Harry and Leona Helmsley Have New York at Their Feet, but Then They Own Most of It
Leona's birthday, July 4, is hardly ignored either. In her honor, Harry lights the Empire State Building red, white and blue, which is not as difficult as it sounds since he owns the place. "There is a price for everything," concedes Leona. "It's wonderful to have money, but I don't need it. I need Harry."
Harry Brakmann Helmsley, 71, is New York's undisputed real estate czar. He has played Monopoly with Manhattan since 1938, when he bought a building for $1,000—his total savings. The value of his holdings has since increased by about five million percent, to $5 billion. His Helmsley Enterprises has an interest in more than 50 million square feet of commercial space and 30 hotels and motels in 22 cities, among other properties.
In September Harry unveiled his magnum opus—the Helmsley Palace Hotel, a $100 million edifice across from St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. The hotel was originally called the Palace. Then a Bowery flophouse with that name reported being inundated with reservations. Rooms at the Palace are $2.85, while the Helmsley's start at $120.
The suites, painted in relaxing pastels, are equipped with terrycloth robes, Hermès soap, mineral water and two toothbrushes. Leona Helmsley, who is in her 50s ("Just try and get my age"), became president of Helmsley Hotels last June. Now when she strides through the Palace lobby, she confesses, "It is so gorgeous I get the goosies. I am the most blessed and happiest woman in the world."
Real estate, fittingly, brought the couple together in 1968. Helmsley had heard of Leona Mindy Roberts, a flourishing co-op broker. "Whoever she is, get her," he told an associate, and she was lured with "a handsome base salary and a percentage in a building." Romance wasn't a factor at first, though Leona admits she always attended Helmsley's meetings wearing layers of mascara. Finally, in 1971, Harry asked, "Miss Roberts, will you date me?" "I don't think so," she replied. "You're my boss, you're a Quaker and I like honorable intentions."
He convinced her of his, and they began twirling away their evenings. "Once I got onto the dance floor with him, we just fit," Leona recalls. Six months later he proposed, literally on bended knee.
A judge performed the ceremony in April 1972 in Helmsley's penthouse duplex, which has a 22-foot swimming pool. The newlyweds dashed through seven cities in 14 days before returning home. "I don't have to work," says Leona, "but I want to be part of what he's doing."
"I always wanted to deal in real estate," recalls Harry, born to a dry-goods salesman in Manhattan. After graduating from high school in 1925, he earned $12 a week as an office boy at Dwight, Voorhis and Perry Realtors. In seven years he was an executive. When his father lost his job during the Depression, Harry hired him. Meanwhile he bought buildings, land, other companies, and subsequently mastered the syndicate form of real estate investment, in which shareholders pool assets to buy property. "I didn't inherit any property, and I didn't have an annuity," he says. "It was just hard work." He married his first wife when he was 29. The couple remained childless. "I never really wanted children," he explains. "They appeal to me, but I think it's a woman's decision." He was divorced in 1971. Since he married Leona, he says, "I have a happier expression on my face."
Leona, third of four children born to a Brooklyn milliner, began showroom modeling after high school to help support the family. She recalls being rejected for one job at 16 because she was "undeveloped." She scurried to Woolworth's, bought a bra and some cotton, reauditioned and was hired. In her late teens, Lee married a lawyer because "my parents thought I should." When they divorced, she went into real estate in 1962 to support her only son and was soon earning six figures. "I was single for 12 years," she says. "I didn't expect to see Harry coming in on his white horse."
In gratitude, Leona spices their life with surprises. She sometimes goes with Harry's chauffeur to fetch him from the office at 5 p.m. and hides on the floor of the back seat. He plays, too, pretending he doesn't see her until she gives him a bear hug.
Pussycat that he is at home, Helmsley is King of the Jungle among his peers. "He's a brilliant, innovative negotiator," says lawyer and longtime associate Lawrence Wien, "and he has a very high code of ethics."
His fiercest critics are tenants who object to rent increases. One, publisher Bernard Gallagher, 70, attacks "Hungry Harry" in his newsletter for executives. Other tenants call Helmsley "Dirty Harry"—after the Clint Eastwood movie—and have picketed for eight years against his plan to build two apartment towers in parks within his Tudor City complex in Manhattan. Last June the city finally agreed to "swap" an alternate site with him. "He was not the villain," says New York Times real estate writer Carter Horsley. "Helmsley waited but the city did not come up with a proposal for him. He moved in the bulldozers to force them to make a decision." Harry is philosophical. "When you have enough irritants," he maintains, "no particular one bothers you."
A recurring problem is appeals for financial help. "We get letters from people asking us to adopt their children," Leona marvels. "One letter said, 'If you want to be my best friend, send me $25,000, but if you just want to be my friend, $5,000 will do.' " Helmsley limits his bequests to bona fide charities such as the National Council to Combat Blindness and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, and has a reputation for generosity.
After nine years the Helmsleys remain two lovebirds in a gilded cage. Lee stamps Harry's cheek with a scarlet kiss each evening and waits as he takes a half-mile swim. They attend formal parties twice a week; other evenings find them in their study. Leona answers comment cards from hotel guests; Harry pores over reports.
"I work almost all the time," he says. "What would I do, go out and play golf and shoot 110? I'd rather be thinking through various problems so I'll make another million. That's fun."
If Harry doesn't leave his job at the office, his closest adviser is always at hand. "Everything I want to say to him I say, good, bad or indifferent," Leona reports. Harry relishes her frankness. "I don't think we ever argue," she says. "Time is too precious."
The couple learned that lesson in 1973 during an encounter in their Palm Beach penthouse with a knife-wielding robber wearing a gas mask. Harry suffered an arm wound; Leona, stabbed in the chest, barely survived a punctured lung. The Helmsleys are now protected by full-time bodyguards.
"The simple things," Leona says now, "are best. The other night before he went to sleep, Harry said, 'Good night, pookey, lookie, cookie,' and I said, 'Good night, rookie, schnookey. Wake up feeling good, darling.' "
Good night, Harry. Good night, Leona.
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