You can find part two of this story here. Links to all of CRIME STORY’S coverage of the Robert Durst trial are here.
By 1983, Susan Berman was back in Los Angeles, having embarked on her new career as a screenwriter, and working on the script for “Easy Street.” She rented a house in Beverly Hills and bought a Chrysler LeBaron convertible. “It was very important to her to maintain an image,” said television writer Carol Mendelsohn, who worked with Berman during the last year of her life.
She and Lynda Obst would spend five years trying to develop a suitable script for Easy Street, with Berman reportedly collecting about $350,000 writing drafts of the screenplay.
Susan’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise….In 1984, she married a writer 13 years her junior, Mister Margolies, whose father had worked for Davie Berman in Las Vegas. After many romantic misfires, Susan was elated. She held a lavish wedding at the Hotel Bel-Air, with ice swans and white skullcaps. Durst walked her down the aisle and legendary producer Robert Evans toasted the couple, “I don’t know Mister but I can tell him Susan is the most seductive woman I’ve ever met.” “She did her best to turn it into a Hollywood event,” recalled Smith.
But when the marriage broke up after only seven months, Susan told her friends that Mister was taking drugs and abusing her. She was still hoping for a reconciliation when he died of an overdose, sending her into an emotional tailspin. The hard working writer could not get out of bed.
Gradually, she pulled herself together, writing scripts with Paul Kaufman, a financial advisor who also wanted to break into Hollywood. Susan bought a house in Brentwood; Kaufman and his two children, Mella and Sareb, moved in. In the early 1990s, the couple embarked on a quixotic mission to bring a musical about the Dreyfus affair to Broadway. By the time that project collapsed from lack of interest, Susan had drained her trust fund and lost her house to the bank. Kaufman left her. Kaufman’s son Sareb went off to school, while his daughter Mella continued to live with Berman. “It was kind of the first time,” Mella has told investigators, “that I had a really, um, present parent.”
Susan pressed on. She wrote two romantic mysteries — “Fly Away Home” (1996) and “Spiderweb” (1997) — that once again tapped into her life story, and maybe Durst’s as well. At the same time, Susan was the lead writer and co-producer of a two-part, four-hour A&E documentary, “Las Vegas.” She also wrote a companion book, “Lady Las Vegas; The Inside Story Behind the Neon Oasis” (1996), which expanded on some of the same material in “Easy Street.” But none of the books did particularly well.
Never discouraged, Susan worked with comedy writer and theater producer Rich B. Markey on writing sample scripts for the sitcoms “Married with Children” and “Frasier,” with the unrequited hope of getting hired.
By the late 1990s, Susan was in dire straits. She had little money coming in. Her landlady wanted her out of the house in Benedict Canyon and her beloved LeBaron was on its last legs. When friends treated her to lunch, they say, she ate ravenously. So in 1999, she tried to track down her old friend Durst. They had been out of touch since Durst broke with his family in 1994 after his father bypassed him and anointed his younger brother the heir apparent. Embarrassed and ashamed, Chavin said, Durst cut ties to most of his friends. She was nervous about broaching the subject of money with him, but maybe.
Even as Susan Berman struggled to make ends meet, she thought she might be on the verge of a breakthrough. In a letter to her niece, Gracie Berman, dated Nov. 9, 1998, she was bubbling with excitement. She was once again tapping into what had worked for her in the past; she had written the first act of a musical version of her most successful book, “Easy Street,” and a dark tale, “Dreamer Girl,” about a young woman, orphaned at 10, with Susan’s own phobias about tall buildings and crossing bridges.
She was really elated, she wrote, because three days earlier Showtime had “bought” her idea for a TV drama about Las Vegas, called “Sin City,” and asked her to write the script for a two-hour movie. “Fabulous news,” she wrote. “This is the biggest break yet in my career – but it really represents a chance to do really well in the future.”
Still, the project at Showtime did not gel, at least not right away. And Berman’s bills continued to mount, despite her Spartan existence. Berman finally reached her old friend Durst in the year leading up to her murder. He sent a letter postmarked March, 3, 1999 that said simply, “Now and Again I think about old times. Good Luck, Bobby.”
Sareb Kaufman, who regarded Berman as his mother, told authorities that he believed that Durst had enclosed one of two $25,000 checks he would send to Berman. But 20 years later, it is unclear whether the check was in that particular envelope. Weeks before her death, Susan did compile a list of 20 friends from whom she had “borrowed” money, including $50,000 from Durst.
“She had gone from being a wealthy person to being a bag lady,” said Howie Klein, the former president of Reprise Records told me in 2001. “In the last year or so, things perked up for her. She had reason to believe that her hard work would pay off.”
