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When newlyweds Kathie and Robert Durst returned to New York from their six month tour of America in late 1973, Bob had decided to claim his birthright as the heir apparent to the family business. After years of resisting, he joined the Durst Organization. But being Bob, he did so in his own fashion. He rarely got to work before noon. With Kathie on his arm, he occasionally attended the kind of soirees where the prince of a major real estate family is expected to mingle, at the Real Estate Board of New York or the Broadway Association.
“She said many times she would’ve been happy staying in Vermont,” said Stanley White, who met Kathie years later as her marriage was splintering. “He decided he had to be a big shot, the totally opposite of what they were doing. She’d be dragged to deadly dull real estate dinners.”
The McCormacks, particularly Jim and Mary, tried to get to know the eccentric man their baby sister loved. Bob and Kathie visited her mother on Long Island and made the 100-mile trek to Lake Teddyuskung in the Pocono Mountains, where the family owned a cabin. “I was buddy-buddy with Bob Durst,” said Mary’s husband, Tom Hughes, a retired firefighter. “Smoked pot with him.”
Jim recalled attending a big party at the Dursts’ Katonah mansion, where they met Judy Licht, an entertainment reporter, and Jerry Della Femina, an advertising executive and restaurateur. At one point, Jim McCormack, Tom Hughes and Bob Durst bought a racehorse named Backdraft from a friend who was a breeder. Bob’s interest they said was less in the sport than in the financial advantages when they subsequently dissolved their partnership. “He heard it was a tax deduction,” Hughes told me. “I think he liked that part of it.”
Bob could be friendly, but was more often curt and aloof, disappearing for hours at a time. He would burp loudly and without apology or, by his own account, talk about the couple’s sex life in front of Kathie’s mother. Bob would later tell the producers of the 2015 HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” that he found these encounters with the average American family tedious.
“He didn’t lack for social skills,” Jim said. “He just didn’t employ those skills, but he’s very intelligent.”
Bob did introduce Kathie to a world of ballet, fine restaurants, discotheques and powerful people whose names appeared in newspapers and gossip columns. They went to the front of every line. Bob would order meals for both of them. Vacations in the 1970’s took them to St. Croix, Northern Europe, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Greece, Turkey and Cancun.
Bob, who could be frugal, often drove a Volkswagen bug, while Kathie preferred an old Mercedes. He gave Kathie $100 to $200 a week in “pocket money,” as well as the use of several credit cards. But he could get very angry sometime at “minor purchases,” she would later tell a divorce lawyer.
Kathie, never a wallflower, increasingly sought her own path. She did not want Bob ordering for her at restaurants anymore or controlling her every move. In the fall of 1974, she started the nursing program at Western Connecticut State College, not far from Katonah. In her application essay, Kathie recounted her father’s illness. “It was a difficult time for us all, but I participated in his care during daily visits,” she wrote. “This afforded me an intimate view of doctors and nurses working together for a very sick man and instilled in me the value and worth of a career in medicine. No one in my family had ever had a professional career and the financial costs were prohibitive.”
She excelled and quickly made friends, ultimately earning the highest grades in her class and election to the school’s curriculum committee. She and classmate Eleanor Joy Schwank twice successfully challenged school regulations, including the requirement that nursing students wear the old-fashioned starched white caps. “She was very articulate, conscientious,” Schwank told me in 2001. “She was gaining a lot of self-esteem. She wasn’t the poor little Catholic girl who married Bobby Durst.”
She was, however, still loyal to Bob, describing him in glowing terms and expressing hope for his success in the family business. “Kathie was very protective of Bob,” Schwank told me. “She wanted him to excel.”
The support does not appear to have been mutual. After her first year in the nursing program, Bob unilaterally decided that he no longer wanted to commute to work from the suburbs. He moved the couple to Manhattan, effectively forcing her to transfer to New York University, a move that made her so despondent that she sought counseling. Kathie, nevertheless, made the Dean’s List at NYU.
But she also wanted to go back to Western Connecticut for her third year in the nursing program. In the summer of 1975, Kathie found the couple a new home, a one-bedroom stone cottage on Lake Truesdale in South Salem, NY, a short drive from school. She also tried to appease Bob.
“She kind of jumped to his demands,” said Dr. Marion Goodman Watlington, a former nursing instructor at Western Connecticut, in a 2000 interview. “She probably felt somewhat guilty about abandoning him for her studies. I didn’t get the sense that he was terribly understanding.”
Indeed, Kathie’s pregnancy in February 1976 became a turning point in her relationship with Bob. Her indignant husband forced her to get an abortion, saying that he had made it clear to her early on that he did not want to be a father. He told her that if she went through with the pregnancy, he would divorce her.
A couple months later, Kathie discovered that Bob was having an affair when a set of Polaroids tumbled from a book she took from a shelf in their apartment. When she confronted Bob with the photographs of the medicine cabinet and her bedroom closet, she recounted in a memo for a divorce lawyer, “he told me he was involved with a woman and would change the apartment to look as if he was single.”
“Much trust had left our marriage by this time but we still maintained a façade of a ‘loving couple,’” Kathie wrote.
In the summer of 1976, Bob’s brother Douglas, who was also working at the Durst Organization, told Kathie that Bob was embezzling funds from the family business. When she confronted Bob about it, Kathie said he denied everything. But she later found business checks in his briefcase that he intended to deposit into his own account. Kathie told Bob that she would leave him if he didn’t stop, according to the memo for her divorce lawyer.
In July 1978, Kathie McCormack Durst celebrated graduation from nursing school at a party at the couple’s stone cottage on Lake Truesdale with Bob, her friends, and family. A small band that sounded like Simon & Garfunkel played in the background. That fall, Kathie started medical school at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Despite graduating magna cum laude from nursing school, Kathie’s scores on the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, were below average. But the school’s evaluator found her a, “dedicated and strongly motivated young woman with a great capacity for work and growth combined with her sensitivity and maturity makes Kathleen an exceptional candidate.”
She and Bob rented apartment 1520 at 12 E. 86th St., just off Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which made it easier to get to Albert Einstein in the Bronx. Med school is grueling for most students, but Kathie also had to contend with her unraveling marriage. While she attended classes and studied at night, Bob was out on the town with friends Doug Oliver, Nick Chavin and Susan Berman. Chavin occasionally double-dated with Bob and his girlfriend of the moment.
As Bob and Kathie began leading separate lives, they acquired a penthouse overlooking the Hudson River in a building at Riverside Drive and 76th Street on the Upper West Side.
Beginning in the late 1970’s and continuing into the 1980’s, Kathie reluctantly told friends about how the couple’s heated arguments would be punctuated by Bob slapping or hitting her. Decades after she disappeared, Bob told The Jinx that “by 1982, our life was half arguments, fighting, slapping, pushing, wrestling.”
At Einstein, Kathie was known as a diligent student and a relatively private person. “She was serious,” Dr. Alicia Landman-Reiner testified at Durst’s trial in May. “She would come in every day on time. Nicely put together. She had her notebooks and pens ready and would sit in the front row.”
In the spring of 1980, Eleanor Schwank visited Kathie at her apartment on a Friday evening. Bob was asleep in another room as the two old friends talked into the night. At about 3 a.m., Bob rose to angrily demand that Schwank leave. Bob’s behavior towards Schwank does not appear to have been unique to her. Other friends of Kathie told me that they sometimes heard Bob growling in the background as they talked to her on the phone.