Instead of traveling back to Romania to oversee his mother’s funeral, Dr. Bartha decided to say home in New York. Cordula went in his stead. Again, he claimed he had to work.
The real trouble started with his daughters, he wrote. He couldn’t control them. He blamed Cordula. “She permitted them to come and go as they wished,” he wrote. “There were no rules. She never asked them to do anything in the house.” He wanted them to study in college and secure honorable professions like lawyers or doctors. His oldest, Johanna, was interested in fashion. His youngest, Serena, had tattoos around both shoulders. She wanted to be a chef. Bartha saw this as Cordula’s fault and refused to pay their tuitions. “She was supposed to educate her children,” he wrote. “I do not think that a COOK and a SEAMSTRESS is a very good result. Cordula had only one responsibility and she failed!”
One night, a fight broke out. It was between Johanna and Serena. “When I asked Cordula to help me to control Johanna, Cordula refused to get involved,” Bartha wrote. He and Cordula became estranged. He worked the night shifts—sometimes as many as six a week—along with moonlighting at other hospitals. Eventually, in October 2001, she moved out with her daughters. This is the note she left him: “Nicholas, it is clear we cannot live together. More than two years of no communication seems enough. All the best for your future. Cordula.”
“That house to Dr. Bartha was the incarnation of the American Dream,” says his first divorce lawyer. “It was all he cared about. It was like his mistress.”
Dr. Bartha didn’t even know where they had moved at first. One day shortly after, he saw Cordula’s car parked in the neighborhood. He was curious. He waited until she returned. Then, according to one of his confidants, he followed her. She drove north, all the way up to Washington Heights. She had taken an apartment there. “He couldn’t understand,” the friend says. “He couldn’t understand why they would want to live in Washington Heights when they could live on the Upper East Side.”
Then she filed for divorce. He was shocked and panicked, the friend says. He always blamed his brother Attila’s death on divorce. “Now my brother is dead and his ex-wife is enjoying his house,” Bartha wrote. “I don’t know why he worked all his life.”
When Bartha first arrived in his lawyer’s office in late 2001, Garr was unsure about taking his case. Garr is one of the high-profile divorce lawyers in the city, taking boldface clients with big bank accounts. He went after Donald Trump on behalf of Ivana. He went after Anthony Quinn on behalf of the actor’s wife. He repped Playboy Bunny turned federal judge Kimba Wood. Who was this overweight, disheveled doctor in front of him, saying his divorce was a by-product of the world’s political ills? “He was very serious, very strict, humorless,” Garr says. “A very withdrawn, isolated individual.” And stubborn. “He didn’t seem to understand the system and how sometimes the system forces people to settle. Litigating is time-consuming. It’s risky. So with most people I say, ‘Look, we never know who the judge is going to like. Maybe you win. Maybe you lose.’ He couldn’t discuss it. He didn’t want to settle.”
They went to trial in March 2002. Unlike their gloomy criminal counterparts up the street, where the courtrooms are flooded with fluorescent light and designed “rough” to deter would-be criminals, the matrimonial parts at New York State Supreme Court, at 60 Centre Street, have a more polished feel. The trial was held on the third floor, Room 345. The front door is wrapped in brown leather and secured with brass rivets, like an antique trunk. Inside, the courtroom looks much like the interior of Bartha’s home, with dark mahogany wainscoting around the walls.
This is Supreme Court Justice Joan Lobis’s part. With short, spiky hair that looks frosted blonde on top, Lobis is considered one of the more liberal judges in the state, in part because she is openly gay. From the outset, Garr sensed she had a “negative” opinion of Dr. Bartha, according to letters.
Unlike every other state, New York still has the controversial “fault” laws on the books, which means you need a reason to get divorced. In Bartha v. Bartha, the fault was fuzzy. Bartha may have been cold and absent emotionally, but he didn’t cheat and didn’t hit her. Besides, it was Cordula who had left him. In presenting their case, Cordula’s attorneys told of how he refused to go to his mother’s funeral and didn’t show up when Cordula was suffering from breast cancer. They also produced two clippings from the New York Times with swastikas and hammers and sickles. Bartha claimed she was after his money. “If one is a gold digger any lie will do,” he wrote. “She never consulted a psychiatrist or priest or rabbi or marriage counselor!!!”