Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Revisiting The Queen of Mean

Squirreling around. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, September 5, 2017. Sunny day yesterday in New York at the end of the summer holiday. There will be those among us who will be taking longer to come back to town, but most of us have to be here. The last day of the holiday was again very quiet in New York until ... about five o’clock in the afternoon when the streets in my nabe began to fill with cars unloading after the weekend (and in many cases, the summer).
This was a scene you could see all over the residential sections of the city yesterday afternoon starting about 3:30. The unloading. These two just happened to arrive at the same time. Neighbors in the same building but that's it. Both the SUV and the red sedan had more than a weekend's supply of clothing and necessities. Summer's over.
It was a solitary weekend for me. With practically everybody I knew out of town, I stayed close to home, venturing out only to pick up groceries and to walk the dogs. It was quiet everywhere including Zabars – except for their luncheonette next door which is always mobbed by both tourists and neighbors (and people from the East Side). Last night I had dinner with Gillian and Sylvester Miniter and Alexis Clark at Sette Mezzo. It was like a Sunday night in wintertime; jammed. Daisy Soros, back from her summer in Nantucket was there. So were Leonard and Judy Lauder, and two old pals, moguls David Geffen and Barry Diller; Denise and Andrew Saul (also back from Nantucket); Laura and Stafford Broumand.
I don't know what these are called but they're all one flowering plant, red and yellow. There's something van Gogh-ese about them in that they look more like a painting than a flowering plant. In Carl Schurz Park bordering the Big Dog Run.
It seemed to me from my brief experiences that there was a lot less pleasure boat activity on the East River this summer. I always look because it gives me a chance to imagine the pleasure of being on one of them. I love this sleek beauty heading north toward the Sound.
And these dreamboats heading south on the sunny Sunday afternoon with Roosevelt Island in the background. I had wanted to get a shot of the motorboat overtaking the sailboat which was motoring comfortably with the tide, but the cruiser had no time for me.
Meanwhile for tomorrow’s we’re running another Diary from 2007 about Leona Helmsley. Remember her? The Queen of Mean?  Exactly. Mrs. Helmsley died around the same time Mark Birley (this past Friday’s NYSD revisited) and I also wrote about her at the time. I wanted to run them on the same day but JH thought that would be a bit much to expect of the reader, and I agreed. Mrs. Helmsley was a fascinating character, however, more fascinating in recollection because you get a full picture of a powerful personality who naively courted trouble. It was a full life, even Horatio Alger-esque in a way, with a Moral to the Story. She even had a pet Maltese whom she named Trouble. There’s the story in my farflung opinion.
When I first heard that Leona Helmsley had died, I wondered what was going to happen to her dog “Trouble.” She loved that little dog. I think she discovered real love at that stage of her life, thanks to Trouble. She liked Trouble, so you could say, since she gave the apple of her eye that name, she liked trouble. She sure knew how to make it. Well, we knew that about her anyway, didn’t we?

I did not know Mrs. Helmsley although I had a conversation with her once under the most superficial circumstances. It was at a benefit gala at the Waldorf. She was then with her new boyfriend who had been written about in Liz Smith and Page Six, a kind of WASPy suave looking man maybe in his mid-forties. Mrs. Helmsley was then looking to be pretty good for her age too – which must have been about eighty. She was not a very thin woman, but she was still shapely and probably much more so when she was a younger woman. She was wearing a strapless long dress that evening and she wore it well.

The face, however, was kind of frozen in that expression you always saw in pictures. On first confronting, it’s a little intimidating because the eyes looked sharp and fierce. She looked like a woman who didn’t trust anybody, as if her head was hot. But then after a few minutes of conversation, I found I was talking to a woman  with many issues of uncertainty taunting. This was after she’d gone through her real sturm und drang and been in the clink. Eighteen months of incarceration would be bad for anybody. For Leona Helmsley, “queen,” as the ads identified her, it had to be like going to the Tower of London. She’d worked hard all her life and this is what it had come to. Don’t think the thought didn’t cross her mind at least on some dark solitary nights.

So here she was that night in the Waldorf, smiling and laughing when talking about her little dog Trouble. And she was with this nice looking much younger guy who, according to the papers might become the second Mr. Helmsley. But at that point in her life, it also looked a lot like loneliness to me. When she danced with her boyfriend, for example, she clung very very closely to him. An observer could have believed he was looking at longing, including but not just: sexual longing. Need. Yes it didn’t look like “age-appropriate;” it looked like reality.

