Going to the dogs

leonaMarie Antoinette had nothing on the late Leona Helmsley. Antoinette, the Queen of France, famously said that the hungry masses should eat cake. Hemsley, the self-styled queen of hotels and real estate, in her will declined to say that people should get that much.

Stephanie Strom of The New York Times broke the story:

Her instructions, specified in a two-page “mission statement,” are that the entire trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs, according to two people who have seen the document and who described it on condition of anonymity.

Indirectly at least, Strom got the heart of the story correct: Helmsley had a strained relationship with humanity in general and humans specifically. Early in the story, Strom reported this eye-opening fact:

The first goal was to help indigent people, the second to provide for the care and welfare of dogs. A year later, they said, she deleted the first goal.

A bit later, Strom summarized Helmsley’s relationship with people no doubt accurately:

Mrs. Helmsley, the widow of Harry B. Helmsley, who built a real estate empire in Manhattan, was best known for her sharp tongue and impatience with humanity.

Toward the middle of the story, Strom noted that the masses might object to Helmsley’s donation:

They are also the trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and, according to the two people who discussed the mission statement, have fretted about the public outcry that disclosure of its terms might incite.

They have reason for concern: News last year that the biggest named beneficiary in Mrs. Helmsley’s will was Trouble, her Maltese, led to death threats against the dog, which now requires security costing $100,000 a year.

What Strom missed altogether was why Helmsley gave her money to dogs. Nowhere in the story were readers told about her views of people and whether her religion or religious upbringing influenced those views. (From what a reader can adduce, Helmsley’s bequest was nothing more than an extension of her ego). If her religion had been mentioned, it would have been important to know what it thinks of this billionaire giving money not for the good of their fellow humans but for animals.

My conclusion, as you might have guessed, is that the absence of an explanation is a religious ghost.

This general story line is not going away. As affluent baby boomers pass away, their donations and bequests will become news. So should their reasons for giving and the response of religious groups.

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  • Stephen A.

    A mighty thin ghost, but let me give this a try:
    * The reporter forgot to explore why Helmsley thought she was God.

    * The reporter didn’t explain that Boomers sometimes feel like God (and really DID “start the fire.”)
    * The story failed to explore the religion of the dog (Poodletarian? Roverist? Schnauzerpalian?)

    More seriously (if I can manage it) it didn’t explore what happened to her, spiritually, to have such a horrible view of humanity at the end of her life.

  • cheryl

    I am curious about the terms of the will regarding how the money is to be dispersed for the care and welfare of dogs (is there a foundation of some sort?)

    It would be interesting if this bequest could be leveraged somehow to support organizations that train seeing-eye dogs that assist the blind, rescue dogs, police dogs that sniff out drugs and help solve crimes, dogs that provide companionship for people in nursing homes, etc.

    The joke would be on Leona..!

  • ceemac


    Helmsley was not a boomer. She was born in 1920. Using the Strauss and Howe defintions of Generations that makes her part of the GI Generation.

  • Stephen A.

    Forgive my error. She was simply acting as selfishly as many Boomers act. I hardly would ever equate her with anything as noble as “GI Generation” however. If she ever did anything positive at all, it wasn’t widely known or acknowledged.

    I don’t feel too bad, though, since the NYT (and AP) got something wrong in the story and I just got something wrong in a comment about it.

    She was apparently even MORE stingy than first reported:

    Correction: July 3, 2008
    Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about Leona Helmsley’s instructions that her charitable trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion, be used for the care and welfare of dogs misstated the amount of the inheritance that two of Mrs. Helmsley’s grandchildren were granted after being left out of her will. It was a combined total of $6 million, not $6 million each.

    (my bolding)

    $3 mill each isn’t anything to sneeze at, but still, her personal dog got $12 mill and other random puppies will get billions. At least the dog can’t fire anyone.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Stephen A writes,

    More seriously (if I can manage it) it didn’t explore what happened to her, spiritually, to have such a horrible view of humanity at the end of her life.

    As usual, Stephen A makes a great point.

  • Jimmy Mac

    What makes anyone think that religion had the slightest impact on her decision?

  • Stephen A.

    Jimmy Mac, we just don’t know, and I guess that’s the fault we find with the reporting.

    The journalistic search to uncover Charles Foster Kane’s inner personality in the film “Citizen Kane” comes to mind. What was her “Rosebud” (or her “Rosebud moment”) that either explained her life or explained what she thought about her life?

  • Jimmy Mac

    I think that one of the weakness of having a religious background is to assume that there should be a religious element behind most stories. I know quite a few self-described atheists who do good and wonderful things without any religious impetus whatsoever.

  • Stephen A.

    Jimmy, I’m not sure atheism has anything to do with this story. But the problem is (and the point this entire blog makes, and is here to make) is that religion is often ignored completely in stories that would clearly benefit from a religious angle, like this one. It would certainly add texture to this story about Helmsley, and how she became the person she was.

    Whether she was an atheist herself or whether she was simply a secular person without any faith is an important key to understanding her. I’m certianly not trying to say she was the way she was because she was an athiest, because I have no knowledge of her spirituality at all.

    BTW, I did see a reference online to her being Jewish, but that may have been simply an ethnic designation, not a religious one.