Outside the world of journalism, for which he became great copy, I suspect few will mourn the prison death yesterday of three-time killer Robert Durst, 78. He’s the real estate scion who (1) in 1982 after a fight made his wife disappear in the New York City suburbs, (2) in 2000 killed a good friend in Los Angeles who probably helped him avoid justice in the case of his wife, whose body never has been found, and (3) in 2001 shot and dismembered a nosy neighbor in Texas who might have been about to tell authorities where he was hiding out. The amazing 2015 HBO documentary miniseries “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” sussed this out with stunning details, including Durst’s tape-recorded confession to all three killings.
I’m here to focus on the good friend he killed in Los Angeles, whom he was finally convicted last year of murdering after a televised trial. Her name was Susan Berman, 55 at the time of her death. As an adult she worked on both coasts as a journalist, author and wannabe Hollywood scriptwriter and producer. But she spent a part of her youth in Las Vegas, as the only child of an extremely, uh, influential person.
Her life and death say something about Las Vegas–then and now.
Her father was David Berman, also know as Davie Berman, a notorious mobster with blood on his hands and a stint in Sing Sing, who moved to Las Vegas in the 1940s representing New York City organized crime families. He had an early role in developing the skim–by which the crime families took a cut of casino winnings before they were reported in what amounted to be a huge tax-free income stream. The skim ran for decades and thoroughly corrupted Las Vegas culture.
Berman became the power behind two mobbed-up casinos, the Riviera and the Flamingo, especially after fellow gangster and Flamingo developer Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, 41, was killed in the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend in 1947. It’s thought Berman had a hand in plotting the hit before quickly taking over the facility.
In that era, the mob’s presence and hidden control of Las Vegas casinos was an open secret among the elite and the politicians, but rarely mentioned out loud. Berman died in 1957–not after a hit but in a suburban Henderson hospital, where he had a heart attack after colon surgery. In other words, in bed. He was only 53. The news story about his death in the Las Vegas Sun, which obviously knew better, blandly called him “one of the pioneers in the Las Vegas casino business.” The story went on at some length about his “well-known … philanthropies” and his war record. No mention of Sing Sing. Oh, that.
Susan Berman was 12 when her dad died. Her mother died the following year, and as an orphan she was shuttled among relatives–some with their own mob pedigrees–and boarding schools along the West Coast. She eventually graduated from UCLA, later earning a masters in journalism from Berkeley.
It was as a student at UCLA that she claims she first realized her beloved father was a steel-cold mobster. As she wrote in her first-person 1981 book, Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family, she was grabbing a meal at a campus food truck when Larry, a friend of a friend, asked her what her dad did in Las Vegas. From the book’s 211 pages:
I said, “He owned the Flamingo and the Riviera.”
Larry said, “That’s not what it said in a book I just read. It said he could kill a man with one hand behind his back. It said he was part of the Mob.”
I felt frozen. The Mob? I had read about it. My father had killed people? Daddy? It couldn’t be true. It wasn’t true. I felt like I was choking inside but outside I was calm. All I said was, “What was the name of the book again?”
He told me, smirking.
Berman wrote she immediately drove to a Santa Monica bookstore she used to patronize with her parents as a little girl, found the book and looked at the index.
His name was in it! I turned to the page and read a description of my father in the crudest most sensational terms. It said he had done time in Sing Sing and there was that line about killing a man with one hand tied behind his back.
That book, which she didn’t identify by title, was The Green Felt Jungle, by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris. A 1963 expose about all the casino Mob connections in Las Vegas, the book spent a half-year on national best-seller lists. Part of its considerable force came from its revelations of long-suppressed criminal truths in Las Vegas and nationally. The book was an utter sensation.
According to other reporting, the mob over time paid Susan Berman $3.4 million for her inherited interests in Las Vegas casinos.
