In the early Nineties in New York City, high-profile journalist Julie Baumgold invited high-profile socialite Jan Cushing to a dinner party to introduce her to the low-profile multi-millionaire Bobby Durst. Cushing, like Baumgold, was a member of the Upper East Side elite. Between her four marriages, Jan Cushing has been one of the most eligible women in Manhattan and, as such, a potentially good march for Durst, then in his late forties and heir apparent to the titanic Durst Organization, a billion-dollar empire of Gotham skyscrapers. Baumgold touted Durst as handsome, educated. athletic, cosmopolitan and, if you ever needed a New York apartment (and who didn’t?) a wonderful connection. ‘I don’t care what he had,’ Jan Cushing now says. ‘I thought he was extremely creepy. He was skinny, gaunt, scarily intense and sarcastic. He seemed like a pervert. When he offered to walk me home after dinner, I refused.’
A decade later, in retrospect, Jan Cushing can congratulate her self on her own basic instincts – and on being alive. Robert ‘Bobby’ Durst, her abortive fix-up, was, until his arrest last November on charges of shoplifting a $1o haul of groceries in Bath, Pennsylvania, one of America’s most wanted – a high-profile fugitive charged with the grisliest of murders in Galveston, Texas. He is also a prime suspect in the mysterious murder of a Hollywood writer who had been one of his best friends, as well as in the equally mysterious disappearance of his gorgeous medical-student wife.
A small $300-a-month flat in a decaying neighbourhood of a decayed Gulf Coast city was the unlikeliest abode for the heir to an empire that included the lavish 4 Times Square tower, the home of Condé Nast Publishing. Yer that was where Bobby Durst, now 58., was residing on 30 September 2001, when the dismembered, headless body of his neighbour, 71-year-old Morris Black, was found floating in Galveston Bay. Police divers later found two garbage bags containing Black’s arms and legs (the head is still missing) and a newspaper address label that. nine days later, led to the arrest of Durst, who was hiding out at a seedy motel. In Durst’s tattered Honda CR-V, police found a 9mm handgun and a saw, and in his apartment they discovered another gun, a .22 calibre, a matching spent shell, and a blood spattered knife and pair of boots.
Unaware of Durst’s tycoon provenance, the Galveston authorities freed their man on $300,000 bail, for the murder charge and another offense, the possession of marijuana found in the Honda. All Durst actually had to put up to secure his release was $30,000. Despite the heinousness of the crime, the bail amount seemed like big money for this apparently low-rent subject. Even Durst’s local lawyer, Mark Kelly, had no idea how rich and powerful his client was. When Durst failed to show up the next day for a bail hearing, counsellor Kelly and the Galveston police discovered what a huge fish they had had on their hooks and let slip away.
The clue that Bobby Durst was no ordinary criminal was his prior residence, the super-luxurious Centrum Towers in Dallas, where his monthly rent had been $4,500. Then it was discovered that he had recently purchased a $2.8 million condominium in San Francisco and that he had a New Jersey bank account with $1.8 million on deposit. The clues eventually led back to New York and Durst’s Scion status, and his concomitant $3 million annual trust income. Even more discomfiting to law enforcement officials was the fact that Durst’s 9mm handgun was the same calibre as the weapon used to kill screenwriter Susan Berman, 55, on Christmas Eve 2000. Berman. herself a Scion ofthe Las Vegas Mafia aristocracy, had been assassinated, gangland-style. in her Benedict Canyon (Beverly Hills) home. She had been a close confìdamc of Durst’s since their days in the rich-kid pack at the University of California in Los Angeles, during the late Sixties.
What made Berman’s curious demise even more curious was that she was about to be interrogated by New York authorities, who had just reopened their investigation into the still-unsolved 1982 disappearance of Kathleen McCormack Durst, then 29, the wife of Bobby. Bobby Dursl was, and always had been, the prime suspect and, as his oldest female friend, Susan Berman was slated as a prime wimcss.
Adding still another twist to the increasingly surreal situation, the police found out that the Galveston apamnent where Durst lived had initially been rented to a tall, slender, attractive woman who communicated in writing because of an ostensible speech impediment. The name of the lessee, Dorothy Ciner, turned out to be that of a classmate of Durst’s from Scarsdale High School. But when the police reached Ciner in New York, she said she hadn’t seen or heard from Durst for 4o years. The police now believe that the renter wasn’t a woman at all, but Bobby Durst in drag. ‘Anything is possible with a good make-up artist and wig,’ says Klaus Rene Dillman, Durst’s landlord, a former hairdresser. Shades of Norman Bates in Psycho. Shades of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Robert Durst was a hot property indeed. A measure of his worth was that a new bail was set for him, if he should ever be captured. The amount was one billion dollars.
