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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy