Wednesday, August 21, 2013

81. Colorful New Yorkers: Battling Bella and the Queen of Mean

     This post is about two assertive women, born in the same year only twenty days apart, who became celebrities, one of whom it's hard not to like, and one of whom it's hard not to hate.

Battling Bella

Bella Abzug 1971-11-30.jpg
Bella in 1971.
     Bella Abzug (1920-1998) was New York born and bred; she looked it, sounded it, and acted it.  She was born Bella Savitsky in the Bronx, both of her parents Russian Jewish immigrants, her father a kosher butcher.  When her father died, Bella, age 13, went against tradition by saying the Mourner's Kaddish for her father, who had no son, perhaps the first of many feminist gestures to come.  President of her high school class, she went on to Hunter College and then to Columbia, where she got her degree in law.  Practicing labor law in the 1940s, she took to wearing wide-brimmed hats so as not to be taken for a secretary -- not stylish hats, to judge from photographs, but rather plain ones with the wide brim that would become her trademark.  Soon she was taking on civil rights cases in the segregated South and advocating liberal and feminist causes.  "This woman's place is in the House -- the House of Representatives," she announced in 1970, and in the following decade got herself elected to the House from Manhattan's West Side for three terms.

    When Bella hit Washington, the Old Boys' Club was jolted by a rampaging tiger.  She was soon known for her hats, her intelligence, her flamboyance, her New York chutzpah.  Not to mention her voice, which Norman Mailer said "could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck."  Assertive, aggressive, not given to compromise, she stepped on many toes.  "I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine," she wrote in a journal, "and knock the crap out of the political power structure."  Always an advocate of change, she spoke scathingly of the Congressional club, the seniority system, the log-rolling and back-scratching typical of Congress.  She delighted in being one of the first, if not the first, in embracing what seemed to be radical causes: Nixon's impeachment (she was on his enemies list), getting out of Vietnam, women's rights (she was a friend of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan), gay rights, national health insurance, laws against employment discrimination.  Ralph Nader said that her sponsorship of a measure often cost it 20 to 30 votes.  And Jimmy Breslin told how during a quarrel over scheduling she punched one of her campaign workers, then phoned him the next day to apologize; "How's your kidney?" she asked.  Even so, in a survey her colleagues named her the third most influential member of the House.  And if she made enemies, she also made friends.  Said her lifelong friend Gloria Steinem, "She's fierce and intense and funny.  She takes everyone seriously.... And she's willing to change her mind."

Bella with Mayor Ed Koch (left) and President Jimmy Carter, 1978.
     I never encountered Bella face to face, but my partner Bob once, quite by chance, heard her giving a campaign speech to a crowd of several hundred in Sheridan Square from a platform mounted on the back of a pickup truck.  Far from flamboyant, she was level-headed and talked sense, but with warmth; the spectators applauded with enthusiasm.  So impressed was Bob that he registered for the first time ever, so he could vote for her in the mayoral election.  Alas, she lost in the primary to Ed Koch.

     On weekends Bella returned to her residence on Bank Street in Greenwich Village to spend time with her husband, Martin Abzug, whom she had married in 1944.  A stockbroker and author, he had little interest in politics but stuck by her through thick and thin; she called him her best friend and supporter.  They had two daughters.

     In the long run her abrasive manner hurt her career.  She ran for the Senate in 1976 and lost narrowly in the primary, then ran for mayor in 1977 and lost in the primary to Ed Koch.  Other defeats followed, but she continued to practice law and worked tirelessly for women's causes.  It's not surprising that she failed to accomplish many of her goals in Congress; she was too blunt, too unsubtle, too fierce.

     "I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man hater, you name it," she wrote in a journal that was published in 1972 as Bella.  "But whatever I am -- and this ought to be made very clear at the outset -- I am a very serious woman."  That she was.  If one is out of the reach of her abrasiveness, one can't help but like her.  Certainly I can't.

     In her later years Bella kept up her busy schedule of work, even though she traveled in a wheelchair.  She died in 1998 from complications following open heart surgery.  She has been inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, the site of the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848.

The Queen of Mean
File:Leona Helmsley cropped mug.jpg
This photo has been cropped; see below.

     Leona Helmsley (1920-2007) was born Leona Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, her father a hatmaker.  She grew up in Brooklyn and dropped out of college allegedly to become a model, though her modeling career remains unsubstantiated.  Certainly she had business skills and an outsized ambition.  In time she joined a New York real estate firm and became a condominium broker, finally working for real estate mogul Harry Helmsley.  She was already a millionaire and twice divorced when, in 1972, she married Helmsley, who divorced his wife of many years to marry her.  From then on she worked with him to build a real estate empire that included the Tudor City apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan, the Empire State Building, the Helmsley Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, and many other hotels in New York City, Florida, and elsewhere.

The Helmsley Palace Hotel, now the New York Palace Hotel, on Madison 
Avenue.  In the foreground is the Villard Mansion, built by railroad magnate 
Henry Villard in 1884.  Behind it is the 55-story tower built by Harry 
Helmsley.  The hotel combines the two.

