The Literary Life (And Death) Of Susan Berman, Alleged Robert Durst Victim
By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Time (TNS)
When she was killed 15 years ago, Susan Berman was a 55-year-old writer struggling to stay relevant. Now her work is suddenly at a premium. Paperback editions of her memoir Easy Street — which could be gotten for $10 or less Monday morning — are now priced at $50 and up at the online used bookstore AbeBooks.
Berman has gone from forgotten author to high-profile victim. On Monday, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Robert Durst, subject of the just-concluded HBO documentary The Jinx with Berman’s murder. He is in custody in New Orleans.
The Jinx told the life story of real estate scion Durst and of the deaths and disappearance of people close to him, with his cooperation. It concluded Sunday night with Durst saying, on tape but off screen, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
He appeared to be alluding to others covered in the documentary: His wife, who went missing in New York in 1972; Morris Black, his Texas neighbor whom he admitted to dismembering but whose murder he was acquitted of; and Susan Berman, who was found on Christmas Eve 2000 in her rented Benedict Canyon home, dead of a gunshot to the back of the head a day or two before.
Berman and Durst had been friends ever since meeting at UCLA in the 1960s. When his wife disappeared, Berman helped Durst wrangle calls from the media. When Berman was married at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1984, Durst gave her away. When Berman was broke, she turned to Durst, who loaned her $50,000.
Like many writers, Berman had up years and down years — although throwing a wedding in Bel Air is more up than most. Born in 1945, she was raised in Las Vegas by a father who she thought was a chic hotelier. She didn’t realize it then, but he was a gangster who’d kept company with Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, and was running the Flamingo and Riviera hotels for the mob. She was about 12 when he died of a heart attack; when her mentally unstable mother committed suicide a year later, Berman was orphaned.
Despite being largely on her own, she made it to UCLA and Berkeley and began carving out a respectable career as a journalist. In the 1970s, she worked for the San Francisco Examiner and then moved to the East Coast and found a place at New York Magazine. One of her more enduring stories, “Why I Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco,” seems to both elicit and resist sympathy.
She hit her stride with Easy Street, her 1981 memoir about growing up in Las Vegas at the height of its glamour. The book had two subtitles — “The True Story of A Mob Family” in hardcover and “The True Story of A Gangster’s Daughter” in paperback — that explained what it was all about.
Because Berman grew up ignorant of her father’s mob ties, the book was a research project as well as memoir. It was filled partly with what she learned about him from his FBI files (the time in Sing Sing, the reputation as a heavy) and partly with the memories of having Liberace sing at her birthday and learning to play gin at age 4 with men she knew as uncles, but were in fact bodyguards.
“Susan Berman grew up in an emotional fog about her parents, her origins,” Carolyn See wrote in her L.A. Times review of the book. “She had been taught — somehow — to be both proud and ashamed of what she came from…. The story here, then, is not about crime but about a pitiably defenseless girl…who sets out to make sense of emotional disaster, to gain control over an enormous legacy of doom.”
The book wasn’t perfect: Kirkus Reviews found the combination of halcyon memories and frightening mafia tales awkward. See thought the writing was just too clunky in places. But in others, it charmed.
“As a first-generation Las Vegan I had known only the life he had chosen to give me,” Berman wrote. “The background sounds of my childhood were slot machines crunching, dice clicking, the songs of Sophie Tucker and the Andrews Sisters, and the carping of an ever-present hotel page…. To this day the desert air invigorates and exhilarates me like nothing else and hotel coffeeshops and floor shows give me a tranquilizing sense of security.”
The book was a success. From hardcover it went to paperback, and was optioned for $350,000. In 1983, Berman moved to L.A. to be closer to the business that seemed ready to embrace her.
As she told it, she was queuing up to register a script at the Writers Guild when she met the man who would become her husband. Mister (as he called himself) Margulies was 25; she was 38. She footed the bill for a lavish ceremony for hundreds of guests at the Hotel Bel-Air; Robert Durst gave her away.
She had all the trappings of success, but it didn’t last. Margulies was using heroin and in less than a year, the marriage was over. At 27, he died of an overdose. Next she had a long-term relationship with Paul Kaufman, becoming the de facto mother to his two children, but their finances and relationship collapsed in 1992.
Writers can spend an awful lot of time in Hollywood working on projects that never come to fruition. Kaufman and Berman had a Broadway musical in the works that never came together. There never was an Easy Street movie.
On shaky financial footing, Berman wrote a couple of pulpy novels. Avon published Fly Away Home in 1996 and Spiderweb in 1997; both tell the story of women who’ve lost someone close to them (a sister, a mother who may not have committed suicide) who try to find them in Los Angeles. They were not well-noticed; neither book was reviewed by the L.A. Times.
It was clear what people wanted from Berman: More mob stories. Despite the fact that her father had died in 1957, taking his mob ties with him, Berman continued to mine the gangster vein.
In 1996, she was a writer and co-producer of an A&E documentary that aired in two two-hour segments, “Las Vegas: Gamble in the Desert” and “Las Vegas: House of Cards.” Berman authored a companion book to the series, Lady Las Vegas: The Inside Story Behind the Neon Oasis, published that same year.
By 2000, Berman’s personal life was fraught with phobias (she didn’t like going above certain floors in buildings and over bridges) and anxieties. She had health fears and complained of allergies and worried over her dogs. Some relationships were tightly bonded, while with others she had drastic fallings-out. She engaged in an ongoing tussle with her Benedict Canyon landlord over, depending on who you asked, needed repairs or unpaid rent, which was finally resolved not long before Berman was killed.
Berman’s fatal mistake appears to have been agreeing to speak to Westchester County Dist. Atty. Jeanine Pirro. In 2000, Pirro had opened an investigation into the disappearance of Kathie Durst nearly two decades before. Kathie was married to Robert Durst, and when she went missing, Berman helped Durst field inquiries that came his way. According to New York Magazine, she even told one friend she’d provided his alibi.
The style of Berman’s murder — a single shot to the back of the head — made it easy to speculate that it was a long-delayed mafia payback. But most of the players she’d known were long gone, and she’d written about them so glowingly — Easy Street was not much cause for a vendetta.
It was, instead, a kind of celebration. Easy Street was Berman’s story, the one she revisited and reshaped and told again and again. As interest grows and it becomes increasingly inaccessible — hardcover copies are $75-$300 — perhaps someone will decide to keep her work alive in an e-book.
Photo: Author Susan Berman and Robert Durst, who has been charged with her murder. (HBO)