Fred A. Bernstein

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Not a Palace, But It's Home

The Ottoman emperor-in-waiting lives in a walk-up, rent-controlled apartment

Published in The New York Times, March 26, 2006

IF the Ottoman Empire were restored, it would make one New York City landlord very happy.

His tenant, Ertugrul Osman, would become the Ottoman sultan - the head of a dynasty that ruled from 1299 to 1924, when the Turkish Republic was established. The job would come with a house in Istanbul, the 285-room Dolmabahce Palace, now a museum.

New York law, not to mention noblesse oblige, would require the sultan to surrender his two-bedroom apartment over a restaurant on Lexington Avenue in the 70's. He has lived there since 1945, and his rent is $350 a month.

But the empire isn't coming back. "I'm a very practical person," said the prince, trim, sharp and well dressed at 93. "Democracy works well in Turkey."

Ali Tayar, an architect from Istanbul who became friends with Osman in the early 1990's, put the prince's status in perspective. "He has no ambitions to return, and he doesn't want anyone to think he does," Mr. Tayar said. "But he's an incredibly important link to Turkey's past."

Since they don't plan to go anywhere, Osman and his wife, Zeynep, a niece of the last king of Afghanistan, expect their landlord, Stephen Kirschenbaum, to maintain their current home in safe condition.

In 2005, part of the couple's bathroom ceiling collapsed moments after the princess had left the room.

"I could have died," she said.

"I could have sued," said her husband, his comic timing sharpened by nearly a century of practice.

The princess is so courtly that she phones a reporter in advance of a visit to ask whether he would like coffee or tea. So imagine how she feels warning the reporter to be careful, because there aren't any light bulbs in the narrow stairway leading to the third-floor apartment.

Illuminated or not, the stairs are so steep that it's hard for anyone, much less anyone who's 93, to climb them. Still, Osman and Zeynep (who is nearly 30 years his junior) descend and ascend daily. Their haunts include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park and their favorite restaurant, Swifty's. They speak knowledgeably - in English, Turkish and French - about music, art and politics.

"When I first met him, I didn't know how to address him," Mr. Tayar said. "Even the formal 'you' in Turkish seemed too meager. But he made things easy."

Mr. Tayar said that Osman, a devotee of contemporary architecture, visited Pop and Waterloo, downtown restaurants Mr. Tayar designed. "He really gets it."

The pair are not above poking fun at themselves. A needlepoint pillow in the couple's bedroom says, "It's not easy being a princess."

Indeed. After the ceiling collapsed, the couple wrote to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Soon the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development was rebuilding their roof, while the couple lived in a hotel.

Mr. Kirschenbaum, who practiced law in New York for nearly 30 years but now owns a resort in Santa Fe, N.M., said that he was preparing to rebuild the roof when the city stepped in. (A spokesman for the city confirmed that the Housing Department had made the repairs to the apartment.)

Although New York State considers the apartment to be rent-controlled, Mr. Kirschenbaum said he was not sure it qualified for that status, because it was the only residential unit in a commercial building. He added that the couple's lease, originally drafted 60 years ago, requires them to make repairs to the apartment.

Maddy Tarnofsky, the couple's lawyer, disagreed. "There is an ancient lease that does provide for the tenant to make certain repairs, but not structural repairs," she said, adding that she did not believe the provision would be enforceable in any event.

Ms. Tarnofsky contends that the rent sounds better than it is. "If you add in the amount they have spent over the years to keep the boiler running, and to do the types of repairs that are the responsibility of the landlord, it has actually been a very expensive apartment," she said.

The couple is now suing Mr. Kirschenbaum to force him to make further repairs to the apartment.

If the geopolitical situation were different, the prince and princess, who married in 1991, would have servants to handle such matters. Twelve years ago, Osman became the oldest male member of his family - and thus the 45th head of the dynasty founded by Osman I in 1299. He is the last living grandson of any Ottoman emperor (his grandfather, Abdul Hamid II, ruled from 1876 to 1909). After him, Zeynep said, "the tradition of the family will disappear because the rest of the members were born abroad."

Their annual visits to Turkey are front-page news there. Turkey is seeking admission to the European Union, hat in hand, a process that some Turks find humiliating. By contrast, Osman symbolizes a time when the Ottomans exercised vast power.

He also represents a moderate approach to Islam. "If the caliphate were restored," Zeynep said, referring to the sultan's traditional role as the leader of Sunni Muslims, "the world would be a better place."

Born in 1912, Osman was sent to school in Vienna as a child. In 1924, the royal family was expelled by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. "The men had one day to leave," he said. "The women were given a week."

Osman, who was already studying in Europe, remained there until he moved to New York in 1939. His first trip back to Turkey was 53 years later, in August 1992, at the invitation of the prime minister.

Of course, he wanted to see Dolmabahce Palace. Eschewing the red-carpet treatment, he insisted on joining a tour group, despite the summer heat. "I didn't want a fuss," he said. "I'm not that kind of person."

Still, even he was ruffled when a guard told him he couldn't step up off a plastic mat onto the parquet floors, which he had played on as a child.

As a young man, Osman, who is now retired, was in the mining business and often traveled to South America. Because he claimed to be a citizen of the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire did not exist, he refused the passport of any nation. For years, he traveled with a homemade passport, and then a permit issued by the United States government. Incredibly, that worked for decades, and might have continued to work had Sept. 11 not led to tighter security. In 2004, he received a Turkish passport for the first time.

Zeynep had also led the life of an exile. Her family left Afghanistan after King Amanullah, her uncle, was forced from power in 1929. In Istanbul, her mother, who was Turkish, worked as a surgeon and ran her own hospital. "But she never lost her femininity," Zeynep said. "I never even heard her raise her voice."

After moving to New York in 1971, Zeynep supported herself by selling Turkish-made clothing under the brand name Zana. (She has recently begun marketing some of the same clothes at At a party in 1989, she met Osman, then a widower with no children. She was smitten, but he worried that the age difference between them was too great. "Eventually," she recalled, "'I told him, 'If you won't marry me, I'll marry someone else.' It was an empty threat, but it worked."

After they married in 1991, Osman's apartment, with its 25-by-40-foot living room and huge terrace facing a leafy backyard, was the obvious place for them to live.

At one time, Osman said, he had 12 dogs in the apartment and kept neighborhood children busy as dog walkers. These days, the couple are down to two cats, Dodo and Silvermix.

The furnishings are comfortable but modest. In one corner of the living room, a collection of silver objects that belonged to Osman's family evokes past grandeur. He is too modest to show them off, so Zeynep does the honors.

An ornately framed mirror bears a portrait of a long-ago sultan. "He's the one who laid siege to Vienna," Osman said matter-of-factly.

Then, seeing the reporter admire the silver, Zeynep announced, "Everyone who visits us leaves with a token." There was a long pause, and then she pointed to the visitor's jacket. "Cat hairs."

Osman offered reassurance. "The hairs," he said, "are silvery in the right light."

And in the right light, this is Dolmabahce Palace.