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Leona Helmsley, the cutthroat hotel magnate whose title as the "queen of mean" was sealed during a tax evasion case in which she was quoted as snarling "only little people pay taxes," died Monday at age 87.
Helmsley died of heart failure at her summer home in Greenwich, Conn., said her publicist, Howard Rubenstein.
Already experienced in real estate before her marriage, Helmsley helped her husband run a $5 billion empire that included managing the Empire State Building. She became a household name in 1989 when she was tried for tax evasion. The sensational trial included testimony from disgruntled employees who said she terrorized both the menial and the executive help at her homes and hotels.
That image of Helmsley as the "queen of mean" was sealed when a former housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes."
She denied having said it, but the words followed her for the rest of her life.
Helmsley clearly enjoyed the luxury of their private fortune, flying the globe in the couple's 100-seat jet with a bedroom suite. The couple's residences included a nine-room penthouse with a swimming pool overlooking Central Park atop their own Park Lane Hotel; an $8 million estate in Connecticut; a condo in Palm Beach; and a mountaintop hideaway near Phoenix.
Their money supported charities, including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and its affiliated Weill Cornell Medical College, which received tens of millions of dollars, including a $25 million gift in 2006 to improve its treatment of digestive diseases.
Yet Helmsley nickel-and-dimed merchants on her personal purchases, stiffed contractors who worked on her Connecticut home and terrorized both menial and executive help at her homes and hotels, detractors say.
When her husband died in 1997 at age 87, Helmsley said in a statement: "My fairy tale is over. I lived a magical life with Harry."
Earlier this year, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 369th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.
She was 51, with the good looks of a former model and already a successful seller of residential real estate in a hot New York market, when she married Harry Helmsley in 1972. He was 63 and one of the richest men in America.
Helmsley is survived by her brother and his wife, four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Hotelier Leona Helmsley dies
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