The magnitude ofthe bail and the enormity of the crimes have combined to shine an unwanted spotlight on New York’s “skyscraper aristocracy,’ a deeply secretive, high-leverage, low-visibility elite that has succeeded preceding elites as the ultimate ruling class of this imperial city. The Dursts, along with other realty dynasties like the Rudins, the Roses and the Tishmans, are in the same league as the Van Rensselaers of the Dutch patroon era, the Astors and the Vanderbilts of the post Civil War robber-baron ascendancy, the early-20th-century Rockefellers, and the late-20th-century leveraged-buyout kings Kravis and Steinberg, who have now been toppled from their thrones. However, the Dursts and their kind do not mix with any of the above; nor do they tend to mingle with Hollywood celebrities, cafe society or Euros. Of all New York’s great builders, only Donald Trump has achieved a public profile but, because of his flash behaviour and because his holdings are precarious compared to theirs, the skyscraper aristocrats do not consider Trump ‘one of them’. If only Bobby Durst hadn’t landed himself in this world-class trouble these rulers of real estate would have continued to wield their enormous power well below the tabloid radar.
To understand the height from which the mighty had fallen in this case, one must go back to the roots 0f the Durst dynasty. The clan’s patriarch, Joseph Durst, a cobbler’s apprentice from Poland, migrated to New York in 1902. After working his way up as a manufacturer in the garment sweatshops of the Lower East Side, in 1927 he branched out into real estate. During the Depression, Joseph began acquiring distress-sale mortgages and leases under the Third Avenue Elevated Railway. By the time his son, Bobby’s father Seymour, had ascended to run the family firm. the ‘El’ train was coming down to make way for the subway, and the Dursts developed the first skyscraper buildings on the newly spacious thoroughfare. In time, the Dursts controlled a great deal of the real estate near Grand Central Station.
‘There was absolutely nothing nouveau about them [the Dursts],’ says a former long-term executive of the Durst Organization who insists on anonymity. This man worked for the company at New York’s lowest ebb in the mid-Seventies, when the opening of the World Trade Center exacerbated a depressed situation creating a glut of office space. The Durst-dominated midtown was hit especially hard. In the end, midtown revived with a vengeance, and the Durst Organization came to control over 45 million square feet office space, as well as more than 60 residential buildings with 500 apartments: property worth around a billion dollars – the value of the bail set for Seymour’s prodigal son Bobby.
Although Seymour Durst had become one of the lords of Manhattan, like so many of the urban-flight capitalism of the post-World War ll era, he chose to rule his domain from the leafy Westchester County barony of Scarsdale. It was here that Bobby Durst grew up with his sister, Wendy, and his two younger brothers Douglas and Tommy. lt was also here that, in 195o, Bobby Durst’s mother Bernice committed suicide by jumping off the roof of their mansion. Compounding the tragedy, seven-year-old Bobby was rumoured to have witnessed the leap. Seymour Durst never remarried, immersing himself in amassing real estate as well as historical memorabilia connected with New York, devoting an entire townhouse off Park Avenue to his enormous collection.
Bobby Durst proved to be an unreliable student at the ultracompetitive Searsdale High School. While most of his privileged classmates were going on to Harvard and Columbia, the best Durst could do was Lehigh, a mid-range university in Pennsylvania, where he took a degree in economics. In 1965, after graduating from Lehigh, Durst enrolled to study for a doctorate at UCLA. Soon to become the alma mater of Jim Morrison of the Doors, UCLA would evolve from a country-club campus for spoiled Bel Airians into a psychedelic academic hotbed, in a period when the nearby Sunset Strip came into its full hallucinogenic flower.
At druggy UCLA, Bobby Durst became friends with Susan Berman, anocher super-rich kid whose father, Davie Berman, was the partner of fellow mobster Bugsy Siegel in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. In Easy Street, Susan Berman’s bestselling 1981 memoir of her Mafia childhood, she wrote that her father, who succumbed to a heart attack when she was 12, was one of the rare gangsters of the time to die of natural causes. Berman and Durst, who had their wealth, alienation and loss of a key parent at a tender age in common, formed a close bond. The relationship, however, never became romantic.
