Leona Helmsley may have had a reputation as a tough boss – and a conviction for failing to pay taxes in a timely manner – but the wife and sole heir of hotel magnate Harry Helmsley left behind a legacy that has gone to help millions of people around the world, as well as in Israel. Israel, in fact, gets a special section all of its own in the Helmsley estate, which is valued at $5 billion and is being given away on a daily basis by a group of four trustees whose job it is to disburse the late Mrs. Helmsley’s money.
“Mrs. Helmsley had a vision of her money being used to improve the lives of people around the world,” said Sandy Frankel, Leona Helmsley’s attorney for nearly two decades and now one of the trustees charged with giving away her money. “I am often asked questions about what she did or didn’t during her lifetime, but I prefer to concentrate on her legacy, and that, I think, is what she should be remembered for.”
In the the past five years, Frankel and his fellow trustees have given away nearly a billion dollars, almost $150 million of it just in Israel. Currently, the Leona B. and Harry M. Helmsley Charitable Trust is one of the top ten such trusts in the world. “It’s a pretty unique job,” said Frankel of his task of giving away the Helmsley fortune. “Not everyone has the chance to do something like this.”
The Helmsleys owned some of the most prime pieces of Manhattan, from top Park Avenue buildings to a chain of luxury hotels to the Empire State Building. Harry Helmsley died in 1997, leaving all his assets to Leona, who herself passed away in 2007. Their only child died in 1982, so Leona Helmsley, with no one to will her money to, gave it all away.
The image most people have of Leona Helmsley is actually of actress Suzanne Pleshette, who played Helmsley in the 1990 TV film “Queen of Mean.” The film purported to describe her relationship with workers, husband Harry, and the US government, which eventually convicted her for tax evasion, and it was anything but complimentary. Leona Helmsley was portrayed as a shrewish, conniving snob, with nary a redeeming quality.
It certainly didn’t portray her generosity, which, said Frankel, was common knowledge in her circles even when she was alive. But speaking to The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview, Frankel said he preferred to remember Helmsley for all the good her fortune is doing now.
“We have provided grants for basic medical research that seeks to fight common diseases that claim many lives annually using nanotechnology, genomics, and microbial research. We’ve provided funds for programs to bring health care to rural areas that don’t have access to quality – or any – care. We’ve invested in solutions to help people with Type I diabetes. And we’ve given millions to children’s programs, such as programs in Africa that provide schooling, meals, and basic living needs to children, and we’ve provided grants for schools of all types, from elementary schools to institutions of higher education.”
Education and health in Israel is also a priority for the trust, said Frankel; about 80% of the Israel funding has gone to major universities and research centers and rural healthcare. Among those programs is one in robotics at Ben Gurion University and a program sponsored by the Clalit Health Fund to digitize patient records. In addition, the trust has provided funds to ensure that researchers have the resources to do their work at Israeli universities, helping the country to avoid brain drain. Other grants have gone to fund research in agritech, air pollution control, and marine biology related to gas exploration, among others.
How did Israel end up on the Helmsley Trust’s radar?
“When I joined the board of trustees, which consists of two of Mrs. Helmsley’s grandchildren, a business associate, and myself (a fifth member, Leona Helmsley’s brother, passed away several years ago), we all discussed what we felt were important objectives for our grants. I said that I thought Israel would be an appropriate place to distribute funds, and the other trustees agreed – hence the Israel portion of the grants.”
According to Frankel, any effort that could benefit humanity is something the trustees would be interested in. Nevertheless, he said, “we don’t encourage solicitations. We have a network of people we consult with to determine where the needs are, and this network has served us very well so far.”
One “red line” for the group is politics. “We have one client, and that is the State of Israel, and the places and people that need resources the most are the ones that get them.”
A glance at the list of institutions in Israel that have received Helmsley funds – including all of Israel’s universities, Birthright, the Shalva Institute for Handicapped Children’s Families, Beit Halochem Home for Disabled IDF Soldiers, and many others – shows the wide net the Trust has cast in its Israel grants.
“So far, I don’t think we’ve made any mistakes,” said Frankel. “I think I can say we are proud of all our investments. I say that not to boast about how smart we are, but as a tribute to the institutions and people who are using the money wisely. This legacy is a very valuable one, and our mission – to fund projects that will benefit humanity – is very specific. I think Mrs. Helmsley would be very proud.”