Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

She and Trouble (1920)

Dec 10, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


       When the Tin Man made his request, the Wizard of Oz tried to dissuade him with the admonition, “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” Nevertheless, Dorothy’s companion persisted as he understood life without a heart-for all its residual pain-is what made existence bearable. The simple woodcutter understood a lesson a haughty queen never fathomed. 

      The woman who scoffed at the notion all men are created equal, Leona Mindy Rosenthal, was born on the Fourth of July in Brooklyn. Her parents, Russian/Polish Jewish immigrants, struggled to support their four children from father Morris’s job as a hatmaker. When the Depression hit, Morris sent Leona to live with her uncle for six months, an experience that left her with a feeling of abandonment. Leona took an after-school job selling Eskimo Pies in Coney Island, and as a teen, she quit Hunter College in the pursuit of her definition of happiness-financial independence. She changed her name to Leona Roberts to bypass anti-Semitism and allegedly modeled for Chesterfield cigarettes.

       In 1940, caving under parental pressure, she married attorney Leo Panzirer and moved to Flatbush where she had her only child, Jay Robert Panzirer. The couple divorced in 1950, and she married-divorced- and then remarried businessman Joe Lubin. Although wedlock allowed her to move to a six-room apartment in Riverdale, New York, despite their two attempts, it did not provide holy matrimony. Leona, cast in the unenviable position as a single mother with no independent means, moved in with her mother. In a bid to better herself, Leona took a job at the New York real estate firm where she became one of the city’s most successful female agents and managed to sell something other than primo properties. 

        Leona’s coup was landing Harry Helmsley, the King Kong owner of the Empire State Building and other crown jewels of Manhattan. Accounts of their meeting vary. Leona’s version: she met future husband when he “heard of my reputation and when he called she told him with characteristic chutzpah, “You can’t afford me, I’m in a bad bracket now.” A more plausible scenario is Leona, girded with mascara-caked eyelashes, prowled for Helmsley at a 1969 industry dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. Harry Helmsley, in his sixth decade, had amassed two passions: business and waltzing. At work, he was a dull number cruncher in a nondescript suit, but in a tuxedo on the dance floor, he was a stooped Fred Astaire. His handicap was Eve, his retiring, Quaker wife, who preferred to remain home in Westchester County. Soon Leona and Harry were dancing to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”-and like Eliza Doolittle, Leona could have danced all night.

        Weeks later Leona was ensconced in a Helmsley holding, Gallery House, that doubled as an upscale love nest. In matters of real estate, Harry had no peer; in matters of the heart, he was a babe in the woods. Nevertheless, as he was still not ready to leave his wife of thirty-three years, Leona let slip a man in Georgia had sent her a diamond ring-and an ultimatum she had ten days to answer his proposal. Harry responded on bended arthritic knee, and in 1972, the Helmsleys tied the knot in his grandiose penthouse with its view of Central Park and Harry’s new Park Lane Hotel. At the age of fifty-two, Leona Mindy Rosenthal from Flatbush was a bonafide billionaire. For their honeymoon, they cruised to Cannes on a 136-foot yacht where Leona engaged in her fantasy of standing aboard a ship with her chiffon gown billowing in the wind.

           While the old song states “first comes love then comes marriage,” with Leona it was the other way around. At the onset of their relationship, it was endless green that served as pheromones, but Harry turned out to be the only person Leona ever let into her tightly-fortressed heart. The Helmsleys became the first couple of the Big Apple which was logical as they owned most of it. They reigned from their 10,000 square foot duplex with a living room on each floor, swimming pool, greenhouse, and terrace with a four-way panoramic spread of Manhattan. They also owned Dunellen Hall, a twenty-eight-room mansion in Connecticut, a lakefront condominium in Palm Beach, and a mountaintop hideaway near Phoenix. A minimum of twelve pictures of Leona were in every room; it is unlikely Morris would have been able to make a hat sufficiently big to fit his daughter’s head. To ferry them from their various pleasure domes, a four million dollar one-hundred seat with private bedroom jet stood at the ready.

      To the Helmsley’s horror, a year after their wedding, a nightmarish episode intruded into their rarified existence. They were in their Palm Beach home when Leona awoke in the dark to find an intruder, wearing a gas mask, in their bedroom. She nudged her husband, “Wake up, darling. We have company.” Rather than risk the thief making off with their property, the naked Helmsleys gave chase, and the burglar stabbed both husband and wife. After the home invasion bodyguards were added to the Helmsley payroll. However, the assault carried one unexpected boon. Jay flew to his mother’s side thereby ending a five-year estrangement. After the reconciliation, Mrs. Helmsley brought him into the Empire.

         The highlight of the Helmsleys’ social calendar was the March 4th gala of Henry’s annual birthday bash where Manhattan’s glitterati-Barbara Walters, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Laurence Rockefeller--minus rival land baron Donald Trump- wore “I’m Just Wild about Harry” buttons and the birthday boy sported his own: “I’m Harry.” The power couple adorned their penthouse with Harry’s Bar overflowing with caviar and champagne; florists festooned the pool with gardenias, and a sixteen-piece orchestra completed the ambience. To its strains, the king and his queen waltzed to the Eubie Blake song while Leona mouthed, “And Harry’s wild about me.” At the witching hour, balloons-emblazoned with the lyric-descended from the ballroom ceiling. In reciprocity, on the bicentennial Fourth of July, Henry lit his Empire State Building in red, white, and blue. His act was not a nod to America’s independence, but for a far more auspicious occasion-his wife’s birthday. He said of the $100,000 cost of the light show that it was cheaper than a diamond necklace. Never shy of PDA, she playfully called him, “My pussy-cat.  Snooky, Wooky, Dooky.”

