she was killed 15 years ago, Susan Berman was a
55-year-old writer struggling to stay relevant. Now her
work is suddenly at a premium. Paperback editions of her
memoir "Easy Street" — which could be gotten
for $10 or less Monday morning — are now priced at $50
and up at the online used bookstore AbeBooks.
has gone from forgotten author to high-profile victim.
On Monday, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Robert Durst,
subject of the just-concluded HBO documentary "The
Jinx" with Berman’s murder. He is in custody in
Jinx" told the life story of real estate scion
Durst and of the deaths and disappearance of people
close to him, with his cooperation. It concluded Sunday
night with Durst saying, on tape but off screen,
"What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of
appeared to be alluding to others covered in the
documentary: His wife, who went missing in New York in
1972; Morris Black, his Texas neighbor whom he admitted
to dismembering but whose murder he was acquitted of;
and Susan Berman, who was found on Christmas Eve 2000 in
her rented Benedict Canyon home, dead of a gunshot to
the back of the head a day or two before.
and Durst had been friends ever since meeting at UCLA in
the 1960s. When his wife disappeared, Berman helped
Durst wrangle calls from the media. When Berman was
married at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1984, Durst gave her
away. When Berman was broke, she turned to Durst, who
loaned her $50,000.
many writers, Berman had up years and down years —
although throwing a wedding in Bel Air is more up than
most. Born in 1945, she was raised in Las Vegas by a
father who she thought was a chic hotelier. She didn’t
realize it then, but he was a gangster who’d kept
company with Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, and was
running the Flamingo and Riviera hotels for the mob. She
was about 12 when he died of a heart attack; when her
mentally unstable mother committed suicide a year later,
Berman was orphaned.
being largely on her own, she made it to UCLA and
Berkeley and began carving out a respectable career as a
journalist. In the 1970s, she worked for the San
Francisco Examiner and then moved to the East Coast and
found a place at New York Magazine. One of her more
enduring stories, "Why I Can’t Get Laid in San
Francisco," seems to both elicit and resist
hit her stride with "Easy Street," her 1981
memoir about growing up in Las Vegas at the height of
its glamour. The book had two subtitles — "The
True Story of A Mob Family" in hardcover and
"The True Story of A Gangster’s Daughter" in
paperback — that explained what it was all about.
Berman grew up ignorant of her father’s mob ties, the
book was a research project as well as memoir. It was
filled partly with what she learned about him from his
FBI files (the time in Sing Sing, the reputation as a
heavy) and partly with the memories of having Liberace
sing at her birthday and learning to play gin at age 4
with men she knew as uncles, but were in fact
Berman grew up in an emotional fog about her parents,
her origins," Carolyn See wrote in her L.A. Times
review of the book. "She had been taught —
somehow — to be both proud and ashamed of what she
came from.... The story here, then, is not about crime
but about a pitiably defenseless girl...who sets out to
make sense of emotional disaster, to gain control over
an enormous legacy of doom."
book wasn’t perfect: Kirkus Reviews found the
combination of halcyon memories and frightening mafia
tales awkward. See thought the writing was just too
clunky in places. But in others, it charmed.
a first-generation Las Vegan I had known only the life
he had chosen to give me," Berman wrote. "The
background sounds of my childhood were slot machines
crunching, dice clicking, the songs of Sophie Tucker and
the Andrews Sisters, and the carping of an ever-present
hotel page.... To this day the desert air invigorates
and exhilarates me like nothing else and hotel
coffeeshops and floor shows give me a tranquilizing
sense of security."
book was a success. From hardcover it went to paperback,
and was optioned for $350,000. In 1983, Berman moved to
L.A. to be closer to the business that seemed ready to
she told it, she was queuing up to register a script at
the Writers Guild when she met the man who would become
her husband. Mister (as he called himself) Margulies was
25; she was 38. She footed the bill for a lavish
ceremony for hundreds of guests at the Hotel Bel-Air;
Robert Durst gave her away.
had all the trappings of success, but it didn’t last.
Margulies was using heroin and in less than a year, the
marriage was over. At 27, he died of an overdose. Next
she had a long-term relationship with Paul Kaufman,
becoming the de facto mother to his two children, but
their finances and relationship collapsed in 1992.
can spend an awful lot of time in Hollywood working on
projects that never come to fruition. Kaufman and Berman
had a Broadway musical in the works that never came
together. There never was an "Easy Street"
shaky financial footing, Berman wrote a couple of pulpy
novels. Avon published "Fly Away Home" in 1996
and "Spiderweb" in 1997; both tell the story
of women who’ve lost someone close to them (a sister,
a mother who may not have committed suicide) who try to
find them in Los Angeles. They were not well-noticed;
neither book was reviewed by the L.A. Times.
was clear what people wanted from Berman: More mob
stories. Despite the fact that her father had died in
1957, taking his mob ties with him, Berman continued to
mine the gangster vein.
1996, she was a writer and co-producer of an A&E
documentary that aired in two two-hour segments,
"Las Vegas: Gamble in the Desert" and
"Las Vegas: House of Cards." Berman authored a
companion book to the series, "Lady Las Vegas: The
Inside Story Behind the Neon Oasis," published that
2000, Berman’s personal life was fraught with phobias
(she didn’t like going above certain floors in
buildings and over bridges) and anxieties. She had
health fears and complained of allergies and worried
over her dogs. Some relationships were tightly bonded,
while with others she had drastic fallings-out. She
engaged in an ongoing tussle with her Benedict Canyon
landlord over, depending on who you asked, needed
repairs or unpaid rent, which was finally resolved not
long before Berman was killed.
fatal mistake appears to have been agreeing to speak to
Westchester County Dist. Atty. Jeanine Pirro. In 2000,
Pirro had opened an investigation into the disappearance
of Kathie Durst nearly two decades before. Kathie was
married to Robert Durst, and when she went missing,
Berman helped Durst field inquiries that came his way.
According to New York Magazine, she even told one friend
she’d provided his alibi.
style of Berman’s murder — a single shot to the back
of the head — made it easy to speculate that it was a
long-delayed mafia payback. But most of the players she’d
known were long gone, and she’d written about them so
glowingly — "Easy Street" was not much cause
for a vendetta.
was, instead, a kind of celebration. "Easy
Street" was Berman’s story, the one she revisited
and reshaped and told again and again. As interest grows
and it becomes increasingly inaccessible — hardcover
copies are $75-$300 — perhaps someone will decide to
keep her work alive in an e-book.