NEW YORK Leona Helmsley, who ran a $5 billion hotel and real estate empire with her husband but sealed her reputation as the “queen of mean” during her 1989 trial for tax evasion, died Monday. She was 87.
Helmsley died of heart failure at her summer home in Greenwich, Conn., said her publicist, Howard Rubenstein.
Already experienced in real estate before her marriage, Helmsley helped her husband run an enterprise that included managing the Empire State Building, as many as 27 hotels and thousands of apartments.
She became a household name in 1989 when she was tried for tax evasion. The sensational trial included testimony from disgruntled employees who said she had terrorized the help and the executives at her hotels and homes.
That image of Helmsley as the “queen of mean” was cemented when a former housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Helmsley denied having said it, but the words followed her for the rest of her life.
In the tax case, she and her husband, Harry, were accused in state and federal indictments of charging millions of dollars in personal expenses and home improvements to their businesses. She was convicted in federal court in 1989 on 33 federal tax evasion counts and sentenced to four years in prison.
In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 369th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.
“Leona Helmsley was definitely one of a kind,” said Donald Trump, whose rivalry with the Helmsleys made headlines in the 1990s. “Harry loved being with her and the excitement she brought and that is all that really matters.”
Helmsley’s financial excesses, including a nine-room penthouse with a swimming pool overlooking Central Park and a jet with a bedroom suite, overshadowed millions in contributions for medical research and other causes. In recent years, she contributed $25 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital, $5 million to Katrina relief and $5 million after Sept. 11 to help the families of firefighters.
But her detractors said she nickel-and-dimed merchants on her personal purchases and stiffed contractors who worked on another of her homes, in Connecticut. It was tips from disgruntled employees that led to the tax-evasion charges.
She was 51 with the looks of a former model when she married Harry Helmsley in 1972. It was her third marriage and she was already a successful seller of residential real estate in a hot New York market. He was 63, one of the richest men in America.
In 1980, he made her president of Helmsley Hotels.
For the better part of a decade, a glamorous Leona Helmsley smiled out of magazine ads dressed in luxurious gowns and tiara, advertising that the Palace was the only hotel in the world “where the Queen stands guard.”