During a decade in which he restlessly wandered the country, losing touch with friends and his influential family, Robert A. Durst had at least one lifeline: his wife, Debrah Lee Charatan.
A tough real-estate broker, Ms. Charatan often provided a safe berth in her Fifth Avenue apartment or at her beach house in the Hamptons when Mr. Durst, the scion of a powerful New York real estate family, passed through.
And next week, as Mr. Durst goes on trial here in the murder and dismemberment of a 71-year-old drifter who lived across the hallway from him in a rooming house here, Ms. Charatan is expected to be sitting behind him in the courtroom in a Chanel outfit, with a Louis Vuitton bag, just as she did during some of the pretrial hearings over the past two years.
Mr. Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, disappeared in 1982 — a mystery that Westchester County prosecutors are still investigating. But Ms. Charatan, whom he secretly married in 2000, has been a mainstay in his life.
Aside from his lawyers, she has been Mr. Durst’s most frequent visitor at the county jail here, where they often bicker, according to people who know them. She stays at the San Luis Resort, the most expensive hotel on this Gulf Coast island and the same one Mr. Durst was booked into on Sept. 28, 2001, the day investigators say he killed the drifter, Morris Black.
Still, Ms. Charatan, 46, and Mr. Durst, 60, are an odd couple, her friends say. While Mr. Durst often flouted convention, burping or lighting up a marijuana joint at real-estate dinners and other social functions, they say Ms. Charatan is painstaking about her appearance and her social demeanor.
Described as an exceptionally driven and relentless broker by her friends and her critics, she runs her own charitable foundation, the Yaron Foundation, and holds a holiday party each year for 200 guests at the Four Seasons restaurant.
Ms. Charatan, who declined to be interviewed for this article and urged her friends to do the same, worked her way up from humble beginnings to a Fifth Avenue apartment and her own company. ”I knew if I couldn’t be a star,” she said in the 1980’s, ”I wouldn’t be happy.”
She has won the admiration of Larry A. Silverstein, the developer who controls the commercial lease at the World Trade Center, and Phil Pilevsky, an investor and an owner of the Bryant Park Hotel.
”She’s a very accomplished, very hard-working broker who’s built a very successful business in the sale of small investment properties,” Mr. Silverstein said. She is going though ”a hell of a tough time,” he said, with Mr. Durst’s arrest and the lurid stories that portray him as a cross-dressing killer.
Ms. Charatan’s critics, many of them brokers who once worked for her, acknowledge her business acumen, but add another trait to her résumé. ”She’s an excellent broker,” said Marcia Yawitz, a broker who left Ms. Charatan’s company three years ago, ”but she’s also one of the most ruthless people I have ever come across.”
”For Debbie, it’s all about the money,” said Adelaide Polsinelli, who worked as an executive for Ms. Charatan for 12 years. ”When she met Bob, she hit pay dirt. I am sincerely sad for her. I don’t think this was in her plan.”
But Ms. Charatan and Mr. Durst do have several things in common. Both had childhoods colored by tragedy, and both are estranged from their families. Mr. Durst’s mother committed suicide in 1950, jumping from the roof of their home in Scarsdale, in Westchester County.
Ms. Charatan, who grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, is the daughter of parents who survived the Nazi terror in Poland during World War II. Her father, a kosher butcher, lost his foot to a land mine. Her mother was an orphan hidden by a Christian family. People who knew Ms. Charatan say that her personality was colored by the survivalist mentality of her parents.
Today, her friends say, Ms. Charatan has little to do with her mother, brother or sister. Mr. Durst broke with his family in 1994, after his father, Seymour, turned over the reins of the family’s billion-dollar empire to Robert’s younger brother Douglas.
Ms. Charatan first made a name for herself in the 1980’s as the head of a commercial brokerage, Bach Realty, which drew wide notice as an all-woman firm. She had told Harper’s Bazaar that she wanted to be a ”female Harry Helmsley before I’m 30.” Glamour magazine named her one of its 10 Outstanding Young Working Women for 1984.
In 1985, she abruptly left her first husband, Bradley Berger, and ultimately lost custody of her son, who is now a college sophomore. According to friends and family members, she has not seen or talked with her son since he was 5.
Bach Realty also started to crumble. By 1987, 20 of the 24 saleswomen had quit or been fired. Brokers filed a number of lawsuits and complaints with the state Labor Department, seeking unpaid commissions.
Ms. Charatan began dating Mr. Durst the following year. In 1990 he rented an apartment for them at 923 Fifth Avenue. It was the only time the couple ever lived together, and Mr. Durst soon moved, taking an apartment downtown at the American Thread Building.
For much of the 1990’s, Mr. Durst shuttled between homes in New York, Connecticut, California and Dallas. Ms. Charatan often did not know where Mr. Durst was, people who worked with her say, but she could always get in touch by telephone. In November 2000, Mr. Durst learned that the state police in Westchester County had reopened the investigation into the disappearance of his first wife.
He was married to Ms. Charatan the following month in a Times Square skyscraper by a rabbi who said that she had picked him out of the phone book. (Family and friends say they did not learn of the marriage until 10 months later, when he was arrested in the killing.) Mr. Durst continued moving around the country, renting an apartment in Galveston dressed as a woman. When he was arrested in the killing in October 2001, Ms. Charatan wired him $300,000 for bail and hired a local lawyer.
The police stopped Ms. Charatan from withdrawing $1.8 million from one of Mr. Durst’s bank accounts in New York after he jumped bail and led police on a 45-day manhunt. Since then, family members say, she has taken control of his finances and briefly negotiated to sell his position in the Durst family trust, which provides him with nearly $2 million a year.