Harry and Leona in 1989.
The Helmsley Building.
I thought to myself, that guy she’s with has got a lot on his hands. Never a good sign at the beginning of a relationship. That is not to denigrate Mrs. Helmsley but only to recognize that her kind of Need is basically a burden to those chosen to fill it.

It wasn’t easy concentrating on conversation with her. Her presence itself was distracting. After all, here I was talking to a front page tabloidal darling, a Movie-of-the-Week, the Queen of Mean. And there she was just talking to some tall guy who liked dogs.

My memory goes back to her and the dog. Clearly she loved talking about her dog. Big smile on her face, laughter at her own besottedness. That’s nice, I think, knowing how good it feels to love your pet, and how much you always wish you could love everyone like that. It brings out the best (for those who have that experience – we know there are others who have another kind of experience and it brings out their worst). In the last years of her life Mrs. Helmsley was having the best of herself, thanks to her dog, if no one else (which is how that boyfriend business turned out after she settled something on him).

I met her another time at one of Judy Green’s parties (see NYSD In Memoriam). My friend Vincent Minuto who advertises on the NYSD with his Hampton Domestics, once worked for her, and so I asked him his thoughts. He responded with the following:

For the brief time I worked as Mrs. Helmsley's personal chef, she was a very kind, respectful and a very caring woman. I met Leona and Harry at Judy's Green’s house in the early 1980s. Leona wanted to hire me on the spot. Judy told her I was too busy running my catering business. I thanked her for the offer, never forgot her, and wound up working for her 15 years later. It was something I had always wanted to do. We remained friends and she became one of my best clients when I opened Hampton Domestics. I will miss her.
Vincent, for the record, is one of those who is graced with a kind spirit and humility and a talent for being dependable. Not to mention a wicked sense of humor. So I don’t doubt a word of his testimony about Leona Helmsley.

However, as the world knows, there was other testimony too and much of it not favorable by a long shot. Some was no doubt unfair because once you’ve got the kind of reputation Leona Helmsley had, people’s imaginations supply the rest. Liz Smith told me that Mrs. Helmsley told her that she never made that remark about how “taxes were only for the little people.” She never would have said something so stupid, she told Liz. Didn’t matter; she’d become a public punching bag.

Vincent also told me she was a very lonely woman. I thought of that remark that Dolly Levi makes in “Hello Dolly” when she’s pretending to talk to Horace about his love of money: “and you can curl up every night with your cash register.” Would that Leona could have done that.

Leona with Vincent Minuto and Trouble (her dog).
“Money changes people,” my late friend Dorothy Hirshon used to say, adding, “And right away.” Brooke Astor filled that out a bit more in her memoir “Footprints.” It makes them arrogant, she reported. Mrs. Astor was a very intelligent woman, as we know, and most likely knew from personal experience.

Reading about Leona Helmsley’s “humble” middle class beginnings (her father was a hatter in upstate New York), I couldn’t help wondering what the young girl Leona Mindy Rosenthal was like. Mindy? Leona was also a Mindy? And she changed her name to Roberts. A Rosenthal to a Roberts.

There was a little girl in there. Maybe with big dreams. And drive. And goodlooking enough to have three husbands. She came to the big city, had marriages, had a son, had grandchildren, worked hard, made a good living and married for the third time to a very very rich man.

When you’re a rich man in New York, you are, in a manner of speaking, on the top of the heap. Just like the song. People see dollar signs when you walk by. And the dollar signs soon convert to mystery, elegance, fearsomeness and wit. Even if none of the above apply. And soon after that, you begin to believe it all yourself. Even if none of the above apply. Some handle all that fiduciary, actuarial and psychopathological transmogrifying with apparent ease and aplomb. Others begin to act like real assholes, if you’ll pardon my French. While many of those surrounding them attend to it (while feeling like assholes ourselves at the time).

I think, in the sum up, that was what happened to Leona Mindy Rosenthal of Ostwego, New York, daughter of a hatter, a man who worked hard for a living. Leona Mindy grew up in the era of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. They were not Colbert or Garbo or Hepburn. And it was a helluva bumpy road but by God they made it. Well, so did Leona Mindy in her own helluva bumpy road way. The real life version. With all that heat in her head.  Was it worth it? Only she knew. She and Trouble.

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