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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 59

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This is the grave of Leona Helmsley.

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Born Lena Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York in 1920, Leona Helmsley was always a rather strange individual, having changed her name over and over again for years before deciding upon Leona Roberts. She married an attorney and then a garment industry capitalist before she met real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley in 1968 while working in a real estate job. She was already a millionaire, in part due to his previous marriages and in part to her work in selling luxury New York apartments. She joined Helmsley’s firm as a vice-president. He then divorced his wife of 33 years and married her in 1972. Her real estate license was suspended soon after for forcing the tenets of one her apartment buildings to buy condos. She then turned to managing Helmsley’s hotel empire.

Leona Helmsley was not a nice person. When her only son died in 1982, she sent his wife an eviction notice within a few days of his funeral. She was known for force employees on their knees to beg for their jobs, refusing to pay bills for her projects, and for screaming at people. When their engineer, trying to protect himself, asked Helmsley to sign a document invoicing expenses, she screamed “You’re not my fucking partner! You’ll sign what I tell you to sign.” The employees of her hotels actually created an alarm system when she came to visit one of the properties so they could prepare for the horror to come.

Tax evasion was a particular specialty of the Helmsleys. Her most famous statement of course was “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” It got so bad that even the utter loathsome U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani indicted her and her husband on tax fraud and extortion, by which time they owed over $4 million in back taxes. She was convicted and originally sentenced to 16 years in prison, although her lawyers got it reduced to 19 months.

When she died in 1997, Helmsley was worth around $5 billion. She famously left her dog a $12 million trust.

Donald Trump of course has claimed that she wanted to have sex with him.

As you can see, the Helmsleys were all class and subtlety. And thus they did something that the rich haven’t really done in a century–build themselves a gigantic Gilded Age-style mausoleum, of which you only see a small bit of in this picture I took. They wanted the dog interred with them, but New York state laws forbids that. Hopefully President Trump can Make New York Great Again and fix this tyranny.

Helmsley has been portrayed a couple of times on the screen. Suzanne Pleshette played her in the 1990 TV movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean. And Mary Manofsky played her in a 2007 episode of The Ointment, in which she evidently appears from the grave. That’s a horror story too scary for me.

Leona Helmsley is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

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  • steve Rodent

    Hoping she’s securely locked in.

  • Murc

    They wanted the dog interred with them, but New York state laws forbids that.

    … why?

    I mean… what possible public good does such a law serve?

    • My question was actually: “Was the dog dead already? Or did they want it killed so it could be buried with them?”

    • UberMitch

      The pet cemetery lobby must be a juggernaut in NY.

    • Todd

      Because all dogs go to heaven; and the Helmsleys….quite the other thing.

    • Nobdy

      What percentage of laws serve an actual public purpose? 50%? Less?

      I am sure that this law (which has since been changed, see below) was because some squawky pearl clutcher was horrified that people were being buried with their pets because it’s not how HE’D do it. Or the law about what could be buried was lazily written and not fixed until this year because Albany sucks.

      Looking for purpose in a law like this is often foolish. Better to look for laziness or busybodies (often particularly judgmental religious people.)

      • I’m guessing that it is an old law – most laws regulating things like cemeteries are, and there’s rarely any reason to change them – but I can sort of sympathize with the point of view that it’s disrespectful to bury people in the same place as animals. For some people, that means a lot, and those people are probably closer to the grave than the ones for whom burial is less fraught with significance.

        • Nobdy

          But what business is it of theirs how OTHER people are buried? Nobody is making them be buried with their pets.

          And if for some weird reason they don’t want to be buried in a cemetery where pets are also buried that can be handled through contract. There’s no need for a law on something like this.

          • Derelict

            And if, after interment, somebody a couple of graves over has Fido or Fluffy buried with them, well, the person who didn’t want to be buried with animals is free to move to another cemetery!

        • (((Hogan)))

          I’m wondering how many people had pets when that law was passed, and what kind of animals they had in mind. If space is at a premium, you might not want my favorite horses taking up a couple of plots.

    • yet_another_lawyer

      Imagine having to explain to your cellmate what you’re in prison for.

      “Yeah, I, uh… there was this old lady and she wanted her dog interred with her. I knew it was against the law, but the money was too good and I got stupid. Naturally, the cops were all over that and I got fucked by my public defender.”

      • (((Hogan)))

        And they all moved away from me on the bench there . . .

        • Deggjr

          “…and creating a nuisance.” And they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time on the bench, talkin’ about …”

      • Lurking Canadian

        Only guilty man in Shawshank.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    Sleepy Hollow? needs more flaming pumpkins

    oh. and 2016 got Ron Glass. a month yet to go, jesus

    • N__B

      Leona is, I assume, in the special hell with people who talk in theaters.

      • Mike G

        And write in library books.

        • LosGatosCA

          And used to rip pages out of phone books in pay phone booths.

          Yes, Virginia there once was a book that had everyone’s phone number in it and also,too, a place where you could make a phone call since at that time there were no cell phones.

          It’s own special hell.

    • wjts

      And Florence Henderson.

    • Colin Day

      No more Blood on the Badge.

  • Nobdy

    hey wanted the dog interred with them, but New York state laws forbids that. Hopefully President Trump can Make New York Great Again and fix this tyranny.

    Too late! Your beloved Andrew Cuomo already made New York Great Again.

  • Lurking Canadian

    She…literally made people beg, on their knees, to keep their jobs?

    You can’t make this shit up. No editor would publish it. The best the author could hope for is a rejection letter that said something like, “You’re getting better, kid, but next time try not to make the villain such a caricature.”

