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The Fall of the House of Bartha

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Lobis granted a divorce to Hahn on the grounds of “cruel and inhuman” treatment. Both parties agreed to let a special referee make any financial determinations in the case. At this point, Garr also begged Bartha to offer Hahn a “legitimate” cash settlement to end the case. Dr. Bartha had made an offer, but it was far from reasonable: $400,000. She countered with $1.2 million, but he refused to budge.

When the referee, Marilyn Dershowitz, sister-in-law to Harvard legal giant Alan Dershowitz, looked at the financial records in the case, she made a ruling that would prove controversial. While she believed Bartha was legally entitled to keep his house, she looked to compensate Hahn for getting edged out of what Dershowitz believed was her fair share. The total figure she came up with was $1,227,733.50, nearly half of which was compensation for the decade or so she’d spent raising their children and looking after his parents. “If I could have found her any more money, I would have,” says Dershowitz.

The ruling meant Bartha would have to sell the house, or take another mortgage. He was shell-shocked, and his mental state began to slip from gruff eccentricity toward depression. It was around this time that he penned his first suicide letter, documenting his life in scribbly handwriting. He also made his first suicide attempt, shutting himself in his basement office and dousing the air with insecticide.

His emotional downfall was just beginning. After refusing to accept Dershowitz’s findings, Bartha appealed the decision. Hahn also appealed. Despite the fact that Bartha was holding title to 34 East 62nd, she believed she was entitled to a share. The ruling from the higher court finally came down in January 2005. As it happened, the appeal proved a terrible blunder. Dr. Bartha had been foolish not to settle. Although the court agreed with Bartha that the $1.2 million in compensation for Hahn was unfair, it also held that she had a legal claim to the house. By this point, Garr says the case was turning into “a classic runaway train.” His client became despondent. Garr tried to contact Bartha to discuss the opinion but couldn’t reach him via letter or phone.

“Emotionally, he just checked out,” says Garr, who removed himself as counsel. “That house to Dr. Bartha was the incarnation of the American Dream. It validated all the work he had done, how far he had come from his childhood. It was all he cared about. That house was his mistress.”

Around this period, Bartha tried suicide again. This time, he was found in the basement with the gas on. When his secretary arrived in the morning, she called the police, who broke down the door.

A new trial on the matter of finances was scheduled last fall. But when the day came, Bartha’s seat at the defense table was empty. He didn’t show up. His wife’s requests—stakes in the house worth $4 million, $125,000 in fees for her lawyer, $5,000 a month in maintenance—were all unopposed. With capital-gains taxes and all other payments and debts to her, Bartha would be broke. “Not one nickel,” Garr says. “Nothing. Zippo.”

She then moved to sell the house by auction. A sheriff was instructed to remove her former husband from the house, along with an antique secretary and two desks. The servers came with legal papers and notices. Dr. Bartha did not respond. Two weeks before the explosion, he called Baum, the broker. Bartha wanted to know, if he chose to sell the house, how long would it take. “Three months,” Baum said. No follow-up calls by Bartha were made.

Bartha was also sick around the times of his court dates, he wrote. One day he came down with the flu, the next with gastroenteritis. He gained more weight. “I was very sick but I went to work,” he wrote. “The nurses did not let me stay. I went in because I did not want to be told that I am malingering.”

Then the boiler broke down—it was an ancient contraption, and it needed fixing. Then the electric line broke. The house, like its owner, was crumbling.

Bartha did not fear death. “Dead people do not suffer,” he wrote. Besides, he had the satisfaction of revenge, the satisfaction a life’s work was never up for sale. “Cordula now you believe what I told you,” he wrote. “I am not going to let any body evict me as the communists did it in Rumania, in 1947.”

After the blast, Bartha spent six days in a coma. He died of burns he suffered and of medical complications stemming from his weight. He was buried last week in the same grave as his father, born 1910, and his younger brother Attila. Their modest granite tombstone is shared with other family members. There were a dozen or so people at the burial, including his wife and daughters. “Nobody showed any emotion—it was like nobody really gave a damn,” says Michael Schneider, who works at Cypress Hills Cemetery. “The priest came and said a couple of words and that was it. It was over.”

Then Schneider used his backhoe to shovel the dirt back over. “I had no emotion,” says Schneider. “I was just feeling what he did to others.”

Now the three refugees are together—in a home no one can force them out of.

Additional reporting by Yael Kohen.


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