You can read part one of The Many Lives of Robert Durst here.
You can find links to all of CRIME STORY’S coverage of the Robert Durst trial here.
Robert Durst said he started talking to himself aloud back in elementary school. “After my mother died,” Bob recalled, “I was sent to psychiatrists, lots of them, for two or even three years.”
Bob did not deny, however, that in many respects he was his father’s son. “I don’t get along with people easily,” he would say decades later. “Most people don’t get along with me at all, not out-going, shy. That’s my father.”
Douglas, who like his father and his brother has a dry sense of humor, was also subject to Bob’s wrath. Douglas recalled Bob habitually pounding on him throughout grade school. One of the best days of his life, Douglas said, was when he transferred out of Scarsdale High School and away from Bob. “Imagine that you’re constantly being attacked by someone who’s older and stronger than you are,” Douglas told me. “It wasn’t any fun. Thank God for television. I’d get 15-minute intervals.”
It was only marginally better for Thomas, Bob’s youngest brother. Thomas, who lives in California, does not have a relationship with any of his siblings. At the March 2020 start of Bob’s L.A. murder trial, before the pandemic hiatus, Thomas told the jury “[Bob] treated me … as if I didn’t belong there … There was no warmth.”
As much as he fought with Douglas, Bob usually avoided face-to-face confrontations. Tom described to the L.A. jury a moment as an adult when he was passing through a revolving door into a Durst-owned building. Bob shoved the door behind him, sending Tom sprawling onto the lobby floor while Bob cackled. “I don’t remember Bobby ever raising his voice,” his friend Nick Chavin told me. “He had a long memory. If he had an enemy, he had an infinite amount of patience to wait it out.”
Seymour indulged or ignored Bob’s misbehavior for much of his life, perhaps out of grief or guilt about his wife’s tragic death. Bob’s relationship seemed to run hot and cold with his father. Bob, like his father, was small, with a wiry athleticism. Douglas, who did not play any sports as an adolescent, thought that his brother got far more attention. Seymour coached Bob’s basketball team. “I always thought that Seymour favored Bob over me,” Douglas said. “But I now think that he thought Bob had serious problems.”
Seymour left much of the child-rearing to a succession of governesses, including one the children called “Orky.” Family members said that Orky would lock Bob in his room when he misbehaved. Seymour, who was often lost in thought about the family business, made it home for dinner but afterwards returned to the office or an apartment in Manhattan.
Bob’s grandparents, Joseph and Rose, figured large in Bob’s life. Joseph, who sailed to New York from Poland in 1902 with $3 sewn into his lapel, founded the family-owned real estate company after rising from Lower East Side street peddler to garment factory owner to banker and property investor. The Durst clan—Seymour had a sister and three brothers—would periodically gather Joseph and Rose’s’ sprawling apartment at Fifth Avenue and 96th Street in Manhattan.
Bob was rarely on his best behavior. He would refuse to come to the dinner table or erupt in a screaming fit about one thing or another, one cousin recalled. Another cousin who had her own childhood issues said she still has fond memories of Bob. “It’s not easy having your mother die,” his cousin Nan Cooper said of Bob. “He was the only one who was really difficult when we had family gatherings.”
Every summer, Bob’s family looked forward to a road trip to see Joseph and Rose at their summer home on Lake Placid, which offered spectacular views of the lake and Whiteface Mountain. The heavy-timbered house, with six bedrooms and a large stone fireplace, was built in 1904 by Victor Herbert, the American composer and conductor, with the proceeds from his hit operetta, “Babes in Toyland.”
In the summers, the Durst children spent weeks at a time in Elbaron, NJ, a beach resort north of Asbury Park, where they learned how to swim.
That might sound idyllic to some, but by Bob’s account, “I had a miserable childhood.”
Bob did not leave big footprints in high school or college. He was a classic underachiever, getting middling grades even as his closest friends—Stewart Altman, Nick Chavin and Doug Oliver—described him as “one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.” Douglas touched on Bob’s high school mindset when he recalled that Bob told his family he was playing a tuba, “or some other big horn,” in the school band, recalled Douglas, but he would ditch the instrument in the woods soon after he left the house.
