A Personal Remembrance
-by Helen Klein
Let me start out by saying that Howie and I, and my husband Michael, went to college together and have remained close friends ever since. We’ve traveled together and shared many wild adventures and experiences. From the very beginning, we had much in common politically. Howie and I were both arrested with Dr. Spock for protesting the draft in the late 1960s.
Howie and I have known Susan since the mid 1970’s. With the Robert Durst trial for her murder finally coming to a crescendo, we have been in frequent communication. When the Guilty verdict was handed down, Howie suggested that I write about my personal reaction and my memories of her. He's been writing about his own for years.
This is a photo from the mid 1990’s. Sandy had gone to Stony Brook, like Howie, Michael and I, and Sandy was Howie’s mentor for rock'n'roll. Howie introduced him to Susan-- in the hopes they would get romantically involved, which never happened-- but they did became good friends.
After Howie’s years of world travel adventures, he settled in San Francisco. There he met and instantly bonded with Susan. She was incredibly fascinating and fun, knew all kinds of interesting people and was very generous to her friends, often treating them to dinners and events. While wealthy, Susan never seemed to care much about money. It was not the basis of her self-esteem, and it never appeared to be an issue in her relationships. The rumor at the time was that Susan co-owned a bowling alley with Meyer Lansky. This was entirely plausible since she’d grown up in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which her father had taken over after Bugsy Siegel was murdered. She once told me that Elvis serenaded her with Happy Birthday when she turned four. Later on, due to her many connections and childhood experiences, Susan authored a 4-part mini-series about Las Vegas for A&E.
Along with her generosity towards friends, Susan was a passionate advocate for people she loved and respected. She met Howie when he was working for the eponymous public relations firm owned by her friend, Carol Osborn, and she helped Michael break into journalism.
Susan’s three-story Victorian mansion in Pacific Heights was a perfect expression of her life. It was a beautiful house in an exclusive part of San Francisco, but it was unadorned and with almost no furniture. Almost as if compensating for the house’s sparseness, Susan would throw fabulous parties. She filled the house with interesting people and endless energy. Celebrities often included local literati, members of the press, prominent families and rock royalty. It's where Howie met Bobby Durst and took an instant dislike to him.
Susan was a gifted and creative writer and a relentless investigative journalist. In happier times, when her career was at its peak, she was writing for the San Francisco Examiner and City Magazine. She achieved notoriety when she authored a controversial, yet hilarious magazine piece about a single girl's life in America's "gayest" city, "In San Francisco, City of Sin, Why Can’t I Get Laid?" She and Howie, who only knew each superficially at the time, really bonded when he responded in the following issue with a gay perspective on the same subject.
Susan also wrote novels, and in 1976, Howie took the photo for the jacket of her book, Driver Give A Soldier a Lift. I doubt DWT readers know that Howie is a gifted photographer. Many of my most precious photos were taken by Howie in our younger days.
Here are the book cover, Howie’s photo and her inscription:
So, how did we meet? If memory serves, in 1976 Howie invited Michael (whose life was a bit up in the air) to come to San Francisco and try his hand at writing for a local music rag. He hopped on a plane, and when he arrived Howie met him and asked what turned out to be a fateful question. “What would you like to do first, see my apartment or meet the craziest person I know in San Francisco?” Michael chose Door Number Two, which turned out to be Susan.
They immediately hit it off, and in typical Susan fashion she took him under her wing and put him to work chauffeuring her to interviews and events in her sleek Volvo sports car. Also in Susan fashion, the arrangement benefitted her. You see, Susan was incredibly phobic and had a paralyzing fear of bridges, elevators, high floors and public transportation. She was seriously afraid that she would spontaneously try to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or out of a high-rise window. So, Michael drove her to interviews with people like Gerald Ford and Richard Belzer. They hung out with journalist Herb Caen at the local press watering holes and went as a couple to parties at Francis Ford Coppola’s house.
The following year, I joined Michael in San Francisco and quickly became fast friends with Susan. As a Jewish girl with a serious Brooklyn accent and Michael’s girlfriend, she welcomed me with open arms. Our lives meshed and indelible memories flowed from there.
I’ll never forget when Susan let us tag along to a book-release party at the home of Vivian Vance and her husband John Dodds, who happened to be Susan’s publisher. It was after dark, and Viv had to walk their dog, so Michael volunteered to go along. Of course, he just had to ask about I Love Lucy. It turned out that “Ethel” jumped on the opportunity to dish dirt about one of her co-stars, but I won’t go into that here.
