Leona Helmsley could give a few lessons to Martha Stewart about life in the slammer. If Stewart's appeal fails and she heads to jail for lying to federal investigators, she may end up doling out overcooked green beans to fellow inmates at the same facility Helmsley called home for 18 months over a decade ago. Helmsley, the Manhattan hotelier and real-estate magnate who notoriously declared that "only the little people pay taxes," was convicted in 1989 of tax evasion and served time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. The judge who sentenced Stewart requested the same minimum-security prison, but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons will ultimately decide her location.
Now an 84-year-old widow and the 247th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes, Helmsley still lives in her deluxe apartment overlooking Central Park at her Park Lane Hotel. According to longtime spokesman Howard Rubenstein, Helmsley remains active, exercising regularly by swimming and stretching, and dining at her favorite restaurants, including the Four Seasons and Le Bernardin. Her erratic behavior and hasty firings of employees earned Helmsley the nickname the "Queen of Mean" in the 1980s. Helmsley still nitpicks over the details of the operations of her hotels today. "^She pays attention to the menus, to the cleanliness, and to customer service," Rubenstein says.
Since returning to her big apartment from the big house in 1994, Helmsley has had a recurring role in the legal system. In 2003, a jury ruled in favor of the former manager of the Park Lane, who sued Helmsley for wrongful firing after she found out he was gay. In May 2004, a judge ordered Helmsley to pay more than $100,000 to her former landscaper for breach of contract. And she has slapped a $150 million lawsuit on the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where her late husband and son rest in a palatial mausoleum. The cemetery is constructing an affordable mausoleum, large enough to hold the remains of more than 2,000 people, near the Helmsley site. Helmsley claims it disrupts the serenity she was promised for her family's eternal resting place, and she plans to move their remains elsewhere.
While Helmsley now may be paying taxes as the little people do, she evidently has no intention of being laid to rest next to them. -Megan Barnett
This story appears in the August 16, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.