Leona Helmsley, who helped her husband run a $5 billion hotel and real estate empire 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. 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 terrorized both the menial and the executive help at her homes and hotels.
That image of Helmsley as the “queen of mean” was sealed when a former housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
She denied having said it, but the words followed her for the rest of her life.
Helmsley clearly enjoyed the luxury of their private fortune, flying the globe in the couple’s 100-seat jet with a bedroom suite. The couple’s residences included a nine-room penthouse with a swimming pool overlooking Central Park atop their own Park Lane Hotel; an $8 million estate in Connecticut; a condo in Palm Beach; and a mountaintop hideaway near Phoenix.
Their money supported charities, including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and its affiliated Weill Cornell Medical College, which received tens of millions of dollars, including a $25 million gift in 2006 to improve its treatment of digestive diseases.
Helmsley is survived by her brother and his wife, four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.