Susan Berman was too plain for Bobbyr Durst who, as a prince of the city, was only interested in goddess types. Dropping out of UCLA and moving back to Manhattan in 1971, Bobby found the ideal woman. Blonde, model-perfect Kathie McCormack was a tenant in a Durst building on East 51st Street. From a blue-collar family, she loved Manhattan, and also loved the idea ofthe glamorous Manhattan that only major money could buy. Bobby Durst offered his goddess the keys to the kingdom. ln I972 she accepted.
Ever since UCLA, Durst had been locked into hippie mode. He had no interest whatever in the Manhattan of Cole Porter songs. Instead he took his new bride t0 bucolic Vermont, where he opened an organic health-food store called All Things Good. Seymour couldn’t stand the idea of Bobby being a stoned shopkeeper. By 1973, Seymour had inveigled him back to New York and a place in the business.
‘Bobby really wasn’t cut out for it,’ says the former Durst executive. ‘He was an intelligent hippie, and he used a lot of drugs.’ The executive recalls an incident when Bobby fell in a stairwell in the Durst offices and knocked himself out. “Seymour was going to fire the maintenance man for over-waxing the stairs. When Bobby came to, he felt terrible that the guy might lose his job. but he was afraid to admit the truth that he hadn’t slipped but had passed out from smoking too much pot.’
Durst’s hippiedom and his money had taken him to India, where hc studied, alongside John Lennon with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Durst and Lennon had both undergone primal-scream therapy, and Durst would later date Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who was the subject of the Beatles’ song ‘Dear Prudence`. Like Lennon, Bobby Durst eschewed the pretences of the Upper East Side, and lived in the Dakota apartments in a penthouse overlooking the Hudson. In an effort to replicate the rusticity he enjoyed in Vermont, Durst also maintained a country home: a lakeside stone cottage in South Salem, a bucolic, exclusive area not far from where he had grown up in Scandale.
‘He was the weirdest guy I ever met in my life,’ says one of Bobby Durst’s horsey-set neighbors, who also requested anonymity (‘That’s one family I don’t want to cross’). This man frequently attended parties with Bobby and Kathie Durst. ‘He had a twisted charisma that wore off after about five minutes,’ he says. The neighbor also remembers Durst’s domineering relationship with his beautiful wife. ‘He always kept his hand on her head. He would pull her hair like she was a marionette.’
‘He was terrified of losing control of her,’ says Kathie Durst’s best friend, Gilberte Najamy. Najamy and Kathie Durst had met in 1976 at Western Connecticut State College, where Kathie had gone back to school to pursue premedical studies. After graduating, Kathie went on to medical school at the prestigious Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, of which the Dursts were major benefactors. ‘Bobby was threatened by his wife’s impending graduation in 1982,’ Najamy says, ‘because he equated that with losing her.’
When Bobby Durst began working for his father, Kathie Durst, too, decided to chase her career dream. To her husband’s surprise she became an A-student and was showing far more promise in medicine than he was in real estate. According to Najamy, Bobby Durst, out of frustration and envy, began beating his wife ‘in places that didn’t show’. Still, Kathie stayed with her husband. ‘Shc tried to keep him happy,’ Najamy says. “Because, of course, she wanted the money. There was just so much.`
Although Kathie Durst continually complained to Najamy about her husband’s violence, Najamy herself only witnessed it on one occasion. had :aken a bunch of us out in TriBeCa. which is what he liked to do. Then we went back to the penthouse. For Bobby, when it was time to go, it was time to go. One of Kathie’s friends, a photographer, missed the point. He was lying on the floor, totally relaxed, not wanting to leave. Suddenly Bobby, who always wore heavy boots, began kicking him in the face. We had to call the police to stop him. ln the end, the poor photographer didn’t even get a settlement, though his facial bones were all broken. And one of the Dursts’ powerful lawyers weaseled Bobby’s felony charges down to disorderly conduct.’
Appalled at her husband’s arrogance, and unable to endure his private bearings, Kathie Durst told Gilberte Najamy that she was planning to get a divorce. On 31 January 1982, Kathie Durst, who was living apart from her husband but trying to create some sort of entente, visited him at the South Salem cottage before, according to Bobby Durst, he put her on a 9.15 train back to New York. She was never seen again.
