TOUGH TIMES FOR THE QUEEN
I get out of the car. I want a better look. High above stands Leona Helmsley's $10 million house. It shimmers in the bright afternoon sun, seemingly clinging to the top of Mummy Mountain in Paradise Valley.
A large American flag flaps in the breeze from a very tall flagpole in the front yard. I am surprised. ²The flag is appropriate only if you figure the Internal Revenue Service has ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to take command of the Helmsley property in Arizona.
Up on the mountaintop, it is deathly quiet. The house is three stories high with 26,000 square feet under the roof. But now only the caretaker and his wife are in residence. In order to make it up there, you must pass through two locked gates and navigate one of the steeper roads in the city.
These days there are very few visitors.
Leona is back in New York City and hasn't been here since last March. She's reportedly been traumatized by federal judge Thomas P. Griesa's order to report to prison April 15 to begin serving four years for income-tax evasion.
This house on Mummy Mountain has been the Helmsleys' getaway spot for the past four years. This is where they came to spend quiet time in the house on the hill.
They would arrive from New York amidst great clamor and excitement to stay for a week. They would come in their own 727 jet, which had been customized inside like a motor home. Accompanying them would be a team of chefs, housekeepers and their mysterious bodyguard, known only as Mr. Brady."
Leona, who is 5 feet 5 and weighs 120 pounds, would wear jeans most of the time. She would drive an old car into town and shop at A.J.'s grocery on Lincoln Drive all by herself. Her days would be taken up with exercising and backgammon.
Her husband would fall asleep while reading the newspaper by the pool.
Inevitably, there would be small crises.
Upon arriving for the first time, she took one look at a huge amount of pink tile that had been installed in her absence.
I hate that shit," Leona said. Rip it out and do it over in white." Once Leona hired three gardeners to work all day planting yellow flowers around the property.
When the job was finished, she flipped out.
My God, it looks awful," Leona shouted. Take them out and put in white ones." One time Leona was coming back from the store and came upon a timid salesman at the electric gate that blocked off the final section of road to her property.
Don't sit there like a dummy," Leona said. What are you looking for?" ²It turned out the man had come to see Leona's head housekeeper.
There's no problem," Leona said. When the gate opens, move your ass and get on through." One of the great impasses occurred one day when Leona realized that the man who had installed the safe where she kept her jewels also knew the combination.
A huge battle occurred until a way was determined that only Leona would know the combination.
The 48 acres on which the house stands were once owned by Guido Orlandi, an Italian importer of marble. Orlandi also owned other big chunks of land in the area, including the plot on which the Neiman Marcus department store now stands on Camelback Road.
The house was built less than ten years ago by Ron Hansen, a Paradise Valley builder, who lived in it for the first few years before placing it on the market.
In order to build it, special steel ramps had to be constructed elsewhere and then put together on the site so that tractors could be brought up the side of the mountain.
When Hansen owned the house, the 5,000-square-foot basement was used to house his motor home, pickup trucks and cars.
In addition to the house, there were also a tennis court and an outdoor swimming pool.
Ellie Shapiro, rated one of the most savvy real estate agents in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, handled the sale to Leona.
It was a wonderful experience," says the ever-ebullient Shapiro. Leona came to town and knew what she wanted. She wanted to be up high and have a view. Her house in Connecticut is high on a hill. She lives on the top floor of their hotel in New York.
I took her first to the old Walker McCune mansion, which was then owned by Gordon Hall and for sale at $30 million.
Shapiro then took Leona here to the house that sits on the southwest side of Mummy Mountain behind the Camelback Inn. The original owners of the Camelback Inn once owned the land on which the Helmsley home sits.
This house, however, was built on the other side of the ridge and so can't be seen from Lincoln Drive, site of the Camelback Inn.
Leona liked it at once," says Shapiro. It had both privacy and a view. They decided to buy it within a week and the money came in promptly. Leona was so wonderful to work with because her background is that she herself was a real estate agent. She knew how to make things easy for me. If all buyers treated me with the respect that she did, this job would be easy. There was no stress, no problems.
To this day, we remain good friends," Shapiro says. She has been wonderful to me. My granddaughter was deaf and she tried to help with doctors in New York. I think she's a wonderful person.
And it really is true that her life revolves around her husband."
Shapiro halted for just an instant and then rolled on.
Leona expects people to do their job. She just doesn't like incompetence on any level and won't put up with it in her hotels. For Leona, everything must be perfect."
In order to make things perfect for the Helmsleys, workmen were brought in to change over the house to Leona's specifications. Cabinetmakers, tile men, carpenters, painters, plumbers and gardeners were summoned. This took a year and what has been estimated at another $2 million.
Wooden floors were torn out and replaced by marble. The tennis court was removed and a second poolÏindoorsÏwas installed. The changes cost an estimated $2 million.
Steve Avans and his son, Steve Jr., rated by insiders as the best painters in the Valley, worked in the Helmsley place for more than a year.
Young Steve is a master painter, noted for his work on Rolls-Royce automobiles. He recalls seeing the transformation take place.
Looking back on it, it's hard to believe all the things that were changed," he says.
