Long before Susan Berman became the nation’s most famous homicide victim of the moment, she burned a bright pathway through the Bay Area journalism world with trendy, titillating stories.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Berman wrote so colorfully about sex, drugs and gangster life that she became a bit of an It Girl around San Francisco, interviewing the high and mighty and eliciting both adulation and animosity.
By the time she was found dead at 55 in her Los Angeles home in 2000, shot in the head execution-style, Berman had generated a string of books and television programs, much of it dealing with her life growing up in Las Vegas as the daughter of mobster David Berman. Now, however, she’s become best known for her years as the confidante and spokeswoman of wealthy eccentric Robert Durst — who was charged Monday in Los Angeles with murdering her.
Durst, who already beat a murder rap in 2003 for chopping up a neighbor in Texas — self-defense, the jury determined — was the subject of an HBO series called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” In the series finale Sunday, he was shown handwriting samples that implicated him in Berman’s slaying and then was heard muttering off-camera that he was “caught” and that he “killed them all, of course.”
Durst’s relatives have long thought he was responsible for the slaying of his wife, Kathleen Durst, who disappeared in 1982, according to the HBO program.
None of the bizarre twists in Berman’s life and death shocked those who knew her.
“Her death was kind of out of the blue and kind of odd, but you figured the way she stuck her nose into things and with her mob background, it really wasn’t that surprising,” longtime journalist Warren Hinckle, one of Berman’s former bosses in San Francisco, said Monday.
As editor of the now-defunct City magazine, Hinckle ran the article that made Berman a local star in 1975. It was a cover story titled, “In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why Can’t I Get Laid?”
She came up with the idea, she told a reporter who profiled her in 1976 for the San Francisco Examiner, when she and a batch of girlfriends at the Washington Square Bar and Grill found themselves lamenting their lack of good dates.
The story went viral, 1970s-style, and it won a snipe from The Chronicle’s late columnist Herb Caen, who wrote: “I haven’t the heart to tell her” why she wasn’t finding overnight romance.
“Readers love or hate me,” Berman told the Examiner’s profile writer. “There’s no in-between.”
Hinckle fell on the appreciative side of that scale.
“I liked Susan. She could really crank it out,” he said. “She talked a mile a minute, and she could write like a bat out of hell.”
The cover story for City — which was owned by movie director Francis Ford Coppola — contended that women weren’t having much sex in San Francisco because the men were either gay or too timid. Hinckle, renowned himself for provocative writing, leaped on the idea when Berman pitched it.