Tall tale of mice and moguls

Click to follow
ANY TOURIST will sense that the Empire State Building is not all that it once was. There is scaffolding above the 5th Avenue entrance, and reaching the top involves following a confusing sequence of escalators and lifts. But rodent-infested?

That is the claim at the centre of a titanic clash between two New York property figures, each of whom is almost as fabled as the 1931 skyscraper itself. One is Donald Trump or "The Donald" to tabloid scribblers of this town. The other the "Queen of the Mean", Leona Helmsley.

After buying half of the Empire State last year, Mr Trump is alleging in a lawsuit that the group that manages it, led by Mrs Helmsley, has allowed the monument to become "a second-rate, rodent-infested office block" and should be evicted forthwith and forced to pay $100m in damages.

Mrs Helmsley, who was jailed for 21 months in 1992 for refusing to pay her taxes - it was she who said "only the little people pay taxes" - has not taken kindly to the assault. Last month, a judge ruled provisionally in her favour, giving her time to continue with renovations already underway.

It is a squabble fierce enough to make even King Kong slip from his perch on the famous tower. And the pair have hardly been friends in the past. Mrs Helmsley once publicly called Mr Trump a "son of a bitch". He returned the compliment thus: "Being a good businesswoman is, to her, secondary to being a bitch on wheels."

The Helmsley group, which has the lease on the building for another 80 years, claims that Mr Trump is making up the charges to get his hands on the lucrative lease. Mrs Helmsley pays $1.9m (£1.2m) a year, and gets $80m in rent from the 300 tenants.

Helmsley-Spear, the management company, called Mr Trump a "hired gun". As taking possession of the lease was the only means for the developer to increase his revenue from the building, the "temptation to concoct allegations - to create any pretence for a default - is obvious", it said.

Vowing to pursue the case, the Trump group insists that Mrs Helmsley is guilty of lease violations, including failure to install a proper sprinkler system, or provide proper insurance or prevent rodent infestation.

A casual visit to the 64th floor last week suggested that maybe there is truth on both sides. Renovation work is going on: wires were hanging from large holes in ceiling panels and scribbled notes were taped to the walls identifying various pieces of fire-fighting equipment.

In a showroom of the Fruit of the Loom clothing company, on the same floor, manager Claudette McFarlane showed off the magnificent view and the window frames installed recently. They work fine except in snowstorms, when water comes in. And then there is that small mouse problem.

"I have seen mice, a few times. But they're only small, they haven't sent me screaming or anything. Oh, and a few cockroaches, of course," Mrs McFarlane said. She believes Mr Trump has gone too far. "Don't take me wrong, I'm no fan of Mrs Helmsely. But I've got to give her her due".