Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Leona Helmsley: 'The Queen of Mean'

From Lena to Leona

On July 4, 1920, Lena Rosenthol was born to Morris and Ida Rosenthol of Ulster County , New York. Little Lena was the third child born to the couple and was preceded by two sisters named Sandra and Sylvia. Ida and Morris welcomed their fourth and last child, Alvin, several years following Lena 's birth. He would later become her most cherished sibling.

Both of Lena 's parents were of Polish decent. Years earlier they immigrated to America to fulfill the "American Dream." In order to support the family, Morris began a business of manufacturing hats and Ida worked as a housewife. Although the family was not wealthy, they lived a modest existence in a middle-class neighborhood in Marbletown , New York. Yet, before long, the local economy began to destabilize and worsen, resulting in the family having to move to Brooklyn. They would not remain there long. The family would move approximately six more times before settling in Manhattan.

Ransdell Pierson in The Queen of Mean: The Unauthorized Biography of Leona Helmsley wrote that " Leona's mother, Ida Rosenthal, was dirt poor but she was graced with "this perfect posture," one of Leona's relatives recalled. "She had a sense of presence. She walked into a room and you knew she was there. She had a very regal way about her... Leona, while not as stunning as her sister Sandra, was still a beauty. Her carved features were guaranteed to attract attention, especially from older men who could fully appreciate the fashion plate's sense of style."

The Queen of Mean
The Queen of Mean

While growing up, Lena had strained relations with the women of her family. She frequently fought with her sisters and mother, whom she claimed to be a "tyrant." In fact, relations would remain especially strained between Lena and her sisters to the point that she refused to attend their funerals decades later.

Conversely, Lena had a close and loving relationship with her brother and father. She remained close to her father, who she described as a gentle and kind man, up until his untimely death from heart disease in 1940 when Lena was twenty-years-old. She was protective of her brother, Alvin, because of his failing health.

Aside from the constant battles between her mother and sisters, little is known about Lena 's childhood. According to Hammer, what is known is that Lena excelled academically in her youth, exhibiting "extraordinary talent in English and communication subjects" in high school. Despite the fact that she did well in school and probably enjoyed the subjects she succeeded in, there is reason to believe she was dissatisfied with high school and the course her life was taking. Taking a daring step into the unknown, Lena dropped out of high school before graduation and set out in search for adventure.

The Helmsleys, Rise and Fall of Harry & Leona
The Helmsleys, Rise and Fall of Harry & Leona

With her new lease on life, Lena decided to adopt a new identity by changing her name. Unsure of exactly which name to assume, she intermittently changed between Lee Roberts, Mindy Roberts, Leni Roberts and Leona Mindy Roberts. Eventually, she chose the name of Leona Roberts to use on a more permanent basis. Leona is the name the world would know her by years later and which would also one day become synonymous with the word "mean."


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