It was not easy to stand out in the Class of 1961 at Scarsdale High School. Bob’s classmates included his cousin Stephen Durst, who was voted “most likely to succeed;” Robert L. Kuttner, who went on to become the co-founder and editor of The American Prospect, a liberal policy magazine; and John S. Dyson, Chairman of Millbrook Capital Management and a former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Finance in New York City.
Bob pretty much stuck with a trio of friends in high school, which included Altman, a lifelong confidante who would also serve at times as Bob’s lawyer. Bob drove a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air when he first got his driver’s license, but soon got behind the wheel of what would be his pride and joy—a Pontiac GTO muscle car.
Bob’s yearbook pedigree lists projection club, camera club and junior varsity soccer. He was “an introverted non-entity among his peers,” recalled classmate Peter Kinsler, who wrote about sports for the high school newspaper. “He was pretty reserved, although he had a fairly sharp sense of humor. He wasn’t outgoing.”
“He was just a little bit quiet, and a little bit strange,” added Robert M. Greer, a classmate who also lived on Hampton Road, “but nothing you would consider crazy or criminal.”
“I didn’t do much in the way of high school,” Bob said in summing up his own experience to a jury in Galveston in 2003. “I went and left at the end of the day.”
After high school, Bob headed off to Lehigh University, a small private school with a sweeping campus of Gothic buildings in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics. This was a time before long hair and campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Bob appears clean-cut and relaxed in his yearbook photo. Although he did not make any lifelong friends there, Bob did seem to plunge into campus life. In 1964, he was business manager of The Brown and White, the student paper and worked for the Epitome yearbook. He even joined Pi Delta Epsilon, a journalism fraternity, as well as a social fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi.
It is hard to tell how active Bob was at either the frats or the school paper. He did not appear in any yearbook photos of frats, sports teams or the newspaper staff.
A classmate, Martin Pollack, a wrestler, persuaded Bob to join him as a counselor at Camp Lenox, in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts in the summer of 1964. Forty years later, camper Bruce Fleischer recalled Durst as a “popular, funny guy, a bit of a ladies’ man.”
Michael Sigman, the former publisher of LA Weekly, who was one of the six teenagers in Durst’s cabin, described Durst as “cocky” and “kind of conceited.” Another camper in Durst’s cabin, Stanley Weiser, who would later write the screenplays for two films directed by Oliver Stone, Wall Street and W, said Durst was a “very good athlete.” Durst, who wore a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, told campers that he played AA ball for an Orioles farm team.
“He proved it by hitting this long home run,” Weiser recalled. “He was the best baseball player among the counselors.” But, of course, Durst never played for the Orioles organization.
The two years after graduating from Lehigh in 1965 are a blank slate for Robert Durst. No one I spoke with knew exactly what he had been up to. By the summer of 1967 (the Summer of Love), he was in Los Angeles, ostensibly to attend graduate school at UCLA. He hung out on campus trying to get a feel for the place before fall classes started. And he invited his high school pal, Stewart Altman to visit. It was here that Bob met a co-ed who would become his closest friend and confidante: Susan Berman, the woman he is now accused of murdering.
Bob and Altman strolled over to Dyskstra dormitory, up on a hill across campus, where students could get a buffet lunch for 20 cents, “or whatever.” “And they had a great pool,” Bob recalled years after Berman’s death. “Boys and girls trying to meet. And I saw this girl who looked very, 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. And we stayed friends until she died in 2000.”
There was a profound bond between the real estate prince from New York and the mafia princess, Berman, whose father, a Jewish gangster affiliated with Murder Inc., helped create Las Vegas in the 1950’s as a gambling and entertainment mecca. Susan’s father died in 1957 and a year later her mother committed suicide. Susan was her father’s daughter; she had a fierce sense of loyalty, especially for her friend Durst. Years after her death, Bob described her as his best friend.
