How New York’s ‘Queen of Mean’ Became Israel’s Fairy Godmother

Leona Helmsley had no connection with the Jewish state during her storied lifetime. But since she died in 2007, the giant foundation she set up has donated tens of millions to Israel.

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Alongside such stalwarts of world Jewry as Rothschild, Bronfman, Schusterman and Safra, the new and – for New Yorkers of a certain vintage – unexpected name of Helmsley has quietly taken its place.

The Helmsley name appears on the Jerusalem Press Club facilities outside the walls of the Old City and will eventually grace a science building at the city’s Hadassah Academic College. The Helmsley foundation spent $5 million on construction of an underground hospital at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, for use in wartime. It’s given millions to the Taglit-Birthright program that brings young Jews to Israel; funded a robotics center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and alternative-energy research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

The foundation even paid for Israel’s Declaration of Independence to appear in full-page ads in leading U.S. newspapers on Independence Day in each of the last two years. “It’s a document that speaks for itself and shows the shared values of Israel and the United States,” explains Sandor “Sandy” Frankel, the Helmsley lead trustee for Israel grants.

All told, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has given some $155 million in grants since 2010.

That Helmsley has emerged as a major player in Israel isn't the natural outcome of the couple’s lives, but as a result of an odd confluence of events. Harry Helmsley, the New York real estate magnate whose fortune created the foundation, wasn’t Jewish – although many people assumed he was. Leona Helmsley, who he married late in life, was Jewish but wasn’t active in the Jewish community. She also turned down an offer by Frankel to visit Israel.

Dogged by controversy

In fact, Leona’s main claim to fame was her high profile tax-evasion trial in 1989, which ended with her paying millions of dollars in back taxes and fines, and serving an 18-month prison term. She earned the sobriquet the “Queen of Mean” for allegedly abusing staff and hired help. At the tax trial, a maid testified that Leona Helmsley told her, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” Like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake,” they became the words she was best known by, whether or not she ever said them. Leona Helmsley fell out of the public eye in the years that followed. But after her death in 2007, her reputation took another turn for the worse when it was revealed she had left $12 million in trust for her pet Maltese dog, Trouble.

Frankel, an attorney who first met Leona Helmsley in the early 1990s when he was retained to advise her on her tax problems, says his client got a bad rap in the media. The two were not personal friends, but he saw enough of his client to grow to know her well in the final years of her life, before her death at 87.

“When you represent someone for 18 years you form a personal relationship, even though most of our dealings were legal and business relationships. When she had significant issues from time to time, we’d meet and discuss things. Sometimes the business and personal fold into each other,” Frankel tells Haaretz. “I think she was by far a more complicated person than her public persona. From what I witnessed and experienced, if there was something nice to write about her or something not nice to write about it, the choice was to write something not so nice.”

Her life story could easily form the basis of a female remake of “Citizen Kane” (in fact, TV movie "Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean," starring Suzanne Pleshette, was made in 1990 – although with no claims to Orson Welles' artistry). Born Lena Mindy Rosenthal to Jewish immigrant parents, she never finished high school, went through a series of name change (Lee Roberts, Mindy Roberts, Leni Roberts and finally Leona Mindy Roberts), married and divorced twice, and then began a career selling real estate.

Leona began working for Harry Helmsley in the late 1960s, and in 1972 they were married after Harry left his wife of 33 years. By then, Harry was already a magnate among magnates in the New York real estate scene, his empire including the Empire State Building. Leona became an active business partner, creating a chain of luxury hotels whose flagship property was the Helmsley Palace (now the Lotte New York Palace Hotel) in Midtown Manhattan. The hotel business was what brought Leona into the public eye, but made the downfall especially steep. She was not only president of the chain but appeared for more than a decade in advertisements as an always-demanding but ever-smiling and gracious host. “It’s the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard,” the ads proclaimed.

Demanding she was. But gracious and smiling – at least to her employees – she was not. This emerged after she and her husband were indicted by federal and state authorities on charges of evading more than $4 million in income taxes, after fraudulently claiming that luxuries purchased for their Connecticut mansion were business expenses. Prosecution witnesses told stories of a spiteful and foulmouthed woman who terrified her underlings. Juxtaposed against the image she had cultivated in the hotel ads, the trial was filet mignon for a media feeding frenzy.

