New York prosecutors are consoling the relatives of Robert Durst’s wife Kathie after the eccentric killer died Monday before he could be tried for her presumed murder.
Durst, 78, died while serving a life sentence for fatally shooting his longtime confidante Susan Berman at point-blank range at her Los Angeles home in 2000.
He has long disputed killing Kathie, who has been missing since she disappeared from New York in 1982 and was presumed dead in 2017.
Last November – nearly 40 years after she vanished – a grand jury in Westchester County charged Durst with her second-degree murder after District Attorney Miriam Rocah and state police reopened the case.
Rocah in a statement expressed disappointment that Durst did not live to be prosecuted for his first wife’s death.
‘After 40 years spent seeking justice for her death, I know how upsetting this news must be for Kathleen Durst’s family,’ Rocah said. ‘We had hoped to allow them the opportunity to see Mr. Durst finally face charges for Kathleen’s murder because we know that all families never stop wanting closure, justice and accountability.’
Kathie’s family declined comment through their lawyer’s office.
Durst died in a state prison hospital facility in Stockton from natural causes due to a number of health issues early Monday, his attorney Chip Lewis said.
In this December 15, 2021 picture, he was seen looking frail and with a breathing tube in a mug shot released by the California Department of Corrections
Durst tested positive for Covid-19 on October 16, just days after he was he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the execution-style killing of his longtime friend and confidant, Susan Berman in 2002
Los Angeles prosecutors proved during Berman’s murder trial that Durst killed his pal – who helped cover up Kathie’s killing – in order to silence her.
The eccentric millionaire was in 2003 also accused of killing neighbor Morris Black but was acquitted in 2003 after testifying it was self defense when they both struggled for a gun.
He has been behind bars since 2015, when the HBO documentary The Jinx: The Life And Deaths of Robert Durst, unearthed new evidence in Berman’s killing.
Durst discussed the cases and made several damning statements including a stunning confession during an unguarded moment during the six-part documentary series.
The show made his name known to a new generation and brought renewed scrutiny and suspicion from authorities.
Robert Durst, convicted murderer and subject of the HBO true crime doc, ‘The Jinx,’ died while serving a life sentence in prison. He was 78-years-old. He is pictured on March 17, 2015
Robert Durst was indicted by a New York grand jury last November and set to stand trial for the murder of his wife, Kathie, who disappeared in 1982 and was presumed dead in 2017. Pictured in 1982
In the immediate aftermath of Kathie’s disappearance, Susan Berman (above) helped Robert craft a phony alibi and stepped in to act as his publicist
He was arrested in Berman’s killing the night before the final episode, which closed with him mumbling to himself in a bathroom while still wearing hot mic saying: “You’re caught. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
The quotes were later revealed to have been manipulated for dramatic effect but the production – done with Durst’s cooperation against the advice from his lawyer and friends – dredged up new evidence including an envelope that connected Durst to the scene of Berman’s killing as well as incriminating statements he made.
Durst’s health has steadily worsened in recent years.
Last December, he was seen looking frail and with a breathing tube in a mug shot released by the California Department of Corrections.
Just months earlier, Durst – who has numerous medical issues, including contracting COVID-19 – was seen in a wheelchair throughout most his trial in California.
Durst’s lawyers said he was suffering from a ‘myriad of life-threatening issues’ including bladder cancer last September. ‘His health deteriorated over the weeks of the trial,’ said his lawyer Dick DeGuerin. ‘He looked like death warmed over.’
Last October, Durst was sentenced to life for Berman’s slaying. Prosecutors alleged his motive was to prevent her from revealing what she knew about the vanishing of his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst in 1982.
Throughout his trial, his defense attempted to postpone his case due to ongoing health problems, including chest pains, breathing problems, pain while dressing and from having a catheter, and urinary tract infections due to his bladder cancer.
A week after his sentencing, he was indicted for the murder of his first wife Kathie Durst in 1982.
His death leaves behind many unanswered questions surrounding Kathie’s unsolved case; and renewed public interest into the deluded misdeeds of one of America’s most bizarre killers.
Pictured: Durst spins his wheelchir in place during his trial in Inglewood, California on September 8, 2021
Durst, born on April 12, 1943, was the eldest son of a prominent New York real estate dynasty. His grandfather, the family patriarch, Joseph Durst, was a tailor from Poland who immigrated to New Yok in 1902 with $3 sewn into his lapel.
In a few short years, Joseph moved up from peddling children’s clothing on pushcarts to being a partner in a garment factory.
He soon after expanded into real estate in 1915 with the purchase of his first building on 34th Street. He also founded Capital National Bank, which made loans to the garment district and was eventually sold – giving him seed money for his budding real-estate empire.
Today, the Durst Organization is worth $8 billion with towering skyscrapers that dominate Manhattan’s iconic skyline. The family-run business owns more than 16 million square feet of real estate in New York City, including a 10% stake in One World Trade Center.
Robert Durst’s childhood was marred by tragedy when he witnessed his mother, Bernice, commit suicide by jumping off the roof of their family home. (Family members would later claim that it was an accident and dispute that Robert was anywhere present at the time).
