Tags: Martha | Leona | and | Tony: | Schadenfreude | Incarnate

Martha, Leona and Tony: Schadenfreude Incarnate

Tuesday, 10 June 2003 12:00 AM

The lust for money and power, according to the philosopher Spinoza, “is nothing but a species of madness.” What else can explain the embarrassingly self-destructive behavior of three of the most well-known and successful business people at the height of their careers: home and garden maven Martha Stewart, hotel heiress Leona Helmsley and former Detroit PR king Anthony M. Franco?

The lure of a fast buck, inextricably entwined with their outsized egos, proved irresistible for each of them and led to public humiliation, loss of reputation and, at least in one case, even jail time.

The most successful, well-known and wealthy self-made businesswoman in American history, Martha Stewart, is at once an attractive and admirable yet personally repellant woman, now indicted for financial improprieties.

With genuine vision and painstaking care, Stewart worked hard to create a billion-dollar media empire based on her understanding of what was needed in the 1990s: visible symbols of the good life, achieved by tasteful applications of directed stylishness and decorating know-how in all things domestic — in short, her version of exquisite taste. To millions of American women it was “such stuff that dreams are made on.”

But beneath the carefully cultivated exterior appearance of affability and bonhomie on TV and in print there lurked an “evil twin” Martha — a steel-fisted, calculating, hard-boiled and money-grubbing harridan with an ego as big as all of Turkey Hill.

Biographers Christopher Byron and Jerry Oppenheimer have interviewed many of the dead trees in Martha’s forest and sifted through her difficult youth with a cold, distant and controlling father.

Although they acknowledge her marketing savvy and keen business instincts, they conclude that, based on her past dealings with friends and associates, she is not to be trusted.

Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley was also from a poor family, but lacking Martha’s talent save only a fierce ambition, schemed and connived her way up the estate ladder.

A competitive and cutthroat woman, Leona sharpened her skills in the real estate arena and tricked her second husband into marriage, and then dumped him to get wealthy real estate magnate Harry Helmsley to leave his wife for her. Once she was able to control aging Mr. Helmsley, she made it clear to all that she had the power to hire, buy, intimidate and fire anyone at will.

Her frequent outbursts at employees, associates, family and acquaintances was only a part; she also thought it was beneath her station as a wealthy woman to pay taxes, saying that "only the little people pay taxes."

This mistaken idea caused her to be convicted for tax fraud and evasion, supported by testimony from former colleagues who were only too eager to lend their efforts to see her get her comeuppance.

Another businessman who besmirched his reputation was Anthony Franco, who, after years of building Michigan’s largest and most successful PR agencies, had finally achieved the pinnacle of the profession in 1986 by being elected the president of the Public Relations Society of America.

But Tony succumbed to the insider trading demons when he learned that one of his clients, the Crowley Milner department store chain, was negotiating to accept a buyout offer. Franco phoned his broker and placed an order for 3,000 shares of Crowley stock a day before the agreement was to be signed.

When the SEC found out about this unusually large trade, Tony offered the Martha Stewart defense: He blamed it on his broker. Unfortunately, no one believed him, and he had to unceremoniously resign from the PRSA and also sign a nolo contendere consent decree to the SEC charges.

Although he remained still visible in the Detroit community, his reputation was badly tarnished. When he died in July 2002, local columnists felt obligated to rehash his financial indiscretions and the ham-handed way he ran his business and berated his adversaries during his career.

Martha, Leona and Tony are stellar examples of what the Germans call

Whatever talents and skills, nefarious or otherwise, they possessed to reach the heights of success, Martha, Leona and Tony could not resist the impulse to grasp an easy piece of cheese, but they didn’t see the mousetrap.

What are we to make of these people? Perhaps the psalmist has the answer: “Surely they are placed on slippery ground/and are cast down to ruin/How suddenly they are destroyed/completely swept away by terrors.”

It’s a good thing, too.

Barrett Kalellis is a columnist and writer whose articles appear regularly in various local and national print and online publications. You may reach Mr. Kalellis at

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The lust for money and power, according to the philosopher Spinoza, "is nothing but a species of madness."What else can explain the embarrassingly self-destructive behavior of three of the most well-known and successful business people at the height of their careers: home...
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Tuesday, 10 June 2003 12:00 AM
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