Harry Helmsley died in 1997 and Leona lived a comparatively quiet life, punctuated by a handful of juicy lawsuits, in the years that followed. But when she passed away eight years ago, revelations about her canine heiress brought new life to her old notoriety. In any case, Trouble eventually had to make do with $2 million after a judge reduced the amount. Adding insult to injury, a lot of that money went on personal bodyguards after Trouble was subject to death threats.

A few odd millions went to grandchildren and others, but the vast bulk of the Helmsley estate – some $8 billion in cash and assets – went to the trust.

There was some dispute about whether Leona wanted the trust to devote itself to dog welfare, but ultimately it was left up to the trustees to decide. Besides Frankel, they included two grandsons from her first marriage and a business associate – none of them with any experience in philanthropy. “The four of us had to create and develop a program from scratch,” recalls Frankel. “Each of the four trustees had our own areas of interest and involvement. As a group, we decided what the program areas should be, listening to the interests and concerns of the others.”

Jamie, Flickr

Frankel’s designated causes were Israel and research into inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) Crohn’s disease.

$25-$30 million to Israel annually

The trust gives the biggest share of its grant to research into type 1 diabetes followed by education, IBD/Crohn’s and rural health care in the United States. Israel grants were only the fifth largest in the year to March 31, but at $28 million that was still a substantial amount. Frankel says the foundation will continue giving at a rate of $25 million to $30 million annually.

Would Leona Helmsley have wanted her money to be going to Israel? “Leona Helmsley was Jewish and was very well aware of her Jewishness, but didn’t give money to Israel,” Frankel concedes, but adds confidently, “If she were around, she would be very pleased about what we’re doing here.”

Frankel, who is married to an Israeli, is both an unabashed Zionist and thinks that helping Israel is helping humanity. ”I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the country. By my reckoning, it's one of the two most miraculous countries in the history of the planet, and anything we can do for it will help the planet,” he adds (the other country he's referring to is, of course, America).

The Helmsley Charitable Trust’s decision to dedicate so much of its financial resources to Israel would seem to be an unusual exception to a trend of declining giving by American Jews to Israel. But Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the New York-based Jewish Funders Network, says that’s not true.

Stung by research two decades ago documenting worrying levels of assimilation, Jewish Federations began redirecting their grants to local needs, like education. The mix of giving went from 50-50 Israel-local to 30-70 Israel-local, Spokoiny estimates. But among private foundations, giving to Israel has increased. Every year, about $1.4 billion goes to some 600 Israel-related “friends of” organizations, such as Friends of the Hebrew University or the IDF. What’s changed is where the grants go.

Addressing the brain drain

“Nation-building as a paradigm is gone. The nation is built already,” explains Spokoiny, whose organization advises foundations and individuals about how to use their grant money most effectively. “So the paradigm of ‘Our country is in danger and has to be built’ isn’t cutting it anymore. What is emerging is the idea of addressing specific social issues. It’s gone from nation building to society – integration of Arab Israelis, ultra-Orthodox employment and the environment.”

The Helmsley foundation has addressed Israel’s academic brain drain. Frankel learned on his first visits to Israel for the foundation that many of Israel’s best and brightest PhDs are living and working abroad – the great majority in America – depriving the country of research and teaching talent. In response, the foundation has funded the cost of state-of-the-art labs at Israeli universities designed to lure back expat academics.

“Three university residents said the same thing to me: that there are top Israeli researchers and scientists working in the United States who would like to come back and have their children grow up [in Israel], and they would come back here even if salaries weren’t commensurate with American university pay, so long as they had world-class science facilities,” Frankel explains.

Another cause for Helmsley is public diplomacy (known in Hebrew as hasbara). Apart from publishing Israel’s Declaration of Independence and helping fund the Jerusalem Press Club, the foundation funds trips for U.S. opinion formers to Israel and supports Christian Zionist groups. It awarded a grant to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – a right-of-center think tank – to publish an e-book, “Telling the Truth About the 2014 Gaza War,” that laid out the case for Israel’s controversial military action. But Frankel is no believer in propaganda. “My view is that the best hasbara is to have people come and see the company, and form their own view,” he says.

Even if not by design, the foundation is also helping to remake Leona Helmsley’s public persona, much the same way the foundations and cultural-academic institutions founded by John D. Rockefeller and J. Paul Getty did in a previous era. “I think that as we do work that is good, perhaps the public image of Mrs. Helmsley will change,” says Frankel. “It would be difficult to find people who have done more good after they passed away than Mrs. Helmsley has.”