"Only the little people pay taxes."

Leona Helmsley (1920-2007) was one of the most notorious of the criminal rich in a decade known for the rampant excesses of the country club set. Her deeds were pretty much typical of her contemporaries, but she outclassed them all in sheer attitude.

Helmsley was the second wife of billionaire real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley (1909-1997), and they had their fingers in everything: apartments, hotels, commercial buildings, even the Empire State Building. In 1980, she became president of Helmsley hotels, a series of seriously luxurious digs, including the Palace Hotel. By all accounts, she ran a pretty tight ship, and her bitchiness and terrorizing of the employees caused the tabloids to eventually dub her "the Queen of Mean" during her trial.

In 1988, she and her husband were charged with tax evasion, fraud, and conspiracy. Her husband was found mentally unfit (he was 80 at the time) to stand trial and their cases were severed. Left to stand trial alone, she actually employed her attitude as a defense. She claimed was such a royal bitch that her employees refused to present her with the bills she had racked up, and so without telling her they wrote off her personal expenditures as business expenses, including her $11 million Connecticut mansion. Right. Naturally, this did not endear her to anyone. The media vilified her and the jury convicted her of 33 counts in 1989.

"Your conduct was the product of naked greed, the arrogant belief that you were above the law," said Judge John M. Walker, Jr, and sentenced her to four years in prison, 750 hours of community service, and hit her with a $7.1 million fine. She appealed for several years, even employing Alan Dershowitz to file an appeal based on her ill health, but she finally went to prison in 1992 and got out 18 months later.

Next was community service, which she assigned to some of her employees. Not pleased, the authorities forced her to actually do the work herself, which she did in a program in Harlem training people for entry-level positions – in the hotel business.

Over the years, she’s made the occasional attempt to rehabilitate her reputation, from the typical – donating $1 million to the National Council of Churches – to the bizarre. When Saddam Hussein briefly held a large group of Western hostages in Iraq on the eve of the Gulf War, she took out a full page ad in the New York Times castigating him personally. She knew something about guests, she said, and those people were not his guests, but hostages. I bet that convinced him.

Suzanne Pleshette starred as Helmsley in a 1990 TV movie, The Queen of Mean.

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