NEW YORK (Reuters) - Billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley, the so-called “Queen of Mean” who was famously quoted as saying “only little people pay taxes” and who later went to prison for tax evasion, died on Monday at the age of 87.
Her epic fall from New York’s high society to serving 18 months behind bars captured world attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Books were written about her and her story became a 1990 TV movie starring Suzanne Pleshette.
She denied uttering the famous quote which nonetheless became her hallmark.
Helmsley was a former model and twice-divorced real estate agent when she met Harry Helmsley, a multimillionaire real estate investor who was married at the time. They wed in 1972.
At the couple’s zenith, Harry Helmsley was worth $5 billion. His company controlled some of New York’s finest hotels and managed the Empire State Building.
In advertisements, Leona was the welcoming spokeswoman of the couple’s hotel chain and billed as “the queen” of the Helmsley Palace hotel.
But behind the scenes she was considered arrogant, quick-tempered and prone to shouting and firing employees on the spot. The image hurt her when the couple was charged with tax fraud in 1988 by then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Her own defense attorney described Helmsley as “one tough bitch,” though others had kind words for her and some defenders said she would not have suffered such fierce criticism had she been a man.
“Leona was a great businesswoman in her own right,” publicist Howard Rubenstein said in a statement announcing her death. “She was extremely generous as a philanthropist and she gave tens of millions of dollars to charity right up until the last months of her life. I was very proud to represent her.”
She died of heart failure at her summer house in Greenwich, Connecticut, Rubenstein said.
“Leona Helmsley was definitely one of a kind,” New York real estate mogul Donald Trump said in a statement. “Harry loved being with her and the excitement she brought — and that is all that really matters.”
The Helmsleys were accused of listing personal expenses as business expenses to hide income. During the tax fraud trial, a former housekeeper, Elizabeth Baum, recounted that Helmsley had once told her: “We don’t pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.”
Helmsley later denied making the statement. “We paid $344 million in taxes. Of course I didn’t say it,” she said in an interview played on CNN.
A judge ruled that Harry Helmsley was not mentally competent to stand trial, but Leona was convicted of evading $1.7 million in taxes and sent to prison in 1992 in Connecticut, where she served 18 months.
“I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m innocent. My only crime is that I’m Leona Helmsley,” she told reporters at the time of her trial.
Harry left her his entire fortune, which was likely worth about $1.7 billion at the time of his death. Leona sold many of the Helmsley holdings and in 2007 Forbes magazine estimated her fortune had increased to $2.5 billion.
The Helmsleys had no children but Leona Helmsley had a son from a previous marriage.
Additional writing and reporting by Diane Bartz