Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dog Gone Love Story

The death this week of a multimillionaire lapdog puts a furry period to the end of a greed-is-good tale that now seems ancient history.

In the rare world of canine obituaries, the small Maltese named Trouble rates attention, not only for her wealth but as a reminder of the heartless rapacity that led to the depressed economy we now inhabit.

Trouble was bequeathed $12 million in 2007 by owner Leona Helmsley who, after a gaudy career of appearing in TV commercials as the demanding Queen of Manhattan’s Palace Hotel, was widely known as “The Queen of Mean” for her monstrous self-centeredness.

Like Donald Trump, her wealth came from an earlier generation’s real-estate wheeling and dealing but with a difference. Trump was born into it, Helmsley seduced and married it.

In 1972, straight-laced billionaire Harry Helmsley left his wife of 33 years to partner with the twice-divorced fireball, who set to work making his (and her) name famous. My office was in a landmark building, originally owned by the New York Central Railroad, which quickly morphed into the Helmsley Building with higher rents and reduced services.

The new Mrs. Helmsley spared no expense, however, in hosting celebrity parties with the theme, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but her capacity for familial love seemed otherwise limited. When her only child died of a heart attack, Leona sued his estate for property and money she claimed had only been lent to him and impoverished his widow and children.

If she were still alive, Leona might have loved the Tea Party and vice versa. In 1992, with Harry in failing health, she was convicted of tax fraud and spent almost two years in prison, after testimony that she had claimed, “We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Harry Helmsley died in 1997, leaving his wife $5 billion but as emotionally bankrupt as she had always been. Soon afterward, she spotted a puppy in a store window and spent the rest of her life lavishing love on a small creature that apparently never disappointed her.

She now rests with Harry in a mausoleum with stained-glass windows depicting the skyline of Manhattan, much of which the couple owned at one time or another.

As the survivor of a Wheaten Terrier who warmed my retirement years, it’s comforting to learn that what remains of Trouble’s legacy will be used to care for dogs but not surprising that a court will have to determine whether the trustees have been actually using the money for its intended purposes.

In Leona Helmsley’s world, nothing was ever simple, not even puppy love.

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