Odd The Way The 1% Get Away With Their Crimes-- Even Murder Sprees. Are We In Russia?
I always knew him as "Bobby," another of Susan Berman's rich friends. Now he's Robert Durst. I didn't know any rich people-- only poor people like myself-- when I was hanging out with Susan, except for her and the rich friends she introduced me to. Bobby Durst was someone she knew from boarding school, after her parents were killed in Mob hits, if I remember correctly. Her dad was a Vegas Jewish Mafia big shot-- not on a Sheldon Adelson level-- but a real big shot nonetheless. David "Davie the Jew" Berman. She wrote a book about it and got famous. I'm pretty sure I took the inside jacket cover.
I don't know filmmaker Andrew Jarecki; he left a helpful comment on post I did about his Bobby Durst film in 2010, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, which he filmed in 2008. The release was successfully sabotaged the the powerful Durst family and didn't come out until 2010, when it flopped badly. In the movie, Susan was renamed Deborah Lehrman and played by Lily Rabe (Sister Mary Eunice McKee and Misty Day from American Horror Story). Jarecki isn't done. He just completed a 6-part HBO documentary on Durst-- The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.
His estranged family is as unenthusiastic about this one as they were about All Good Things. This week, the NY Times reported that Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for the Durst Organization, called the documentary "a self-indulgent work of fiction. Given that Robert is likely underwriting the film, it should rival the great works of propaganda."
[Durst]was investigated, but never charged, in the mysterious disappearance of his young, beautiful first wife and the mob-like execution of a close friend in Los Angeles. He beheaded a cantankerous neighbor in Texas in what he described as an act of self-defense, cross-dressed to conceal his identity and then escaped the police, whose nationwide manhunt took them to Northern California, then New Orleans and, finally, Bethlehem, Pa., where Mr. Durst had gone to college.It should be interesting to see if HBO is really presenting a "propaganda" film financed by Bobby, as the Durst family claims. I was thinking, though, that a good way to prepare for it-- better than reading tabloid stories about the seedy Dursts-- like this one from last week-- would be to go back and get to know Susan, our mutual friend who he executed in Los Angeles. This is a transcript from an Ira Glass This American Life show, 1997, 3 years before Bobby killed her.
But other than a few cryptic asides to reporters, Mr. Durst, 71, has kept his own counsel.
HBO is announcing this week that it plans to broadcast a six-part documentary called The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Made with Mr. Durst’s cooperation, HBO says, the documentary, to air this February, will unravel the disappearance of Mr. Durst’s wife, Kathie, in one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries in New York history, and expose long-buried information about the man suspected in that and other unsolved crimes.
It is based on nearly 10 years of research by the filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, who made the 2010 film All Good Things, a lightly fictionalized account of Mr. Durst’s life. The filmmakers say they reviewed thousands of court documents and interviewed more than 100 friends, investigators, prosecutors, journalists (including this reporter), defense lawyers and relatives of Kathie Durst and Mr. Durst’s friend Susan Berman.
But the core of the documentary is more than 25 hours of interviews with Mr. Durst, who in his slow-paced, gravelly voice talks about his privileged upbringing as a member of a family that owns 10 Manhattan skyscrapers and numerous apartment buildings and became a force in New York City politics.
He describes a tangled relationship with his powerful father, Seymour, and the betrayal he felt when his younger brother, Douglas, was tapped to take the reins of the family business.
The documentary’s producers declined to detail the topics Mr. Durst discussed, but they seem likely to include his mother’s suicide when he was 7; his wife’s disappearance in 1982; the killing of Ms. Berman, his confidante, in 2000; and the dismemberment of his neighbor in a $300-a-month rooming house in Galveston, Tex., in 2001.
“Certainly the things he’s been accused of are tabloid-worthy,” Mr. Jarecki said. “But what’s clear about Bob, if you spend five minutes with him, is that he’s a deeply complicated person who cannot be summarized in a simple way.”
But why, after 32 years of silence, did Mr. Durst decide to talk now?
“I think he felt understandably frustrated by the fact that he has not been able to speak for himself,” Mr. Jarecki said.
Mr. Durst has long been estranged from his family, and 13 of his relatives have obtained orders of protection against him. The Dursts did not cooperate with the documentary and once threatened to sue Mr. Jarecki over All Good Things, which they said unfairly characterized their family.