Robert Durst was the eldest son of a prominent New York real estate family. He had a very troubled childhood. From early on he was prone to violent outbursts and pathological lying
Robert’s childhood was marred by the death of his mother, Beatrice (right) in 1950. His 32-year-old mother died after falling from the roof of their Scarsdale residence in New York. However, Robert, only seven at the time, claimed he saw her jump from the roof and commit suicide
Robert’s relationship with his brother, Douglas, only 18 months apart, was perennially fraught. As children, they underwent counseling for a violent sibling rivaling that often ended in physical fights
Robert’s relationship with his brother, Douglas, only 18 months apart, was perennially fraught.
TIMELINE: THE DESCENT OF ROBERT DURST
1982: Robert Durst’s wife, Kathleen McCormack goes missing on January 31. Durst claimed that he dropped her off at the train station on the night she disappeared, and spoke to her later that evening on the telephone. Kathleen was never seen again.
1994: Robert Durst is pushed out of the family business due to increasingly erratic behavior. His brother is named successor of the real estate empire.
2000: The Westchester County district attorney announces in November that she is reopening the investigation into Kathleen McCormack Durst’s disappearance and Susan Berman is considered a prime witness.
2000: Susan Berman is found executed in her Beverly Hills home. Three days later, an anonymous letter arrives at the Beverly Hills Police Department containing Berman’s address and the word ‘cadaver.’ On the envelope ‘Beverly’ was critically misspelled as ‘Beverley.’ But the case goes cold.
2001: Durst was arrested in Galveston, Texas, shortly after body parts belonging to his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay. Police tracked him down with a receipt that was left in one of the garbage bags containing Black’s body parts. Durst was released on bail and went on the run for 45 days before he was caught shoplifting a sandwich in Pennsylvania.
2003: Robert Durst stands trial for the murder of Robert Black and is acquitted of first degree murder. He pleads guilty for the lesser charges of bail jumping and evidence tampering and is sentenced to two years in prison.
2015: HBO releases a six-part documentary, The Jinx, that discovers new evidence incriminating Durst in the murder of his best friend, Susan Berman in 2000. FBI agents arrest him in New Orleans on eve before the final episode aired on March 15
2020: Robert Durst’s trial for the murder of Susan Berman begins on March 20. The trial was paused for 14-months during the Covid-19 pandemic and resumed in May 2021.
2021: Robert Durst is found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole on October 14.
2021: On October 22, a Westchester County grand jury charged the ex-real estate scion for murder in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie McCormack
As children, they underwent counseling for a violent sibling rivaling that often ended in physical fights.
A psychiatrist’s report in 1953 diagnosed 10-year-old Robert with ‘personality decomposition and possibly even schizophrenia.’
Classmates described Durst as a ‘loner’ in high school. He went on to attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a degree in economics before he matriculated to UCLA to enroll in a doctoral program. It was there, that he met Susan Berman, an aspiring writer who was the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster.
In 1969, Durst left UCLA to open a health food store in Vermont which was closed after only two years.
He moved back to New York and began dating Kathleen McCormack, a young dental hygienist who rented an apartment owned by the Durst Organization.
After two dates, he asked Kathie to move in with him, and they married on Robert’s thirtieth birthday in 1973.
Robert joined his father, Seymour and brother Douglas in the family business, developing a string of successful skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, Kathie enrolled in medical school to become a doctor.
The couple partied at Studio 54, sailed the Mediterranean and traveled to Thailand while splitting time between their penthouse on Riverside Drive and a lakeside cottage in upstate.
But their relationship grew troubled, friends would later say, when Durst became controlling and pressed his wife to have an abortion.
‘I was always, always, always very controlling,’ he said, matter-of-factly in the 2015 HBO docuseries, The Jinx.
Three weeks before she went missing in 1982, 29-year-old Kathleen was treated at a hospital for facial bruises that were sustained in a physical fight with Durst.
She had discovered that Durst was having an affair with Prudence Farrow (the younger sister of Mia Farrow and the subject of the Beatles song ‘Dear Prudence.’)
Despite his tremendous wealth, Durst was notoriously cheap.
When Kathie asked for a $250,000 divorce settlement (a pittance sum for the billionaire), he refused, removed her name from their bank accounts and cancelled all her credit cards.
The last time Kathie McCormack was seen alive was on January 31, 1982, when she showed up unexpectedly at a dinner party thrown by a friend.
Durst claimed that he drove his wife to catch a 9:15pm train to Manhattan after having an argument in their upstate cottage. He maintained that he went back to have a drink with a neighbor and spoke to McCormack later that evening when she called from their Riverside Drive apartment.
Durst later admitted that he lied and just went to bed. ‘That’s what I told police,’ he said in the The Jinx. ‘I was hoping that would just make everything go away.’ McCormack was never seen again and her body has never been found.
It took Durst five days to report her disappearance to the police. By then, he had already raised suspicions among her family and friends and was considered a prime suspect by police.
Kathleen McCormack Durst, 29, went missing on January 31, 1982 , her body has never been found. Durst was considered a prime suspect in the case but investigators were never able to pin him for the crime
Durst initially offered $100,000 for his wife’s return, then reduced the reward to $15,000. When one of McCormack’s friends and her sister found out that she had been reported missing, they broke into her cottage and discovered her belongings were already in the trash
In the immediate aftermath, his best friend and trustworthy confidant, Susan Berman stepped in to act as his publicist. She shielded him from the hounding press, lied in depositions, and helped him craft a phony alibi by posing as Kathleen in a fake sick call to her medical school that made it appear like she was still alive.
