Did Robert Durst Murder His Own Best Friend, ‘Mafia Princess’ Susan Berman?

Real estate scion Robert Durst faces trial in the killing of a woman suspected of helping him cover up an earlier crime

Susan Berman had been dead for 14 years when Robert Durst called Nick Chavin in December 2014 saying he wanted to talk about the unsolved murder of their friend, Berman, and the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen.

“Susy”—as Berman was known—a speed-talking journalist and screenwriter with an exotic background and a career that had shriveled to the point where she couldn’t pay her rent, had met a violent death in her Los Angeles home.

One night shortly before Christmas 2000, a gunman—most likely someone she knew because she never answered her door to strangers, not even the postman—showed up at her Spartan cottage along Benedict Canyon Drive, on the shabbier side of Beverly Hills.

Berman, who had gone to the movies with a friend that night, was dressed in purple sweatpants and a white T-shirt. At 55, she still wore her jet-black hair below her shoulders and thick bangs across her forehead.

The killer followed her inside, put a 9mm pistol to the back of her head and pulled the trigger, killing her instantly.

Durst considered Berman a confidante and his closest friend. He and Chavin, an advertising executive who was close to Durst and Berman, had been out of touch for years. But Durst, the enigmatic scion of a powerful New York real estate family, had reached out recently, offering a renewed friendship and a key to his townhouse in the gentrifying Mount Morris Park district of Harlem.

The two men met for dinner at Barawine, a French bistro on the same block along Malcolm X Boulevard as Durst’s townhouse. Berman’s fate did not come up at dinner, so Chavin asked about her as they stood outside the restaurant before parting.

Durst was quiet for a moment before the words rumbled out of his mouth: “I had to,” Chavin recalls him saying. “It was her or me. I had no choice.”

As Durst turned to go, Chavin asked, “You wanted to talk about Kathie?”

Rather than respond, Durst walked slowly away in the direction of his townhouse.

Chavin agonized for months over dueling loyalties to his two closest friends, Berman and Durst, before telling his story to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Lewin.

This 37-year saga got national attention during the 2015 broadcast of HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Fearing that Durst was about to flee the country, the authorities arrested him on a murder warrant in New Orleans, hours before the sixth and final episode of The Jinx.

Now, after more than four years of delays and pretrial hearings, Durst, who is 76, frail, and worth millions, will go on trial, most likely in January, in the death of Berman. The case promises to resolve a series of mysteries dating back decades, involving three deaths in three states and a cast of dozens.

Susan Berman and Robert Durst early in their friendship, which lasted until her murder in 2000. “Bobby adored Susan,” a friend said. “She was his Holly Golightly. Bobby was Caspar Milquetoast.”

Courtesy HBO

Durst has repeatedly insisted that he did not kill Berman and doesn’t know who did. His multimillion-dollar defense team, led by Dick DeGuerin, argues that the case against his client is circumstantial.

“The prosecution’s case is based on speculation and hearsay and no scientific evidence,” DeGuerin told me in May. “There’s a lack of any physical evidence.”

Durst himself can be tantalizingly frank and enigmatic at the same time. “Whatever happened to Kathie was a big chunk my fault,” he told me during a 2010 interview. “But with Susan, I’m ready to go before God naked and say, ‘I didn’t know nothin’. ’ ”

The prosecution contends that Durst silenced Berman permanently because he was afraid that his fiercely loyal friend was about to betray him to New York authorities who had reopened the investigation into the disappearance of Kathie.

When I first started reporting on the mysteries surrounding Durst nearly 20 years ago, it was widely assumed by Berman’s friends, Kathie’s family, and state police investigators that his secrets were locked away in Berman’s head. But they also speculated that Berman was so devoted to Durst and so steeped in the culture of omertà that she was unlikely to break her silence.

But I believe a far more complex picture of Berman has emerged from testimony at pretrial hearings over the past two years, court records, and a recording that recently surfaced of a startling phone call Berman made to a friend 11 days after Kathie vanished.

Berman, a Mafia princess who grew up to be a writer, did not just keep Durst’s secrets. As much as she was the victim of a cold-blooded execution, she was also an active accomplice in the cover-up of Kathie’s disappearance and apparent murder, according to investigators, witnesses, and some of Berman’s closest friends.

