It was a bittersweet moment.
This morning, without ceremony, the e-mail from Christie’s Auction House entered my inbox. I get several a day from the venerable shop, so it was a good hour or so before I actually clicked on it and opened it up.
There it was. Throughout 2008 Christie’s, over the course of several sales at its Rockefeller Center location – conspicuously not saying it was proud to announce – will auction off the estate of Mrs. Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean. The legacy of one of the most reviled figures in the history of New York City will finally be dispersed to the four corners.
Helmsley once was famously quoted as saying, “We don’t pay taxes. Little people pay taxes.”
She denied ever saying it.
She never, however, denied smashing a teacup at a lunch with lawyer Alan Dershowitz. It seems a bit of hot water had spilled from cup onto saucer. This so enraged Helmsley, Dershowitz related, that she threw it to the floor and demanded the waiter fall to his knees and beg for his job.
She also famously fired one employee, with a casual flip of a hand, while being fitted for a dress. She fired hundreds of employees for the slightest indiscretion.
The stories about her in the city were myriad. She was endlessly lampooned on television, harangued by the paparazzi and the tabloids and mocked by comedians in nightclubs and comedy shows. It was a bonanza to any “little person” when, in 1989, under the prosecution of then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Guiliani, Helmsley was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 16 months in prison, plus another two under house arrest.
Legal observers speculated that Helmsley’s personality and wealth alienated the jurors.
Hmmm… You think?
A woman worth well in excess of $2 billion – at the time – who routinely stiffed contractors, never tipped at restaurants and sued her dead son’s wife until she was broke… Sounds like a peach to me. Why would the jury be alienated by such sweetness?
The year that she was convicted, 1989, I can remember that the most popular NYC costume that Halloween was Leona in black and white stripes. In the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade there were probably more than 200 Leona’s re-enacting her famous collapse in front of the Manhattan courthouse. It drew hearty cheers each time.
I don’t need to pile on. In fact, I’ll even point out that she was actually quite generous in her contributions to hospitals and that she established a fund of well more than $5 million to aid the families of firefighters killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Now the epic possessions of Queen Leona’s empire – mostly high-end fine art and furniture – will go to the highest bidder. All those things that she so highly coveted, that surrounded her to the bitter end, will go back onto the market.
Will they be worth more, or less, for having belonged to her? We’ll see. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to sit my daughter’s picture on a desk she once used, or my keister on a couch where she once snoozed.
Good thing I can’t afford any of it anyway. “Little people” rarely can.