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Who Killed the Gangster's Daughter?

Easy Street was published to raves in 1981 and bought by Universal Studios for $350,000 (the movie was never made, a long-standing source of disappointment to Susan). During that time, she wrote for New York -- though never in the office, of course; it was too high up -- penning clever and sassy articles on everyone from Bess Myerson to herself (she wrote at length about her phobias, which didn't kick in until she was 27 but flourished in Manhattan).

"She was certainly the most brilliant person I ever knew," says a friend from that time, Über-publicist Liz Rosenberg, part of Susan's posse. The group included Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman, Danny Goldberg, New York writer Julie Baumgold, and, to be sure, Bobby Durst, who was working for the family business and enjoying the life of a real-estate scion at the time.

Spellbindingly funny and capable of dishing with the pros, Susan became a darling of the New York literati, hosting dinner parties at her Beekman Place apartment and entertaining friends at Elaine's, where she usually picked up the tab. Her first apartment, a tiny studio, had only a shower, recalls Stephen Silverman, who lived next door. "So Susan would put on this Madam Butterfly Cio-Cio-San bathrobe and walk out on the sidewalk, come into my building, and go right into my bathtub. Whenever she wanted! I could be screwing my brains out, Susan would just barge in."

Susan had inherited some of Davie's fortune, in the form of a trust fund, and friends say she spent it like it would never end, dressing in $400 St. Laurent blouses bought three at a clip from Saks and boots that she liked to buy in sets of two.

The only snag was the Easy Street book tour. "An absolute nightmare that required all this elaborate planning," remembers one colleague from that time. Her publisher had to jump through hoops to find hotel rooms below the third floor and circuitous routes to avoid tunnels and bridges. Once, she wrote in New York, she was mugged at knifepoint by a gang that tried to force her into a car heading for Brooklyn, where she was certain she would be raped. She managed to escape: No fucking way was she driving over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Susan was, as Silverman puts it, "a lot of work." She was famous for fallings-out with people that could last for years. "If you pissed her off," says her adopted son, Sareb Kaufman, "she was like, 'Fine, you're out of the Rolodex. You obviously have an issue.' " But she also took no small pleasure in directing the lives of everyone in her circle. Bede Roberts, who'd known her since her Berkeley days, remembers telling Susan she fancied a man on campus who'd jilted her. " 'You really want this guy, you're sure?' Susan asked. 'OK, I'll get him for you. But you've got to do everything I say, nothing more, nothing less.' Susan plotted the course of his breakdown with exquisite precision." And he married her.

Despite all she learned about her father, Susan continued to worship the memory of Davie Berman. In New York, she carried his mug shot in her wallet and would "whip it out, the way the rest of us showed baby pictures," Dinitia Smith remembers. To Susan, her father would always remain the doting, charismatic figure who rushed home from the casino every night to read her a bedtime story (and then returned to count the house take), who filled an entire room with toys and gave her a house account at age 7 so she could order shrimp cocktails from room service, who commissioned an oil painting of her in pigtails to hang in the lobby of the Flamingo, who taught her to play his favorite song, "The Sunny Side of the Street," on the piano, and who held Passover seders in the casino showroom. Through the years of her childhood, Davie Berman, not Elvis (though she did know Elvis), was the King of Vegas, and Susie was his princess.

With his wife in the mental hospital, he'd pick Susan up from school and help with her math homework in the counting room, using casino chips. He taught her how to play gin at age 4, so she'd have something to do with the bodyguards who lived in their house (she grew up thinking they were friends and uncles, and took great pride in beating them). It wasn't until she researched Easy Street that she realized who those gin buddies were. Or why the windows in their custom-built house were so high off the ground (to keep from being shot at from the street). And why they never had house keys (mobsters didn't keep them, to protect their families in case they were killed; the bodyguards took care of the door). And why she would be whisked away in the middle of the night to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. She thought these trips were family vacations and loved the ice-cream sundaes from room service, when in truth it was to protect her when there was mob unrest.

A month before her father died, he threw her a lavish 12th-birthday party at the Riviera. Liberace sang "Happy Birthday" to her. In order to produce friends for the party, Davie invited the daughters of other Las Vegas hotel owners, few of whom Susan knew.

Within hours of Davie Berman's funeral in 1957, the mob had cleaned out her house and given away all her toys. She was shipped off to Idaho, with a single trunkload of clothes and mementos, to live with Uncle Chickie. Later, she was sent away to various boarding schools, her education broken up by regular visits with Chickie in jail. He would ask her to wear Chanel No. 5, she wrote, so he could "smell the real world."

In 1981, a long excerpt from Easy Street appeared as a cover story in New York. Within two years, Susan left New York City; high on the film sale and flush with cash, she had decided to move to Los Angeles and become a screenwriter. She bought a black convertible and headed off to the city that had been a refuge when she was growing up. Two months later, while standing in the Writers Guild script-registration line, she met Mister Margulies. He was 25 and broke. She was 38 and Susan Berman. "I know you," he said. As she later wrote, he recognized her from the pictures on the back of her books. Mister's father had them all because he worked for Davie Berman in Vegas. "He loved your dad," Mister told her.