It was Berman, according to investigators, who made a critical phone call while posing as Kathie that steered NYPD detectives away from the actual crime scene.

The call she made, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin has argued, “not only made it appear as if Kathie was still among the living, but, as importantly, it redirected the investigation away from the jurisdiction where the actual killing occurred in South Salem, [New York], and away from [Durst], the person who killed her.”

In the days after Kathie’s disappearance, Berman stage-managed Durst’s interviews with tabloid reporters, making sure to drop false clues into the narrative they spun to reporters.

Contrary to the claims of Kathie’s family and others that Durst had attacked Kathie physically as their marriage splintered, Berman told authorities that Kathie told her that she wanted “to provoke Bobby to physically abuse her in public to get a better settlement” in a pending divorce action.

Berman told police in 1982 that Kathie was a coke addict and her disappearance was related to drugs. Later, during a legal battle between Durst and Kathie’s family over her estate, Berman submitted an affidavit painting Kathie as a failing medical student wracked by alcohol and depression.

Kathie’s family is embittered over how long it has taken to get justice for their sister. “Obviously it’s horrible that Berman was murdered by Durst,” said Kathie’s older sister, Mary Hughes. “But we’ll always be mindful that she was Durst’s coconspirator in covering up Durst’s murder of our sister.”

Like many of the people who figure in the Durst travail, Berman is a fascinating character all by herself. She was the daughter of David—“Davie the Jew”—Berman, a Jewish gangster, and like his partner Bugsy Siegel, a pioneer in reinventing Las Vegas as a gambling and entertainment mecca. Her mother, Gladys, was a former tap dancer.

To Susan, who was then oblivious to her father’s occupation, Davie was a suave hotel operator and a doting father. He gave her a roomful of toys and treated her like a princess at the Flamingo Hotel, where her portrait hung next to the reservation desk. She regaled her friends with stories of kidnapping-prevention drills at home, playing gin with her father’s bodyguards, and Liberace singing at her birthday party.

But the police and the press had another view. At the ripe age of 22, her father’s face was on a 1925 wanted poster for the holdup and burglary of a post office. One crime reporter described Davie as “so tough he could kill a man with one hand tied behind his back.”

“He was just my father to me,” Berman explained in her 1981 memoir, Easy Street, “but to the world he was Davie Berman, one of the founders of the syndicate, a trusted partner of Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and Bugsy Siegel.”

Berman’s father died in 1957 on the operating table in Las Vegas when she was 12 and a year later her mother committed suicide, leaving her an orphan, albeit a sheltered one who grew up at boarding schools with her own trust fund. By her account, she imbibed her parents’ values, especially their Jewish faith, an abiding sense of loyalty, and the importance of keeping secrets.

Berman met Robert Durst at UCLA in the late 1960s. There was a deep and immediate connection. If “Susy” was a Mafia princess, “Bobby” was the prince of a powerful New York real estate dynasty.

Durst, who had graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in economics, was the eldest son of Seymour Durst, a New York developer and a visionary who with his brothers had built a major real estate empire in the heart of one of the toughest and richest cities in the world.

Mary Ellen Mark

Durst recalled meeting Berman on a lazy summer day at a UCLA dorm that featured a 20-cent buffet and a sparkling swimming pool. “I saw this girl who looked very, very pretty wearing a white outfit and a white cap and black hair,” Durst told producers of The Jinx. “And I went over and started talking to her. And we went swimming. And that was Susan Berman. And we stayed friends until she died in 2000.”

They were soul mates but apparently never romantic partners, and both were storytellers. Berman embellished the tales she told friends to make them more compelling; Durst has conceded that he is a lifelong liar, once telling his family that he earned a doctorate at UCLA despite never completing any of his postgraduate work.

Underneath it all, they shared a profound sense of tragedy: Durst’s mother, Bernice, died when he was seven after slipping, or jumping, from the roof of their home in Scarsdale, New York.

“They both were abandoned by the person who was supposed to protect them and love them the most,” said Carol Pogash, who befriended Berman when both were reporters in San Francisco in the early 1970s.