Susan told her friends that she had several projects in the works that seemed promising, although she was not always the most reliable narrator of her own life. “All of her projects have had Las Vegas as a theme,” Nyle Brenner, her manager, told me three weeks after Berman’s murder. “She had a couple of TV series in development, as well as a book she began to do research for.”
There was “Diaries,” a fictional account of the mob in Las Vegas told through current and fictional members of organized crime. She said she was pitching to ABC a sequel to her memoir called “Rich Girl Broke,” an autobiographical tale. Hillary Johnson recalled Susan talking about a similar book proposal called, “Car on Fire,” a reference to her LeBaron’s tendency to break down on her way to studio meetings.
“She was such a machine as a writer,” said Johnson. “She could have three books going at the same time. She’d sit down at that computer at 8 or 9 every morning and literally write for hours and hours, every day. She had a real sense of Zeitgeist; put a finger in the air and an idea would come to her. She took material from her own life.”
But Susan did not always endear herself to studio executives and magazine editors. “Even in New York, she burned every bridge,” recalled Elizabeth Mehren. “There was no continuity. She didn’t get hired on staff at New York magazine.”
Dave Berman, Uncle Chickie’s son, put it another way. “She was kind of demanding,” he said. “It had to be done her way.”
The one project that had some momentum began in 1999 when CBS executives Ghen Maynard and Nina Tassler put Berman together in 1999 with veteran television writer Carol Mendolsohn to collaborate on a soap opera akin to Dynasty about an “off-Strip casino in Las Vegas, and the family that owned it,” recalled Mendelsohn. “We were going to develop the story together, and then I was gonna write the script.”
Mendolsohn had her own connection to Las Vegas. Her father had been a partner in a law firm with Sydney Korshak, who represented many key figures in the Chicago mob. She had stayed at the Riviera during her father’s business trips to Las Vegas.
“Everything that Susan wrote about the Riv(iera), I could relate to ‘cause I remember being a little girl walking through the casino,” Mendelsohn said. “Reading her book made me think of Eloise at the Plaza.”
Mendelsohn said she found Berman to be “extremely bright, one of the most intelligent women that I’ve ever met.” But not everything Berman said rang true. She once told Mendelsohn that she had gone undercover with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 during the Patty Hearst kidnapping. “But she was a storyteller and, you know, people do embellish things.”
In January 2000, their six-month collaboration ended when they got the news that “our pilot was not going and not getting picked up.” Instead, CBS asked Mendelsohn to write for a new drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The project may or may not have been dead. Berman told her friends in 2000 that she was working on a similar show with CBS’s Showtime network. Shortly after Berman’s murder, her cousin Raleigh Padveen told me that Berman “had just gotten a contract from Showtime.”
But Berman told other friends that Showtime had passed on the project, although she still hoped it would get picked up elsewhere. “She was depending on getting a TV show on in July,” said Julie Smith. “She had these ambitions. She thoroughly believed that things would turn around for her. She had all her hopes pinned on it.”
Berman, was still living hand to mouth in November, 2000, when she again reached out to Durst asking for help. “We talked probably three times a week throughout the summer,” Johnson said. “Whether to send the letter to Durst. How she should phrase the letter. She feared that she’d destroyed her friendship.”
He sent her a second check, dated Nov. 9, for $25,000. Police later recovered a “Dearest Bobby” letter to Durst on Susan’s computer, thanking him for sending the money. “I don’t want my last request to be the last time we communicate — our friendship means so much to me.” But it is unclear whether Susan ever sent the note.
Two days after Bob wrote the check for Susan, Kevin Flynn and I broke the news in The New York Times that New York State Police investigator Joe Becerra had reopened the investigation into Bob’s missing wife Kathie. The Daily News also had a story and People magazine did their own article a month later, making it a national story.
In a panic, Durst rented a $300 a month apartment in Galveston, Texas, while posing as a mute woman. He felt hounded by the authorities, he would later tell a jury, yet he continued to fly in and out of New York.
Durst later told LA prosecutor John Lewin that he had talked to Berman about the new investigation. “Susan told me that she had been contacted by Los Angeles detectives,” Durst told Lewin during a nearly three-house interrogation in 2015. “And, um, they want to talk to me.”
Lewin’s response seemed to stun Durst. “I’m going to tell you something,” the prosecutor said. “That was not true. They had not contacted her. I think Susan was trying to subtly squeeze you for money. By the way, for what it’s worth Bob, ‘cause I know you care about her, I don’t think Susan ever would have said anything.”
Indeed, Susan had a fierce, mob-inspired loyalty to her friends, especially to Mr. Durst. “She felt very close to him,” Smith said. “There have been times when I thought all kinds of things about Bob. But I never thought she would’ve ratted him out for any reason.”
An excited Berman told her friends that she was expecting Durst to visit her in Los Angeles sometime around the Christmas holidays.
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.