Exorcising Leona From the Helmsley Hotel She Made Famous

The New York Helmsley Hotel, that 775-room inn trapped in a design hell of 1980s Greed-Is-Good glamour, is getting a face-lift, one to obliterate many of the fingerprints of the late Queen of Mean herself, Leona Helmsley.

While you still can, walk through the revolving doors of 212 East 42nd Street and step into the hotel’s intimate lobby, one of at least six in New York City where Leona reigned. You will find yourself standing atop a gold-and-red carpet that, in its baroque curlicues, is reminiscent of the MGM lion.

Ahead, you will see a front desk, attendants in boxy brown pant suits and a travertine zigzag patterned wall, really just a backdrop for the two interlocking H’s that sit astride it: the initials for the inn’s former name, Harley Hotel, a contraction of “Leona” and “Harry” Helmsley, the late, great dapper don of New York real estate, and the love of the otherwise reputedly heartless Leona Helmsley’s life. (To be fair, she loved her ill-tempered Maltese, Trouble, too.)

“The lobby that you came through, that probably looked a little dated to you, all goes away,” said Mark Briskin, general manager of the hotel, as he sat in his second-floor office at the hotel on a recent Wednesday afternoon. He was immaculately dressed in a blue pinstriped suit with a small “H” pin piercing his left lapel.

“We’re out to use the reputation that Leona Helmsley established,” Mr. Briskin said. “She’s iconically tied to style and luxury, if you will. We’re updating the wardrobe, if you will. But we’re not impacting or doing any disservice to anything that was previously established.”

The reputation Mr. Briskin is referring to is not that of Helmsley as the embodiment of 1980s avarice, but rather that of a woman who zealously oversaw her hotel holdings and inspired both fear and pride in some of her longtime staff.

“I know I miss her dearly,” said Mercedes Vargas, Mr. Briskin’s executive administrative assistant and an employee at the hotel for more than 15 years. (Ms. Vargas was often the recipient of phone calls from the Park Lane, where Helmsley lived, warning of the Queen’s imminent arrival.) She still keeps a photo of Leona in her office and another at home. “Things were so different. There was like this thing … the employees had to do good for her.”

“For the employees who’ve been here longer, they would always say this place had class when Mrs. Helmsley was here,” agreed Sherryanne Gittens, the international sales manager for the hotel, who’s worked there for a decade.

Exorcising Leona From the Helmsley Hotel She Made Famous