The contrast between the vivacious Berman and the taciturn Durst, whom many people found odd, was also apparent and part of their attraction. “Bobby adored Susan,” her friend Sheila Jaffe told me in a 2001 interview. “She was his Holly Golightly. Bobby was Caspar Milquetoast.”

To Durst, Berman was his best friend, even when they lived on different coasts and only saw each other a couple of times a year.

While he moved back to New York in 1970 and joined the family business for a time, Berman attended the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley and, after graduation, quickly made a name for herself. She moved from the San Francisco Examiner to magazine writing. Her City article “In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why Can’t I Get Laid?” caused a sensation.

She was a mash-up of entitlement and vulnerability. Berman ordered around copyboys. She was riven by phobias—hated crossing bridges or riding in the elevator of high-rises without a male escort. But, friends say, she was always a funny, intelligent raconteur who enjoyed being the center of attention.

“In a newsroom of eccentrics, she managed to stand out,” Pogash said. “A lot of us were drawn to her excitement and her energy.”

Despite rejection notices, Berman was optimistic about her career and moved in 1978 to New York, where she was soon writing for New York and Cosmopolitan. She and Durst were as tight as ever.

By then, Bobby was working for the Durst Organization. He married Kathleen McCormack in 1973 after a whirlwind romance. She was nine years younger and from a working-class Long Island family. At least initially theirs was a storybook marriage. The couple traveled extensively and enjoyed the New York nightlife, from ballet to Studio 54, often in the company of Berman and another California transplant, Nick Chavin.

“Kathie took a back seat to Susan,” said Stephen M. Silverman, a writer at People magazine and a friend of Berman. “She was always in the background. Susan was very colorful. Bob’s not as colorful.”

Berman’s burgeoning career hit a high point in late 1981 with the publication of her memoir, Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family. Durst, who is cited in the acknowledgements, served as host at a book party at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in Manhattan, whose walls were decorated with poster-size photographs of her parents.

A jubilant Berman, in a custom dress, took in the length and breadth of her friends and guests, who included Jerry Rubin, the anti-war activist turned businessman; Julie Baumgold, a New York writer; Danny Goldberg, a music industry executive; Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman; Lynda Obst, a film producer who had optioned Berman’s book; and Chavin.

“It was always about Susan,” Pogash said. “Her life was the best drama she ever told.”

Durst’s marriage was another matter. “By 1981,” he said on The Jinx, “our life was half arguments, fighting, slapping, wrestling.”

Kathie wanted a divorce.

After he forced her to have an abortion in 1976, Kathie traveled a more independent path. She went from nursing school to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, where she was scheduled to graduate in June 1982. The pressure on her was enormous as she tried to navigate her marriage and medical school, while Durst cut off her credit cards and resorted to violence. No one disputes she had a glass of wine at bedtime and, like many in her social circle, used cocaine. Durst, friends say, was not unacquainted with coke—but his lifelong drug of choice is marijuana.

Over Christmas 1981, Durst yanked Kathie out of a McCormack family gathering by her hair. A week or so later, Kathie checked into Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx with contusions and bruises on her face and head—injuries, records show, that were inflicted by her husband.

Then on Sunday night, January 31, 1982, Kathie vanished.

Durst waited five days before walking into a Manhattan police station to report her missing. He told authorities they had been at their stone cottage in South Salem, 50 miles north of Manhattan. At his insistence, she had returned to the cottage from a nearby party. An argument ensued. Durst last saw Kathie that night, he told police, when he put her on a train to Manhattan so she could attend a clinic the next day.

The story broke in the New York Post on February 8 under the front-page headline: “Vanishes! Search for beautiful wife of developer.” Much of the information in the story by Marsha Kranes came from Durst, including the revelation that a doorman in their Manhattan building had seen her arrive Sunday night.

“That was something Durst told me,” Kranes testified at a pretrial hearing last year in Los Angeles. “All the information in that article came from my notes from the conversation with Mr. Durst.”

An investigator working for Durst, Edward Wright, established that the doorman was not working the night Kathie disappeared, according to a report that Wright wrote titled “Discrepancies in the Recollections of Various Principals,” before Durst fired him. Reporter Charles Lachman, who picked up the story from Kranes, told the court that Durst said he “never beat” his wife. Lachman’s notes show that Berman told him Kathie was never admitted to Jacobi Hospital.

