When Los Angeles writer Susan Berman, a friend of eccentric real estate scion Robert Durst, was shot execution style in her Benedict Canyon home in 2000, the questions, at first, centered on her past.
Berman was, after all, a Las Vegas Mafia princess. Her father, David Berman, was a notorious mob boss who co-owned Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel with gangster Bugsy Siegel. As an adult, Susan Berman had mined her father’s gangster past, writing books and producing documentaries about Las Vegas’ mob scene in the 1950s and her life growing up in it.
The author and journalist was said to be working on other mob-related projects before she died, leaving many to wonder: Had the gangster’s daughter been killed for some mob secret?
On Saturday, Durst, 71, was arrested in a New Orleans hotel at the behest of Los Angeles officials, who said they had uncovered new evidence linking him to Berman’s death.
Durst was the subject of an HBO documentary on his possible ties to several deaths. In Sunday evening’s episode, Durst left his final interview to use the bathroom, appearing not to notice that his microphone was still recording as he muttered to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst had been friends with Berman since they attended UCLA together in the 1960s. After Durst’s first wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared in 1982, Berman acted as Durst’s “informal spokesman,” calling to give his side of the story to media outlets and to those who suspected he'd had a role in his wife’s disappearance.
New York state police who reopened the cold-case investigation into Kathleen Durst’s death had been trying to arrange an interview with Berman just before she was killed.
Police found the body of 55-year-old Berman in her Benedict Canyon Drive house on Dec. 24, 2000, with a single gunshot wound to the head. She had lived alone, and neighbors called authorities after seeing one of her dogs running loose and a door left ajar. The assailant had entered without signs of a struggle.
To her friends, Berman was known as a talented writer and a well-liked, if peculiar, woman with a long list of phobias, including a fear of heights so severe that she couldn’t go above certain floors in buildings without having a trusted person nearby.
Jim Angius, the executive editor of news operations at the Los Angeles Times, worked with Berman at the San Francisco Examiner when she was a writer there in the early 1970s. In a newsroom of about 200, the boisterous Berman stood out.
“You were aware she was around,” Angius said. “She was very high energy. She always had a sense of chaos around her.”
Julie Smith, a New Orleans mystery novelist and publisher, first met Berman when they were working as reporters for rival newspapers in California. Both women covered the courts, and they were friends for 35 years.
On Monday, Smith described her friend of 35 years as funny and eccentric. Smith became the executor of her will and always asked Berman why she needed one – she had little money and often made changes to her will.
Berman “was always attracted to people from a similar background,” Smith said. Berman’s friend “Bobby” Durst “wasn’t from a mob family, but he was from a very wealthy Jewish family, and his parents died young," Smith said. "He was like a brother to her.”
Berman saw some success with her 1981 memoir, “Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family,” but by the end of her life, Smith said, she wasn’t finding success with her writing and was nearly destitute.
“Nothing ever happened that she hoped for,” Smith said.