The Minnesota racketeer’s daughter was killed with a mob-style shot to the back of the head, while he died far more mundanely — on the operating table during colon surgery 43 years earlier.
That’s the grisly, Minneapolis-laced irony at the crux of the ballyhooed murder case mounting against wealthy real estate heir Robert Durst. The 71-year-old arrested recently in New Orleans, a suspect in at least three murders since 1982, has no direct connection to Minnesota. But one of his alleged victims sure does.
Minneapolis-born writer and journalist Susan Berman, a friend of Durst’s since their days together at UCLA in the 1960s, was shot once in the head with a 9mm gun at her Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve 2000.
“Susie was shot gangland style, while her father was a major Minneapolis mobster in the 1930s and ’40s,” said Paul Maccabee, a Twin Cities crime historian and author of “John Dillinger Slept Here.”
Maccabee interviewed Susan Berman while researching Twin Cities’ organized crime history 25 years ago. He believes the way she died “has zero to do with” her family’s gangster back story and everything to do with the rich kid she befriended in college.
But Durst’s legal troubles have rekindled the notoriety of a largely forgotten character in Depression-era Minneapolis. David “Davie” Berman, Susan’s dad, graduated from bootlegging, bank robbing and big-time gambling to become an organized crime kingpin in Minneapolis before a new mayor named Hubert Humphrey rode a mob-busting campaign pledge to victory in 1945.
For more than a decade before Humphrey’s cleanup, Berman ran gambling dens with big-buck craps tables and bookmaking operations. In a corrupt, bribe-filled period, David Berman contributed heavily to Mayor Marvin Kline — Humphrey’s predecessor.
That cozy relationship, for a time, helped Berman eclipse organized crime rival Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld — who bribed officials, fixed labor disputes, and juggled gambling and liquor operations from his Flame Night Club at 1523 Nicollet Avenue. Kid Cann was considered the Minneapolis version of Chicago’s Al Capone and had much in common with Berman.
Both emigrated as young children with Jewish parents fleeing army conscription and religious persecution in their shtetls in Russia and Romania.
Susan Berman’s grandfather, David, was a violin-playing rabbinical student back in Odessa. His wife, Clara, came from a rich family along the Black Sea. But with the Russian Army at the door, David fled to New York in 1904. He worked in a laundry in Manhattan before learning about a new charity fund that would relocate Jewish immigrants to North Dakota. David sent for his wife and three kids, including 4-year-old Davie, and his eventual partner, brother Chickie Berman.
His mother reportedly burst into tears debarking the train in Ashley, N.D., saying it looked like Siberia. The family failed at farming and moved to Sioux City, Iowa — a popular hideaway for Chicago mobsters.
The young Davie Berman organized Jewish boys into a newspaper-selling gang, protecting their turf from other kids. Before long, he was running booze across the Canadian border and robbing banks.
With Prohibition turning alcohol sales into an underworld growth industry, Berman and Kid Cann climbed quickly from street thuggery to powerful kingpin status.
While big-name national mobsters such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Al “Creepy” Karpis often hid out in St. Paul, Cann, Berman and liquor-controlling Irish and Scottish gangsters ran the action in Minneapolis.
“The guys in St. Paul were trigger-happy outlaws who got into kidnapping — they were really disorganized crime,” Maccabee said. “In Minneapolis, Dave Berman, Kid Cann and Tommy Banks were largely businessmen more interested in making money than violence.”
Not that Berman was a saint. One of his underlings in north Minneapolis, Israel “Ice Pick Willie” Alderman, used the tool in his nickname in rivals’ ears — a tactic that apparently made it harder to determine the cause of death.
Berman was never charged with murdering anyone directly, but he was sentenced to seven years in Sing Sing for robbing a Wisconsin post office. When he was released in 1934, he attended a mobster summit with Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and others who were happy that he hadn’t squealed. They reportedly offered him $1 million for his loyalty, which he turned down for another request: permission “to run Minneapolis.”
During World War II, wanting to help defend his fellow Jews, Berman tried to enlist but was rejected as a felon. Canada took him in, and Berman joined a reconnaissance outfit known as the 12th Manitoba Dragoons.
Berman married a German-American dancer named Gladys “Grace” Ewald after he returned to Minneapolis. Susan, their only child, was born in 1945 just as Humphrey became mayor.
So Berman and his family moved on to a fledgling cradle of sin and corruption, Las Vegas, where he purchased hotels with Bugsy Siegel, hung out with Howard Hughes, Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante and hired Elvis Presley and Liberace to perform at his daughter’s birthday parties.
Unlike Siegel, Berman didn’t die in a proverbial hail of bullets. He died of an apparent heart attack on the operating table in 1957 during a procedure to remove polyps, prompting one of the largest funerals ever in Las Vegas.
Susan was just 12. Her mother died a year later, from an overdose of barbiturates. Suspicions continue to swirl over how both died.
After tragedy followed her: Durst walked her down the aisle as a bride in 1984. Within two years, she would divorce her husband, who died on a heroin overdose in 1986.
When Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, vanished in 1982, Berman often served as his spokesperson. When authorities reopened the case of Kathleen’s disappearance, they wanted to talk with Berman.
She was shot before they could. She was 55. She had known little of her father’s mob history, but dug into her family’s shadowy roots in her 1981 memoir, whose title proved to be ironic: “Easy Street.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Send ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.