ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
No one likes to speak ill of the dead, but you can find a certain amount of glee in the obituaries for Leona Helmsley. She died today at the age of 87.
The hotel magnate and billionaire is invariably being referred to by her tabloid title the queen of mean, and described as cutthroat, abrasive, and snarling.
NPR's Robert Smith has the story about why Leona Helmsley's crimes of the 1980s are still held against her.
ROBERT SMITH: After Enron and WorldCom and the other the corporate shenanigans of the last decade, the crimes of Leona Helmsley look almost petty in retrospect. She was convicted of cheating on her taxes. She claimed personal expenses like remodeling her home as a business cost. Sure it was a big scam, no doubt about it. She skipped out on $1.7 million in taxes. But Helmsley became an icon that was bigger than her crime.
Lea Goldman is an editor at Forbes magazine.
Ms. LEA GOLDMAN (Editor, Forbes Magazine): When she was convicted, there were masses of people, secretaries, old ladies, you know, just shopping, that lined up and were yelling epitaphs that would make your hair crawl at her. You know, she embodied this mean-spirited greedy '80s era that the city quickly turned against.
SMITH: And while you can argue about the severity of her crime, there was no arguing that she was wholly responsible for both her rise and fall.
Ms. GOLDMAN: It is an epic story from start to finish. She comes from, you know, the Jewish rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn, worked her way up. You know, was divorced, has to support a kid, does it by hustling real estate.
When she met Harry Helmsley, she had $1 million in savings to her credit. You know, that was no small fee for a woman in real estate at that time.
SMITH: But marrying Harry took Leona Helmsley to another level of ambition. He owned some of the swankiest hotels and office buildings in New York, and she took over the top property, the Helmsley Palace.
In an infamous series of ads, Leona wore gold lame and a tiara and claimed to be the queen of the palace. No detail escaped her standards from the magnifying mirrors to the comment cards.
(Soundbite from TV commercial)
Ms. LEONA HELMSLEY (Hotel Operator and Real Estate Investor): I am Leona Helmsley, president of Helmsley chain. And I read and answer every single one of those cards.
SMITH: But the monarch ran her hotels like a tyrant. Her cruel treatment of the workers became legendary. In a TV movie, starring Suzanne Pleshette, the Helmsley character finds a drop of water on her salad.
(Soundbite of movie "Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean")
Ms. SUZANNE PLESHETTE (Actor): (As Leona Helmsley) The palace does not serve wet lettuce, not in my hotel. Now, you are lucky I do not fire every damn one of you. Now get the hell out. Go on. Out. Out. Out. Go on Martin(ph). Out.
SMITH: By all accounts, her real language would've been bleeped. It was her workers who eventually leaked documents that showed she cheated on her taxes. And at the trial, a parade of disgruntled servants and employees filed into the courtroom with horror stories.
One former housekeeper recounted that Helmsley said only little people pay taxes. Leona denied saying that. And she protested her innocence outside the courtroom to CNN.
Ms. HELMSLEY: I have done nothing wrong. I'm innocent. My only crime is that I'm Leona Helmsley.
SMITH: For the tax evasion, she served 18 months in federal prison. But the crime of being Leona Helmsley carried a life sentence. No matter how well she did in business afterwards, or how many millions she gave away in philanthropy, just the name Leona was enough to conjure up this moral lesson: Be careful how you treat people, because they'll get the last word, either at your trial or in your obituary.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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