One Lucky Butler: The Story of Indra Tamang

Wednesday, Jun 2, 2010  |  Updated 4:50 PM EDT
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One Lucky Butler: The Story of Indra Tamang

AP

Indra Tamang, the Nepalese-born butler who inherited two apartments in The Dakota building, background, from his wealthy employer, stands near the Central Park West building.

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Indra Tamang was a teenage farmer in a Nepalese village without running water or electricity. He barely learned how to write and lived in a straw, mud and stone house with his parents before landing a hotel job in the capital of Katmandu.

But after befriending a well-to-do hotel patron, the young man started traveling the world, meeting the likes of Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Patti Smith, and living in New York, Paris and the Greek island of Crete.

Almost four decades later, luck struck again: A Manhattan woman bequeathed Tamang her entire estate — including two apartments in the famed Dakota building off Central Park and her Russian surrealist art collection.

After all, for 36 years, Ruth Ford and her brother relied on "Indra darling" — as she often called the now 57-year-old — to tend to their activities on three continents. He was ever present in the apartments he inherited, available around the clock as Ford's health deteriorated.

She died in August at 98, leaving nothing to her estranged daughter and two grandchildren.

So how does a dirt-poor teenager who speaks only Nepalese turn into a globe-trotting sophisticate — and now, a multimillionaire?

He started as a personable waiter whose fine table skills were noticed by a hotel guest — a Mississippi-born writer, photographer and gay cultural activist in his 60s named Charles Henri Ford. He hired Tamang in 1973, first to get groceries and the mail by bicycle to his Katmandu house, then to cook too. Eventually, the bohemian artist taught Tamang how to use a camera and made him his photo assistant.

He became a sort of surrogate son — a factotum who lived the adventures of Ford and his entourage. At one point, Ford, Tamang and a friend rode a Volkswagen minibus from Istanbul to Katmandu via Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

In Paris, home was a studio on Ile Saint-Louis, and Tamang took French lessons. And there was a house on Crete, where the American's young sidekick learned some Greek from local fishermen.

In New York, they lived in a small apartment at the Dakota four floors above Ford's sister, Ruth Ford, a former actress, model, muse to artists and writers like William Faulkner, and widow of Hollywood actor Zachary Scott.

The Nepalese emigre went along to celebrity-studded parties the siblings hosted or attended, taking pictures of famous figures that were later published in Charles Ford's books and exhibited in Manhattan galleries. Tamang also set up cameras for Ford for profiles of well-known faces.

As the years passed, his attention shifted from the brother to his ailing sister, who was losing her sight and hearing; ironically, the brother died first, in 2002.

In recent years, Tamang was on call even at home in Queens with his wife and children. He skipped family vacations to take care of bills and appointments, organize papers and supervise Ruth Ford's home, though she had a maid.

After her mother's death, Shelley Scott received "a modest settlement" negotiated with the attorney for the estate, said Arnie Herz, Scott's lawyer. Tamang agreed to the resolution, whose details remain confidential, Herz said.

Scott is "very happy" for Tamang, Herz said, and she "personally did not make a penny out of the modest settlement, because she gave it all away."

Her mother had sent her to boarding school as a young child, and the estrangement began, Herz said.

"The mother was a socialite, hanging out with the rich and the famous, and I have the impression that the daughter did not receive the level of parenting she needed," Herz said.

Now, he said, Scott lives a "simple, meaningful life, and she's not interested in bashing her mother."

Neither is Tamang.

"Between Charles and Ruth and me, it was a friendship," he said. "I wasn't just a butler; our bonds were more than that."

When they died, seven years apart, he organized a Buddhist rite for each one in Queens — first for Charles, who followed the Buddhist philosophy, then for Ruth, after her Episcopal funeral.

He says he never looked for another job, though his salary was so modest he could not support his family without his wife also working. The Fords' assets were mostly in property and art, and they were not cash-rich, Tamang said.

People think he's now rich, but until the estate liquidates more assets and high inheritance taxes are subtracted, "I don't have more money now than I did before," he said. "I still have to live, pay my mortgage. ... And relax a little bit."

Then he added, laughing, "We're not talking about a couple of hundred million dollars like a rock star!"

Ruth's three-bedroom apartment is on the market for $4.5 million. The art collection includes works by the late artist Pavel Tchelitchew — a Russian man who was Charles' longtime partner and died in 1957.

Tchelitchew's portrait of Ruth Ford sold in April at Sotheby's for nearly $1 million, including buyer's premium. Another auction of artworks is scheduled for Thursday in Paris, followed by three more Manhattan sales in the coming year.

Tamang is still recovering from the sensational headlines that surprised him in early May.

"The Butler Did It," The Wall Street Journal wrote in breaking the inheritance story, which was followed by a media blitz that left him exhausted and confused, his phone ringing incessantly.

These days, his greatest pleasure is to take his 10-year-old daughter, Zina, to school and pick her up in the afternoon.

Zina has two adult half-sisters born in Nepal — children of Tamang's first wife, who died in 1986. She never left Phakhel, their village of several thousand people a two-hour drive southwest of Katmandu.

Tamang visited often over the years and sent money to his wife and children, and to his parents and five younger siblings. He moved his two older daughters to the United States a dozen years ago, once he remarried and had someone to help care for them.

There were times when he felt homesick, he said, "but then I said to myself, 'be happy wherever you are.'"

He met his current wife, Radhika, in the 1990s in Washington.

And now, they're pondering their future.

He hopes to archive Ford's artwork, writings and films, and to organize exhibits of photographs — Ford's and his own.

Tamang says he's grateful for his poor yet rich Nepalese heritage, which taught him that "if you work and you're honest and earn people's trust, maybe something good will come to you."

Then he added a string of thank-yous spanning his life.

"I thank my mother and father for putting me on this Earth," he said. "And thank you, Mississippi, for bringing Charles to me. And thanks to him and Ruth for making me a New Yorker!"

"And thank you, America."

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