Monday, October 18, 2010

Portraits of Economic Parallels - Part 1

I love New York City.

You know that already, of course. And you know why I love the Big Apple: as I've said before, its utterly cosmopolitan vibe hosts a world of anachronisms. Minute by minute, its kaleidoscope of perspectives can be both baffling yet intensely logical.

So it came as no surprise that as I read a couple of recent articles from the New York Times about two of the city's more iconic women, I saw parallels between their vastly separate lives and the economic arguments being posited by frustrated voters during this election season.

But before I launch into my tirade on the economic polarity being expressed by bloggers and editors on both extremes of the political spectrum, why don't I introduce both of these ladies to you so you can make up your own mind.

Actually, I use the term "ladies" quite loosely here, since as you'll soon discover, both of them were anything but.

The Queen of Mean

In 1972, for her third husband, she married one of New York's most powerful real estate tycoons. After convincing him to divorce his wife of 33 years.

Harry Helmsley owned several celebrated Manhattan towers, including the fabled Empire State and Flatiron buildings. He also owned a chain of upscale hotels, for which his new, 52-year-old wife became a famous spokesperson. She ended up going to prison after an employee complained about how company money was being lavished on such excesses as a $1 million marble dance floor at the couple's Connecticut estate.

She, of course, was Leona Helmsley, who perhaps is most famous for her indisputably elitist quote, "only the little people pay taxes." She died in 2007 at age 87, after attempting to cheat her husband's business partners out of millions of dollars, being sued for firing at least two gay employees because of their sexual preference, and leaving $12 million for her dog, Trouble, in her will.

Leona was back in the news recently after her Connecticut estate, Dunnellen Hall, sold for a paltry $35 million. I say "paltry" because the original asking price for her exquisite 40-acre spread clocked in at an admittedly optimistic $125 million in 2008. For Greenwich, arguably the most extravagant of New York City's numerous silk stocking suburbs, such a closing price probably wouldn't even make the legal notices if it weren't for the legacy of its previous occupant, who died on the very site which heralded her public downfall.

Money Money Money Mon-ey

A successful real estate broker in her own right, she hit the jackpot upon seducing Helmsley, who until meeting her had led a relatively quiet life. Although acquaintances believed Leona truly adored Harry, her blatant use of matrimony for climbing the social ladder and her unchecked temper earned her few friends. Her imperious management style made for great Helmsley Hotel publicity, but she could barely muster enough maternal affection for her only child born during a previous marriage. When he died at the early age of 40, Leona kicked his family out of their house and called a $100,000 loan.

Dragging Harry along for the ride, Leona went on a spending spree, pushing legal envelopes almost for sport. To avoid paying $40,000 in sales taxes, she got salesmen at an exclusive Manhattan jewelry store to say they'd mailed her purchases to her Connecticut country home, even though she'd walked out of their Midtown boutique with them. She itemized personal clothing purchases as uniforms for their Park Lane Hotel. Millions of dollars in upgrades to Dunnellen Hall were invoiced as business expenses.

When prosecutors managed to amass all of her tricks for tax evasion in court, 235 counts in all, she ended up owing various government entities $4 million. By this time, Harry had succumbed to senile dementia to the point where he was deemed unfit to stand trial. She ended up spending nearly two years in prison, and was supposed to serve 750 hours of community service, but Leona got hauled back into court after her employees complained she was making them perform her community service hours.

One of the Little People

My brush with the Helmsleys came, oddly enough, by one of their maids. When I worked in Lower Manhattan, our office building had a cleaning contract with the same firm the Helmsley's used to clean their New York real estate portfolio.

And wouldn't you know it, but the same cheerful, short Jamaican woman who cleaned their personal apartment at the Park Lane Hotel also cleaned our office. I forget her name now - I think it was Daisy - but I can still remember her round, full, sunny face, and her happy yet breathless voice, since she was quite stout. Particularly, however, I remember the stories she would tell!

By choice, I would often linger in the office after hours, trying to learn the ropes in the niche trade of freight brokerage. Daisy would show up at about 5:30pm, since back in the day, most New York offices closed at the stroke of five (so employees could line up in subway stations, waiting for trains). She would come straight from her day shift in the Helmsley's duplex penthouse in Midtown.

If she was married, she never talked about her husband, although she had a son she was trying to provide for with her extended workdays. Her English wasn't great, but we managed to communicate well, although at first, neither one of us really talked much. She'd just come in and empty the trash cans while I explored the company's recently-acquired customized freight forwarding software.

It wasn't until the beginning of Leona's trial on tax evasion that I learned Daisy worked in the Helmsley's private apartment. Humming softly to herself, Daisy would gently shuffle into the office pushing an industrial trashcan with a large feather duster sticking out of a side compartment, its feathers splayed upwards. She always greeted me with a muted, melodious hello, and questions about how wonderful my day must have been. But suddenly, she began coming to our offices in a state of grave concern. The contrast from her previously cheerful demeanor was too pronounced to ignore.

I asked her if something was wrong, and that's when she told me she cleaned the Helmsley's home during the day. At first, I really didn't believe her, but she would tell me things that I'd hear about the next day in the media. Nothing wildly confidential, of course, but attitudes of the Helmsleys, Harry's physical condition, and the like. Daisy constantly expressed personal angst about Harry's health and the toll his wife's trial was taking on the couple. According to Daisy, Harry would want her to sit and simply keep him company in their sumptuous penthouse whenever Leona was in court and he was too frail to attend. He didn't seem to understand that she was supposed to be cleaning the place.

Harry would sob to Daisy that people were making up dastardly lies about his beloved wife, and he couldn't understand what was happening. Being the kind-hearted woman she was, Daisy would sometimes get emotional as she unburdened her own soul to me in the privacy of our empty office. After all, some evenings, apparently I was the first person she talked with after spending her day with the confused, weepy, feeble owner of the Empire State Building.

Daisy claimed never to have seen the ugly side of Leona. The purported Queen of Mean, as New York's excitable tabloids dubbed her, would arrive home exhausted from her days in court, anxious for status reports about Harry, which Daisy sometimes delivered herself. Yet even though the stress must have been consuming her, Leona never treated the hotel staff harshly or even impolitely.

To Daisy, the Leona she heard about on the news wasn't the Leona she personally interacted with. The court's prison sentence confounded Daisy, and made her wonder aloud about the criminal justice system we have in the United States.

Next: Part Two - South Street Annie

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