NEW YORK – Leona Helmsley, the haughty hotel baroness who once famously declared “only little people pay taxes,” died of heart failure at her summer home in Greenwich, Conn., her spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, said Monday. She was 87.
Helmsley, who was known for the high-handed way she ran the Helmsley hotel empire – and for her cruelty to underlings – was remembered by Rubenstein as a generous philanthropist who “gave tens of millions of dollars to charity right up until the last months of her life.”
In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 369th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.
Helmsley was so reviled by the public that many cheered when she was convicted in 1989 of evading $4 million in taxes. And after she fired a hotel manager because he was gay, she was forced to endure a humiliating trial, where she was branded a bigot and ordered to shell out $554,000.
Born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, N.Y., she claimed to have been an English major at Hunter College when she ditched academia to become a model named Mindy Roberts, and posed in ads as a Chesterfield cigarette girl.
In 1970, Harry Helmsley hired Leona as a senior vice president with a $500,000 salary. Two years later, Harry dumped his wife of 33 years and married Leona.
Harry Helmsley turned over management of his realm to his new wife and together they built a $5 billion property empire.
The Helmsleys’ world went into freefall in 1986 when investigators began uncovering evidence that they had been billing their company to pay for their lavish lifestyle.
Leona Helmsley was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay a $7.1 million fine. She served 18 months.
Harry Helmsley, who was too senile to stand trial, died in 1997 at age 87.