Raised by a mobster father whom she adored, Susan had long internalized the mob’s Omerta, ‘code of silence.’ She was fiercely loyal to Robert Durst, who she called ‘Bobby,’ and who walked her down the aisle of her 1984 nuptials. He was even mentioned in the ‘acknowledgements’ of her 1981 memoir, Easy Street.
But it would be Susan Berman’s intimate knowledge of the situation, that would eventually get her killed 18-years-later for ‘knowing too much.’
Investigators traced leads, developed suspicions and questioned Robert Durst over McCormack’s disappearance, but the case went cold for almost two decades. Years passed before she was finally presumed dead in 2017.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2015, Douglas Durst explained how he initially suspected his brother of foul play when his seven dogs, ‘all named Igor,’ died under mysterious circumstances within six months. ‘Before the disappearance of my sister-in-law, Bob had a series of Alaskan Malamutes, which is like a husky,’ he said. ‘We don’t know how they died, and what happened to their bodies.’
‘In retrospect, I now believe he was practicing killing and disposing his wife with those dogs.’
Douglas explained how Robert chillingly began using the word ‘Igor’ as a verb replacement for ‘kill.’ He told the Times: ‘When he was in jail in Pennsylvania, he was recorded saying, ‘I want to ‘Igor’ Douglas.”
By 1994, Durst’s professional life had gone off the rails too. As the eldest of four children, Robert was heir apparent of the family empire but a rift had developed at the Durst Organization over his increasing erratic behavior – which included mumbling to himself in meetings, stealing company money and urinating in his brother’s trash bin.
In this Dec. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Durst sits in a courtroom in Los Angeles
Pictured: In this April 14, 2015 file photo, Robert Durst leaves Federal Court in an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s vehicle in New Orleans
His long-standing enmity with his brother had grown to keeping weapons — Robert menacingly kept a pointed plumber’s wrench on his desk. In response, Douglas armed his office with a piece of pipe for protection.
Seymour Durst had no choice but to remove Robert as his designated successor and replace him with Douglas. Devastated by the move, Robert cut himself off from the family and began flitting among homes in New York, Texas and California. He did not attend his father’s funeral in 1995.
Eight years after Kathie went missing, Durst officially divorced her by claiming ‘spousal abandonment.’ He was able to slip the noose of law enforcement until May 2021, when the Westchester DA’s office reclassified the case as a homicide. A grand jury charged Robert Durst with her murder in October 2021.
In the interim, Durst went on a killing spree that resulted in the deaths of Berman in 2000, and his elderly neighbor Morris Black in 2001. He was acquitted of the latter crime, and eventually convicted of murdering Berman last year.
Berman was found dead in her Beverly Hills cottage, on Christmas Eve, 2000. Prosecutors said Durst’s motive was to silence her from revealing his connection to Kathie’s 1982 disappearance.
Only one month earlier, in November 2000, the district attorney in Westchester County announced they were reopening the investigation into Kathie McCormack Durst’s cold case. Berman was listed as a key witness to the investigation – which inadvertently signed her death warrant over to Robert Durst.
‘If anything ever happens to me, Bobby did it,’ she told her friends.
Executed with a single bullet to the back of her head, Susan’s killing had all the hallmarks of a mob hit.
Investigators were confounded by crime scene and speculated it could have been an act of revenge for some long forgotten crime committed by her father, Davie ‘the Jew’ Berman, a former business partner of Bugsy Siegel.
A few days later, a mysterious letter arrived at the Beverly Hills Police Department, postmarked December 23, 2000. It contained Berman’s address and the word ‘cadaver.’
On the envelope ‘Beverly’ was critically misspelled as ‘Beverley’ which matched a previous letter Durst sent to Berman (though it would take investigators 15 years to make that connection). Her case went cold.
Susan Berman’s murder went unsolved for 15 years. She was murdered in a execution-style killing with a single bullet to the back of her head
In the meantime, Robert Durst went on the run. He lived under different aliases, using false identities to buy cars, rent apartments, and open credit card accounts.
In another crime riddled with bizarre twists, Durst was arrested in October 2001 for murdering his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, and dumping his body parts in the Galveston Bay.
At the time, Durst was dressed in drag and posing as a mute woman named ‘Dorothy Ciner’ in a shabby Texas rooming house.
He jumped bail and was arrested six weeks later while shoplifting Band-Aids, a newspaper and a chicken sandwich at a supermarket, with $500 cash in his pocket and $37,000 in the trunk of his car.
Durst was arrested in October 2001 for murdering his elderly neighbor, Morris Black (above), and dumping his body parts in the Galveston Bay
In the 2003 trial, Durst claimed self defense. He alleged that Morris Black, 71, threatened him with a pistol and was accidentally shot in the ensuing struggle. A psychiatrist testified that Durst had Asperger syndrome, and he was subsequently acquitted of murder, despite his testimony about sitting in a pool of blood while carving up Black’s body.
Durst pleaded guilty to bail jumping and evidence tampering and was given a small three year sentence.
In a chilling 2015 interview, Durst told HBO: ‘They never found the head. I have no idea why. I do know that there must have been 15 garbage bags full of body parts and other stuff with blood on it or whatever, and they found 12. Why they didn’t find the other ones, since they were all dumped in the same place, I have no idea.’
In 2006, the Durst Organization officially cut ties with their wayward brother for a $65 million payout.