The next day another New York Post story revealed that someone claiming to be Kathie had called Albert Kuperman, a dean at Albert Einstein, on the day after her disappearance to say that she was ill and would not attend class that day.

“That’s what aided Durst the most and gave us the impression that the true venue was in Manhattan,” said retired NYPD Detective Michael R. Struk, who caught the case in 1982. “We now know that whatever he did, it was up there” in South Salem.

The dean testified in Los Angeles in 2017 that he did not know Kathie well enough to recognize her voice, although he did say that she was scheduled to graduate in June. The call itself was unusual in that students generally reported to the clinic supervisor, not a dean, according to Kuperman and some of Kathie’s fellow students at the time.

Peter Halperin, a 66-year-old psychiatrist and former classmate of Berman, testified last year that Kathie had confided that she feared her increasingly violent husband.

Much to the dismay of Kathie’s family and friends who suspected that Durst knew more than he was telling, the investigation into her disappearance centered on Manhattan. Like amateur sleuths, Kathie’s supporters focused on hunting for clues at the South Salem cottage, which was not searched by authorities.

Six days after Durst reported Kathie missing and three days after the story hit the tabloids, Berman made a confidential call to a friend, Albert Goldman, an academic and the author of controversial biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Investigators say Susan Berman’s phone call to police misdirected the search for Kathleen McCormack after she vanished.

Courtesy HBO

It’s been “three days since we broke the story with her picture,” she told Goldman, according to a recording of the phone call among the author’s papers at Columbia University. “I’ve been in charge of all the media. I want to know if I’ve covered all the ends.”

Over the course of the phone call, Berman seemed to use Goldman to test the plausibility of various scenarios or narratives. “How long can a dead body in the river or in Riverside Park or something remain hidden?

“It’s not a runaway wife,” she said, contradicting the story she and Durst would tell police. “It’s not drugs. There’s nothing else. Personally, between you and me, Albert, and never to be quoted, OK? I think she’s dead.”

A year later, Berman submitted an affidavit saying that she was one of Kathie’s “best friends.” “Although they argued constantly in my presence,” she added, “I never saw Bobby abuse Kathie in any way.”

Years later Durst told a documentarian that he couldn’t remember the first time he had hit or slapped Kathie and that much of what he told police concerning his whereabouts at the time of her disappearance were “lies” designed to get them off his back. But he insisted that he did not kill his wife.

The McCormack family and Kathie’s friends grew certain that Durst was responsible for her death and criticized what they viewed as a lethargic investigation. Soon the case faded from the headlines, and Durst went back to work for the family business.

“We still never had a crime scene, never had a body,” former Detective Struk told me.

Berman returned to Los Angeles, where she pursued work as a screenwriter. In June 1984 she married Mister Margulies, whom she met while standing in line at a Writers Guild script registration event. She was 38; he was 25. The wedding was a splashy ceremony at the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills. Durst walked a beaming Berman down the aisle, while producer Robert Evans toasted her as “the most seductive woman I ever met.”

“She did her best to turn it into a Hollywood event,” said Julie Smith, a pal from Berman’s reporter days in San Francisco.

Like many of Berman’s romantic relationships, the marriage ended badly—the couple divorced after only seven months. Berman was hoping for a reconciliation when Margulies died of a drug overdose, sending her into an emotional tailspin.

She could be enormously productive, typing on her computer for hours and hours on end. And then there were days when she could not bear to get out of bed.

In 1987 she met Paul Kaufman, a financial adviser who sought a career in Hollywood. Kaufman and his two children, Sareb and Mella, soon moved into Berman’s Brentwood home. She became a mother to the children.

“It was kind of the first time,” Mella told investigators, “that I had a really, um, present parent.”

Durst was an occasional visitor, but Mella found him “bizarre.”

Berman’s relationship with Kaufman collapsed in 1992 after their failed attempt to bring a play about the Dreyfus affair to Broadway. With her trust fund empty, she lost her house to the bank.

