HBO’s The Jinx got Robert Durst far more than 15 minutes of fame. It led to his being locked up on gun charges in Louisiana in March and charged by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office with the murder of his friend — and mine — Susan Berman. That might be exactly the mix of attention and adrenaline Durst was gunning for. In the series finale, the man who may have gotten away with three murders was presented with an envelope he’d sent to Susan in 1999. It had the same block lettering and misspelling (“Beverley” Hills) as one sent to police a year later by an anonymous tipster, presumably Susan’s killer, informing them there was a body in her home.
I met Susan in the late ’70s. Because I’d done scripts for shows like Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller, I’d been asked to speak at a workshop for aspiring screenwriters in New York. Chatting afterward, Susan and I, discovering we had friends in common and lived in the same neighborhood, arranged to have lunch. Even before we ordered, she said, “Sybil, I recently found out my father was a gangster.” Curious if I’d heard of him, I asked his name. “Davie Berman. He was in the Vegas mob with Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.” She was writing a book about her family. When the check arrived, she reached down and said, “Sybil, my purse is gone.” Clueless, she sat frozen in her chair.
“Are you in a doorman building?” I asked. She wasn’t. Tossing bills onto the table, I jumped up. “Let’s go! Someone has your keys.” Her father had instructed her on how to escape if kidnapped, but I had to tell the gangster’s daughter, “You need to notify the police, your bank, credit card companies, and change the lock.” She was learning how to survive in the big city: Never leave a purse, child, dog, or man where it can be taken.
Others who knew her have said, “If a friend of yours was going to be murdered, wouldn’t you have guessed that’s who it would be?” That wasn’t my reaction when I heard Susan had been found shot to death in her home on Christmas Eve 2000. Horrified and saddened, I obsessed over everything that was being reported. I read that Susan was about to be interviewed by investigators taking a new look into the mysterious disappearance 18 years earlier of Durst’s first wife, Kathie, whose body had never been found. The timing of Susan’s murder created speculation that Durst may have wanted to silence her. He became the prime suspect. For me, the story about his wife had a deja vu component. I remembered a conversation I’d had many years before with a friend bemoaning what had happened to her former college roommate. “She just vanished,” she’d told me. “We all knew she’d been murdered by her husband, but he got away with it.” The missing roommate was Kathie Durst.
In 1982, Susan had sent me a copy of her book Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family, published the year before. She’d inscribed it, “To Sybil, the only lecturer at the workshop not full of jive.” She was alluding to my having told the group that if they were serious about writing for television, they should be in LA, where the work was. Susan took my advice. Concerned that I’d made her an easier target, I indulged in magical thinking: If she’d stayed in New York and moved into a doorman building, she might still be alive. At the very least, there would have been a uniformed witness to identify her killer.
That Susan saved the envelope from the friend she called “Bobby” affirmed how much he meant to her. Fifteen years later, the envelope, discovered among her belongings, would provide evidence incriminating enough to get him charged with her murder. It’s exactly the kind of plot twist she — or any writer — would be thrilled to come up with.
It didn’t seem possible I’d have one, let alone two, personal connections to the weird millionaire.