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Who Killed the Gangster's Daughter?

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This past November, as a result of a lead in a separate case, the long-dormant Durst case was reopened by Pirro's office -- to a flurry of national headlines. Meanwhile, New York investigators, acting on several tips that Berman might have some critical information, sought to find her. They got there too late.

Suddenly, the "Durst connection" -- Was she killed because she'd been harboring some secret about Bobby? Was he sending her cash out of kindness, or to buy her silence? -- piqued the interest of the national media. By early February in Los Angeles, you couldn't visit Susan's Benedict Canyon home without encountering a photographer in the bushes.

Susan's daily routine included marathon phone conversations with people she was close to -- and that was a fairly large group. "If you were a friend, you were a close friend," as one put it. She insisted you be well-versed in the characters and plots of her colorful and troubled journey, especially that of her beloved father, Davie Berman, the Las Vegas mobster who was Bugsy Siegel's partner and who died at 53 of a heart attack when she was 12. She would write that she never appreciated the irony that he was maybe the only gangster of that era to die a natural death. More ironic was that she would be the one to die, 43 years later, with a bullet in her head: If it wasn't a mob hit, it sure looked like one.

Her father was the "love of her life." His FBI wanted poster was hung prominently in her living room (the phrase on it, ALIAS: DAVE THE JEW, amused her to no end), and most of her friends knew the story of his funeral, when little Susie tried to throw herself into the casket. Then came Uncle Chickie, the debonair gambler who raised her after her father's death and who, like Susan, died broke. And of course, there was Mister Margulies -- that was his real name -- her only husband, who died of a heroin overdose.

And they knew all about her glamorous mother, Gladys, the onetime tap-dancer who lived in perpetual fear that her family would be killed and who had been institutionalized for depression much of her short life. When she died, at age 39 -- Susan was 13 -- the death certificate said "suicide by overdose." But Susan, an only child, always believed her mother was killed by the mob for the sizable fortune Davie Berman left her. Nearly twenty years ago, when she wrote her acclaimed memoir, Easy Street, for which she diligently researched her father's past, she'd also tried to solve the mystery of her mother's death. Now she'd been talking about investigating that mystery again. Could that have been the big news she was about to get her hands on?

In Susan's last days, there'd be a great many other phone conversations with the friends who'd become her family. Some troubling, some hilarious, all intriguing. Though Susan seemed to share everything, "she also kept a lot to herself," says record mogul Danny Goldberg, a close friend who'd known her since the seventies. "Susan was somewhat mysterious to some of her closest friends. And she had compartmentalized lots of relationships."

Different people got different pieces of Susan's ongoing puzzle. To some she seemed more upbeat than she'd been in years. Yes, she'd been reduced to recycling chapters from Easy Street in Las Vegas Life magazine. Still, she was convinced that, any day now, one of her book proposals or screenplays would be bought -- and was relieved that she'd just gotten that chunk of money from her friend Bobby Durst to pay off her crippling debts. "Susan always was optimistic," says another old friend, Stephen M. Silverman. "There was always a Major Project around the corner."

Berman also seemed to be finally resolving a war with her elderly landlady, Delia "Dee" Baskin Schiffer. She complained that Baskin Schiffer would show up at the house unannounced to argue about overdue rent, the dogs, repairs; the standoff had escalated to a three-year eviction battle. Susan repeatedly told friends she was afraid of Dee and feared she would harm her dogs, Lulu, Romeo, and Golda. She said she knew Dee owned a gun. In the days before she died, however, Susan used her Bobby Durst money to settle up with Dee, even paying her rent through March, and a lawyer had worked out an agreement for Susan to leave the property by June. She told several friends she was relieved it was all finally over.

But there were also indications that, below the surface, all was not well. "She called me in October and left this long message on my voice mail," says Silverman, an editor at People.com, "and it was so disturbing -- 'I'm on Prozac but it's not working' -- and she desperately needed me to find her an agent. Oh, it was dramatic. I thought, this is a person in trouble. And Susan really was going through terrible times. Of course, by the time she called me back, everything was fine in the world."

She had fretted endlessly about various ongoing dramas, from her health to her dogs to her obsession with her longtime manager, Nyle Brenner, with whom she had a fraught relationship. "We would analyze Nyle for hours and hours," says one friend, who had her last "Nyle session" with Susan on December 21. Brenner, who friends say is the person who spoke to Susan most frequently and spent the most time with her, declined to be interviewed -- except to say, "Yes, yes, I know, everyone adored her, she was remarkable and incredibly talented. But she was not an easy person to get along with, okay?" Reached a second time, Brenner hissed, "I've got other clients to take care of, I don't have time for this . . . I was tapped out by Susan every day while she was alive, and it's the same thing in her death. I just can't take it anymore."

There are scars within me that will probably never heal; I have uncontrollable anxiety attacks that occur without warning, I am never secure and live with a dread that apocalyptic events could happen at any moment. . . . Death and love seem linked forever in my fantasies, and the Kaddish will ring always in my ears. -- From Easy Street

Susan was 32 -- and already a successful journalist -- before she began to believe her father really was a gangster. She'd begun her career in the seventies at the San Francisco Examiner, creating quite a splash with a magazine cover story headlined, "Why I Can't Get Laid in San Francisco". Despite her obvious intelligence (not to mention her career as a reporter), she'd managed to hold onto her innocent memories of Davie Berman -- the man who took over Bugsy Siegel's "operations" at the Vegas casinos in 1947 when Siegel was gunned down gangland-style (and Susan was 2).

That changed after one too many New York colleagues asked if she was related to the notorious gangster. In 1977, she became obsessed with finding out everything -- traveling back to Vegas and her father's hometown of Ashley, North Dakota, using the Freedom of Information Act to get crateloads of FBI files about her daddy. It was all there: the bank robberies, the kidnappings, the killings, and those unknown years before she was born, when he'd spent seven years at Sing Sing.


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