriended neighbor Adie von Gontard, who said one of the first things the couple asked for was advice on what local charities to support.

"She had no wrinkles on her heart," von Gontard, 82, said. "She was an asset to us in Greenwich. I hate to lose her."

In their heyday, the Helmsleys were particularly social, attending parties at von Gontard's home or holding their own, most famously the "I'm Just Wild About Harry" parties.

"She loved to dance," Rubenstein said. "They were terrific dancers. She and Harry were about the best dancers I ever saw."

But after she was sent to prison and later when Harry Helmsley died in 1997, Leona Helmsley retreated into her own world, emerging at times to mark her birthday with outdoor outings on her Greenwich estate.

Recently, though, her health began to decline. A neighbor said she would sometimes see Mrs. Helmsley drive about the sprawling 26-acre estate on a golf cart with a nurse or an employee, inspecting her property.

Mrs. Helmsley is survived her brother Alvin Rosenthal, four grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.

Rubenstein said the funeral will be private, though a public memorial service is in the works and will probably occur a month from now.

The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this story.


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