Sherman Helmsley (1938-2012)

“Movin on up”

Seems like it was easier to be “movin on up” than be buried down below for Sherman Helmsley, a/k/a George Jefferson.  Helmsley, who died of lung cancer on July 24, 2012, couldn’t be laid to rest until his family and friends stopped fighting over provisions in his will, including where to bury him and how to distribute his estate. 

Helmsley’s will, signed one month prior to his death, named Flora Enchinton Bernal as his sole heir.  Enchinton Bernal claimed she was Helmsley’s former manager, business partner and live-in best friend.  However, Richard Thornton, purporting to be Helmsley’s half-brother, challenged the validity of the will.  And, while the four-month dispute ensued, Helmsley’s refrigerated body remained on a slab at the San Jose Funeral Home in El Paso, Texas.

Although DNA tests revealed that Thornton was 99.9 percent likely to be Helmsley’s half-brother, Texas Judge Patricia B. Chew ruled in favor of Enchinton Bernal.  Witnesses at trial for Enchinton Bernal testified that Helmsley was of sound mind when he executed his will and as such, she would remain his sole heir of his estate.

On Nov. 21, 2012—almost four months to the day of Helmsley’s death—he was eulogized at Cielo Vista Church in El Paso, Texas and buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery.  George Jefferson was finally put to rest. 


Edward I. Koch (1924-2013)

“How’m I doin’?”

On Feb. 1, New York lost one of its most outspoken and gregarious mayors: Edward Irving Koch passed away at the age of 88.  Koch’s three-term administration (beginning in 1977) is known for helping New York City avoid financial ruin during a time of widespread government corruption; racial unrest; a rising AIDS population; a rampant drug epidemic; and increasing homelessness.  After David N. Dinkins beat Koch in the 1989 Democratic primaries, Koch returned to the practice of law and assumed a variety of media positions including columnist, commentator, movie critic and author.  

According to papers filed in March in Surrogate’s Court, Koch’s net worth when he died was between $10.5 million and $11 million.  Part of that wealth may come from the fact that Koch didn’t own a car and lived in a rent-controlled apartment in near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.  Koch, who was unmarried and childless at the time of his death, left a will directing that his sister, Pat Thaler and her husband, jointly receive $500,000; Mary Garrigan, his secretary, receive $100,000; his sister-in-law Gail Koch receive $50,000; and Gail’s two children (Andrew and Joey) each receive $50,000.  Koch also left $100,000 to the LaGuardia and Wagner Educational Fund at Fiorello H. LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York to create a program (bearing his name) that would promote government and public service.  The remainder of his estate (after about $22,450 in funeral expenses, plus attorneys’ fees and taxes) will go to his sister Pat’s three sons in equal shares.  After taxes, Koch’s three nephews will most likely split about $7 million.  

But monetary bequests were not all that New York’s 105th mayor, known for his catch phrase, “How’m I doin’”? left behind.  He left pre- and post-mayoral documents, including over 2,400 photos, almost 1,600 videos, about 270 artifacts and 70 oral history transcripts to the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College.  He also left a collection of photographs to the New York Historical Society.  Among those photos are ones with Koch joined by various ambassadors, U.S. presidents and one with Pope John Paul II at New York City’s JFK Airport.


Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

“I’ll see you at the movies”

On April 4, the only film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, passed away at age 70.  Roger Ebert, movie columnist for the Chicago-Sun Times since 1967, was also known as one half of the duo (along with Gene Siskel) who launched “Sneak Previews” in 1975.  The success of that show morphed into “At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert,” “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” “Roger Ebert & the Movies” (after Siskel passed away) and finally “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper” (when fellow movie critic Richard Roeper joined him as co-host).  By 2006, Ebert was unable to speak, having lost his voice due to complications from thyroid cancer, salivary glands and chin.  Undaunted by his ability to communicate with sound, Ebert continued to review movies online through his website, twitter and blog. 

In 1992, at age 50, Ebert married Chaz Hammelsmith, a trial attorney and divorced mother of two.  At the time of his death, Ebert’s net worth was about $9 million. Two days before he died, Ebert wrote his final blog with these parting words: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me.  I'll see you at the movies."


Essie Mae Washington-Williams (1925-2013)

A Segregationist’s Secret

On Feb. 4, the interracial daughter of America’s longest serving senator in history, passed away.  Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of Sen. James Strom Thurmond, broke her silence six months after Thurmond had passed away in 2002.  Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, was a teenage maid in the Thurmond home in the 1920s.  Sen. Thurmond, who was white, and Butler, who was black, had an affair, and only when Washington-Williams was a young adult did she learn that Thurmond was her father. 

In 1948, Thurmond, then-governor of South Carolina, ran for president on a segregationist platform.  Despite his political views, Thurmond had visited Washington-Williams many times while she was in college, provided some financial assistance to her children and wrote a letter of recommendation for her son to go to medical school. 

The Thurmond family acknowledged Washington-Williams’ link to the family and in 2004, a monument at the South Carolina State House was changed to add the name “Essie Mae” as one of the senator’s children.  

This year, at age 87, Washington-Williams passed away in a nursing home in South Carolina.  She left behind two daughters, a son, more than 12 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.  She’s also survived by relatives on her father’s side: her two half-brothers, Strom Thurmond Jr. (a former U.S. attorney in South Carolina), Paul Thurmond (a Republican state senator) and her half-sister, Juliana Whitmer (Sen. Thurmond’s daughter).


Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013)

The Iron Lady No More

On April 8, Britain’s longest serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, passed away from a stroke at age 87 in London.  Dubbed “The Iron Lady” for her hard-driving personality, Thatcher was the only female to hold the position of Prime Minister and during her first term in office, introduced a set of economic reforms aimed to combat the Britain’s high unemployment and recession.  A friend of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was viewed as an important link between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In contrast to the outspoken manner in which she lived her life, the details of her estate are shrouded in secrecy. At the time of her death, Thatcher was living in London’s glamorous Ritz hotel.  Some say that she was living there as a guest, courtesy of media tycoons David and Frederick Barclay, who also happen to own the luxury digs.

Thatcher always remained tight-lipped about her finances.  Before moving to the Ritz, she lived for more than 20 years in a five-bedroom house in the affluent neighborhood of Chester Square, Belgravia.  The small garden square is considered one of the most desirable neighborhoods in London.  

In 1991, Thatcher had set up the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, a charity designed to advance the causes of political and economic freedom.  Ten years after its inception, the foundation’s assets had plummeted and in 2005, its U.K. arm was dissolved.  After leaving the office of Prime Minister, Thatcher was paid $1 million to become a global consultant for Philip Morris Inc. tobacco company and participated in speaking engagements throughout the world.  She also penned an autobiography in 1993, receiving a substantial advance from publisher HarperCollins.   

Thatcher died leaving behind two children, Mark Thatcher and his twin Carol.  Her husband, businessman Sir Denis Thatcher, died in 2003.  On April 16, her death certificate was made public, listing her occupation as “Stateswoman (retired).”  During her funeral, the chimes of Big Ben were silenced—an honor not bestowed on anyone since Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965.