Dead Doctor ‘Wanted To Destroy Himself,’ House
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
There were two things Dr. Nicholas Bartha’s broker knew never to bring up with his client: politics, and the possibility of selling Bartha’s $6.2 million home on the Upper East Side.
The broker, Mark Baum, a vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, had been working with Bartha for six years, finding tenants for the extra apartments in the four-story townhouse, when the building was leveled in an explosion last Monday morning.
After lying injured and comatose for six days at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, Bartha died Saturday night at 66, according to a hospital administrator.
Although investigators have not come forward with any official conclusions, a vitriolic 14-page e-mail message Bartha sent to family, colleagues, and politicians about two hours before the blast strongly suggests that he destroyed his house on purpose, so as to prevent his ex-wife from seizing it as part of a divorce settlement.
Mr. Baum, who said his conversations with his client were “half business, half personal,” said the house, which stood at 34 E. 62nd St. just a week ago, was the only thing that gave Bartha a sense of self during the last few years of his life.
“I thought I almost lost him as a client when I asked him, ‘Hey, would you ever consider selling?'” Mr. Baum said. “I never brought it up again.”
An eviction notice reportedly arrived at Bartha’s door a few days before the building exploded, warning him that he had to sell the house in order to pay the $5 million he owed his ex-wife, Cordula Hahn, by order of the New York State Appellate Court.
“He just wanted to destroy himself, and ‘himself’ was the house, too,” Mr. Baum said.
When he wasn’t seeing patients in his home office or working part-time shifts at various nearby hospitals, Bartha strapped on his toolkit and worked on improving the building, Mr. Baum said. Bartha’s only other hobby, he said, was reading the news on his computer.
Whenever the two had drinks or met for lunch, Mr. Baum said, Bartha pulled him into discussions about government and foreign policy. The last few times he saw his client, Mr. Baum said, the doctor was visibly depressed, and the only thing he expressed any passion for was American politics and international affairs.
Indeed, while the e-mail Bartha sent the morning of the explosion leaps wildly in tone, the Romanian immigrant’s deep-seated libertarian values and caustic disdain for the left wing run through the entire letter. Almost every topic he brings up – from the state judge’s ruling against to his struggle against New York City’s zoning laws to the issue of eminent domain – is tied to his political beliefs.
The letter shows a broad, opinionated interest in and knowledge of world affairs and history. He writes about the workings of Congress with as much personal passion as he does about his wife and children. On page seven, he wrote in all capitals, “POLITICALLY THE COUNTRY IS A DISASTER,” before attacking “anti American politicians” such as George Soros and Michael Moore and comparing the American left to Lenin’s Bolsheviks. The last few paragraphs are addressed to his ex-wife and daughters, but the two post-scripts that follow are devoted to politics (the first declares “Fascism=Communism=Politically Correct” and the second criticizes anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan for “desecrating her son’s memory”).
It is notable, too, that the list of recipients on the e-mail included not only his immediate family but Governor Pataki, Fox News’s Brit Hume, Senator Specter, and Governor Schwarzenegger.
Bartha’s nest on 62nd Street may have given him his sense of identity, but his will to defend it to the death came from his beliefs about the world at large.
In a desperate personal letter sent to Mr. Baum four years ago – for unclear reasons, the broker said – Bartha wrote in wild handwriting that “General Patton should have advanced until he was at the Russian border. The threat of an A-bomb would have done the trick. Because the war ended in Germany, the Eastern European countries became communist. In 1947, the Russian communists nationalized our house, store, gold mine,” forcing Bartha’s family to go to Cluj, a region in northern Romania.
Around 1949, Bartha wrote, he started listening to broadcasts from Radio Free Europe and Radio Voice of America, and as a result “developed a dream that there is a free country.”
Mr. Baum provided The New York Sun with the letter after attempting several times to give it to Bartha’s ex-wife and children but receiving no response, he said. In 1965, Bartha wrote in the letter, he moved temporarily to Queens. According to the 14-page email, he saved up for his tuition by working at the Bulova Watch Company and later at the Astra Tool & Instrument Manufacturing Co.
In 1967, he went to Rome for medical school and met his wife-to-be, Cordula Hahn, a few years later. He graduated in 1974, and the couple moved into a house with Bartha’s parents in Rego Park, Queens. They married in 1977 after Ms. Hahn became pregnant. Four years later, Bartha purchased the townhouse on 62nd Street for $395,000 with the help of his parents, and in 1986 Bartha, his wife, and their two daughters moved in.
For the first time in his life, Bartha lived in a home he considered his own.
His memories of being chased off his family’s land by hostile forces and communist authorities would never leave him, and he would hold on to his den until the very end.
When Ms. Hahn filed for divorce in 2000, telling the court that Bartha had emotionally abused her, neglected her while she was being treated for cancer, and refused to speak to her for two full years, Bartha began to associate the communists who had plagued him in Romania with the “white liberal judges” who were now presiding over his case. New York State ruled in his wife’s favor, giving Bartha the choice to appeal or settle for $1.2 million.
In a letter Bartha forwarded to Mr. Baum along with his handwritten note, his lawyer subtly encouraged him to take the deal, but Bartha did not take his advice.
The appeal would cost Bartha much more and when it drew to a close in January 2005, he owed his ex-wife more than $5 million. Three months ago, according to Mr. Baum, he even started talking about possibly selling the house.
“He brought it up,” Mr. Baum said. “I would never go there.”
The last time the two men spoke was two and a half weeks ago, when Bartha told the broker that he might need him to sell. “I said, ‘You sure? Is everything alright?'” Mr. Baum recalled. “He goes, ‘Eh, pretty much the same. Didn’t get better, Mark, didn’t get better.’ He said, ‘I’m sure you know what the right price is for the house.'”
As they discussed the logistics of a potential sale, Mr. Baum said, Bartha sounded by no means sure that he wanted to go through with it. “He kept saying, ‘if,'” in reference to the possibility, Mr. Baum said. “And that’s it, he never mentioned it after that.”