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The Durst Family: From Rags, to Riches, to Murder

So let me start this article by saying: I do not follow rich people’s news.

I know the basics of course. Jeff Bezos is a painfully divorced union buster and Elon Musk pretends to be a scientist while picking fights with scuba divers who rescue children. So when I tell you I’ve heard the name Robert Durst and knew he was recently convicted of murder, that’s literally all I knew.

When I told my girlfriend I was assigned this article about the Durst family I told her I hadn’t seen that HBO show “The Jinx” or that movie where they cast Ryan Gosling as Robert Durst. Her response to my ignorance was, “You’re in for a wild ride.” So for those of you who also don’t know much about this situation, let’s take this wild ride together!

Let’s start with the Durst family. Joseph Durst came to America in 1902 and became Vice President of a bank just twenty years later. His own empire was already being built as he purchased real estate in NYC. Over the decade, he and his kids bought plots of “undesirable land” for low prices and waited for the right opportunity. When said opportunity came, they would build office buildings and apartment complexes, making a fortune in the process. It was a practice in patience, ingenuity, and, in a way, recycling, as the Durst organization typically bought the land that no one else was buying.

When Joseph retired, he left the business to his son, Seymour Durst. Seymour had a bit more of an edge than his father. His NYTimes obituary from 1995 described him as, “a Manhattan real-estate investor and developer who combined a passion for city history with an equally strong distaste for government involvement in land-use affairs.” 

That’s one hell of a description. 

“Russell Poole is a CitySignal writer who combined a passion for comedy with an equally strong distaste for people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop on the sidewalk.” But I digress.

While Seymour Durst was a bit more vicious than his father, this helped him expand their real estate empire into the stratosphere. It’s even been said that the Durst Organization is responsible for the majority of office building development on the east and west sides of Midtown. Together, he and most of his children employed much of the same strategies his father did. He bought dirt cheap real estate and developed on it when the market was right. Though many people thought his methods were much harsher than his father’s, he’s still responsible for much of the Manhattan skyline today. He might have been vicious, but he was constructive. So, how about his oldest son, Robert?

Robert Durst was born in 1943. At age seven, he witnessed the death of his mother after she fell off the roof of their home. Afterward, Robert was shattered and help, as well as his father, was not readily available at the time. After several physical altercations with his brother, he finally received some counseling. This, however, didn’t seem to help him, as he was much of a loner all throughout his high school and college years. Though he might have seemed like the odd man out in his family, his father still sent him to school for economics. However, Robert didn’t seem interested in the family business, dropping out of his master’s program at UCLA.

The few people Robert did grow close with stuck to him like glue. Two of these people were Susan Berman, whom he met at UCLA, and Kathleen McCormack, who was convinced into moving to Vermont and opening a health food store with Robert after only two dates. Robert eventually was forced to move back to New York by his father in 1973.

Said father apparently saw his health food store-owning adult son marry a 19-year-old and said, “maybe I ought to keep an eye on him.” It was after a few years in NYC Robert started to show his true colors to Kathleen, getting into public fights with her and even forcing her to have an abortion. After much abuse, Kathleen hired a divorced lawyer and a year later, in 1982, she disappeared. She told her friends and family, If anything happens to me, don’t let Bob get away with it.”

So then people were like, “Robert Durst totally killed his wife.” However, with nobody or physical evidence, the case didn’t move forward for 16 years. Then, in 2000, the police got a tip that this Susan Berman might know something. But when they went to question her, she was dead too. So then people were like, “Robert Durst totally murdered two people.” But with no physical evidence to connect him to Susan’s murder, he went free again and moved to Texas, where he got into an altercation with his neighbor, Morris Black.

Robert moved to Texas in 2001 because he was tired of people asking him about the two people he killed. He disguised himself as a mute woman and rented an apartment across the hall from Morris Black. The two got into an altercation and Morris wound up dead, dismembered, and thrown into a bay. There was finally enough evidence to bring charges against Robert, and when this murder went to trial, lawyers asked him what happened. Robert said he accidentally shot Morris, thought no one would believe it was an accident and decided it’d be easier to dismember a body, throw it in a bay, and run from the police for 45 days. The jury said, “seems legit” and let him go.

Again, if you had no idea about these details beforehand you’re probably very confused about how this guy got caught. Well, remember that documentary I talked about, “The Jinx,” in paragraph 1? Well, he went on that documentary and accidentally confessed to all the murders when he went to use the bathroom. He then went to trial for his first two murders, was found guilty, sentenced to life, caught COVID, and died.

So what have we learned today? That acquiring power and wealth will slowly turn your children into monsters?

Probably not. Robert Durst’s siblings seem to be doing fine.

Is it that experiencing trauma as a child will lead you down a murderous path?

Of course not. Plenty of children experience trauma and grow up to be not murderers.

Is it that our criminal justice system is so deeply flawed that a guy who definitely murdered three people can go unpunished for decades until he accidentally forgets to turn off a microphone in the bathroom?

Maybe, but that one seems specific and lacks nuance. 

I think the lesson is that life is a crazy ride and generational trauma can impact us in unexpected ways. The ambitious dreams of an immigrant family can become the twisted fantasies of a monster in ways humanity can’t even imagine. So really, there might not be one lesson here, but a number of lessons we must learn and teach to the next generation. Or maybe the lesson is that I should pay more attention to rich people in the news. Who knows?

Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528