NEW YORK — 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 fire-truck-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 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."
Hotel, Real Estate Empire
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 B.A.C. 111, a British-made plane, similar to a DC-9.
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.
But making headlines is not unusual for the Helmsleys.
Advertisements claiming that the Helmsley Palace is the "only palace in the world where the queen stands guard" and conspicuously featuring its monarch, Leona Helmsley, have filled newspapers and magazines across the country. 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.
During World War II, Helmsley's poor eyesight exempted him from military service, but he was hardly idle. He began acquiring and managing commercial land that had been foreclosed during the Depression, thus laying the foundation of his real estate domain. In 1955, the company became Helmsley-Spear Inc., today one of the largest brokerage companies in the country.
"I've always wanted to be the biggest real estate man to come down the pike," Helmsley said in a 1986 interview.
His holdings include part ownership of that cynosure of the New York skyline, the Empire State Building, a site he told an interviewer in 1986 he could not resist because "every morning you would look out of the window and the building is staring you in the face. So, you'd say, 'Well, I gotta have it.' "
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 on 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 named Jay Robert Panzirer, who died March 31, 1982, of a massive heart attack at the age of 40.