...Durst severed connections to his father and family in the mid-1990s, roughly a decade after the disappearance of Kathie Durst, five months before she would have graduated from medical school. By most accounts, their marriage had descended into violent confrontations.
The case lay dormant for 18 years, until a New York State Police investigator began tracking new leads in 2000, setting off a bizarre series of events. Mr. Durst fled New York, renting an apartment in Galveston, disguised as a mute woman.
His friend Ms. Berman, who had been his spokeswoman after Kathie Durst’s disappearance, was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve, shot in the back of the head. No one has been charged in that case.
Mr. Durst was then charged with murdering and dismembering a former merchant seaman who lived across the hall from him in Galveston. A jury acquitted him of murder, accepting his account of an accidental shooting that occurred as he tried to defend himself. Mr. Durst did spend more than three years in prison for bail jumping and other crimes.
Act Two. Mobster Daughter.There is literally not one friend of Susan's who isn't 100% certain that Bobby killed her.
It was 1957, and I was 12. They said it was the largest funeral Las Vegas had ever seen. There were thousands of mourners. The pall bearers were men I had known, Gus Greenbaum, whose throat would later be slashed in Phoenix, Willie "Ice Pick" Alderman, who would die on Terminal Island, while serving time on a mob extortion rap, Joe Rosenberg, one of my father's partners, who was known as his mouthpiece, Nick the Greek, the famed odds maker. Squat Jewish men surrounded Uncle Chickie and me at the funeral, saying, "We don't expect trouble."
Susan Berman's father was Davie Berman, a Jewish gangster who was one of the founders of modern Las Vegas, trusted confidant of Meyer Lansky, Frank Constello, and Bugsy Siegel. Susan Berman
The son of a Russian-immigrant rabbinical student, he built his own gambling empire when he was just 16 and went on to become a bootlegger and bank robber, whose face appeared on dozens of "Wanted" posters. He was the brazen kid who engineered one of the first kidnaps for ransom, escaped death in a Central Park shoot-out, and was described by a detective on the front page of the New York Times as "the toughest Jew I ever met."
One of the most romantic and appealing notions about gangsters is the idea that they're cold-blooded tough guys while they're out in the world, but loving family men when they're at home. And while that's obviously not true for lots of real-life mobsters, it does actually seem to be true for Davie Berman. When his wife was ill and away from home for months, he was almost a new-age dad, 1990s-style dad, taking care of his daughter himself, spending time with her every day, helping her with her math homework in the casino's money counting room. Davie Berman was an owner of the Flamingo and Riviera hotels. And in those same rooms, they would skim the profits off for his mob bosses back east.
This is an excerpt from Susan Berman's memoir Easy Street. The book is filled with scenes of this odd collision of worlds. Her father's world, she writes, was dangerous and violent and severe. But he crafted a childhood that seemed to her at the time to be completely normal. She had no idea about his criminal ties.
I thought we had no house key because, as he said, "Somebody is always home." Mob members never carry keys, because if they're kidnapped, a rival could get to their families. My father was austere. He didn't gamble, drink, or smoke.
He told me he didn't like to stay in small rooms for a long time because he felt confined. I later learned that he had served seven years in Sing Sing, four in solitary confinement on a 12-year sentence. I thought we had no checking account because, as he said, "Everybody knows us here. We just use cash." Mob members prefer to keep cash boxes and few visible assets.
He told me our late night jaunts to Los Angeles were a vacation. He'd wake me and tell me to get dressed. We'd drive to McCarran Field and fly to LA. I'd be kept at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a few days with a couple of his men friends.
They took me to Uncle Bernie's toy store in Beverly Hills to drink lemonade from the lemonade tree. And we ordered coffee ice cream in our room from MFK's drug store in the hotel. Then my father would reappear magically after two days and take me to the Brown Derby for dinner. We'd sit under Ingrid Bergman's picture. And he'd order "lamb chops with pink skirts for Susie" and put me on a red, leather child seat, so I could join in the conversation. In fact, these "vacations" were flights to freedom when there was mob unrest, and I was in danger.
I knew my father's partners only from a child's perspective, the same way I knew my father. There was Willie Alderman, called "Ice Pick" Willie in his youth because he allegedly killed people with an ice pick. Willie was my favorite, a big, lumpy, silent man who greeted me every day with, "How you doing, Susie?" He was always at my father's side.
