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Plead the Belly

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017 - PTB discusses Leona Helmsley, excessive wealth, and rich dogs

017 - PTB discusses Leona Helmsley, excessive wealth, and rich dogs

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She was born July 4, 1920 as Lena Mindy Rosenthal. She changed her name several times and was married four times. Her first husband was an attorney named Leo Panzirer. She married Joseph Lubinm, her second husband twice. Her third husband and fourth marriage was to Harry Helmsley whom she met in 1968 while working as a condominium broker.

After knowing him for two years she joined one of his brokerage firms, Brown Harris Stevens, as a senior vice-president and in 1972 he divorced his wife to be with her.

The marriage also helped her career because several of her tenants had sued her for forcing them to buy condos. They won and she was forced to give them three year leases as compensation. Her real estate license was also suspended so she focused her efforts on Harry’s hotel empire which was worth 5-10 billions dollars and include hotels, apartments and commercial properties including the Empire State building in New York City.

In 1980 she was made the president of the Helmsley hotels. The chain managed around 30 hotels.

She became a household name because of the ads she made. The first showed her claiming that she wouldn’t settle for skimpy towels and couldn’t get along without a phone in the bath so ‘why should you?’ The ads worked, occupancy was increased from 25% to 70%.

With her influence Harry began to convert apartments to condos and began to building a Helmsley hotel on Madison Ave.

Helmsly’s nickname was the Queen of Mean because she was cruel to employees and everyone around her. Contractors were rarely ever paid on time, if at all, and many filed lawsuits to recover lost wages.  

She was reported to have told an employee that ‘Only little people pay taxes’ and had a swimming pool attendant who kept a platter of seafood ready for her as she swam. They would drop a shrimp in her mouth as she called out ‘Feed the fishy’.

In addition to being an all around unpleasant person she also engaged in illegal activities. In 1986 court documents claimed that she failed to pay several thousands of dollars worth of sales tax in New York. She would buy jewelry and then have them mail her empty boxes, thus avoiding the sales tax. She bought 485,000$ worth of jewelry and avoided paying 40,00$ in taxes.

She also wrote off personal furniture as a business expense.

She also ripped off her stockholders by writing off fees as personal consulting.

One of her employees triggers a New York Post story that lead to a broader investigation. The Helmslys were indicted on tax evasion charges and accused of evading 4 million dollars in taxes.

The couple places 235 counts in state and federal indictments. They were accused of draining their empire to provide themselves with things such as a one million dollar dance floor, a 45,000$ silver clock, a 210,000 mahogany card table, a 130,000$ stereo system and 500,000$ worth of jade art. Helmsly was convicted of evading 1.2 million dollars in federal income taxes.

On August 30 1989 she was found guilty of one count of conspiracy, three counts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false tax returns, ten counts of mail fraud and 16 counts of filing incorrect business tax returns. She was acquitted on a charge of extortion that would have led to life in prison.

On April 1 1992 she was sentenced to 16 years in prison which was later reduced to fours years after all but eight charges were dropped. She was also fined 7.75 million dollars and forced to do 750 hours of community service. She was released in 1994 after spending 18 months in a federal prison in Connecticut, spent one month in a Midtown halfway house and two months in the plush confinement of her penthouse apartment in the Park Lane Hotel.

While in prison she continued to be the Queen of Mean, hiring inmates to make her bed and another as a secretary. Rather than fulfil her community service in the cold climate of New York, Helmsley carried her out her punishment in the warm air of Phoenix, Arizona, having persuaded the judge that her 84-year-old husband would suffer in the Big Apple cold. She served 19 months with a further two under house arrest.

In 2003, Charles Bell, the former general manager of Leona Helmsley’s five-star Park Lane Hotel was awarded nearly $11.2 million in damages by a jury that found that she had fired him in 2001 because he is gay. A judge later reduced the award.

She devoted much of her later years to turning around her tarnished reputation, contributing $25 million to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, $5 million to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and $5 million to help the families of firefighters after 9/11, She also gave money in the late 1990s to help rebuild African-American churches that had been burned down in the South. Buildings at New York University Medical Center and Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut are among those that were renamed to honor the Helmsleys’ generosity.

Leona Helmsley died of congestive heart failure on Monday 20 August 2007. She was 87.

After she died her lawyer gave a statement saying, “I would say she was a challenging client It was a difficult case and she was a challenging client. She was very anxious to avoid any imprisonment. It was really difficult for her because her husband was dying and she was about to go to prison.”

She left 12 million dollars to care for her dog, Trouble, cutting off her grandchildren. When the dog died she would lie beside her in the 12,000-square-foot Helmsley family mausoleum in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County, NY.


018 - PTB discusses Jodi Ann Arias, the cold weather and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

018 - PTB discusses Jodi Ann Arias, the cold weather and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

016 - PTB discusses Phoolan Devi, the caste system and the lack of cults

016 - PTB discusses Phoolan Devi, the caste system and the lack of cults