The case was highly suspicious. Durst himself waited five days before reporting his wife missing to the police. Najamy believes ‘the Dursts used their enormous political clout’ to stifle any serious investigation of their scion. The police did nothing more than interview Bobby Durst and never even searched the South Salem cottage.
The investigation of Kathie Durst’s whereabouts soon tailed off; she became a permanent missing person. Bobby Durst went on with his life. He got a beautiful new girlfriend, Debrah Lee Charatan, a Sleek marathon runner who would go on to become, some say with the aid of the Durst imprimatur, one of the top relators in Manhattan. Even if Bobby Durst seemed to get off scott-free for his wife’s demise, there was a moment of reckoning when his father passed Bobby over in favour of his brother Douglas to helm the family empire. ‘Seymour knew the score,” says the former Durst exec. ‘Douglas was the only businesslike one. When I was there and all the cousins were trying to work for the organization, the office never started before 10.30, because all the kids were seeing shrinks between nine and 10.’
Durst might never have surfaced in the public eye again had it not been for a man in legal trouble in Westchester County who tried, in the autumn of 2ooo, to negotiate better terms for his own prosecution by offering new infomation to state police about Kathie Durst’s disappearance. The stool pigeon’s infomation finally led to search the stone cottage, as well as to drag the lake looking for Kathie’s body. Although the tips proved unreliable, the reopening of the 18-year-old case was, for Bobby Durst, the opening of Pandora’s Box.
The State Police’s next target was Susan Berman. Westchester County District Attorney Jeanne Pirro had designated Berman on her list of witnesses to interview, and was planning to send her investigators to Los Angeles early in 2001, until Berman’s brains were blown out on Christmas Eve. In the months before her death, Durst had given Berman, in fiscal straits because of cash-flow problems related to her new cable television series, two cheques for $25,000 each. Ostensibly these were gifts, though some surmised they were actually the latest in a long line of payments of hush money, to keep Berman sllent about what she knew about Kathie Durst. All these rumours notwithstanding, Los Angeles police did not identify Bobby Durst as a suspect in the Berman murder; it was thought, given Berman’s background with the mob, that there must be a Las Vegas connection to the crime.
Just as the Galveston authorities were caught flat-footed in their ignorance of Bobby Durst’s wealth, the Los Angeles lawmen were equally embarrassed when they discovered that the calibre of the gun that killed Susan Berman was the same as the Durst-owned weapon that was fired into Morris Black. By then, however, Durst was long gone.
What Durst was doing in the seedy port of Galveston remains a mystery. Gilberte Najamy has her own theory – namely that thc dismembered decedent Morris Black may have aided Durst in disposing of his wife. Black himself was a shadowy character, long presumed dead by both his brother in Florida and his sister in Massachusetts. He had only one criminal arrest, for making threats against the electric company in Charleston. South Carolina, but several neighbours described him as ‘hot-tempered’. Although Black was originally considered impecunious, police found $137,000 slashed away in an obscure South Dakota bank. Najamy believes this might well be blood money, and that there could be more of it. ‘They both arrived in Galveston the same time, after Susan Berman’s death. They lived in the same building. There are no coincidences.’ Najamy says.
Bobby Durst, the man with the billion-dollar bail, went on the lam for two months. Most who knew Durst expected him to flee to the South Pacific, or to do a Hannibal Lecter and wind up in a palazzo in Florence. No one expected a sorry end in a Pennsylvania convenience store, or an equally sorry attempt to disguise himself by shaving off his luxurious head of hair. Following Durst’s arrest last November, the family has retained super-lawyer Michael Kennedy to bring him back alive.
A long-time Durst watcher and fellow skyscraper scion, who also did not wish to be identified, invokes scholars Will and Ariel Durant’s theory of history to explain the fall of Bobby Durst. ‘Civilisation starts with barbarians who are healthy and cruel. Civilisation flourishes when it’s half-barbaric and half-refined. When things get too civilised, the decline begins. Joe Durst was the savage; Seymour Durst was the halfway man, as well as the high-water mark; and Bobby was so refined he was ill-equipped to survive. So, in a way, he have become an utter barbarian just to assert his identity. What an American tragedy.
(Source: Harpers & Queen UK, March 2002)