Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Demented Millionaire Murdered My Friend Susan-- And Now There's A Movie About It


Jill Clayburgh's daughter Lily Rabe plays my old friend Susan in the new Andrew Jarecki film, All Good Things, which actually stars Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Susan/Lily isn't in the trailer (above). Susan won't be able to complain about that. She's dead-- murdered ten years ago, by, in all likelihood, Ryan Gosling... I mean the Gosling character, David Marks in the film (Robert Durst in realer life).

I've never written about this before. There are too many unresolved emotions tied up in it for me. Susan was the first wealthy person I ever knew. Her father was a Las Vegas mobster, David "Davie the Jew" Berman, a bank robber, crime boss of Minneapolis and, finally, a pioneer in the Vegas gambling business in association with the Genovese Family, Moe Sedway and Bugsy Siegel. Her parents died-- she always maintained that they were both murdered-- long before I ever met her. She wrote a book about them, Easy Street-- the True Story of a Gangster's Daughter. She wrote a couple of other books-- I took the pictures of her for the covers and publicity-- and after she was murdered a book was written about her life: Murder of A Mafia Daughter-- The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Berman.

I had just gotten back to America after living in Europe and Asia for nearly 7 years. I found a job at a p.r. firm in San Francisco and one day a distraught Susan called asking for my boss, Carol. She was threatening to commit suicide and needed Carol immediately. I interrupted Carol, who rolled her eyes dismissively and told me to put her on hold and get back to work. I was mortified and got back on the phone and persuaded Susan not to kill herself. Little did I know...

Susan and I became fast friends. I've always admired writers and she was one of the most visible authors in San Francisco. And she was extremely generous. I was extremely poor. I was just transitioning from food stamps to a regular paycheck. I lived in a tiny, $90/month studio in the pre-gentrified Mission District. She had a gigantic mansion in Pacific Heights, the part of town the rich and famous people lived in. She had written a highly acclaimed feature for City Magazine that everyone was talking about, "San Francisco, City of Sin: Why Can't I Get Laid?" With her encouragement I wrote a gay version for one of the city's gay weeklies. The articles didn't help either of us get laid but our friendship grew by leaps and bounds. When she was spending time in her Sutton Beekman Place apartment in NY, I would house-sit the mansion. When I went to NY, I stayed in the Sutton Beekman Place apartment. She invited me to come with her and some of her wealthy friends to Yosemite and bought me a wardrobe so I wouldn't feel out of place. I had never been around rich people before.

Meanwhile I was starting to realize why Carol had rolled her eyes dismissively when Susan was going to kill herself. She was going to kill herself several times a month. She was on (prescription) drugs. She was allergic to foods that made it impossible to eat. She couldn't cross a bridge unless two strong men were on either side of her (to keep her from jumping off). She was petrified of elevators. She had a series of dogs she drove insane. She was loathe to ever go above the third floor in any building unless there was someone with her who could prevent her from jumping out the window. That would often be me.

I don't remember what finally ended, more or less, our close friendship of 10 years. I had moved to Los Angeles and that might have been part of what it was, or an excuse. And she got married to an Israeli. One of the last phone conversations I recall having with her when we were still officially "good friends," was when she called me to denounce him. He was sitting in the room with her and she was just railing about all his shortcomings. Eventually he grabbed the phone and beat her with it. That was pretty much the end of the road for our friendship.

I think the husband managed to use or steal most of the fortune her father left her. I remember that there was a long-term boyfriend who had a couple of kids she raised as her own after the husband was gone. Somewhere along the way she went from being the richest person I knew to being impoverished. When I'd see her in L.A.-- she had moved here too eventually-- I would take her grocery shopping and buy things that would last a long time. She had three dogs and rotated them out of a kennel because she was only allowed to have two in her apartment at any one time. They were vicious, attacked people and barked all day when she was out. She always had a plan that was going to help her get back on her feet. I paid for her dental bills.

My best bud, Roland, was putting himself through college by working at Starbucks. He told me they had her on a "bounced checks" list. I bought her some big bags of their coffee. There was always a TV show or a book on the horizon. I was in Bethlehem with my head in a little excavation where the faithful say Jesus was born when she was murdered, execution style with a nine-millimeter shot to her head on Christmas Eve 2000.

