The case against hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, sued for $40 million, went to the jury Tuesday, which will decide whether she fired her hotel manager because he was gay or because he used drugs, lied on his resume, and threw wild parties. Charles Bell, 48, alleges that he lost his $110,000-a-year job at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South after just four months because he is gay.
During the three-week trial, Helmsley, 82, took the witness stand for 22 minutes and denied that Bell's sexual orientation was the issue. "It was the smell of drugs," she said, that led her to fire Bell. Bell testified that Helmsley berated him, "cursing me, calling me a fag." He said Helmsley screamed at him, "'You look like a fag. You dress like a fag. You are a fag."' Helmsley's lawyer, Steven Eckhaus, told jurors during closing arguments that comments overheard from Helmsley should not necessarily be taken literally. "People say things in private moments, and that doesn't mean they're antigay," Eckhaus said.
Bell's attorney, Geri Krauss, dismissed assertions by Helmsley, owner of five upscale hotels in New York City and another in Sarasota, Fla., that Bell was a liar. "When it comes to lying, Mrs. Helmsley is the only one with a proven track record," Krauss said, alluding to Helmsley's 1989 tax evasion conviction, during which she was famously quoted as declaring that "only the little people pay taxes." The tax fraud charges sent Helmsley, dubbed the "Queen of Mean" during the trial, to prison for 18 months.
Two hotel maids, put on the witness stand in an attempt to discredit Bell, testified last week that his hotel suite at the Park Lane was a "chamber of horrors," with "dirty, bloody towels...bloody sheets...dirty condoms and an artificial penis" on Bell's night table. But in rebuttal testimony, the maids' supervisor admitted that one of the maids had been employed by the hotel for only half the time she had testified she was.