“Most people don’t realize how heavy the human head is,” said Robert Durst, twisting his neck, then righting it.
I wasn’t about to question his authority in this area.
What seemed unreal at that moment would be obvious to anyone familiar with the name Robert Durst. Here was a man who had decapitated his neighbor and dismembered the body, and now he was discussing, without displaying the faintest hint of irony, the heft of a human head—his own. The neighbor’s head was still missing.
As was Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, whose body has never been found.
And Durst is the prime suspect in the shooting death of his best friend and confidante, crime writer Susan Berman.
A few weeks before his March arrest in New Orleans, Durst sat across from me at his favorite restaurant near Rice University in Houston. It was a meeting he had tried to set up since the previous fall, when he’d sent me a request to connect on LinkedIn.
Durst and I lived in the same neighborhood in Houston. We’d first run into each other outside the infamous CVS where nine months later he would urinate on a candy rack at check-out. We discussed our respective battles with the government—his for his last suspected murder, mine for the First Amendment—and we agreed to meet for coffee sometime. Our lawyers were brothers.
So Durst’s LinkedIn request wasn’t out of left field. What I found on his page was. I clicked on the profile that bore no photo, just the everyman silhouette. Once I saw one of his other connections—attorney Dick DeGuerin—I was almost certain this “Bob Durst” was the same eccentric multimillionaire that DeGuerin had successfully defended in one of the most bizarre murder cases in American history. I knew it had to be him, and that the suspected serial killer possessed a wicked sense of humor, once I read the profession he’d selected for his profile: “Alternative Dispute Resolution.”
When I arrived at Croissant Brioche, I looked for Durst. No sign of him in the upscale lunch crowd. I got in line to order, my back to the entrance. At the tinkling of the little bronze bell on the French door, I turned to look but never saw him, or anyone, enter. When I pivoted back in line, suddenly Bob Durst was at my side.
I about jumped out of my skin.
It did not take long to learn that, with Bob Durst, there was always something that you didn’t see coming.
We exchanged greetings. The then-71-year-old wore a gray sweater, jeans, and sneakers. The slight man in front of me looked like he’d be more at home wandering through the aisles at a collector’s bookstore than wiping blood from his brow in a Galveston shack while taking a break from the bow saw.
“Shall we order?” I said, stepping to the glass countertop.
“I’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich on a croissant,” he told the server. “Hold the ham.”
We sat at a table he’d “reserved,” a newspaper and overcoat staking his claim. He set down his ubiquitous black backpack, and removed a skullcap, gray like his sweater.
He caught me staring at what looked like a shard of bark under his scalp.
“It’s a shunt,” he said, launching into a list of his ailments, including hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. The shunt was implanted to drain the fluid. He’d also undergone surgery for esophageal cancer, and still other procedures for his back. The weight of his head had complicated recovery, thus his comment to me about its heaviness.
Durst craned his neck. “You hear that?”
“That crackling sound,” he said. “You don’t hear that?”
I shook my head.
I felt every follicle on my body tingle.
And I inwardly cringed. But there I was, standing over Bob Durst in the middle of the little coffee and croissants shop. He twisted his neck vigorously, as if his head were in a paint mixer. I smelled something like baby powder in his bird-fluff white hair. Finally, I heard a muffled succession of pops, like a crescendo of kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn.
“Heard it,” I said, scrambling toward my chair.
I asked him what he’d wanted to discuss. In a message before our meeting, he’d written “I have stuff I would like your advice about.”
In between bites of his hamless ham-and-cheese sandwich, Durst said he expected requests for a “big interview” after HBO aired the final episode of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, then halfway through its six-week run.
Durst had approached a filmmaker to tell his side of a story that had spanned three decades and at least as many deaths. But the series was not unfolding the way he had envisioned. A public-relations tsunami was looming. I have little doubt now that Durst was already feeling tremors.
Looking back, I think Durst wanted to engage a writer before the airing of those explosive episodes suggestive of his guilt. It seems he was looking for someone he could trust before his arrest, which he had to have feared was coming. He may have considered me because instead of betraying sources on another story, I’d gone to jail. We’d both served time at the Federal Detention Center in Houston.
Durst already knew he’d been ambushed by the filmmaker in his final interview. He’d soon learn that the series would end with his muttering “I killed them all.”
I believe Durst wanted to prepare a response to that final interview. Typically, he would have turned to his crime writer friend Susan Berman to fade the heat. But now she was dead and Durst would soon be charged with her murder. Perhaps he thought that if he entrusted his message to another writer—someone who could hold up under pressure and would keep quiet until the series ended—then he could vanish, yet, through her, still have the last word.
If that had been Durst’s plan, he did not say. He did not have the opportunity. As soon as he brought up working with a writer, I parried. Writers and their subjects—especially those accused of murder—can have complicated relationships. I did not want to find myself at odds, at best, or in a “dispute,” at worst, with Bob Durst.
“Why not write your own story?” I suggested.
I mentioned Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair piece. Lewinsky was not a journalist by trade, I emphasized, but, like Durst, she had a story to tell, one she’d stayed silent about for years.
“And she was the most reviled woman in America,” he said, brightening.
I offered advice an editor once told me. “Just write what you have to say. Pretend you’re working with clay. Nothing’s carved in stone. For your eyes only.” I urged him to go home and get started.
Durst raised a white porcelain coffee mug to thin lips and sipped. When he lowered it, I thought I saw a wan smile. Was he amused? Could he have known authorities would soon seize his computer and personal papers from his home?
He certainly did not seem worried. To me, he appeared wistfully reflective, his slow blinking and reptilian smile calling to mind an iguana in repose.
An hour into our meeting, Durst said, “Well, this has been very helpful.” He delicately dabbed his mouth with a napkin.
Outside the restaurant, Durst’s handshake was warm and gentle. I could not imagine those soft hands were the same pair that had sawed off the head and limbs of the irascible Morris Black before packaging him like so much butcher meat and heaving him piece by piece into Galveston Bay.
Durst mumbled something about his car being parked around the corner.
Clutching my car keys, I looked up from my handbag, prepared to watch him walk away.
But just as imperceptibly as he’d materialized by my side, Bob Durst disappeared.
By Vanessa Leggett (Esquire)