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Queen vs. Queen

Leona’s lawyers miscalculated by going for the gay-sex ick factor—turns out Helmsley’s own ickiness was harder for the jury to take.

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For avid followers of the Leona Helmsley Gay Sexgate trial, last week—when the jury decided Helmsley would have to pay fired hotel manager Charles Bell $11.175 million—was a letdown. Mostly because it was over. No more irresistible, trumped-up tales of leather daddies prancing half-naked through the Park Lane Hotel. No more deliciously surreal Andrea Peyser columns in which the New York Post’s former “Queen of Mean” was improbably rendered as “kittenish” and “kinda cute.” No more magical opportunities for the Post to juxtapose the words tom cruise and gay in page-one headlines (because of testimony that Leona allegedly once called Tom a “fag”).

And, saddest of all, no more references to the “artificial penis” one of Leona’s maids claimed, in testimony that was later discredited, to have found (along with spent condoms and bloody sheets) in Bell’s suite.

As a media phenomenon, the trial was never really about Leona’s alleged discrimination against a gay guy (though the jury clearly decided that that’s all that really mattered). It was about the media’s idea—and Leona’s lawyers’ idea—of gay sexuality. By conjuring a supposed sexual chamber of horrors, Leona’s lawyers tried to win with the ick factor.

Unfortunately for them, Leona has her own ick factor (beginning with her mannish, masklike, overly reconstructed face), though of course she’s completely oblivious to it—which is why, we must assume, she insisted on taking the stand, presumably over the desperate objections of her legal counsel. Despite Peyser’s heroic rehabilitation efforts, in the popular imagination Leona remains a cartoon: a female version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. And the jury wasn’t about to stand for her version of Smithers-bashing.

As for Bell, he’s icky enough without his real or imagined bacchanalian sex life. He was mostly repellent for being chummy with Patrick Ward, Leona’s former chief operating officer who duped the octogenarian into thinking he was romantically interested in her. When Leona found out he was living with another man, she fired his gay ass.

Still, poor, lonely Leona will have no choice but to continue to rely on, and employ, gay men. She’s got plenty of gay employees whom she hasn’t fired—a couple of them even testified on her behalf, including a fella who went over to Helmsley’s house for Thanksgiving with his boyfriend. I mean, duh—this is the hospitality industry. Where better than the gay community to look for job candidates who have the keenly tuned sense of camp and drama necessary to work for Mama Leona?

Leona’s lawyers miscalculated by going for the gay-sex ick factor—turns out Helmsley’s own ickiness was harder for the jury to take.


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