       As a further love note, Harry christened a new hotel acquisition, the Harley-a blend of their names. And, if this were not adorable enough, he made his wife a pivotal player in his Helmsley Palace Hotel chain advertising campaign. In a series of ubiquitous ads in The New York Times, Pan Am in-flight Magazine and other glossies, the Missus, sporting a diamond tiara and gold lame gown that revealed more than a hint of décolletage, descended a gilded staircase.  The caption beside her face-lifted features: “It’s the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard.” Their hotel’s gift shops featured gilt-trimmed playing cards featuring pictures of Her Majesty. Ah, the perks of the one percent.

       In private, the grinning monarch was a despot of the nonbenevolent variety. A perfectionist, she proved a royal pain and held her army of employees to her exacting standards. For any infractions, it was her version of, “Off with their heads!” During her kamikaze inspections, she unleashed her fury on hapless heads-especially homosexual ones-with tirades the venom of which God reserves for warmongers. Terrified employees devised an alarm-system when she left her penthouse on the way to one of her hotels.  A journalist referred to her as “the Lady Macbeth of the lodging industry.” Those who toiled in the boot camp of Dunnellen Hall fared no better. Friends of a contractor who had never been paid for installing a $13,000 custom-made barbeque said he had six children to support. Leona’s response, “Why didn’t he keep his pants on? He wouldn’t have so many problems.” These let them eat cake instances led to the Helmsleys’ dethroning.

       Disgruntled employees alerted The Post of their employers’ unorthodox habit of charging personal items-a million-dollar marble dance floor above a swimming pool, a $130,000 stereo system, a $45,000 silver clock in the shape of the Helmsley Building, a $210,000 mahogany card table, a twelve-dollar girdle--as hotel operating costs. The raindrops kept falling on the Gordon Gekko heads when the IRS charged them with evading $4,000,000 in income taxes. A judge ruled that Harry, debilitated from a series of strokes, was incompetent to stand trial. In her characteristic manner, Leona quipped when he appeared with unzipped fly: “Don’t brag, darling!” So many disgruntled Flying Monkeys queued up to testify-from everything to withholding wages to cheating at backgammon-one man likened the mob to “Yankee Stadium on the day the World Series tickets go on sale.” Mayor Ed Koch called her “the Wicked Witch of the West” and Donald Trump proclaimed she was “a horrible, horrible human being.” Leona responded, “I can’t wait to read Trump’s new book, especially chapter eleven.” The most damning courtroom remark came from a maid who claimed Mrs. Helmsley had remarked, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” The phrase shadowed the hotel magnate for all the days of her life. Leona’s defense attorney asked the jurors not to condemn on the criteria of personality, “I don’t believe Mrs. Helmsley is charged in the indictment with being a tough bitch.” The public warmed itself on a tabloid bonfire built on the pyre of the woman dubbed “the Queen of Mean.” Newsweek, next to her photograph, carried the caption: Rhymes with Rich.  Upon the announcement of a guilty verdict, huzzahs rang from the peasantry, and the police escorted the sobbing Marie Antoinette off to serve twenty-one months. The sentence came out on tax day: April 15th, 1992. On the long lonely nights, sans Harry and the Palaces, she must have been visited by her own ghosts of Christmas Past. Although Leona had become Manhattan’s punching bag, Harry remained Semper fidelis. When an interviewer asked what he considered his greatest achievement, he replied, “Marrying Leona.” On the night of her incarceration, he ordered the lights turned off in the Empire State Building.

      After her 1994 release, as former friends were now not so wild about Harry, the couple became reclusive, mainly residing in their Scottsdale, Arizona estate. When Harry passed away in 1997, Leona was inconsolable, “My fairy tale is over” and she roamed her huge estates alone. His will left her a property empire that controlled much of the Manhattan skyline. After Jay’s passing from a heart attack, her relationship with her daughter-in-law Mimi Panzirer soured when Leona evicted her and her own grandson after her son’s passing, explaining the company owned the property, and Jay was no longer a Helmsley employee.

     Leona had never been a dog lover; she once told a man his dog Katie would make a nice coat. Since Leona was starved for affection, she purchased a four-pound Maltese who she christened Trouble. The puppy left the pet store in a Mercedes Benz stretch limo, and from that point on, one was never seen without the other. The pup was a tiny terror who bit employees and dined on gourmet meals. The Princess, as she demanded her pooch be called, prowled the halls with a diamond studded collar around her neck. The arrival of a second pup, Double Trouble, did not fare as well, and Leona banished him from her empire. 

        The man behind the curtain in the Emerald City had observed, “A heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others.” If the Wizard’s words proved prescient, Leona Helmsley’s 2007 passing from, ironically, heart failure, greatly failed his litmus test. Her will revealed that from her billion plus holdings two grandchildren received ten million, two not a penny, and her later life confidant, a Maltese, was the recipient of twelve million. However, what her last will and testament did not reveal was why the queen had been so mean. Only she knew. She and Trouble.