In Serving the Famous, Is a Ringside Seat Enough.

The New York Times

Sunday, March 9, 1997


  There is nothing like a will to give billionaire watchers something to gab about. And one morsel in Harry B. Helmsley's estate should keep them buzzing for quite a while.

  The New York real-estate mogul, who by most accounts was golden-hearted compared with his wife, Leona, left Ceil Fried, his longtime secretary, $25,000, a minuscule part of his $1.7 billion estate. That is all the decades of dictation, menial tasks and juggling one of the world's busiest social schedules was worth to Helmsley.

  At least Ms. Fried got something. Pamela Harriman, the international socialite and Ambassador to France who died in February, cut Janet Howard, her personal assistant of 16 years, out of her will after the two quarreled over money, people close to Harriman have said. And she twisted the knife, not only making $20,000 bequests to two gardeners, a cook and a chauffeur, but even finding it in her heart to leave half her estate to a daughter-in-law estranged from her son.

  These slights from the grave have raised the eyebrows of estate lawyers and the ire of many of the nation's 2.6 million executive assistants, personal secretaries and other servants of the rich and powerful. "It's common today for wealthy employers – chief executives and celebrities – to leave their longtime employees some form of a bequest," said Don Howarth, a partner at Howarth & Smith, the Los Angeles firm that drew up one of the last wills of Doris Duke, the billionaire tobacco heiress. "It is regarded as a bonus, sort of a final severance. What you don't want is for the bequest to be taken as a slap in the face if it's too small."

  Duke, famous for her reclusion and eccentricity, was a woman of many contradictions. She left most of her $1.2 billion fortune to charity, and was renowned for her generosity toward her staff, frequently inspecting the refrigerators at her homes in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii and Manhattan to make sure there was enough lobster for them, even though she herself ate little meat or shellfish.

Doris Duke selected her butler Bernard Lafferty, as co-executor of her estate, allowing him to pocket $5.5

Yet one of her lawyers – Mr. Howarth of Howarth & Smith in Los Angeles – tells of the time she sent a butler back to the local five-and-dime in Newport to demand a replacement for a defective tube of glue that someone on her staff had bought."She never spent $2 when $1 would do," he said.