Durst had his own problems. He was an intermittent presence at the Durst Organization, and his behavior was increasingly erratic. He funneled rent money into his own account, according to his younger brother Douglas. The two siblings, only 18 months apart, had never gotten along. In the early 1990s, Robert took to peeing in Douglas’s office wastebasket.

Finally, in late 1994, Seymour Durst and his brother David anointed Douglas the heir apparent. Feeling betrayed, Robert never went back to the office. When his father died five months later, Robert was a no-show at the funeral.

“He separated from everyone in New York,” said Chavin, who considered Robert one of his closest friends. “It was a loss of face in his mind.”

Durst began a nomadic life, flitting among homes in Connecticut, Manhattan, and California, with few people knowing his whereabouts. In October 2000 he learned that Joe Becerra, a New York State police investigator, had reopened the probe into Kathie’s disappearance 18 years earlier. Acting on a tip, Becerra had reviewed police files and
re-interviewed more than a dozen witnesses.

Durst quickly married Debrah Lee Charatan, a New York real estate broker with whom he had a romantic affair years earlier. He gave her authority to handle his financial accounts and made plans to hide out in Galveston, Texas, where he had rented a $300-a-month room while posing as a mute woman.

At roughly the same time, Berman, in desperate financial straits and unable to pay her rent, reconnected with her old friend and asked for help. By November 2000 Durst had sent her two checks for $25,000. She told her friends how he had once again bailed her out. But she was also worried that her plea might have shattered their friendship. “I don’t want my last request to be the last time we communicate—our friendship means so much to me, Bobby,” she typed in a note dated Nov. 5, 2000. “I hope you forgive me for not keeping pace with your more successful life.”

She commiserated with him about the new investigation she had read about in the newspapers and how likely it was that the authorities would want to talk to her. “Susan told me that she had been contacted by Los Angeles and New York detectives,” Durst later told Lewin, the prosecutor, during a nearly three-hour interview. “And, um, they want to talk to me.”

Lewin’s response seemed to shock Durst. “I’m going to tell you something,” he said. “That was not true. They had not contacted her. I think that Susan was trying to subtly squeeze you for money. By the way, for what it’s worth, Bob, ’cause I know you care about her, I don’t think Susan ever would have said anything.”

Smith, the executor of Berman’s estate, also doubted that her friend would have revealed Durst’s secrets. “She wouldn’t have ratted him out,” Smith said. “That’s not who she was. She fought hard not to be a mob girl. But she had a whole lot of mob values.”

Berman’s body was found on Christmas Eve 2000, after neighbors called police saying that her three wire fox terriers were running loose, and her back door at 1527 Benedict Canyon Drive was open.

An anonymous note mailed December 23 to Beverly Hills police alerted authorities to a “cadaver” at Berman’s house. At first, suspicion fell on Berman’s landlady and her manager—not on Durst. Many of her friends ruled him out as a suspect.

“They were very good friends going back to college,” her cousin Deni Marcus told me in 2001. “I don’t believe that anything that happened to Susy has to do with Robert Durst.”

But it was not long before Los Angeles police demanded handwriting samples from Durst for comparison to what has become known as the “cadaver note.” At that time Durst was in jail in Galveston, where he had been arrested in the killing and dismembering of Morris Black, a man who lived across the hall from him. The two had become friendly as Durst sought to evade the renewed investigation into Kathie’s disappearance, and Black gradually learned his friend’s true identity. After being arrested Durst claimed that Black, a cantankerous character, had grabbed Durst’s handgun from the oven in his apartment. They grappled, he said, and as they fell to the ground, the gun went off and killed Black.

In 2003 a jury acquitted Durst, despite his bloody description of cutting up Black’s body and dumping the parts in Galveston Bay. Black’s head remains missing.

Back in Los Angeles, another Durst murder investigation was losing speed. A handwriting analyst cited Berman’s manager as the possible author of the cadaver note, but police subsequently cleared him. The analyst later revised his opinion, citing Durst as the probable author. But it was all a bit murky. The police knew that Durst had flown to California at the time of Berman’s death, but they could not put him in Los Angeles. However, beginning in 2010, when Durst agreed to what eventually amounted to more than 20 hours of interviews with the producers of The Jinx, he sank into deeper and deeper trouble.

