Leona Mindy Roberts Helmsley (July 4, 1920 – August 20, 2007) was a billionaire New York City hotel operator and real estate investor. She was a chain-smoking, flamboyant personality and had a reputation for tyrannical behavior that earned her the nickname "Queen of Mean". That image of Helmsley was sealed when a former housekeeper testified that she had heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes ...", a saying that became notorious and was identified with her for the rest of her life.
As a result she was investigated and later convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989. Although having initially received a sentence of 16 years, Helmsley was required to serve only 19 months in prison and two months under house arrest.
Forbes magazine estimated her net worth at $2.2 billion, placing her at 350 on its list of the world's wealthiest people.
Leona Helmsley, daughter of a hatmaker, was born Lena Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrants. Her family moved to Brooklyn while she was still a girl, and moved six more times before settling in Manhattan. She dropped out of high school to seek her fortune. In a short time, she changed her name several times—from Lee Roberts, Mindy Roberts and Leni Roberts. Eventually, she decided on Leona Mindy Roberts.
She plowed through two husbands using their connections to help her become a millionaire in her own right. Leona was a condominium broker in 1968 when she met and began her involvement with the then-married multi-millionaire real estate investor Harry Helmsley. She eventually joined his firm as vice president. Harry Helmsley divorced his wife of 33 years and married Leona on April 8, 1972.
Supposedly under her influence, Harry Helmsley began a program of conversion of apartment buildings into condos. He later concentrated on the hotel industry, building the Helmsley Palace on Madison Avenue. Together the Helmsleys built a real estate empire in New York City including 230 Park Avenue, the Empire State Building, the Tudor City apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan, and Helmsley-Spear, their management and leasing business. The couple also developed properties that included the Park Lane Hotel, the New York Helmsley Hotel, the Helmsley Palace Hotel, and hotels in Florida and other states.
On March 31, 1982, Leona's only child from her first marriage, Jay Panzirer, died of a heart attack. Leona sued her son's estate for money and property that she claimed he had borrowed. Mimi, her son's widow who lived in a property Leona owned, received an eviction notice. Mimi later said the legal expenses wiped her out and "to this day I don't know why they did it."
Despite the Helmsleys' tremendous wealth (net worth considered a billion dollars), they were known for disputing payments to contractors and vendors. One of these disputes would prove to be their undoing.
In 1983 the Helmsleys bought Dunnellen Hall, a 21-room mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, to use as a weekend retreat. The property cost $11 million, but the Helmsleys wanted to make it even more luxurious than it had been before. Jeremiah McCarthy, a Helmsley executive engineer was initially put in charge of the operation. McCarthy claims that Leona repeatedly demanded that he sign illegal invoices designed to illegally bill personal expenses to the estate. According to Ransdell Peirson's "The Queen of Mean," when McCarthy declined to do so she exploded with tyrannical outbursts claiming, "You're not my f***ing partner you'll sign what I tell you to sign." *New York Times - 08 1989.
The remodeling bill came to $8 million, which the Helmsleys were loath to pay— as well as taxes written off the project. A group of contractors went to court to get most of the money; the Helmsleys eventually paid off most of the debt. In 1985, during these proceedings, the contractors revealed that most of their work was being illegally billed to the Helmsleys' hotels as business expenses. "Among the charges billed to the company were a million-dollar dance floor installed above a swimming pool; a forty-five thousand-dollar silver clock; and a two-hundred-and-ten-thousand-dollar mahogany card table." Enraged, the contractors sent a stack of invoices to the New York Post to prove that the Helmsleys were trying to write their work off in this manner. The resulting Post story led to a federal criminal investigation. In 1988, then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani indicted the Helmsleys and two of their associates on several tax-related charges, as well as extortion.
On August 30, Helmsley was convicted and sentenced of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States,three counts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and ten counts of mail fraud.
Leona Helmsley died from congestive heart failure at the age of 87, on August 20, 2007, at Dunnellen Hall, her summer home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Her most famous moment came after her death in one final moment of unadulterated spite. She left her Maltese, Trouble, a $12 million trust fund. This sum was subsequently reduced to $2 million less than a year later by a judge.
Helmsley left the bulk of her estate, estimated at more than $4 billion, to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. She left $15 million for her brother Alvin Rosenthal. Helmsley had four grandchildren. Two of them each will receive $5 million in trust and $5 million outright, under the condition that they visit their father's grave site once each calendar year. Her other two grandchildren, Craig and Meegan Panzirer, received nothing.
It has been alleged that they were omitted from the will because they failed to name any of their children after her late husband. Her choice to leave $12m to her white Maltese, Trouble, was branded 3rd in Fortune's "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" of 2007.
She will not be missed.