Obituary: Harry Helmsley

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The Independent Online
In his declining years, Harry Helmsley would make headlines for the wrong reasons: as the failing husband of a domineering wife, charged along with her for tax fraud, only to be deemed at the age of 80 mentally unfit to stand trial. But for half a century, from the late 1930s, he was arguably the very symbol of the property business in Manhattan, monarch of an empire that at its height was worth $5bn, perhaps more.

As with so many property magnates, his fortune was entirely self-made. Harry Helmsley took his first job at the age of 16, as a $12-a-week office boy in a property management company. Thereafter he became rent collector, broker and investor in a small real estate venture, which in 1938 he bought out. Thus was born Helmsley-Spears, presided over by Helmsley in person from a 53rd-floor Manhattan office, decorated with models of its most famous asset, the Empire State Building (bought in 1961 for a then record $65m), and hundreds of red folders detailing the pro-gress of his various investments.

In his prime, Helmsley towered over New York's real estate business just as the Empire State Building dominated mid-town Manhattan. Few were quicker to see how a building's potential value could be realised. Mortgage lenders trusted him completely. If Harry Helmsley said a deal was sound, the unwritten rule was, finance would be forthcoming, no questions asked. Not least of his qualities was patience, and faith in the passage of time. Others would bail out in severe market downturns, but, famously, not Harry Helmsley. He bought to hold. Though married twice (first to Eve Ella Green whom he divorced in 1971) he had no children. "My properties are my children," he would tell interviewers.

The final decade of his life was a postscript unworthy of the man. In fading health, he was overshadowed by his ambitious, self-promoting second wife Leona, a former model and real estate saleswoman, whom he married in 1972. In 1988, the couple were charged with tax fraud, for buying expensive furnishings for their Connecticut mansion and then deducting them as business espenses for the Helmsley hotel chain. Because of lost memory and diminished powers of reasoning, he was spared the shame of court. Leona however was convicted and given a four-year jail term. Thereafter many properties were sold off, and a year before his death, Forbes magazine put Harry Helmsley's net wealth at $1.7bn.

Embroiled in a feud with the rival developer Donald Trump, and in lawsuits with her husband's former business partners, Leona may soon lose control of Helmsley-Spears, the management company at the heart of the Helmsley business. As well as the Empire State Building, it embraces the Lincoln Building on 42nd Street, the Flatiron and Toy Center buildings on Fifth Avenue and other properties representing over 30 million square feet of office space, residential and industrial developments and, of course, the Helmsley Hotel chain. Their future may be uncertain - but not Harry Helmsley's place in the history of New York real estate, in an era before computers and modern management sciences, when instinct was all.

Harry Brakmann Helmsley, property developer: born New York City 4 March 1909; married 1938 Eve Ella Green (marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Leona Rosenthal; died Scottsdale, Arizona 4 January 1997.