LEONA HELMSLEY WAS NEVER ONE TO shy away from a party, especially her own. So when the 73-year-old onetime hotel queen gathered 35 loyal subjects to celebrate the end of her 21-month confinement for tax evasion, it seemed, however briefly, like old times. Resplendent in a navy silk suit and pearls, Helmsley swept into the restaurant in Manhattan's Park Lane Hotel on Jan. 27 with husband Harry, 84, who appeared frail and unsure of his surroundings as she led him to their table.

Leona greeted each guest with her distinctive air of noblesse oblige. "I was astonished at how good she looked," said invitee Mike Wallace, who had done a friendly 60 Minutes profile on her eight years ago. "I heard she did 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups that day."

But when one admirer interrupted the low-fat, no-cholesterol Chinese lunch and proposed a champagne toast, praising the hostess as a paragon of beauty and grace under fire, the moment was just too much for Leona. Standing to thank her guests, she promptly broke down, burst into tears and draped her arms around Harry.

Leona may finally be free, but troubles pursue her. Toward the end of her ordeal—18 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., a month in a halfway house and two months of cushy confinement to her penthouse apartment—one of her lawyers, Nathan Dershowitz, claimed she still owed him 884,000 in fees. Shortly thereafter, a scathing article in New York City's Village Voice accused her of flouting prison rules by gelling other inmates to do her chores. Hadn't incarceration had a chastening effect on Helmsley? Not according to gossip columnist and self-proclaimed friend Cindy Adams. "If you think she's going to walk away from this experience having found God or being a softer person, that's not Leona," says Adams. "She's not going to become a pussycat."

Evidence of that was offered by Sharon Jones, 32, a convicted embezzler and Leona's former cell-mate, who accused Helmsley in a Village Voice interview of paying other inmates to make her bed, iron her clothes, sort her mail and even smuggle items into the prison. Sometimes, other inmates claimed, Leona refused to pay the agreed-upon fee. Jones may have decided to speak out because in May. 1993 Helmsley had accused her of stealing letters and photographs. As a result, Jones was sent to a high-security prison for six months—although Helmsley's charges reportedly turned out to be baseless.

Contrary to earlier speculation, Helmsley isn't facing additional jail time for alleged infractions. "If we find out after an inmate has been released that they violated rules during their incarceration and we missed it, there's nothing we can do," says U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Greg Bogdan.

Even before the Jones brouhaha, lawyer Dershowitz, who handled Leona's appeal with his older brother Alan, sued Helmsley for refusing to pay nearly half of a $175,000 bill. Why? "Probably the same reason she refuses to pay most people she owes money to: she doesn't want to," says Nathan. Counters Helmsley's spokesman Howard Rubenstein: "She does not believe she owes that amount."

Of course Leona still has her defenders. "She never should have been locked up. How many heads of giant corporations sit there and go over their accounts line by line?" says Joan Rivers, who interviewed Helmsley five months before her conviction. "The taxes Leona paid should have gone into a hotel for the homeless or an AIDS hospice. But this way, nothing good came out of her prison term."

Certainly no one is predicting Leona will mellow into gentle retirement at her $6 million home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she is to begin the 750 hours of community service she must complete over the next three years. "She will see Harry. She will sun. She needs to heal," says Adams. "[But] there are a lot of people Leona's not happy with...the media, some lawyers. She's going to get back at them."

MARY HUZINEC in New York City

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  • Mary Huzinec.