Susan Berman burnished her father’s reputation. “By the time I knew him he was a legitimate hotel owner in Las Vegas, as legitimate as he could be,” Berman wrote in her 1996 book, Lady Las Vegas. Famous for his brains, style and skillful diplomacy between rival mob factions, he was known as the ‘Kissinger of Vegas’,” she wrote. Though the description may be on point, it betrays Susan’s penchant for hyperbole, as Kissinger didn’t become a commanding foreign policy figure until the 1960s, long after Davie Berman had died.
Davie was born in 1903 in Odessa, Russia, to a poor rabbinical student and the daughter of a lumber baron. The family arrived at Ellis Island four years later, settling in Ashley, North Dakota. Farming was a hard life, made more difficult by anti-Semitic taunts from neighbors.
Still a boy, her father hopped a train to Chicago, where he made his way up the ranks, from selling newspapers on street corners to running errands for gangsters, bootlegging and operating a shakedown operation. By his 20s, he was a full-time mobster who had done time in Sing Sing and kept his mouth shut.
At 36, Davie married Gladys Evans, a tap dancer from Minneapolis who was half his age, and in 1944 they set off for Las Vegas with the mob’s blessing, after Minneapolis became so inhospitable under the racket-busting mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey.
Davie Berman bought into nightclubs in Las Vegas and worked alongside mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was building a next generation hotel — the Flamingo — with mob money. Way over budget, the hotel opened and quickly closed. Siegel’s colleagues, thinking he was too flamboyant, too independent, had him assassinated in Los Angeles on June 20, 1947.
Within hours of Siegel’s death, according to organized crime historians, Davie Berman strolled into the Flamingo saying, ‘I’m in charge.’
In the years to come, Susan would regale her friends, publishers and studio executives with tales of playing gin rummy with her father’s bodyguards, visiting Fanny’s Dress Shop and Gigi’s Hair Salon at the Flamingo, and watching Elvis and Liberace perform at her birthday parties. All this, of course, made possible by her larger than life father.
Susan’s idyllic childhood came to an end in 1957, when her father died on an operating table during surgery. A year later, her mother killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates. She was 13.
Susan Berman, 13, was an orphan, albeit it, one with a trust fund who attended elite boarding schools. Her mother had sent her to Chadwick School in Los Angeles, where her classmates included Jann Wenner and Liza Minelli. After her father’s death, she went to live with her father’s younger brother, Charles “Chickie” Berman and his family in Lewiston, Idaho.
At junior high school in Lewiston, Dick Riggs, an English and History teacher, took an interest in the quiet, curious and eager to please adolescent. He was the first to tell her “she had a talent for writing.” It was Riggs, she would later tell him, who inspired her career.
Later, she attended high school at St. Helen’s Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Portland, Oregon, where she got good grades and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
Her Uncle Chickie, looked after her in between prison stints. Upon graduation, he surprised her with a plane ticket to spend the summer in Israel.
After initially enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, she moved to UCLA, switching her major to education from sociology. In her final year there, she met a graduate student in economics who would become a friend for life, Robert Durst.
Durst recalled their meeting vividly for filmmakers 40 years later, describing how he used to hang out at Dykstra dormitory, on a hill overlooking the campus. There was a pool, he said, where “boys and girls were trying to meet.”
“And I saw this girl who looked very pretty, wearing a white outfit and a white cap and black hair. And I went over and started talking to her. And we went swimming. And that was Susan Berman.
“I spent all my time with her,” he said. “We would have sleepover days, but it was strictly platonic.”
Both their childhoods had been shattered by tragedy — she lost both her parents at a young age, while he had lost his mother at the age of 7, when she either fell or, as Durst tells it, jumped from the roof of their home in a New York City suburb. She attended private boarding schools; he had been brought up by a series of governesses.
“She saw in Bob a fractured soul, like herself,” said Hillary Johnson, a friend of Berman’s and a journalist.
There was also an opposites-attract quality to the relationship between the vivacious Berman and the taciturn Durst, another of Susan’s friends, Sheila Jaffe, told me in 2001. “Bobby adored Susan,” she said. “She was his Holly Go Lightly. Bob was Casper Milquetoast.”
In 1968, Susan was among a class of 30 students in the graduate journalism program at UC Berkeley, a sprawling campus of 27,000. The students were full of ambition to make it big in print journalism. In this rather intimate setting, her classmates soon knew of her background — mother was a showgirl who married a mobster.
Susy liked to stand out, whether it was strolling through the lobby of her father’s casino, motoring across a campus riven by demonstrations, or at the Russian Tea Room. On a campus riven by daily anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in Sproul Plaza, she drove a white Mercedes. In the rain, she’d wear a tan raincoat, cinched at the waist, with a matching tan pith helmet.
“Everybody was talented; everybody was very smart,” said Elizabeth Mehren, a classmate who became an author and a national correspondent for the LA Times. “But Susan had that LA kind of glitter that we didn’t have. She had a lot of self-confidence and she was good at marketing herself. She could tell a great story and could engage at a dinner party.”
