From modest Nepal roots, loyal butler worked way to jet set
NEW YORK — 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
In Paris, home was a studio on the Ile Saint-Louis, and Tamang took French lessons. 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 Ruth Ford’s death, her daughter Shelley Scott received “a modest settlement’’ negotiated with the attorney for the estate, said Arnie Herz, Scott’s lawyer. Tamang agreed to the resolution and the 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.’’
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 once 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 Ford’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 was held last week in Paris. It will be followed by three more Manhattan sales in the coming year.