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The Fall of the House of Bartha

Cast out of his home in Romania by the communists, Dr. Bartha loved his piece of America. Then his divorce threatened to dispossess him again. A refugee’s story.

From left, Bartha in his mid-twenties in a Queens tool factory; the remains of Bartha's East 62nd Street townhouse. (Photo-collage by Gerald Slota)  

Dr. Nicholas Bartha was driven from his first home at the age of 4. He came from a prosperous family in Romania. His father owned a gold mine in the Carpathian foothills, in a Transylvanian town of 4,000 called Rosia Montana, the oldest mining settlement in the country. It was founded by the Romans almost 2,000 years before. The family was a quarter Jewish (his grandfather was a rabbi), and during World War II, harassed by Romania’s Nazi-allied Iron Guard, they were driven into hiding up in the mountains, in the mines, with many of their Jewish neighbors.

“Being in a cavern,” he wrote, “was one of my earliest memories.”

The doctor was thinking about his childhood and planning to share these and other memories and last thoughts with the world in an ongoing suicide note that he started four years ago and finished on July 10. He made his way downstairs at daybreak to the desktop computer in his study, which he had set up on the third floor of his landmarked townhouse on East 62nd Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. Outside, trucks had already started to make their deliveries. He’d always hated their smoke and noise.

Inside the house was clutter. Mostly books, medical journals, newspapers. On his dining-room table, for instance, loose papers rose as high as two feet in stacks; buried between them one could see a lone bowl he was using for his meals. His wife, Cordula, had left him five years earlier, taking his children, suing him for divorce, seeking compensation for decades spent together.

In his life as a bachelor, the doctor’s health had deteriorated. He weighed a bearish 350 pounds, suffered from diabetes and heart trouble, and, at 66, didn’t bother much with appearances. He dressed in cheap khaki pants most days, often leaving his checkered shirts untucked, his fly unzipped. Once, when his real-estate broker and friend, Mark Baum, came to the townhouse, he noticed the lenses of the doctor’s glasses covered in specks of white dust. “You been up painting all night, doctor?” Baum, who was always charmed by the doctor, remembers saying. “No,” was Bartha’s reply. “It is just the dandruff.” With that declaration, Bartha removed his brown frames and gave his lenses a hearty puff.

The townhouse was a Neo-Grecian gem, built in 1882, one of the first erected on the Upper East Side. But Bartha’s passion for it was not as a historical artifact. The room off the parlor, with the white marble fireplace, grand chandelier, and gold-leaf ceiling, for instance, was once used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and captains of New York industry like Vincent Astor and Nelson Doubleday as a secret war room, where they discussed military intelligence during the forties. “You could feel them,” says Baum. “You walked in that room and you could see those men playing cards and tossing their nubby stogies into a roaring fire.” Dr. Bartha didn’t see the romance. He capped the fireplace—he didn’t want to lose any pricey air-conditioning up the chimney—and took the chandelier down to the basement. He used FDR’s hideaway for storage. A three-speed Schwinn was parked there, and a creepy pair of rusting, sixties-style hair dryers his mother used in her beauty shop (it was said she styled the hair of Barbara Walters) were marooned, along with more books, more papers, gathering dust. Over the years, Baum often told Bartha to move his junk to the basement, open the space up a bit. The doctor usually ignored him. He cherished his possessions, his papers, his clutter. They kept him company.

But that morning, sitting at his computer in his study, he planned on leaving nothing behind. He looked at his screen saver, which featured a scanned-in black-and-white photo of his family’s seized home back in Rosia Montana—a concrete, one-story structure. The grainy image showed himself and his now-deceased younger brother, Attila, smiling and playing out front. Dr. Bartha then focused on his letter, addressed first to the conservatives he admired, like Senator Arlen Specter and Brit Hume, and then to the objects of his revenge: his wife and daughters. “When you read this lines your life will change forever,” he wrote in a now-famous farewell, before he rigged a gas pipe in his basement and blew up his house in an explosion so loud and fearsome that the White House was informed. “You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to rubbish digger. You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you ‘I will leave the house only if I am dead.’ You ridiculed me. You should have taken it seriously.”

Divorce lawyers and matrimonial experts said the vindictive nature of the case was unusual only in degree. “We call them barn burners,” says Jeffrey Strauss, a lawyer with Wachtel & Masyr who once fought over ownership of a house for more than twenty years in divorce court. “They’d rather take away the sandbox than let anyone else play in it.”