Friends and his lawyers pleaded with him to abandon the project and not tempt fate. Instead, he gave the filmmakers access to personal records, lawsuits, trial testimony, and family photographs. The first of six episodes was broadcast in February 2015, and the series quickly earned a huge audience. I spoke to Durst after each episode, and by the fifth the pressure he felt from his ill-advised statements on film was palpable.

In a dramatic scene in the final episode of the documentary, the filmmakers confronted Durst with copies of the cadaver note and an envelope for a 1999 letter he had sent to Berman. The lettering on both appear remarkably similar, down to the misspelling of the word Beverly as “Beverley.” Durst acknowledged the similarities between the two. Visibly uncomfortable, he denied writing the cadaver note, although he could not identify for the filmmakers which one he did write and which he did not.

Robert Durst in 2015 after his arraignment in New Orleans in the murder of Susan Berman, which he has denied committing. The case goes on trial next year in Los Angeles.

Investigators, fearing that Durst was about to flee the country, arrested him hours before the broadcast on a probable cause murder warrant in New Orleans, where he had registered at a hotel under an alias.

The filmmakers had notified Lewin, a specialist in cold cases without a body, in 2013. Lewin reopened the long-dormant investigation and began interviewing dozens of witnesses, some of whom had never been questioned before. Many of Berman’s friends agree with Smith’s estimation that Berman would have never ratted out Durst to the authorities. But that doesn’t mean that Berman was above dropping hints to certain friends, especially if it enhanced her reputation as someone in the know. Berman, who, like Durst, compartmentalized her friends, never confided any of his secrets to Smith. But Lewin did find a dozen people with whom Berman discussed Durst’s role in Kathie’s death and her role in the cover-up.

Kaufman, for example, testified that Berman told him that Durst killed his wife. Actress Newman testified that Berman told her that she provided an “alibi” for Durst, who had “something to do” with Kathie’s disappearance. Suzanne “Bede” Roberts said Berman told her that she did something “major” to help Durst evade arrest for Kathie’s death. Shortly before Berman’s death, Alfred Clethen and Danny Goldberg testified separately that she told them that she was expecting Durst to visit her in Los Angeles around the holidays.

Under intense questioning by Lewin at a 2017 hearing, Emily Altman, who with her husband, Stewart, was close to Durst, said in court that Durst had told her he was staying at the Beverly Hilton, less than three miles from Berman’s home, at the time of her death.

But it was Chavin, who had long defended Durst, who provided the most damning testimony. During our first interviews in 2000 and 2001, Chavin told me that Berman was “convinced that Bobby killed Kathie.” But Chavin, whose nickname is Chinga, did not believe it. “Susy was a liar,” he said emphatically. “She spun whoppers.” He thought his friend Bobby, best man at his wedding, was incapable of violence. “I’d say, ‘Bobby didn’t kill Kathie.’ ”

He recalled her response: “Chinga, he did.”

“How do you know?” Chavin asked.

“He told me,” Berman responded. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love him.”

But Chavin’s belief in his friend cracked a little in 2003 after Durst described cutting up Black’s body in Galveston. And it collapsed completely after their dinner in December 2014, when Durst blurted, “I had to—it was her or me.” Durst’s lawyer, DeGuerin, argued that “it’s ridiculous that Bob would have said something like that to Nick Chavin. It’s just not true.”

But Chavin is certain.

“This is a best friend who admitted killing my other best friend,” Chavin explained in testimony in 2017 in the eight-floor courtroom near Los Angeles International Airport where the trial is likely to start in January. “I feel like there’s two scales. One is the betrayal of Bob Durst, and the other is the betrayal of Susan Berman. I feel that the betrayal I had felt to Susan Berman is lightened considerably, and I have the weight of feeling about Bob—not a betrayal but grief and sadness.”

Durst’s lawyers have attempted to discredit Chavin’s testimony. But it is clear now that the Mafia princess did not break faith with her beloved Bobby and acted as if she had nothing to fear from her friend. But if the prosecution is right, it was Durst, scion of an elite New York family, who behaved like a ruthless, cornered gunsel.

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