Tribute to Leona

By Masha Leon

Published August 30, 2007, issue of August 31, 2007.
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Was it selective amnesia on the part of the New York Post’s gossip maven Cindy Adams? Her August 21 column, “Unknown Stories of the Queen of Mean,” savaged her onetime friend Leona Helmsley (nee Rosenthal), who died the day before at age 87. The unforgivable sin of all sins that enraged Adams was Helmsley’s ousting of Adam’s beloved wheelchair-bound mother from “Leona’s… lavish [Palm Beach] spread” because her mother’s coterie of “caretakers and their friends were gay.” What Adams forgot to mention was that it was Helmsley who made available her hotel at which she hosted the infamous December 1990 “You’re invited if you’re indicted” bash in honor of the 80th birthday of Adam’s husband, comedian Joey Adams. That night, I exchanged pleasantries in Yiddish with Helmsley, who was stunning in a black-and-white satin gown. Then, referring to her indictment for tax evasion (the case was then pending), her amazing green eyes ablaze, she turned to nearby reporters and proclaimed: “I love the media! I did nothing wrong!”

Checking out the crowd, Jackie Mason joshed, “There are two guys here who could make a living just from this room.” Then he pointed to attorneys Raul Felder and Barry Slotnick. “If I had known there’d be so many felons here, I would have worn a striped dress,” Joan Rivers announced. The nonindicted roster included former New York State governor Hugh Carey, former New York City mayors Abraham Beame and Ed Koch, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, Bess Meyerson, Tony Bennett, Ruth Westheimer, Liz Smith, Lou Jacobi and, “trumping” them all, late arrivals The Donald and Marla Maples (who would become the second Mrs. Trump in December 1993). When TV personality Virginia Graham responded that her formula for a long life was “not dying,” Helmsley interjected: “No, no, no! It’s not lying, lying, lying.” Former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos — indicted for racketeering, fraud and obstruction of justice, and then cleared of all charges — warbled “Happy birthday, Joey!” Applauding footwear-obsessed Marcos, comedian Henny Youngman told the crowd: “It’s nice to see Imelda again. She’s been in Israel planting a shoe tree.”

Joey Adams, who relished singing oyfn pripetshik at the drop of a chopped liver sandwich, told me, “My uncle, Nachum Chanin, worked for the Forverts and told me, ‘Joey, don’t worry about people knowing you, just be worth knowing.’” Then Adams, with a sweep of his arm, added: “Look at the people here: I’ve got the governor [Mario Cuomo], the mayor [David Dinkins]. The biggest stars are here for my birthday.” Yet it seems that not one of the still-breathing politicians or celebrities who sipped her champagne and nibbled on her canapés that December night was seen at Helmsley’s August 22 funeral.

I last saw Helmsley on October 21, 2000, at the Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Rita Hayworth Alzheimer gala. Glowing in a gold lame dress, Helmsley sashayed into the Waldorf-Astoria’s promenade on the arm of Patrick Ward, her 40-year-old escort. She was in photo-blitz heaven. Afterward the paparazzi turned to the other high-profile guests, including Elie Wiesel, then-governor George Pataki, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Calvin Klein, Regis Philbin, Ron Silver and Kathy Hilton (with her photo-op savvy daughters in tow). Helmsley wagged her finger for me to approach, gave my cheek a finger-imprinting pinch and offered me belated Rosh Hashanah greetings. Two years later she was in federal prison in Connecticut where she served two years of a four-year sentence.

As Will Rogers famously said, “All [the dirt] I know is what I read in the papers.” I was never a Helmsley employee nor witness to one of her histrionic temper tantrums. But what seems to be overlooked in the post-mortem vitriolic reportage is her and husband Harry Helmsley’s public generosity, such as their multimillion dollar gift to establish the Helmsley Medical Tower at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Leona Helmsley’s less trumpeted philanthropic episodes that included millions for Katrina relief.


What made the recent UJA-Federation of New York’s 90th Anniversary Celebration Dinner different from its other previous events was that this was an out-and-out-simcha. The 723 black-tie guests in the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom were there to have fun, pat their own and each others’ backs, acknowledge past and present leadership and trumpet the good works performed during the organizations’ nine decades.

“Behold what was created by those who laid the foundation for what we call Federation,” declared John Ruskay, UJA’s executive vice president and CEO. Alluding to Isaiah’s biblical injunction to “care for those in need, to feed the hungry, house the homeless” and aid the emotionally challenged, Ruskay offered a verbal spreadsheet of UJA-Federation’s achievements. “For the first four decades, our work focused almost exclusively within the Jewish community, [responding] to the needs of Jewish immigrants, Jewish poor and Jewish elderly.” With the advent of government funding, “many of our agencies increasingly served all New Yorkers — Jews and non-Jews — actualizing our commitment that every human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.”

As 15 blocks away the Empire State Building stood illuminated in blue and white in honor of the celebration, inside the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, dinner co-chairs Jerry Levin and Carol Levin urged the guests to join in a spirited hora that had the floors and walls vibrating. The evening’s entertainment was by Dudu Fisher. There was a congratulatory video by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and each guest was presented with a beautifully hardbound photo-cum-essay-keepsake album that highlights the organization’s 90 years of successes. Mazel tov!

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