Susan Berman’s 1981 book, Easy Street, was a love letter to her late Dad, although she did manage to dig up a fair amount of dirt about him, mainly from public records. The book begins by recounting names of mobsters who attended what she called “the largest funeral Las Vegas had ever seen.” She gave away no secrets, named no names beyond public knowledge and didn’t seem particularly troubled about her family’s long involvement with the wrong side of the law. From her book, it is clear she bought into mob concepts of loyalty and silence, although, it must be noted, it was published at a time of continuing, although waning, mob influence in Las Vegas.
She dedicated the book to her parents. But of more interest now is one of the persons listed in her acknowledgments.
They had met in the late 1960s while she was at UCLA, and became friends. The friendship was tested in 1982, the year after he was acknowledged in her book.
By then Durst had been married for eight years to Kathleen McCormack Durst, a former dental hygienist who was about to finish medical school in New York City. They were living in South Salem, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Investigators believe that Durst killed her after a fight and disposed of the body, possibly in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, where I grew up long before becoming New To Las Vegas.
They also think that Susan Berman, who acted as his spokesman, ran interference for him, impersonating Kathleen on a call to the medical school authorities explaining her absence and in general providing a false alibi. Authorities also have said it’s possible Durst told Berman that his wife had died accidentally, although I find that a stretch. In any event the trail soon went cold–with Berman’s considerable help, investigators alleged. Two years later, Berman married someone else in Los Angeles. Her good friend Durst walked her down the aisle. It proved to be a brief marriage, and she had no children.
But in late 2000 some of Kathie’s Durst’s friends and family members started pressuring authorities in Westchester County, where South Salem is, to reopen the case. Word made it into the media. Soon, Durst traveled to California to see Berman. By then, she had run through her mob fortune and had received several large payments from Durst–depending on one’s point of view, gifts, hush money or even blackmail.
On Christmas Eve 2000, Berman was found dead in her rented Los Angeles home with a bullet in the head. Even that case languished for years. Investigators were confused by the mob-execution-like killing and Berman’s background as a member of the “mob royalty” she so lovingly detailed at length in Easy Street. That raised the possibility of long-ago score-settling. Indeed, some even drew a comparison with the bullets-through-the-head Southern California killing of her dad’s one-time crony, Bugsy Siegel, just a few miles away. Of course, by the time of Berman’s own murder the mob was pretty much gone from the Las Vegas scene.
A year later, Durst, hiding in a Galveston, Tex., apartment house as a mute woman, killed neighbor Morris Black, then chopped up the body and tossed it all into Galveston Bay. In 2003, Durst stood trial and testified he acted in self-defense. Although there were suspicions he had killed to preserve his hidden identity, Durst amazingly was acquitted.
The HBO series on Durst in 2015 helped revise interest in the Berman case, as well as the disappearance of Durst’s wife. Durst was arrested in Louisiana on a gun charge as the final episode was about to air. It took six years for the trial to commence. Taking the stand in his own defense, Durst denied killing Berman. But he admitted being at her house around that time and even sending an anonymous letter tipping authorities about her corpse. The handwriting and a misspelling had conclusively linked the letter to Durst.
So much for long friendships.
After his conviction and sentencing to life without parole last year for the Berman murder, Westchester County prosecutors finally indicted Durst in the death of his wife. With his prison death–he was very sick and had come down with Covid-19–that case will now go away.
But what isn’t going anywhere is Las Vegas’ love-hate relationship with its mob heritage, which ended by the later 1980s as public corporations acquired control of the casino industry. After years of playing it down, Las Vegas image makers now see the mob as a tourist draw–and Las Vegas is all about tourists. There’s the Mob Museum. The Flamingo–once home of Bugsy Siegel and Davie Berman and now owned by Caesars Entertainment–has a new restaurant named after mobsters and a monument to Siegel amid the strolling birds of its gardens.
That’s the love. The hate? The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District has 25 branches and 3.3 million items in its collection, and is the go-to library for typical Las Vegans. Susan Berman’s Easy Street–with its evocative, even touching historical description of a thoroughly mobbed up Las Vegas and, in retrospect, her linkage to three murders, including her own–is not among them.