While on the lam, Durst had plotted to kill his estranged brother, Douglas and stalked his various homes and office armed with guns.
He signed over power of attorney to his second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, a relationship Durst described as a ‘a marriage of convenience.’
The New York Times reported they had ‘never lived together as husband and wife,’ and by the time the HBO documentary aired in 2015, the couple was estranged.
Charatan reportedly moved in full-time with one of Durst’s real estate lawyers, Steven Holm.
Her relationship with Durst at the time of his death is unknown.
Robert Durst admitted to sending the infamous ‘CADAVER’ letter (above) that tipped police off to the location of Susan Berman’s body at her address
Durst married his second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan in 2000. The couple briefly shared a Fifth Avenue apartment but apartment in 1990 but ‘have never lived together as husband and wife’
Like Kathleen McCormack’s case, Susan Berman’s slaying went cold until 2015 when Durst sat down for a six-part interview with HBO. The filmmakers confronted him with a crucial piece of evidence that connected him to the anonymous ‘cadaver’ note sent to the Beverly Hills police, 15 years earlier.
During their research, the filmmakers had discovered a letter Durst wrote to Susan Berman in 1999 with identical handwriting and Beverly Hills was misspelled as ‘Beverley’ on both. Confident and cocky, even Durst admitted on camera that ‘only the killer could have written’ the note.
Flustered, he walked off to the bathroom with the microphone still attached, and was caught muttering to himself: ‘There it is. You’re caught! You’re right, of course…What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.’
Twenty-four hours before the final episode aired on March 15, 2015, the FBI detained Mr. Durst on a murder warrant in New Orleans where he was staying under a different alias. After many delays due to various health concerns and the Covid-19 crises, Durst’s trial resumed in May 2021.
Looking frail and wearing a brown jailhouse jumpsuit, Durst sat slumped in a wheelchair as the Judge sentenced him to life without parole on October 14, for the murder of Susan Berman.
Judge Mark Windham called Berman’s death a witness killing and ‘a horrific crime’ that was also ‘a denial of justice to the McCormack family.’ Two days after sentencing, Durst was transferred to a hospital and put on a ventilator after testing positive for Covid-19.
‘Bob is incapable of telling the truth,’ said Douglas Durst in 2015. ‘He is a true psychopath, beyond any emotions. That’s why he does things, so he can experience the emotions that other people have vicariously. Because he has absolutely none of his own.’
The Mafia Princess: Robert Durst’s alleged victim Susan Berman who was murdered execution-style in her Beverly Hills home was the daughter of an infamous Las Vegas gangster with family ties to Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy
Susan Berman was executed in her Beverly Hills cottage with a single bullet to the back of her head on Christmas Eve in 2000. A spent 9mm shell casing lay in a pool of blood nearby. But without a murder weapon or any other evidence, the hunt for her killer went cold until her close friend Robert Durst was arrested 15 years later.
Before then, Susan’s mysterious killing had all the hallmarks of a mob hit, and many of her friends speculated it was an act of revenge for some long forgotten crime committed by her father, Davie ‘the Jew’ Berman – a business partner of Bugsy Siegel, one of the most notorious mobsters in Las Vegas‘ dark history.
While many made-men suffered violent ends; the irony of Davie’s early demise in 1957 from natural causes was not lost on Susan throughout her life. Nor was it lost on Susan’s closest friends, 43 years later, that she would be the one to die with a bullet in her head.
Considering her childhood as a ‘mafia princess,’ it came as a huge surprise to many when long-time friend Durst was arrested in 2015.
Susan Berman (pictured as a child) grew up as a sheltered ‘mafia princess’ in Las Vegas where her father, Davie Berman, a notorious gangster pioneered the gambling industry for the Mob in the city’s nascent years
(L to R) Davie ‘the Jew’ Berman is pictured with his mobbed-up business partners, Gus Greenbaum, Joe Rosenberg and Willie ‘Icepick’ Alderman in 1952. These men operated as lieutenants for their East Coast bosses: Meyer Lanksy, Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano
It was not until Susan Berman began conducting research for her 1981 memoir, Easy Street, that she learned the true nature of her father’s notorious past as a ruthless gangster that robbed banks, murdered enemies and served a seven year sentence at Sing Sing for kidnapping a wealthy bootlegger and holding him for ransom. She wrote: ‘He fabricated a childhood for me that seemed all- American and completely normal’
Susan and the wealthy New York real-estate heir met in the 1960s as students at UCLA. They forged a fast and powerful bond over their similar upbringings: both had mothers who committed suicide and both grew up with immense wealth.
‘It was always ‘Bobby this, Bobby that, wonderful Bobby,’ a friend recalled to New York Magazine in 2001. He was even mentioned in the ‘acknowledgements’ of her memoir, Easy Street.
Despite a successful career in journalism burgeoning on Hollywood, Susan is said to have inherited $4million from her father’s mafia holdings but she died penniless. In the months prior to her murder, Durst gave her two $25,000 bailout checks as a gift. Some suspected that money could have been his motive.
Susan was born in Minneapolis on May 18, 1945 to Gladys and Davie Berman. She was the pampered only-child of the respected Mob visionary responsible for turning Las Vegas into a gambling gold mine for his partners in the Syndicate: Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
On the day she was born, just outside the delivery room sat Chickie, Willie, Chief, Flippy, Rabbit and Lou – men that made the ‘waiting room at Abbot Hospital look like the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre,’ she joked in her 1981 memoir, Easy Street.