“Both of her parents died when she was young, and I had one parent die when I was young,” Bob told the producers of The Jinx. “She was raised by various” prep schools. “I was raised by governesses. Neither of us got a chance to meet our parents hardly at all.”
The two of them became like brother and sister, sharing each other’s secrets. “Bobby adored Susan,” said Berman’s friend, Sheila Jaffe, shortly after Susy’s death. “She was his Holly Golightly; Bobby was Casper Milquetoast. Anything ever said to Susan was going with her to her grave.”
Soon, Susan left Los Angeles to attend the graduate program in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, although they kept in touch regularly. Bob took graduate classes in economics, but his focus seemed to be more on his life outside the classroom.
He and Altman made a foray south to Tijuana, for what would become a lifelong obsession: marijuana. Naturally, they got arrested. A couple hours in jail left Bob jumpy. “My friend was able to handle it a lot better than I,” Bob said. “My teeth chattered and I shivered the whole six hours” I was in jail. “I was there until we could bail ourselves out with my watch.”
In Altman’s version of the story, the watch got Bob out of jail that night. Stewart had to wait until the next morning for Bob to return with money for bail.
Bob finally abandoned the academic life altogether in June 1969, when he took a leave of absence from UCLA, according to school records. Around the same time, he said he signed up with the anti-poverty program, Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA. The original idea for the program came from President John F. Kennedy and his idealistic call to national service: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
However, making the world a better place was not on Bob’s to do list. Years later, he would say that “VISTA made zero demands on my life.” Instead, Bob drew his own unique lessons from a program that emphasized educational programs and vocational training in impoverished communities.
“We would help people get food stamps and like that,” Bob told the producers of The Jinx. “If they can get em’ why can’t I get ‘em? All you have to do is show them a bank account with zilch in it and sign a bunch of papers saying, you know, got nothing, and I would get food stamps. And I got a big kick out of using food stamps. I’m getting away with this; I’m beating the government.”
Before he left Los Angeles for good, Bob got involved with Arthur Janov, a psychologist who created a form of psychotherapy called primal scream. Janov, who argued that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma, had developed a following among celebrities.
However, Bob’s decision to go into therapy in the spring of 1969 was prompted less by a yearning to exorcise his demons than by a desire to placate his girlfriend at the time, Nancy Gold. Gold was “unhappy with our relationship,” he explained, and she insisted he go into therapy. Since her brother, Steve Gold, was involved with Janov, Bob tried primal scream therapy.
It was in the group sessions with Janov, where participants were asked to unpack their anger over events from their childhood, that Bob noticed a quiet couple off to one side of the room: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “I was flabbergasted,” Bob told the author Albert Goldman, who was doing research for a biography, “The Lives of John Lennon.”
“Everyone tried to listen to John’s primals,” Durst said, and Yoko seemed “very spiritual.”
John Lennon endorsed primal scream therapy in a Rolling Stone interview in late 1970. Its influence on his songwriting is evident on his solo album John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band, especially the song, “Mother.”
Mother, you had me but I never had you
I wanted you,
You didn’t want me
So I, I just got to tell you
Bob was not so enthusiastic. He said the therapists considered him a “failure.” “I got to the point where I was yelling, but in terms of crying and rolling around etc., etc., I didn’t deliver. I did not scream about Mommy.”
Bob Durst was back in New York for Labor Day.
Bob left UCLA behind and returned to New York in late 1969, but not to the family business. Real estate was in the dumps. His father Seymour had just completed a massive 45-story office tower at 1133 Avenue of the Americas, between 43rd and 44th Streets, but the city was in the midst of both a recession and a fiscal crisis. Tenants were scarce and vacant space was plentiful.
Bob, who proudly told his family he got a PhD. in economics, spent the summer tooling around New England. He wore his hair longer and he was a dedicated pothead. Some hippies were talking about moving to the country. Bob hatched the idea of opening a health food store in Middlebury, Vermont. He headed back to New York to firm up his plans.