At age 7, Robert Durst deliberately shoved his younger brother, Douglas, onto the ice at a skating rink, according to Douglas.
He broke his wrist. That was their life, as boys and men: a low-grade menace that swelled as they grew up.
Now Douglas is 70, the leader of a small kingdom of Manhattan real estate; Robert, 71, went to court in New Orleans on Tuesday in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, with a smile bewildering to behold. A six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx,” apparently led to his arrest over the weekend on charges that he murdered a close friend.
The climax of the series, broadcast on Sunday night, included a recording of Robert Durst apparently talking to himself in a bathroom: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
For much of the documentary, as Durst sparred with suspicions that he had killed three people – the friend, his first wife and a neighbour – he managed to deflect absolute certainty with a risky, engaging candour. Yes, he lied about what had happened the night his wife disappeared, but to get the police off his back. No, he didn’t tell the whole truth in a trial; nobody tells the whole truth.
In the narrative of his brother Douglas, intimate violence, tucked up the sleeve of a charming surface, has been part of Robert’s life from childhood.
“I was always amazed that he had friends, because from what I saw, I didn’t see how anyone would see him as someone they wanted to be friendly with,” Douglas said. “Obviously, he is someone able to assume various identities as it pleases him.”
None of Robert Durst’s three siblings cooperated with the documentary-makers, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling. But in a long interview in December, Douglas provided his perspective on the older brother he was certain had murdered three people. Robert had twice driven onto Douglas’ property in the last decade, at least one of those times carrying guns.
From childhood, Douglas said, he dreaded spending time with Robert.
“We would have constant physical fights,” Douglas said. “We were both about the same height, but he, being about a year and a half older, usually came out on top, until I got to be a little bigger.”
There were younger children in the house, a sister, Wendy, and a brother, Tom. “He would torture them more than he would torture me,” Douglas said.
Their mother, Bernice Durst, died when Robert was 7, either falling or jumping from the roof of their home in Westchester County.
Over the years, Douglas said, Robert would say he was there when his mother died. “It isn’t true,” Douglas said. However, the film includes a dramatic recreation of Bernice Durst’s death based on Robert’s version that he saw his mother die.
When Douglas was 14, he said, the brothers had their last physical fight. Douglas had sent away for a wholesale seed kit and planned to sell the individual packets of flowers, plants and grasses.
“He and his friend took all my seeds, opened them all up and put them all in one big box,” Douglas said. “That was about the last time I fought with him. It wasn’t conclusive, but I remember saying, ‘I don’t have a brother anymore.’”
Robert, however, insisted that he could not be disowned by Douglas.
“He said, ‘That only happens in books,’” Douglas said.
In fact, as adults, they both ended up working in the Manhattan real estate business run by their father, Seymour Durst. At meetings with clients and tenants, Douglas said, Robert was able to carry on business in a normal way. At family meetings, though, he would sometimes make deliberately provocative remarks, Douglas said. He recalled one episode involving a statement Robert made that he knew would be hurtful to a cousin.
“I said, ‘Why did you say that, you know that it’s not true?’” Douglas said. “He said, ‘Oh, I just like to see how people react to these statements.’”
At internal meetings, his behaviour became bizarre, Douglas said. “In the early ’90s, he would start sitting at meetings and mumbling to himself,” he said. “Prior to that, if you met him for the first time, you’d find him charming.”
Douglas said he kept a piece of pipe in his office to protect himself because Robert would leave a sharp-pointed plumber’s wrench on his desk. Robert would come into the Durst offices late in the day, and Douglas said he installed a camera that showed Robert rifling through papers. Later, Douglas discovered his wastebasket filled with urine. The family elders did nothing, Douglas said, until one of their uncles found that his can also had been used as a urinal.
With that, the family decided that Douglas, and not Robert, would succeed Seymour. One day in December 1994, the family gathered for a regular lunch. “We kept waiting for Bob to show up,” Douglas said.
Back at the office, they found that Robert had left. His mail was to be forwarded to an office on Wall Street.
In the documentary, Robert agrees that he had sent a letter from the Wall Street office to his friend killed in California. He was confronted with a second letter, seemingly written in the same hand, alerting the police to the location of her body.
Moments later, as he stood at a urinal, talking to himself, Robert Durst was recorded as he muttered, “Killed them all, of course.”
By Jim Dwyer (Times Live)