She graduated in June 1969 and over the next two years published her first book and landed a staff job at the San Francisco Examiner. She conceived of The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice, a must-have manual for hip, aspiring college students who wanted to know where to buy the best pot, the best place to score a date and the best professors, as well as average SAT scores. Susan was listed as “editor-in-chief” and her boyfriend at the time, Alan Neckritz, was “editor.”
At the Examiner, Susan had no intention of being relegated to the society or style pages as so many women were in those days. Hard news could be grueling. At one point, Susan was sent out to cover the courts, a dizzying array of civil, criminal, state and federal courtrooms.
“It’s a hard beat; you might have 15 stories a day in different courts,” said Julie Smith, then a veteran reporter for the rival Chronicle. “It’s no place for a newbie. Susan started crying and asked for help. We became fast friends.”
After Mayor Alioto rebuffed her request for an interview, she sat outside his office for days on end, observing the comings and goings for a profile, less an investigative piece than a scene setter. She moved quickly from newspapers to magazines. “Susan was an acquired taste,” said Carol Pogash, a friend who also worked at the Examiner at the time. “In a newsroom full of eccentrics, she managed to stand out. A lot of us were drawn to her excitement and energy.”
In 1975, Susan wrote a cover story for “City” magazine, with the captivating title: “In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why I Can’t Get Laid.” The hilarious story put her on the map and provided a glimpse of her intuitive understanding of what made an attention-grabbing story.
“She was completely unqualified to write that story,” Smith said, laughing. “She’d heard women say it. She knew it was a provocative subject and she could gin it up into a very fun story without doing a lot of reporting. She brought a lot of jazziness, gloss and hipness to her stories.”
Susan had bigger plans and remained undaunted in the face of rejection. The bedroom door of her apartment in Berkeley was covered with rejection letters from magazine editors. “Susan just laughed,” Pogash recalled. “The message was clear: these editors are fools. I’ll show them.”
In 1976, she published “Driver, Give a Soldier A Lift,” a comic novel about a fish-out-of-water woman from Berkeley who hitchhiked across Israel. The book garnered modest acclaim. She soon moved to New York, where she wrote for New York magazine, Cosmopolitan, Us and Family Circle, snagging a cover profile of Bess Meyerson.
At night she could be found at Elaine’s with other journalists and celebrities, or with her old pal, Durst, who was now married and working in the family business. In between, she worked on a memoir that was partly the story of her beloved father and partly the story of her growing up in Las Vegas. She filed a request with the FBI for her father’s criminal records.
James Grady, who was an investigative reporter and author of the book that became the Robert Redford movie “Three Days of the Condor,” recalled meeting Susan after the agent they shared suggested the two of them talk. As they settled into their seats at the Russian Tea Room near Carnegie Hall, Susan quizzed him about Murder Incorporated and the origins of the mob. At one point, a frustrated Grady exclaimed, “You’re supposed to be telling me this stuff, not me telling you.”
Susan’s response was disarming: “Jim, you don’t understand. I was always Daddy’s little girl.”
Grady and Berman became friends and he periodically visited Susy’s apartment on Beekman Place, where there was a large black and white photo of her parents on the wall, a typewriter, a few books and little else. One time, shortly before publication of her memoir, Berman called Grady in a panic. She had just gotten documents from the FBI and the Justice Department describing her father’s leg-breaking and his links to several murders. “Not much of it ever made it into her book,” Grady said.
But the book, “Easy Street; The True Story of a Mob Family” was a success. There was a splashy book party at Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Durst played host to Susan’s wide-ranging friends: Laraine Newman, a cast member of Saturday Night Live; Jerry Rubin, the Yippie turned entrepreneur; Danny Goldberg, a music industry executive; and Linda Obst, a movie producer who had just bought the rights to her book.
Susan collected friends the way some collect Hummels or autographs; they were interesting, or might help her in the future. “She had many layers of friends,” said Hillary Johnson. “Friends in show business, friends in journalism, like everybody. She just had more of them.”
A month later, Susan was helping her old friend Durst out of a jam. His wife Kathie had vanished on Jan. 31, 1982, amid a splintered marriage. Susan managed his contacts with the media and helped spread Durst’s story that Kathie might have run away with a drug dealer. Prosecutors now contend that Berman redirected authorities away from Durst. Durst later admitted he lied to the police concerning his whereabouts, but the investigation soon petered out, much to the frustration of Kathie’s family.
During this time, Susan wrote “Phobic” for New York magazine, an article that outlined her paralyzing fear of crossing bridges and riding in elevators in tall buildings. “Unlike most New Yorkers, I am not afraid of falling objects,” she wrote. “I am afraid of becoming one.”
Charlie Bagli has been covering the Robert Durst mystery for two decades, mostly for The New York Times, but also for Los Angeles Magazine and Town & Country magazine.