Twenty-one years ago, a young boy was fishing with his father in Galveston Bay, Texas, when he noticed a rubbish bag floating in the water. It contained a human torso, later identified as belonging to an elderly man named Morris Black. Others would emerge containing various of Black’s body parts. But his head was never found.
Authorities arrested a man who had been Black’s neighbour at a local rooming house: Robert Durst. The scion of one of New York’s wealthiest property families had been renting a fleabag apartment while masquerading as a mute woman. At trial, Durst admitted to dismembering Black’s body with two saws, a paring knife and an axe, leaving him “swimming in blood”, after what he claimed was a shooting in self-defence. To the shock of many — including Durst himself — he was acquitted.
Durst died this week, aged 78, after a disreputable life that featured gruesome deaths, extraordinary wealth, an abiding strangeness and improbable escapes from justice — all of which made him a tabloid fascination.
For decades, authorities pursued Durst in cat-and-mouse fashion for the 1982 disappearance of his young wife, Kathleen McCormack, and then the murder of a longtime friend Susan Berman. To no avail. He was finally undone by cinema. He took a restroom break while being interviewed by film-maker Eugene Jarecki for a 2015 documentary and, not realising his microphone was still active, Durst muttered to himself: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Before the final episode of the six-part documentary aired, Durst was arrested in a New Orleans hotel, where he was found with a gun, more than $42,000 in cash, a map of Cuba and a latex mask.
“He is a true psychopath,” his younger brother, Douglas, who for years kept a lead pipe in his office for protection, told The New York Times in 2015. Robert, he claimed, practised for his wife’s murder by killing his seven Alaskan Malamutes — each named Igor. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if he had the opportunity to kill me, he would,” Douglas said.
Durst was the oldest of four children born to Seymour Durst and his socialite wife, Bernice. His grandfather, Joseph, was an Austrian immigrant who came to New York City as a tailor and built a real estate empire. The Durst Organization today controls properties worth more than $8bn, including One World Trade Center, the city’s tallest skyscraper.
To the extent Durst’s madness can be explained, it is often attributed to Bernice’s untimely death. She either fell or jumped from the roof of the family estate in Scarsdale, a tragedy he claimed to have witnessed at the age of seven. He grew to become a twitchy loner and prodigious marijuana smoker who had a tendency to laugh at all the wrong moments — including during his murder trials.
He met Kathleen in 1971 and the pair fled to Vermont to live a bohemian life but soon returned to New York City under orders from Durst’s father to join the family business. While he could be charming, his professional rise was thwarted by a habit of urinating in office wastebaskets. To his fury, Seymour gave the top job to the younger Douglas.
Before her disappearance, Kathleen had hired a divorce lawyer and warned friends about her husband’s violent behaviour. Durst was the prime suspect but the trail went cold. Then in 2000, there was an apparent breakthrough: Berman, whom he had befriended during graduate school, agreed to talk to authorities about the case. She was found dead in her Los Angeles home — shot in the back of the head — before she could do so.
Durst went to Texas to lie low, supported by a trust fund that paid him $2m per year. To conceal his identity, he rented the Galveston apartment disguised as a mute woman, Dorothy Ciner, and communicated with the landlord only in writing. He jumped bail after being charged with Black’s murder and was captured six weeks later in Pennsylvania after shoplifting a $5.99 chicken salad sandwich. At the time, he had $500 in his wallet.
Frail from cancer and Covid, Durst was finally convicted last September in California for Berman’s death. What had allowed Jarecki to corner him? An anonymous, handwritten note Durst sent to the authorities in 2000 telling them where to find Berman’s body. It bore uncanny similarities to another letter sent by Durst. Both misspelt Beverly Hills as “Beverley.”
Days after his October sentencing to life in prison, New York police filed a criminal complaint against Durst for McCormack’s murder. Forty years later, it seemed justice was at hand — until Durst died this week of natural causes in a prison hospital, ever elusive, ever maddening. And ever mad.