     A lackluster millionaire before the marriage, Helmsley's life was sparked up afterward.  He and Leona moved into a ten-room duplex with an indoor swimming pool atop their luxurious Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South, but soon also acquired an estate in Connecticut, a condo in Palm Beach, and a mountaintop hideaway near Phoenix, not to mention a private hundred-seat jet with a bedroom suite so they could gad about in comfort.  Leona is said to have had a minimum of twelve pictures of herself in every room of her residences.  She gave lavish birthday parties for her husband ("my pussy cat, my snooky, wooky, dooky"), and on her own birthday her snooky floodlit the Empire State Building with her favorite colors at a cost of $100,000 ("Less than a necklace," said the pussy cat).  As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, "The rich are different from you and me."

     I recall lavish ads for the Palace Hotel showing her, dressed in the height of fashion and crowned with a tiara, inspecting her troops, the hotel's uniformed employees, with the caption "The Queen stands guard."  Indeed she did, being a demanding and tyrannical monarch.  A friend of mine was once interviewed for a job with her as chef, and was warned by the interviewer that he would have to be available 24/7, in case Mrs. Helmsley planned a dinner for seventeen at 2 a.m.; he didn't get the job because "your personality would not meld well with Mrs. Helmsley's."  When she took her early morning sessions in her swimming pool, a more compatible liveried servant was on hand with a platter of fresh-cooked shrimps; at the end of each lap she would command, "Feed Mama," and he would hand her a shrimp.  But her anger was fierce.  Discovering a wrinkled bedspread, she shouted, "The maid's a slob!  Get her out of here.  Out!  Out!"  And a lawyer friend who once breakfasted with her has told how, when a hotel waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled in the saucer, she grabbed the cup from him, smashed it on the floor, and made him get down on his hands and knees to beg for his job.  No wonder she came to be known as the Queen of Mean.

File:Leona Helmsley.jpg
The uncropped photo, her mug shot upon
her arrest in 1988.  The most radiant mug
shot I've ever seen.  After her conviction
she looked less radiant.
     All this changed in 1988, when U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani (the future mayor) brought charges against the Helmsleys for evading federal taxes by illegally billing the expenses of remodeling their new mansion in Connecticut to their hotels as business expenses.  Harry Helmsley's deteriorating health led to a court ruling that he was mentally and physically unfit to stand trial, so Leona faced the charges alone.  At the trial her arrogance and greed were amply demonstrated, and a former housekeeper testified that she had once told her, "We don't pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes."  She denied having said it, but it was consistent with her character.  When I heard that statement, I knew that the IRS would nail her, and sure enough, in August 1989 she was convicted on numerous charges that included conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion.  While she sobbed quietly in the courtroom, her lawyer pleaded with the judge not to make her serve time in prison, which might endanger her health.  The judge was adamant, but her attorney was able to get a reduced sentence, and she was ordered to report to prison on the day federal taxes are due, April 15, 1992.  She was released on January 26, 1994, with 750 hours of community service to perform.

     Was she sobered by her time in prison?  Had she changed?  She had always insisted that she had done no wrong, that she was targeted because she was a woman.  Assigned to a hospital in Arizona to do community service, she was required to stuff envelopes and wrap presents for volunteers to give to the patients.  There she complained that the staff "gawked at her" and were "less than charitable," so the court permitted her to do the service at home.  But the judge soon learned that she had assigned much of it to her servants and so added another 150 hours of service.

     As a convicted felon Leona Helmsley couldn't run enterprises with liquor licenses, so she had to give up managing the hotels.  When her husband died in 1997, she said, "My fairy tale life is over.  I lived a magical life with Harry."  Estranged from her grandchildren and with few friends, she lived alone in her lavish apartment atop the Park Lane Hotel with her Maltese dog, Trouble.  Her face was now frozen into a scowl by multiple face lifts.  When she died of heart failure in 2007, she left the bulk of her fortune to a charitable trust, and $12 million to Trouble, this last being ranked third in Fortune's "101 Dumbest Moments in Business"; the bequest was later reduced by a court to $2 million.  She and Harry are buried in a luxurious Greek-style mausoleum with stained-glass windows in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County.  Trouble, the richest dog in the world, died in December 2010, her every need seen to around the clock, and watched over by a full-time security guard because of death and kidnapping threats.  Her keeper had spent $100,000 a year on her care.

File:Harry Helmsley mausoleum.jpg
The Helmsley Mausoleum in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

     Did Bella and Leona ever meet?  Not to my knowledge.  If they had, it would have been epic.  I can't imagine them hitting it off.  The Queen of Chutzpah vs. the Queen of Mean -- how the fur would have flown!

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, Who makes money when America goes to war?  New York, 1861-1865 (with glances at today).  Next Wednesday, Colorful New Yorkers: Diamond Jim and Texas Guinan, but with Jim's pal Lillian ("Luscious Lillian") Russell and her famous hour-glass figure thrown in.  In the works: the Titan of the Met, who claimed to have a heart of stone, and an aristocrat of the people who, like Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker, believed that money should be spread around like manure in order to make things grow.

©  2013  Clifford Browder

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