Susan spent her childhood in casinos, the carpeted floor between the poker roulette and craps tables was her de-facto playground.
Her ‘friends’ were the notorious mobsters Gus Greenbaum (whose throat would later be slashed in his home) and Willie ‘Icepick’ Alderman (who died serving time at Terminal Island for extortion and earned his moniker for his murder weapon of choice).
She did homework in the counting room, played gin rummy with her bodyguard and practiced multiplication tables on slot machines.
Both Elvis and Liberace sang at her birthday parties and her favorite activity was to watch the showgirls rehearse, and play dress-up in their fruit bowl hats, feathered headdresses and rhinestone tiaras. When she turned 12, her father bought out the entire Riviera Hotel gift store as her present.
‘Everybody at the hotel was part of my extended family – the entertainers; Howard Hughes, who hung around in frayed short-sleeved shirts and tennis shoes; the hotel doctor…and the men who lavished presents on me, gamblers who wanted to curry favor with my father.’
‘I was surrounded by middle-aged men who helped my father raise me because my mother was so ill,’ explained Susan.
Over time, the stress of Davie’s dangerous life had taken its toll on Gladys Berman and she began to suffer from a series of mental breakdowns. Susan remembered how her mother spent most days lying in bed crying. ‘I thought of her as a beautiful painting that was becoming dimmer and dimmer as she became more and more diminished,’ wrote Susan.
Susan’s blissful childhood came to an abrupt end in 1957 when her father died from a heart attack during a routine polyp removal surgery. Less than a year later, her mother died from a drug-overdose in a presumed suicide. David Berman, ‘the greatest gangster that ever lived’ was dead and Susan was sent to live with her Uncle Chickie in Lewiston, Idaho – far from the sheltered life she knew as Sin City royalty.
‘He told his friends that I must never know the secrets of his past because the knowledge might destroy me,’ wrote Susan in Easy Street. ‘He was determined that the sins of the father would never be visited upon his child.’
It was at his funeral that Susan first heard the word ‘gangster’ associated with her father. She wrote: ‘He fabricated a childhood for me that seemed all- American and completely normal, disguising his real career as carefully as he managed it.’
Susan never second-guessed why her family didn’t have checking accounts (mobsters preferred to use cash boxes and hide their assets from the government).
She didn’t question why the windows in her custom-built home were higher than most in the neighborhood (to protect them from being hit in drive-by shootings). Or why nobody in her household carried keys, (that was standard mobster protocol to protect their family from getting killed in the event they were kidnapped, bodyguards managed the door instead). ‘Several men lived with us who my father said were ‘friends’, wrote Berman, ‘I never knew they were bodyguards.’
She thought her father’s reaction in small rooms was due to bouts of intense claustrophobia, not because he spent four years in solitary confinement at Sing Sing. And all those late night ‘vacations’ they took to the Beverly Hills Hotel weren’t actually vacations at all, they were safety precautions when her life was in danger.
Memories of her unconventional childhood seemed to make less with time. ‘As I got older and decided on this odyssey, it was finally because I wanted to know the truth myself, rather than rely on innuendo and rumors,’ she wrote.
Davie Berman famously refused to name his accomplices after he was captured in a Central Park shootout by NYPD for kidnapping a wealthy bootlegger in 1927. His silence earned him a seven year sentence in prison but it cemented his position in the Mob
Susan is pictured with her mother, Gladys Berman, in the backstage dressing room of The Flamingo where she enjoyed playing dress-up in showgirl costumes as a little girl
Susan fondly remembers her idyllic childhood before she was orphaned after the death of her parents. She grew up alongside her father while he worked the casino floor. Her only friends were wise-guys and her bodyguards
As a child, Susan struggled to understand why it always felt like her mother was trying to safeguard her: ‘She would always hold me very tightly when we were together. It was as if she felt she was protecting me from something, but what? From traffic? From strangers?’ The answer only became clearer with time.
While sifting through her father’s voluminous FBI record, she learned that the man she admired, was actually known to law enforcement as ‘vicious’ and the ‘most dangerous type of law violator to exist.’ The same man that she adored and said ‘captivated’ her from an early age was described in a front page New York Times story as ‘so tough he could kill a man with one hand tied behind his back.’
Born in abject destitution to immigrant parents from Ukraine – David Berman turned to an early life of crime, out of desperation and survival. His childhood was defined by merciless poverty. ‘Not the picturesque poverty but hungry, dirty, shameful poverty,’ said Susan who learned that her father and uncle were forced to endure the unforgiving prairie winters in a one-room clay house without coats and shoes.
‘I saw now why my father had indulged me in material excess, he had known fear and want and the terror of poverty as a child,’ said Susan.
‘Jews in the Midwest in the early 1900s had three options if they wanted to succeed: they could bob their noses and change their names and pass for gentile, they could go into menswear, or they can go into gambling,’ said Susan.
‘My father chose gambling and all it spawned.’
By the time he was 14, Davie Berman was fixing card games and running his own gambling operation in Sioux City, Iowa. The older gamblers hired him as a ‘torpedo,’ to go after those who reneged on bets and Davie put together a team of neighborhood toughs that ‘administered beatings fast and hard.’ Before long, he was able to support his entire family with his earnings.