And that's where All Good Things comes in. "The movie suggests that Robert, in the person of David Marks, murdered Kathie after first killing their beloved dog, Igor. It shows his friend, Ms. Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster and called Deborah in the film, helping him cover his tracks by donning a blonde wig to pose as Kathie in Manhattan, thus confusing police about the time and location of her death. And it shows Susan/Deborah, impoverished 18 years later, pressuring Robert/David for hush money. She is soon visited by Melvin Bump, the character that stands in for Mr. Black, who kills her as a favor to his wealthy friend."

The movie's a fictionalized-- for the sake of lawsuits-- version of the life of one of Susan's best friends, Bobby Durst, the guy everyone who knows her is positive murdered her. He also murdered his wife (and Morris Black in Texas who he dismembered). Susan had helped him cover up the murder of the wife and he had been very generous to her-- something that appeared to be paying her hush money-- just before she let someone she obviously knew into her home who was able to shoot her in the head without any kind of a struggle. The NY Times reports that Bobby, scion of the Durst NYC real estate family, likes the movie.
It all began with the mysterious 1982 disappearance of his young wife, a beauty who had been considering divorce, followed 18 years later by the execution-style murder of a close friend as investigators looked to question her. It ultimately featured cross-dressing, dismemberment and a 45-day manhunt stretching from Galveston, Tex., to California and New York.

Though investigators sought to question Mr. Durst about his wife’s disappearance and the 2000 murder of his friend, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles, he has never been charged in either case. He was, however, charged in the 2001 death of a former rooming-house neighbor, Morris Black, whose body he dismembered and threw in Galveston Bay. But a Texas jury found he acted in self-defense, and he ended up serving four years on lesser charges, including jumping bail and evidence tampering.

Now he’s free and living on $65 million gained in a settlement with his family, splitting his time among homes in Houston, Los Angeles and Harlem.

Mr. Durst’s embrace of the film, which opens Friday, is probably based on its portrayal of him as a sad but very human character known as David Marks, whose childhood is scarred by his mother’s suicide and whose road to violence is paved by the pressures of life with an overbearing and distant father.

Mr. Jarecki, who has spoken of the pressures of life with his own strong-willed father, said he hoped the movie could help explain how Mr. Durst unraveled, ending up in Texas in 2001 posing as Dorothy, a mute woman in a blonde wig, and capable of cutting up a body with a hacksaw.

The $25 million movie’s most important mission, Mr. Jarecki said, is “to portray these people as human beings, and that’s very hard to do when you’re living in a world where Robert, for example, has been painted as a burlesque figure in the media.”

Mr. Durst does not endorse the film’s view that he played a role in all three deaths. Still, he said, he expected much worse. “The movie, I did think, is as reasonably accurate as anything out there,” he said, “a whole lot more accurate than those endless TV documentaries. And this doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.”

The Durst family, on the other hand, is threatening a law suit since it portrays the family firm as being corrupt and amoral. “The film’s depiction of the DO (Durst Organization) as a veritable ‘partner in crime’ to the prostitution and illegal drug industry in Times Square, is galling,” a Durst lawyer, Richard Emery, wrote in a 2008 letter to Mr. Jarecki. The “depiction of Seymour Durst as a ruthless, greedy, criminally implicated” man was, Mr. Emery added, “similarly false.”

I've avoided reading the books and seeing the TV documentaries about the case. I always avoid seeing commercial portrayals of events that were real in my life. But I have a feeling I'm going to go see this movie when it opens next week.



At 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating piece, Howie.

As a matter of clarification, I trust this

"Meanwhile I was starting to realize why Carol had rolled her eyes dismissively when Susan was going to kill herself. She was going to kill herself several times a month."

means this:

"Meanwhile I was starting to realize why Carol had rolled her eyes dismissively when Susan was going to kill herself. Susan was going to kill herself several times a month."

VG (sorry about the anonymous thing), but it's me.

At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Riveting story. How sad. How human. I hope to be able to see this when it comes out.

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. A couple clarifications...

1. Susan/Lily IS in the trailer for All Good Things. She is in the scene in Studio 54 when David says "Look at her, she's perfect" and she is seen walking away from the closing gates of the Marks mansion, with her Cleopatra hairstyle.

