Thursday, August 30, 2007

Juxtapositions: Hurricane Katrina and Leona Helmsley

This is the first in what I fear will be an on-going, occasional series prompted by news that demonstrates the gaping disparity in our country between the lives of the rich and the poor. Sometimes the reports are simply too surreal to withhold comment.

August 29, 2007, marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's deadly assault on the Gulf Coast. Some 1800 people in a five state area died as a result of the storm or its aftermath. I can't imagine that anyone who saw the devastation will ever forget it.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has always been the focus of most of the country's attention. It's a romantic city, mysterious, bawdy and spiritual at the same time. The French Quarter escaped destruction by virtue of its fortunate slight elevation so we, as a nation, were spared mourning the tragic loss that would have symbolized. And somehow, if there were still jazz musicians and beignets, we could hold on to our faith that the city would recover.

But much of it hasn't. Journalist Mary Foster observed in her Associated Press article, "The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force."

At the groundbreaking for a memorial at a New Orleans cemetery, volunteer re-builder David Kopra from Olympia, Washington, remarked, "The saddest thing I've seen here is that there are thirty human beings who will be buried here one day that nobody ever called about. . . It says something to my heart."

And yet, Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, Mississippi, offered an optimistic point of view: "God has been good to Biloxi and its people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We have a new outlook on life and a new appreciation for what's really important in life. It's not your car or your clothes or your possessions. It's being alive and knowing the importance of family and friends and knowing that we all have a higher power."

While the mostly impoverished residents of the Gulf States struggle to recover their psychological bearings as well as find some way to rebuild the city, physically, and themselves, emotionally, the fate of the late Leona Helmsley's dog is more secure.

For those who don't recall the flamboyant, often vicious hotelier, another AP news report summarizes Ms. Helmsley's life as follows: "[Helmsley] became known as a symbol of 1980s greed and earned the nickname 'the Queen of Mean' after her 1988 indictment and subsequent conviction for tax evasion. One employee had quoted her as snarling, 'Only the little people pay taxes.'"

Ms. Helmsley passed away in early August and left her white Maltese, named Trouble, a $12 million trust fund. In her will, she directed, "When my dog, Trouble, dies, her remains shall be buried next to my remains in the Helmsley mausoleum," where her late husband was also laid to rest in 1997.

True, there were other bequests, including billions of dollars from the sale of personal properties that will fill the coffers of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which recently donated $25 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital. But Trouble did better than two of Helmsley's grandchildren, who got $5 million each, and two other grandchildren who received nothing at all "for reasons known to them."

Besides being amazed that Ms. Helmsley ended up with such a vast fortune even after she finally paid her taxes, just like "the little people," and besides being stunned that a pooch, no matter how well-loved could end up with twelve million bucks, I have to wonder about how much joy this obscenely rich woman had in her life. I know, I know, it's easy to say, "If I had that much money, you can bet your life I'd be plenty joyful." You get no argument from me.

But I stayed for a few days at the Helmsley Palace during a brief trip to New York in the late 1980s, about a year before Ms. Helmsley faced her legal problems. I remember that the hotel was opulent, yet somehow soulless. I wonder if that was how Ms. Helmsley felt, rich but empty. I wonder if she might have benefited from a little of the spirit that led Mayor Hollaway to make his comments about what's really important in life: family and friends, not possessions.

We understand the larger tragedy that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, but isn't there also something rather tragic about a woman who appears to have cared more for her dog than her family?

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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