Fast talking, brazen, enterprising and scrappy, Davie Berman was preternatural Las Vegas long before the cradle of sin even existed.
He graduated from small town gambling rackets to bootlegging at the height of Prohibition – cutting his teeth as a guard while riding shotgun in the specially modified black Cadillacs that muled contraband hooch across the Canadian border into major American cities.
Gladys felt isolated and claustrophobic in her heavily guarded lifestyle that began to feel claustrophobic’
After receiving permission from Meyer Lansky, David Berman raised $1 million among partners to buy the El Cortez in 1945. While negotiating a contract with the former owner, Berman asked his younger brother Chickie to guard the money
Soon Davie Berman was running his own bootlegging business with 20 distilleries across Iowa at the age of 16. He absorbed smaller operations by force and became the primary supplier to Al Capone’s speakeasies throughout the Midwest.
‘His bootlegging success led him into another more dangerous venture: bank robbery,’ Susan wrote in her memoir.
Davie Berman struck banks and post-offices all across the Midwest. He always operated by the same M.O to great success: first he would kidnap and restrain the patrolling night-time policeman by feigning car trouble. Then he would break into buildings using a sledge hammer or crowbar, before making off like a bandit. But it was during one these routine heists that Berman got caught and was sent to prison for the first time.
Frank Costello arranged to meet with David Berman upon his release from prison in 1934. As a reward for his loyalty and silence, Costello offered Berman $1 million but he declined the offer – instead asking for permission to run the lucrative gambling operation in Minneapolis on behalf of the Syndicate
He held up a poker game that his associates set up for ‘some out-of-town hayseed farmers who had a lot of money to loose,’ said Susan. Her father’s gang hogtied the farmers and held them at gunpoint while he took their gold watches and money.
Berman almost escaped but was captured two days later and sentenced to eight months in prison, he was only 19-years-old.
Berman’s face appeared on ‘wanted’ posters throughout the country, but that didn’t stop him from taking his crime spree to New York City in 1927 where he engineered a kidnap for ransom plot on behalf of his bosses, Frank Costello, Meyer Lanksy and Moe Sedway.
Abraham Scharlin and James Taylor were wealthy, rival bootleggers that Berman held captive in a Brooklyn apartment for one week. He set their ransom at $25,000 (roughly $275k in today’s money). The two men were shackled together with their eyelids taped and pillow cases over their heads. ‘They were not beaten, but were subjected to many indignities,’ reported the New York Times.
Davie Berman was arrested for the crime in a Central Park shootout with NYPD that left his partner Joseph Marcus dead.
In keeping with the mafia Omerta code of silence, Berman refused to talk. He was detained for weeks and at one point, was questioned for 72-hours straight but maintained his denial and declined identifying his accomplices in the crime. He was told that if he copped a plea, he’d go free; that’s when Davie Berman infamously remarked: ‘Hell, the worst I can get is life.’
‘It seemed the perfect gutsy gangster phrase and people everywhere in bars elbowed each other and repeated it,’ wrote Susan.
The story captured the attention of newspapers across America, the Daily News described his crime as ‘the most sinister plan of a gigantic kidnapping trust whose activities are aimed at underworld overlords.’
His FBI file read that he ‘came to New York from Chicago, equipped with high powered automobiles, a liveried chauffeur, death dealing machine guns, hand grenades and tear bombs, with the purpose of kidnapping wealthy men engaged in illicit activities who would not readily complain to the police.’
The police were unable to indict Davie Berman on charges of kidnapping but nailed him for violating the Sullivan Act – a law that required New Yorkers to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He was sentenced to twelve years at Sing Sing but got out after seven and a half on good behavior.
Davie Berman (right) was like a father to his younger brother, Chickie Berman (left). Berman often had to bail out his younger brother for reneging on Mob debts that he racked up with his terrible gambling habit
‘My father had lived all his life according to the code of the underworld and what he did, he did well,’ wrote Susan Berman in her 1981 autobiography, Easy Street
By the time he was released in 1934, Davie Berman had proven himself to be a trustworthy soldier for the Mob. As a reward for his loyalty and silence, Frank Costello offered him $1 million but Davie Berman declined, instead he asked for permission to run the gambling rackets in Minneapolis. His request was granted.
Davie Berman’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 dried up a massive source of income for organized crime members. And Davie Berman chose to focus his attention on bookmaking and gambling. At the same time, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia began his campaign against New York City’s five crime families. Bosses were hot to expand their illegal operation to other territories, with outposts already established in Florida and Cuba.
Davie Berman’s publicity photo for the opening of the Riviera Hotel, 1955. Starting as a teenager, he worked his way through the ranks of organized crime; graduating from petty shakedowns to bootlegging, bank robbing and kidnapping before he ran his own big-gambling operation in Minneapolis. Eventually he made the jump to Las Vegas where he was a powerful mob boss that turned the dessert town into a gambling capital
‘Lansky, Costello and Lucky Luciano were looking for a few trusted lieutenants to run their new illicit activities all over America. My father became one of those men,’ wrote Susan.
Defending his gambling empire from threatening encroachments by Kid Cann and Al Capone was tough work that resulted in many gangland slaughters, Berman hired Willie ‘Icepick’ Alderman as his enforcer.
Alderman punctured his victims’ brains by stabbing an icepick through their eardrum – resulting in a death that appeared to occur from natural causes. Victims would immediately slump over in their chairs, the icepick produced a tiny puncture wound that could easily overlooked in autopsies that concluded the cause of death as ‘cerebral hemorrhage.’
