NEW YORK - Leona Helmsley, who ran a $5 billion hotel and real estate empire with her husband but sealed her reputation as the 'queen of mean' during her 1989 trial for tax evasion, died Monday. She was 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 an enterprise that included managing the Empire State Building, as many as 27 hotels and thousands of apartments.
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 had terrorized the help and the executives at her hotels and homes.
That image of Helmsley as the 'queen of mean' was cemented when a former housekeeper testified that she heard Helmsley say: 'We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.'
Helmsley denied having said it, but the words followed her for the rest of her life.
She clearly enjoyed the luxury of her private fortune, flying the globe in a 100-seat jet with a bedroom suite. She and her husband'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.
'Leona Helmsley was definitely one of a kind,' said Donald Trump, whose rivalry with the Helmsleys made headlines in the 1990s. 'Harry loved being with her and the excitement she brought, and that is all that really matters.'
The Helmsleys' financial excesses overshadowed millions in contributions for medical research and other causes. In recent years, she contributed $25 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital, $5 million to Katrina relief and $5 million after Sept. 11 to help the families of firefighters.
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.
Helmsley is survived by her brother and his wife, four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.