Monday, August 20, 2007

"The Queen of Mean"

Oliver Stone summed up the 1980s in his movie “Wall Street” with a speech by his corporate-raider protagonist Gordon Gekko (subtly named after a lizard) proclaiming “Greed is good.”

The real-life examplar of the decade died today, Leona Helmsley, who enticed a shy, hidebound real-estate tycoon from his 33-year marriage, became his wife and rapacious business partner, terrorized their employees, draped herself in jewels, posed for their luxury hotel ads, served 18 months in federal prison for cheating on taxes and spent the last years of her life giving money away so that her paid publicist could say as he did today, “She was extremely generous as a philanthropist and she gave tens of millions of dollars to charity right up until the last months of her life.”

For more than 30 years, I worked in an office edifice that straddled Park Avenue and was known as the New York Central Building. Soon after her marriage, Leona had workmen on scaffolds chipping away the inscribed name and changing it to the Helmsley Building as she cut back on services to increase profits.

Dubbed “The Queen of Mean,” she will be remembered for her own classic expression of the culture of greed: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Gordon Gekko couldn’t have said it better.

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