‘All along the treacherous journey the thing I feared most was that I would find out something that would make me love my father less, that would tamper with the idealized, romanticized view I had of him as a child,’ revealed Susan in Easy Street.
She added: ‘I know what the Mob does – the Mob enforced by death – but I kept hoping against hope, naively, that I would find out that he had not been involved in those dealings.’
Davie Berman paid off politicians to keep his business afloat, but a newly elected mayor in Minneapolis came down hard on illegal gambling. Berman was forced to shut down his clubs and search for greener pastures. He set his sights on Las Vegas, where his stock-in-trade was ‘legal and holy.’
He partnered with Bugsy Siegel and with the blessing of his East Coast bosses, he purchased the El Cortez for $1million in 1945 (roughly $14million in 2021).
Lansky was busy in Omaha, Nebraska at the time working on getting dog racing legalized. He hated the Las Vegas heat and ‘was delighted to have trusted lieutenants like Davie run the city for him,’ wrote Susan.
Uncle Chickie, Gladys and Davie in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Havana Cuba, 1940. The Mob opened casinos throughout Cuba when Mayor La Guardia of NYC began his crackdown on organized crime during the 1930s. After Prohibition was repealed, gambling became their new mafia enterprise
Siegel became popular in Hollywood where he Siegel worked with the syndicate to form illegal rackets. He was always described as ‘a glamorous sportsman’ and associated with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow and studio executives Louis B. Mayer and Jack L. Warner
Moe Sedway was one of David Berman’s most trusted allies and a personal favorite of Susan Berman’s growing up. A description in his FBI file reads: ‘Prone to be a snappy dresser, vain to the point of being boresome and in his own mind a terrific woman killer’
Bugsy Siegel and Berman knew each other from the early New York days when Siegel played an important role in establishing the Jewish component of organized crime. Together with Meyer Lanksy, Siegel founded Murder, Inc.. Years later, Bugsy was sent to look for new ways to invest Syndicate money on the West Coast which is how Las Vegas got its start.
Davie Berman cut in his old pals, Willie ‘Icepick’ Alderman and Moe Sedway on the El Cortez deal. Bugsy appointed Gus Greenbaum to watch over his Las Vegas interests while he ran rackets for the Mob in Hollywood and hobnobbed with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and Jack Warner.
Susan called the new partnership a ‘Mob blind date.’
Meyer Lanksy was a founding member of Murder, Inc. – the Jewish branch of the Mob that was started with Meyer Lanksy as street kids in the Lower East Side
As pit boss, Davie Berman was in charge of all the gambling in the casino and he earned 11 percent of the combined take.
He shed his gangster image in favor of custom suits cut in exquisite fabrics. ‘He had a ruby mezuzah that hung on a gold chain from his pocket and he always smelled of French cologne,’ wrote Susan.
‘He seemed like the most normal of fathers to me. The only thing I didn’t like about him was his thinning hair.’
Las Vegas was supposed to be a fresh start for Davie Berman who wanted to keep it clean. He enforced a strict no-gun policy in his casinos and disagreed with Siegel when he wanted to infuse narcotics into the city.
He became known as the ‘Mob diplomat’ for settling disputes and setting up ‘liaisons between aspiring opportunists and his eastern bosses.’
‘In his early 40s, he was self-educated, personable, had been a war hero, and spoke five languages. He was looking for a way to grow beyond his life as a perpetual citizen of the underworld,’ explained Susan.
Things started to go south between Bugsy and the East Coast bosses. He was unpredictable and prone to tyrannical fits. ‘Siegel terrorized gamblers, had screaming arguments with his mistress Virginia Hall in public and threatened his employees who didn’t do his bidding.’ He demanded a bigger cut of the assigned take. To make matter worse, Frank Costello suspected him of double crossing them in a Mexican narcotics deal.
To get away from him, Davie Berman handed over the El Cortez to Siegel and took his associates to buy the Las Vegas Club and the El Dorado (now Binion’s Horseshoe). ‘Siegel wanted to make Las Vegas his personal shrine and he began to ruin it for everyone,’ said Susan. It wasn’t long before the bosses started to think of him as a liability.
They were also unhappy with his mismanagement of money in supervising the construction of the Flamingo Hotel. He spared no expense in building materials that were still rationed from WWII, he even arranged Lucky Luciano to ship marble from Italy (where he had been deported for running a prostitution ring). He envisioned a lavish temple of gambling on the grand scale of movie sets and mansions that he had seen in Hollywood. He racked up $3 million in costs before the hotel was even half finished.
Moe Sedway (center) and Gus Greenbaum are seen at the Flamingo Hotel circa 1948. ‘The day after Bugsy Siegel was murdered, Gus Greenbaum walked into the Flamingo with my father, Moe Sedway and Willie Alderman and took over’ wrote Susan. Within six months, Siegel’s failing hotel began to turn a profit
Gus Greenbaum was a protégé of Meyer Lanksy who eventually became both an alcoholic and a heroin addict
David Berman purchased the Las Vegas Club in an effort to get away from Bugsy Siegel’s megalomania
There was no Strip when Davie Berman arrived in Las Vegas in 1945
Siegel decided to open the unfinished casino early to compensate for some of the construction expenses. He chartered a train from Union Pacific and private plane to transport some of his celebrity friends from Hollywood for opening night but nobody showed up. The expensive failure of his opening night cost Siegel his life and he was executed on March 1, 1947 in the Beverly Hills home of his mistress, Virginia Hall.