One of the most time-consuming alterations was the decision to remove the tennis court and build the Olympic-size swimming pool under glass for winter use. That gave the Helmsleys two swimming pools.
They had to build a special ramp with diamond and metal plates to get the tractor up here again," Avans recalled.
Mrs. Helmsley never complained about the work.
She ordered us to transform the garage, too. There was 5,000 square feet in it, you know, and we changed it over to four bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room for servants' quarters. That still left room for a four-car garage.
We also put in an elevator, six feet by six feet, that runs from the garage to the third floor. The pool house also has a complete exercise room, because Mrs. Helmsley likes to work out every morning both on her bicycle and other equipment, and in the pool. There are jet streams in the pool so that you can swim against them.
In the outdoor pool, there's a big, flat rock in the middle for sunning. There's also a rock slide made of polished terrazzo marble.
Up in the master bedroom, the television screen slides into the ceiling and is invisible when not being used. There is gold leaf on all the cabinets.
There's also an Arizona room, a huge living room and a library. Most people wouldn't believe a house like this existed.
I heard a lot of bad things about her before we went on the job, but she surprised me. It turned out she was great to work for."
Ordinarily, I wouldn't be sympathetic. This is, after all, Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean." We have been conditioned for years to abhor everything about her.
But the government's action in this case against her is frightening. There is a great similarity between the actions of the IRS in this case and the Nazis who pursued the rich Jews in Hitler's Germany. In seeking a settlement with the government over her 1989 income taxes, she says she has already paid $600 million in taxes. No one has asked how much more she spent in lawyer's fees.
That case stemmed from charges that the Helmsleys billed personal expenses for renovations at their home in Greenwich, Connecticut, as business expenses.
It will be a death sentence for both me and my husband, Harry," Leona said at her sentencing. She has appealed. She hopes for a new trial.
Judge Griesa told Leona to get realistic. He advised her that the federal prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky, Ôhad very fine facilities" that could adequately care for her. ²Alan Dershowitz has recently arrived on the scene to serve as her lawyer.
Doesn't it seem that Dershowitz is suddenly everywhere?
His book, Chutzpah, is a best seller. He is racing about trying to get former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson out of jail. And, if you so desire, you can see Dershowitz portrayed on home video in Reversal of Fortune, the movie in which he extricated Claus Von Bulow from a murder charge.
Are there no other defense lawyers in this country?
I watched the other night as Leona spoke haltingly to Barbara Walters on national television. It was an emotional event, but it probably won't help. Leona wore a pink cashmere bathrobe and very little makeup.
She broke down. She shed real tears. At least, I think they were real. But there are many people in this country who abhor Barbara Wa-Wa." There are even more who fear the IRS.
What it comes down to is that Harry and Leona Helmsley are a very rich couple who don't stand a chance.
Leona is not likely to get anywhere near the ground swell of support Ross Perot is getting. It's simply no longer acceptable to make big money in real estate.
Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs signs for $30 million and everyone says, Swell." A rock musician makes $40 million and everyone nods their heads. Jack Nicholson makes $50 million for his role in Batman and we all look forward to Batman Returns. We have moved into a fantasy world where only athletes, actors, musicians and the top operating officers of corporations are considered worth the money they make.
At 71, Leona Helmsley is probably right when she says four years in jail for her is comparable to a double death sentence for both her and her husband, who is now 83.
Harry Helmsley is in such poor health that the government even admitted he couldn't stand trial. In his later years, he has grown exceedingly frail. He is totally dependent on Leona. If she goes to jail and leaves him, he will be done.
For the IRS, this is all a wonderful opportunity to use the Helmsleys as an example to reluctant taxpayers. ²It's hardly coincidental that Leona was first indicted for income-tax evasion on April 14 a couple of years back.
I find it even more chilling that she has now been ordered to report to prison on April 15-the date for filing taxes all over the country.
The message is clear: Don't mess with the Internal Revenue Service. No matter how rich you are, we will come after you. And we will take you down.
The public view of Leona Helmsley is that she is the Queen of Mean," who once supposedly boasted that only little people pay taxes." So she's the perfect target for the IRS. She is rich and she has an extremely high profile. Destroy Leona Helmsley and it will be much easier to collect taxes all over the country.
I am talking again with Ellie Shapiro, the real estate lady.
Why don't you give me one of the photos of the Helmsley house so we can run it with the story in the paper?" I ask. Oy yoy yoy," Ellie says, you want pictures?
Mrs. Helmsley doesn't want pictures of her houses in the papers. She's already receiving threats about what might happen to her when she gets in prison." On the first day we talked, Ellie said that she would get Leona to talk to me. What she didn't realize was that I didn't need Leona to write this piece. In fact, a lot of self-serving statements by Leona would only get in the way.
But I can tell that Shapiro feels badly about not being able to produce Leona. She can't talk to you," Shapiro says, trying to be kind. A national magazine is coming to see her this week." One final note: From other sources, I learn that Leona, ever the enterprising real estate person, has quietly placed her Mummy Mountain house up for sale.
There is just one proviso. No one gets to see the place unless it is first determined they are capable of producing several million in cash- for the down payment!
A WORD TO THE WISE: DON'T GET SICK ... v4-01-92
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