I leave it all to my butler – the dying wish of reclusive star

Nepali-born servant inherits apartment that was a mecca for New York socialites $8.4m estate

David Usborne
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:21

It was the last flourish of an erstwhile grande dame of Gotham society whose home in the Dakota Building once brimmed with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Capote and Warhol. Upon her death, the actress Ruth Ford bequeathed the flat and everything in it not to her daughter or even to the Met. She left the lot to her trusty butler.

Whether Ms Ford knew it or not during her fading days we will never know, but by naming the Nepali-American Indra Tamang, her servant of several decades, as the beneficiary of her will, she has caused quite the scandale in the venerable Dakota on the western edge of Central Park in Manhattan.

As of now, Mr Tamang, 57, who was born in a mud-hut village outside Kathmandu and, after twenty years of trying, won US citizenship last year, is the owner of his former mistress's three-bedroom Dakota apartment and the collection of paintings by the Russian surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew that hangs inside it. He also received a second studio apartment in the same building that was once occupied by Ms Ford's poet-artist brother, Charles Henri Ford.

But the inheritance has come with a few kinks, not least among them the seven-figure tax bill he will shortly be receiving from Uncle Sam. The impending demand has persuaded him to put the bigger of the two apartments on the market. With neighbours like Yoko Ono – the Dakota, of course, was where her husband, John Lennon, was shot to death in 1980 – and Lauren Bacall, it is a steal at just $4.5m (£3m).

There is another reason he is selling, however. The Dakota, like most pre-war residences in Manhattan, is a co-operative building where residents own shares, not bricks. A co-op building has a co-op board that sets the rules; in the case of the Dakota it is going to be conservative and pernickety. Is it about to allow a former butler actually to occupy either one of the apartments in the building he has come to control? Heavens, no!

Not that the modestly miened Mr Tamang is complaining. Indeed, if he is destined to remain in his small family home in Queens with his wife and three daughters, he will have no cause to complain. (And for sure he will have the cash to pay the mortgage.)

"Whenever you have a roof and clothes and food I think one should always be happy," Mr Tamang told CBS News yesterday.

As for the sheer scale of Ms Ford's gift to him, Mr Tamang, who was first brought to America by Ms Ford's brother Charles in 1974, when he was still in his twenties, avers no great surprise. "This is my second family and I think they considered me family, too," he said. "I am grateful, I am honoured, I am humbled by their generosity."

A portrait of Ford by Tchelitchew that for years hung in the main sitting room recently sold at Sotheby's for almost $1m. While Ms Ford's biological daughter, Shelley Scott – whose godfather was Orson Welles – did file an objection to the will's terms, a settlement was reached and, through lawyers, she has communicated that she is "very happy" for Mr Tamang, the Wall Street Journal reported. Of all her mother's possessions, only costume jewellery and clothing were not bequeathed to the butler after her death last year aged 98. The estate he received was valued at $8.4m.

Ms Ford worked for years as a model and drew mixed reviews starring in an adaptation of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun at the Royal Court in London in 1957. She had a brief first marriage to the actor Peter van Eyck, with whom he had Shelley. She later married a Texas actor, Zachary Scott, who adopted her daughter.

In the years after the 2002 death of her brother Charles, Ms Ford became a virtual recluse in her apartment attended by nurses under the loyal supervision of Mr Tamang as her own health failed. But in her famed socialite years, the twice-married Ford turned her Dakota eyrie into one of the most vaunted social salons in the city. Those invited to her numerous parties included Edward Albee and William Faulkner, one of her oldest friends. Stephen Sondheim once said that an encounter in the apartment with Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein led to the birth of a certain New York musical, West Side Story. She also became popular for offering private screenings of new films that took her fancy, and among those who came to watch films at her home was the late first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Where there's a will...

* The late hotelier Leona Helmsley – known as New York's "Queen of Mean" – left a trust fund of $12m for her white Maltese dog, Trouble, when she died in August 2007. A court the following year reduced the payment to $2m for the dog that lived in Florida at a Helmsley hotel. The remainder of the $10m was diverted to Helmsley's charitable foundation. Helmsley, who was convicted of tax evasion in 1989, cut most of her family out of her will. Trouble became the target of many death threats and reportedly had round-the-clock security at a cost of $100,000 a year.

* Mark Gruenwald, an editor of Marvel Comics who died in the US in 1996, left a will stipulating that his heirs should cremate his body and blend the ashes with ink to make a comic book. They carried out his wishes and 4,000 copies of the edition of his Squadron Supreme comic book were printed.

* Opera lover McNair Ilgenfritz left most of his $150,000 estate to the Metropolitan Opera in 1953 as long as the company staged one of his operas. The offer was declined.

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