Susan was a wonderful soul and an exceptionally loyal and devoted friend with an infectious zest for life. Always an excellent listener, she would draw you out and make you feel comfortable discussing the most personal issues. She gave you her undivided attention and unlimited time. I opened up my heart to her and, DWT readers, you might be surprised that on occasion Howie did, too. She knew her friends’ secrets and kept them well. Not to jump ahead, but I have no doubt Bobby (as Susan always referred to him) revealed all to her about Kathy’s disappearance. An L.A. jury just agreed.
I eventually returned to Texas to finish my program. When I graduated, I joined Michael in Manhattan, where he had relocated a year earlier. By then Susan had also moved to NY to pursue an artistic project, and she and Michael reconnected. Susan and I began spending a good amount of time together. Once when she needed a break, she whisked me off to Key West for a week… a girl bonding trip. What a great time we had!
Through Susan, we met Nick Chavin (aka Chinga Chavin), an acquaintance of hers from San Francisco who had also just moved to Manhattan. Nick was the founder and front man of an outrageous X-rated band, Country Porn. He was in New York to record an album for Bob Guccione’s newly established, Penthouse Records. Michael helped Nick find local musicians to fill out his band and ended up becoming the bass player. Around that time, Susan also introduced Nick to Bob Durst. Bob loved the idea of hanging out with hard-partying musicians like Chinga, and they became close friends. More recently Nick became a main witness at the trial, something Howie refused to do.
In 1981, Easy Street was released.
In her acknowledgements, Susan especially thanked Danny Goldberg for encouraging her to continue with the autobiography. She confided to him, “It’s just too sad. I have to stop. They all died.” Danny responded, “But you didn’t. That’s why you must go on.” Who knew that Susan’s life would end in such tragedy, like much of her family history covered in the book.
A couple of years later, the music industry was in a slide so Nick began working at an ad agency that happened to specialize in New York City real estate. Nick leveraged his friendship with Bob to snag a share of the Durst Organization’s advertising. Then in another twist of relationships, Nick hired Michael, who ended up working on some of the Durst accounts for almost ten years.
Susan had a history of poor choices with men, of whom Bob was tragically the worst. In 1984, she married Mister Margolies in an extravagant wedding, and Bob walked her down the aisle. Mister turned out to be abusive, the marriage broke up and he died soon after of a drug overdose. As I understood it, Susan’s last boyfriend and live-in partner, Paul Kaufman, was largely responsible for her financial downfall. They were living together in Brentwood with Paul’s two teenage children. Some of her money was drained by an ill-fated attempt to write a Broadway musical about the Dreyfus Affair. The rest of her fortune disappeared when her house was foreclosed, apparently because she had done some illegal construction. At the murder trial, Paul testified that Susan told him she knew Bob had killed his wife. This was consistent with Nick’s testimony (and Howie's very vivid memories).
The last time I saw Susan was when my sons and I visited her in LA. Susan had a wealthy friend who owned an unused apartment and generously let Susan live there rent-free for a few years. Since Susan was only allowed to have two dogs and she had three, she would rotate them one at a time to a kennel. Crazy? Sure. Speaking of crazy, one dog attacked my son and ripped his tee shirt. This had also happened to Sandy, who was attacked by one of the dogs and had it swinging in the air off of his black leather jacket. Susan told me the dogs were even ferocious towards each other.
Here’s a photo of us during that visit, with Sandy Pearlman.
In the years that followed, Susan and I kept in touch and we’d have sporadic but lengthy telephone conversations. In December 2000, Michael got a call from his mother in Florida. Susan Berman had been murdered-- shot in the head execution-style! It’s in the Miami Herald!
Howie, Sandy and I went to Susan’s memorial service at the Writers Guild in Los Angeles. It was well attended and many of her friends were there, but not her oldest and supposedly closest friend, Bob Durst. Was it suspicious? Of course. Did anyone who knew Susan doubt that Bob had probably killed her? Nope! And just this week, thanks to an L.A. jury, there’s no longer any public doubt.
A few facts that came out of the trial were surprising. A main witness, Bill Stevenson, a childhood friend of Kathy Durst, testified that she was frightened of Bobby and contacted him for help. He visited her several times and the last time, they had sex. Bob banged on the door and when he entered, he saw what had been going on and had a meltdown. Ten days later Kathy disappeared. This incident may well have put Bob over the edge and led to murder, which Howie says Susan helped him cover up.
In a strange twist, Bill just happened to be Jill Biden’s ex-husband! In fact, Kathy and Bob visited Bill and Jill in Delaware and they spent a weekend together. So Jill Biden knew Kathy... and Bobby Durst, who Howie has always said is a deranged murderer!
It’s impossible to fully capture in these few paragraphs what Susan meant to me or to recount even a fraction of the memories. It has been a long, winding and terribly painful road, but at last there is finally some measure of justice for Susan.
Susan, my dear, may you rest in peace. You remain in the hearts and minds of those of us lucky enough to have known you and called you our friend.