There was Gus Greenbaum, a junkie and alleged killer. Gus was an older, dark-skinned man who smoked cigars and growled. He never paid any attention to me and never smiled. Once I kicked him as hard as I could in the ankle just to prove I existed. He said, "Davie, the kid takes after you." I asked my father if he had kicked big, mean men too. But my father said, no, and not to kick Gus again.
My father's mother, Clara, or Bubby to me, would show up unannounced at our home in Las Vegas once a month for her "pay-as-you-eat Shabbes dinner." Around 2:00 PM on a Friday, Bubby would pound on the front door, yelling, "Davie, Lou, Susie, let me in. Hurry up." Of course, my father was never home from the hotel in the afternoon, but she'd act as if he should have been. She'd run all over the house looking for him, then go right into the kitchen and sneer, "So where's Davie? Working again?"
Without waiting for an answer, she'd throw down her shawl and start unpacking two huge needlepoint bags full of groceries. She was in a frenzy, her white hair standing up in wisps as it came out of her bun. She was short, and stout, and smelled like old rouge. As soon as she washed the carrots for the matzo-ball soup, she yelled at our bodyguard, Lou, to "Come and chop these carrots into little pieces." Lou dutifully went into the kitchen. She took an egg beater from her purse and started making matzo balls and washing the chicken.
After about an hour of intense preparation, during which she yelled at me to, "Stay out of my goddamn way," and said, "ach" several times, and "oy vay" if Lou wasn't fast enough on the chopping. Bubby hit the telephone and had all my father's friends paged in the casino. "Hello, Gus? Clara Berman. I'm making a Shabbes meal at Davie's tonight. Be here at sundown. You eat good," she'd say, as she rang up Willy, Joe, Mickey Cohen, and others, usually about eight men.
Around 6:00 PM, the sleek, dark Cadillacs would roll up. Gus, Joe, Mickey, Willie, and others arrived, and the hungry Jewish men took their places around our table. My father entered with an expression that said, "Oh, no, not again." But he kissed Bubby hello and sat down too. They ate with the gusto of men starved for a matzo ball. It was always a silent dinner except for slurping noises from the soup bowls.
Bubby lit the menorah on the mantle. She kept shoving food onto my father's plate, saying, "Davie, you're too thin." And Gus came in for chiding if he didn't finish every drop. "Whatsa matter? You got an ulcer from the hotel business? You can't finish the tsimmes?"
When the strudel was gone, Bubby would remove her apron and announce, "Fine, first you eat, then you pay. I need gelt for my City of Hope project." And she'd go to each man and hold out her fat hand.
My father looked embarrassed to death and said, "Momma, I'll give you the money. You promised you'd never do this again. Please?" But she knew her victims. $100 bills flowed out of their pockets while I watched in fascination. She put a rubber band around the take and threw it into her needlepoint bag.
...So let's say that your father is a big-time gangster and, like the men in The Godfather movies, actually does try to protect you from ever knowing what exactly he does for a living. What happens when you find out? Well, Susan Berman's father died of natural causes when she was 12. Her mother died a year later. And the first time anyone directly told her about her father's underworld ties was when she was in college. Another student told her about this new book that talked about what her father really did in Las Vegas.
I rushed to Martindale's Book Store, which was in Beverly Hills, no longer existent, and quickly found this book The Green Felt Jungle. There was a huge display of them. And I quickly looked at the index, "Davie Berman." And it did. It had a whole chapter on the Flamingo Hotel and Ben Siegel's death.
And it said that after Ben Siegel was dead, that Davie Berman-- and then in parentheses, "Who could kill a man with one hand behind his back." And a little later in the chapter, it said that he had been "wounded in a shoot-out with an FBI man in Central Park and done 11 years in Sing Sing." And then it went on to talk about his other partners. Well, I started to throw up in the book store. I was so shocked.
You literally threw up in the bookstore?
Literally. How gross, right? It was just a visceral reaction. I couldn't believe it. And of course, I didn't think it was true.
As Susan Berman describes in her memoir Easy Street, she worked so hard at believing this wasn't true that eventually, she forgot the incident ever happened. Years later, she was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and interviewed Jimmy Hoffa just a month before he vanished. He and his men all knew her dad. One of them said he was, quote, "much smarter than the guys running the outfit now," end quote. And still, she did not want to believe that her dad was with the mob. Finally, when somebody showed her her father's FBI files, finally then, reluctantly, she believed.