Harry Helmsley, a self-made billionaire whose many business successes were overshadowed in recent years by his wife, Leona, and her highly publicized tax evasion conviction, has died. He was 87.
Helmsley died Saturday of pneumonia at a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., said Howard J. Rubenstein, Helmsley’s New York-based spokesman.
Helmsley had “been ailing for some time” and had been hospitalized for about a week in Arizona, where he and his wife had a home. Mrs. Helmsley was at her husband’s side when he died.
“My fairy tale is over,” Mrs. Helmsley said in a statement. “I lived a magical life with Harry.”
From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, Helmsley was a major player in real estate. His vast holdings included 27 hotels and 50,000 apartments and control of the Empire State Building.
By the end of his life though, Helmsley was best known not as a powerful businessman, but as the senile husband of a woman who came to symbolize the greed of the 1980s.
He avoided prosecution on similar tax evasion charges after a court found him incompetent to stand trial because of advanced age and declining health.
In addition to New York, he had holdings in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, D.C., and other cities.
He pioneered the syndication of real-estate properties using a system developed by lawyer Lawrence A. Wien. Helmsley found the buildings and Wien rounded up the money for their deals.
Son of a dry goods buyer, Harry Brakmann Helmsley was born March 4, 1909. He never attended college, taking his first job at age 16 as an office boy at the real-estate company he eventually came to head, now known as Helmsley-Spear Inc.
“The best advice I ever got was from my mother. It was simply, ‘Buy real estate.’ And like a dutiful son, I bought and bought and continue to buy throughout the country,” Helmsley once said.
He purchased his first property, a run-down office building, for $1,000 in 1936. A decade later, he sold it for $165,000.
Gradually he built up the Helmsley empire to monumental proportions. Forbes magazine, in its annual rating of America’s richest, put Helmsley’s net worth at $1.7 billion in October 1996, ranking him as the 67th-richest American.
His crowning achievement was the purchase of the Empire State Building in 1961 through syndication for a then-record price of $65 million.