2. She lived in NY on Beekman Place, not Sutton Place.

Thanks for the interesting stories. I hope you like the movie.

Andrew Jarecki

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For accuracy, read Matt Birkbeck's book - A Deadly Secret - The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst. Morris Black did not kill Susan Berman - Bobby Durst did, just as he killed his wife Kathie. I knew Kathie well, Berman only slightly - had dinner with her - she was difficult to take - & met Bobby once.

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can attest to much of Howie's description of Susan. Howie introduced me to her when I first moved to San Francisco. I ended up house-sitting and dog-sitting for her and I drove her to many of her interview gigs. She was too phobic to drive over the Golden Gate or Bay Bridge herself. We became good friends. and when we both landed in NYC several years later she introduced me to Nick Chavin (who is quoted several times in the NY Times article about the film). Nick and I played in a band together and Bob Durst was often around as Susan had introduced Nick to Bob. A few years later Nick started his own real estate advertising agency and I went to work for him. Bob's family were among our biggest clients. I always found Bob's father, Seymour, to be intelligent, soft-spoken and cultured... much the way Nick described him in the NYT article. My recollection of Bob at that time is that he was both brilliant and eccentric but it would have been hard to imagine then that he might someday have a hand in Susan's death. It's sadly ironic that in death Susan achieved some of the notoriety that had eluded her later in her career and that she ended up being part of a mystery that she would have loved to have written. Susan could often be demanding, infuriating and unpredictable but she was nothing if not loyal to her friends. We miss her.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few comments from another old friend, and spouse to the guy who wrote one of the previous comments:

To clarify, Susan did not marry the Israeli that bopped her on the head with the telephone...she married a guy named Mister, who turned out to be a drug addict and died. It was another boyfriend later on, with whom she attempted to write a Broadway musical (I think about the Dreyfus affair), who led her to financial ruin, and whose two children she sort of adopted. Unfortunately, Susan had poor judgment with men in her love life. Her long lived dog, Oomi, was incredibly smart and a real mench - it was the three fox terriers that did her in in LA. One was the mother (Golda) and the other two were her children (Romeo and ?). I would have taken one of the dogs after she died, except for their viciousness, When I had visited her one bit a huge hole in my son's tee shirt and the other actually bit my other son. When we went out to eat, she brought them along wearing velcro muzzles, and we ate outside at a cafe. A friend told me one had bitten into the arm of his black leather jacket and clamped his jaws on it so that he was swinging in the air. Susan once called me very upset that Gold had almost killed Romeo - she bit his balls - and he needed emergency surgery at the vet, And...I don't think you actually paid that dental bill, Howie, though I know Susan asked you! Are you sure you did?

At 4:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also suggest that if you plan to watch this movie, then you have to read Matt Birkbeck's book "A Deadly Secret." It's very well done and told from the point of view of the detectives in charge of the two different investigations, in 1982 and 2000, into the disappearance/murder of Bobby's wife Kathie Durst.
There's no doubt Bobby killed Kathie, and Morris Black and Susan.

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

My parents and I lived just three doors north of the Berman's house in Vegas. Susie was my playmate and friend. We'd exchanged a few emails after "Easy Street" came out. Then one day I decided to Google her and see what was new. And immediately I regretted it.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today's arrest of Durst will be satisfying to anyone who knew and appreciated Susan, and to those who are surprised and relieved when justice is actually served.

At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So this was an amazing recollection to share, and I wanted to say thanks.

I had the displeasure the other month of having to work in the 42nd street area. After an difficult interaction with some Durst organization staff, I told one of my co-workers who knows a lot about Broadway and Midtown history who started explaining how their current lot had alot to do with the old 42nd street sleaze, and oh -- you've never heard of the crazy durst kid that killed people and got away with it?

I wish I didnt know, and I'm happy that I didn't have to deal with them.

Thanks again for sharing.

At 7:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened to her dogs? Such a sad story.
Sure wish it had had a happy ending.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

What an amazing and sad story. I'm not sure if I remember this correctly from other books about the mob in Vegas, but was her father involved with Sidney Korshak?

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was Nyle Brenner taken of the suspect list as a possibility in Susan's murder?


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