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Published: Thursday, 8/30/2007

Stone cold Leona

EVEN in death, New York real estate queen Leona Helmsley made news for her lavish extremes. The 87-year-old hotel magnate, who died Aug. 20, was entombed in a 1,300-square-foot granite mausoleum that cost $1.4 million.

Somehow, the cold extravagance of her spacious resting place is a fitting memorial to a woman known in life for infamous excesses. Nicknamed the "Queen of Mean" for being extraordinarily abusive to mere mortals, Mrs. Helmsley was not an endearing aristocrat in the mold of, say, Brooke Astor, who also died recently.

She was the billionaire that Newsweek captioned "rhymes with rich" on a cover portrait. She was the wealthy villainess New Yorkers loved to hate.

Mrs. Helmsley had been successful selling cooperative apartments in New York City, but her career really took off after she fell into a stunning fortune with a third marriage to real estate investor Harry Helmsley. Some would argue that Harry's billions brought out the worst in her.

Her reputation was sealed as a flamboyant personality with a penchant for tyrannical behavior, especially toward her employees.

Few expressed much sympathy when she went to federal prison for tax evasion in the early 1990s. But even an 18-month stretch behind bars failed to bow the shrewd head of the vast Helmsley real estate empire.

After her stint in prison, she was remarkably generous with charitable donations, giving millions of dollars to the families of New York firefighters following 9/11 and for medical research. And now we learn that she left $12 million to her dog.

In her old age, Mrs. Helmsley lived alone, lavishly to be sure, but reportedly with few friends and estranged from her grandchildren. Now the notorious grande dame will rest with Harry in a mausoleum built without proper permits and worth more than the average Manhattan apartment.

How fitting.

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