Leona Helmsley was never really forgiven for marrying Harry Helmsley. It was through him that she became empress of a real estate empire, that her name graced all sorts of hotels, and that her face graced the pages of thousands of glossy magazines above the motto, “It’s the only palace in the world where the Queen stands guard.”
It did not seem like it was, as they would say, a very good match. It was rather like a collision of the genteel, black-and-white world of midcentury New York and the brash, tabloid world of late-20th century decline when these two met in the late 1960’s. Mr. Helmsley, who had pioneered the use of syndicates to buy iconic buildings, had been married to someone else for three decades. Leona Roberts, as she was then called, was 10 years younger and had already been married to two other men.
She was, however, by that time also successful in her own right, perhaps as successful as a single divorcée could be at the time in a male-dominated industry.
Accounts of how the two met, and just who was chasing whom, differ. But soon enough, Mr. Helmsely had divorced his wife and married Ms. Roberts. They lived together in a duplex at the top of the Park Lane Hotel, which she remodeled with new world extravagance. In 1980, she became president of Mr. Helmsley’s 30 or so hotel properties, which included the Harley Hotel, the St. Moritz, and the Helmsley Palace, and began appearing in ads for them in which she played a merciless taskmaster, a role that, it later became clear from court testimony, was true-to-life.
Even before Mr. and Mrs. Helmsley were brought to court in 1989 on tax evasion charges (she eventually served 18 months in prison), however, they felt ostracized by the real estate industry, according to one longtime acquaintance.
“A number of people resented the fact that they had to go through Leona to go to Harry. He said, ‘She’s my wife. I’m not getting another,’” said Jerome Belson, the president of Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York, of which she was a governor. “They were just jealous.”
Shortly before her indictment, Mr. Belson said, he was asked by her publicist, Howard Rubenstein, to invite her to one of A.B.O.’s luncheons. Mr. Belson did more than that: He got his group to name Mr. and Ms. Helmsley developers of the year and threw a banquet in their honor at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
“She was greeted with great warmth at the dinner dance, and she and Harry danced throughout the night and danced the last set the orchestra played,” Mr. Belson recalled.
Her life was sort of like a fairy tale, except that it did not end happily ever after. When she died Aug. 20 after nearly nine decades, people had trouble saying what they thought about her. Donald Trump, who was not her favorite, managed to neither insult her nor compliment her, and yet gave reporters enough to quote him.
His standard statement read: “Leona Helmsley was definitely one of a kind. Harry loved being with her and the excitement she brought, and that is all that really matters.”
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