Leona and Harry Helmsley emerged from a silver stretch limousine under slate-gray skies a little more than a week ago to be fingerprinted, photographed, booked and arraigned among drug dealers and thieves in the Manhattan criminal courthouse.
Clad in a firetruck-red coat-dress with blue velvet lapels, Leona Helmsley held her head high, linked arms with her husband and smiled at the mass of reporters outside the courthouse.Asked for comment, they replied only, "Good morning."
Helmsley, asked further what he considered to be his greatest achievement, said, "Marrying her."
The billionaire baron and baroness of the hotel industry stand accused in federal and state indictments of evading $4 million in income taxes between June 1983 and April 1986, allegedly by charging renovations, furnishings and household expenses for their Greenwich, Conn., mansion to their hotel and real estate businesses and failing to report the amounts on their personal federal and state income tax returns.
The Helmsleys whose estimated personal worth is $1.4 billion and who paid $270 million in taxes and gave $35 million to charity over the past five years are accused, among other allegations in the 188-count state indictment, of billing on April 19, 1984, a white lace and pink satin dress and jacket and a white chiffon skirt worth about $2,000 as "uniforms" for one of their hotels.
The Helmsleys pleaded not guilty to all charges, and their lawyers, in a prepared statement released at their second federal court appearance last week, said, "The Helmsleys will fight the charges in both cases because they are false and malicious."
The Helmsley $5 billion real estate empire includes 27 hotels, seven of them luxury establishments in New York City led by the 1,051-room Helmsley Palace and the 800-room Harley (so named by joining the couple's first names) that has been renamed the Helmsley.
Their personal empire includes the 28-room, 26-acre, $8 million estate in Greenwich, which features a walk-in silver vault and an Italian marble pool; a penthouse duplex apartment in the Park Lane Hotel, complete with a living room on each floor, a greenhouse and a pool; and a Palm Beach penthouse, which they jet to regularly in their BAC-111, a British-made plane, similar to a DC-9.
Harry Helmsley is said to own a quarter of Manhattan and has often been a part of development projects throughout the city. In better times, the couple could be seen dancing among the glitterati of New York at charity balls as often as three times a week. In 1986, the Helmsleys gave $33 million to New York Hospital the largest individual contribution to the medical facility since 1927.
They did not always live this regally.
Henry Brakmann Helmsley was born March 4, 1909, in the Bronx into a modest Protestant family, the oldest son of a notions buyer for a wholesale dry goods firm. He began working to help support his family as an office boy when he was 16 and was paid $12 a week by the real estate company he would eventually own. Seven years later, he was an officer of the company, collecting rents and managing properties in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York. Seven years after that, his name was on the door of the firm, Dwight, Voorhis & Helmsley.
"I've always wanted to be the biggest real estate man to come down the pike," Helmsley said in a 1986 interview.
He is known for his artful ability to cut deals, but also for his adherence to their terms once the deals are done.
From equally humble beginnings was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal July 4, 1920, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The daughter of a milliner, she studied English for two years at Hunter College before quitting to become a model using the name Mindy Roberts, then posed in ads as a Chesterfield cigarette girl. Soon after, she married Leo Panzirer, now a retired lawyer in New York, and bore her only child, a son, Jay Robert Panzirer, who died March 31, 1982, of a massive heart attack at the age of 40.
She divorced her first husband in 1959 and began working as Leona Roberts at the New York real estate firm of Pease & Elliman, where she rose from receptionist to senior vice president, selling apartments that were becoming cooperatives on the Upper East Side. When the company formed a cooperative division, Sutton & Towne Residential, she became its president.
Neither Helmsley would agree to be interviewed for this story, but Leona Helmsley has been quoted in the past as saying that Harry Helmsley asked to meet her because she made so much money in real estate commissions.
In 1970, he hired her as a senior vice president for $500,000 a year at Brown, Harris, Stevens Inc., a Helmsley real estate subsidiary. Two years later, Harry ended his childless marriage of 33 years and the couple were married that April.
Harry crowned Leona queen of his hotel empire in June 1980, naming her to replace him as president of the Helmsley Hotels, while he remained chairman. He had recently acquired the Hospitality Inns from Standard Oil Co. for $36 million and renamed the chain of hotels and motels across the United States the Harley.
But when she took over the helm, sources say, she demanded that her husband fire numerous employees. The reports of discontent among her subjects are legion and, in fact, some observers believe that her imperious manner of treating employees may be coming back to haunt her. At least two dozen former employees are reported to have testified before the grand juries that drew up the indictments.
The Helmsleys' fairy-tale existence began to unravel slightly in 1982, when they made headlines in Florida for suing Jay Panzirer's third wife and estate soon after he died leaving no will.
Panzirer had been president of Deco Purchasing and Distributing Inc., a wholly owned Helmsley subsidiary that provided amenities for its parent company's hotels and office buildings. Seven days after Jay's death, his third wife, Mimi Panzirer, said she received a 30-day eviction notice from her parents-in-law to vacate her home in Maitland, Fla., which was owned by Deco. She challenged it in court, asking for a 30-day extension, which she was granted, so her stepson could finish high school.
When Panzirer asked her step-father-in-law why he was evicting her, she said he told her that "he needed the money, quite coldly, not nastily, not vindictively, but in great detail.