‘The day after Bugsy Siegel was murdered, Gus Greenbaum walked into The Flamingo with my father, Moe Sedway, and Willie Alderman and took over,’ wrote Susan. ‘Privately the whole city breathed a sigh of relief.’
Under tremendous pressure from Chicago gangsters, Gus Greenbaum was forced to buy into the failing Riviera Hotel. He gave Davie 7 percent ownership and control of all business operations. After six months, the hotel began to turn a profit and Davie was making more money than ever before, ‘money he couldn’t show, money he had to fly to Switzerland with and deposit in several safety deposit boxes.’
That was the money that propelled Susan through America’s finest boarding schools after her parents died. Susan’s Uncle Chickie enrolled her in Los Angeles’ illustrious Chadwick School, ‘I didn’t know it, but Chadwick was the famous school where movie stars’ kids went,’ she wrote. ‘Never had so many young egos joined under one roof to compete.’
She shared a dorm with Dean Martin’s daughters, remembers feeling envious of B.D. Merrill because her mother Bette Davis visited every weekend. She had French class with Yul Brynner’s son who spoke the language fluently because he had lived in Switzerland and she said Liza Minelli was ‘an adorable waif’ who ‘improvised dances whenever there was a spare moment.’
It was at school when she learned of Gus Greenbaum’s gruesome murder from a classmate reading the LA Times.
It was the first time she heard the word ‘mafia’ and she thought: ‘I wondered if my father knew Gus has been in that.’
Although Susan allegedly inherited $4million from her father, she died penniless and was forced to borrow $50,000 from her close friend Robert Durst in the months before he murdered her.
New York Magazine reported, ‘she spent it like it would never end, dressing in $400 St. Laurent blouses bought three at a clip from Saks and boots that she liked to buy in sets of two.’
‘My father’s story is a very American story, and I am the most American product of all,’ wrote Susan, who idolized his memory for the rest of her life.
She said: ‘This is the story of a father who was a gangster, not a gangster who was a father.’
Susan went on to become a successful journalist, eccentric, larger-than-life and beloved for her gallows sense of humor. At parties, while friends proudly showcased photos of their children, Susan whipped out the copy of her father’s mug shot that kept a permanent place in her wallet.
Gladys Berman suffered from a series of mental breakdowns. Susan remembered her mother spending most days lying in bed crying
David Berman (left) is photographed for a charity baseball game with Abe Schiller (a mob connected casino host) and Willie ‘Icepick’ Alderman (right)
David Berman (left with his wife Gladys) felt compelled to join WWII in 1941 but was rejected by the American Army for his criminal record and for being too old. Instead he paid off people to join the Canadian Army and was the last of three men to survive in his unit while fighting in Italy. Berman was honorably discharged in 1944 after he was shot and wounded by a landmine. Uncle Chickie (right) followed in his brother’s footsteps and also joined the war effort, both men were enraged by Hitler’s persecution of their fellow Jews
By the year 2000, Susan was in dire straits financially. Unable to afford her rent in Beverly Hills, she turned to her longtime friend, Robert Durst for money.
The friends first met as students at UCLA in the 1960s. In the interim years since their first meeting, Durst’s behavior became progressively more erratic. He became estranged from his family, who disowned him from their $4billion fortune with a one-time settlement of $65million.
Gladys Berman (right) was a popular dancer before she met in Davie Berman (16 years her senior) in 1939 while performing at a nightclub in Minneapolis. With her cousin Lorelei, they became known as the ‘Evans Sisters’ and traveled throughout the Midwest
Loyal to a fault, Berman stood up for Durst after the suspicious disappearance of his wife, Kathleen McCormack in 1982 – and served as his official alibi in a deposition during the initial investigation. McCormack’s disappearance remained unsolved for almost two decades until the Westchester County District Attorney announced in 2000 that she was reopening Kathleen McCormack’s case as a homicide.
Susan Berman was murdered weeks later. The crime also went unsolved until 2015.
Prosecutors now claim that Durst’s motive for murdering Susan Berman was that she ‘knew too much’ about the alleged homicide of his wife, Kathleen McCormack.
Durst went on the run, in the years after Berman’s deceased body was discovered in 2000. He began living under different aliases, using false identities to buy cars, rent apartments, and open credit card accounts. Dressed in drag, he posed as a mute woman named ‘Dorothy Ciner’ and moved into a shabby apartment in Galveston, Texas.
In 2001, Durst was arrested for the murder of his neighbor, Morris Black after his dismembered body parts were found floating in Galveston Bay. Durst jumped bail and was later caught in Pennsylvania trying to shoplift Band-Aids, a newspaper and chicken-salad sandwich from a supermarket; despite having $500 in his pocket.
Durst was eventually acquitted of murder but served three years in prison for tampering with evidence for carving up Morris Black’s body with a paring knife.
Those who knew Berman said that her most admirable trait was loyalty; loyalty not only to her father’s memory, but to her friends. Uncle Chickie’s eerily prescient advice before his niece left for college (which is where she would befriend Robert Durst) was ‘enjoy yourself Susie, life passes too quickly. And remember one thing about the Bermans: we’re loyal.’