    • Nobdy

      It’s not nice, but it’s no going backstage at a teenage beauty pageant to try to ogle naked children. And we made him president!

      What I don’t understand is how this doesn’t ruin the businesses of rich maniacs. You’d think it would make keeping good employees very hard and give them a big competitive disadvantage.

      • LosGatosCA

        LMAO

        many more people than available jobs at all times.

        Even prisons have doctors.

      • Ahuitzotl

        I think it does give them a big competititve disadvantage, but the size/inertia of their business ensures that it rolls along anyway, a little less profitable than it could be.

        Which would of course also have selection bias rolled up into it, i.e. the ones who ruined their business this way, you dont hear about much because, hey, their business got ruined.

      • Randy

        Perhaps there was an element of prestige in being able to tell people you worked directly for Leona Helmsley (without, of course, telling them about the self-degradation). It’s the same reason a design or construction professional would work on a Trump project, despite knowing that you have a very slim chance of getting paid.

  • Colin Day

    1997, Didn’t she die in 2007?

    Leona Helmsley

  • NewishLawyer

    Nitpick: Her husband died in 1997. She lived on for another decade.

    I wonder what she was like when she worked in real estate. Did she neg clients into buying things?

    The taxes quote is a more mean version of Donald Trump’s “That makes me smart.” This is the one thing that the Harvard Business Review article on the White Working Class seemed to get right. There is a certain kind of person who might not break the rules themselves but really seems to egg on such behavior or be awed by it. It seems like only bourgeois liberals are horrified by stories of Trump and Hemsley types not paying their workers or contractors. Others seem to think “I wish I could fuck over people like Trump does.”

    • I think this election has shown that there’s a disturbingly large percentage of the population that desperately wants to watch other people get hurt.

    • Tehanu

      It seems like only bourgeois liberals are horrified by stories of Trump and Hemsley types not paying their workers or contractors. Others seem to think “I wish I could fuck over people like Trump does.”

      I’ve been saying for years that there are 2 kinds of people who started out poor and became rich: the ones who lean down and give a helping hand to other poor people, because the rich ones kicked them in the face when they were on their way up; and the ones who kick everyone below them in the face as much as they can, both on the way up and when they get there.

      BTW, this is a great series. I wouldn’t have the moral energy to read up on most of these people — especially the jerks — so thanks to Erik for doing it.

  • Dilan Esper

    Sleepy Hollow cemetery? Did you run into any headless horsemen?

  • Brett

    Jesus, she died worth $5 billion? Did she fail upwards Trump-style?

    I read an account of her by Jane Maas, a former Creative Director and advertising woman from the Mad Men era onward who did advertising work for Helmsley in (I think) the 1980s. She hadn’t felt at liberty then to talk about how awful she was because she was still a client, but now that Maas was retired . . . oh boy.

    • Mike G

      I remember her featuring in print ads for her hotels in the 80s.
      If you didn’t know anything about her you’d think she was nice —

      https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5255/5404547585_00262dbd3e_b.jpg

      • COnrad

        Either that photo was heavily retouched or she aged seriously badly into the grimacing plastic gargoyle that come up when you image search her.

        • cpinva

          possibly a portrait in the attic.

  • LFC

    Grammar nitpick:

    “thus they did something that the rich haven’t really done in a century – build themselves a gigantic Gilded Age-style mausoleum, of which you only see a small bit of in this picture I took.”

    No; should read either “of which you see only a small bit in this picture…” or (technically wrong but acceptable esp. in informal writing) “which you see only a small bit of in this picture…”

    But don’t repeat the “of”. Not only is it wrong; it also sounds bad.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      somewhere Paul McCartney is smirking

      (consults google, for kicks)

      christ!!! google thinks it’s a *Guns N’ Roses* song

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Google’s yong. And it’s a perfectly cromulent cover song.

        My nitpick: Leona’s real estate has tenets? I wonder if that leads to any conflicts with the occupants of the apartments?

      • John Revolta

        I used to think it was a little lyrical joke he threw in, and I liked it. Then I read where he claims it’s actually “in which we’re livin'” which is correct, but less fun. Ah well.

  • DrDick

    I hope you took a huge steaming dump in front of the door.

  • Joe_JP

    Had a chance recently to go to the Trinity Church in lower Manhattan where Alexander Hamilton et. al. are buried. His home, Hamilton Grange, is from uptown in Harlem — nice site too.

    Saw various old cemeteries in recent years, but this is the first one where I saw people put pennies on the graves. I am familiar with the stone tradition, but new to putting coins there.

    • I left a nickel when I visited the grave of Boss Tweed. Seemed like the right thing to do.

      • (((Hogan)))

        You had to hand it to the Patrician, he admitted grudgingly. If you didn’t, he sent men to come and take it away.

  • egg

    Dig her up! There’s got to be a Cabinet position for which she’d be perfect. Or maybe Commissioner of Internal Revenue? Secretary of Classiness?

    • cpinva

      “Or maybe Commissioner of Internal Revenue?”

      an idea. she’d at least have told the republicans in congress to go fuck themselves, her people were just doing their jobs in exempt orgs. unless, of course, those republicans wanted to tell the IRS publicly to stop doing its job. and then pointed out that if they did, none of them were going to get paid.

      I would pay to watch that.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Why, I was just thinking of Leona the other day…. listening to this old song.


    Junk bondage takeover glutton
    Ready to bore in
    Unfolds his rotary blades inside
    Pull the guts out and resell them
    Buys out his next target
    With the last one’s pension funds
    Thousands more thrown out of work
    So Leona won’t have to settle for a mint

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