In 1957, the children of the developer Seymour B. Durst, from left, Thomas, 6, Robert, 14, Douglas, 12, and Wendy, 10, using 750 discarded aluminum cigar tubes to erect a scale model of an office building their father was constructing at 655 Third Avenue in Manhattan.© John Orris/The New York Times In 1957, the children of the developer Seymour B. Durst, from left, Thomas, 6, Robert, 14, Douglas, 12, and Wendy, 10, using 750 discarded aluminum cigar tubes to erect a scale model of an office building their…Douglas Durst, a onetime hippie who had sought a career in international diplomacy, had just taken the reins of one of the most powerful family-owned real estate companies in New York City.At Osteria al Doge on West 44th Street, near Times Square, he, his father, Seymour B. Durst, his uncle and two of his cousins ordered their customary Virgin Marys and waited for Douglas’s older brother, Robert A. Durst, who had been passed over in the transition from the family’s second to third generation.Robert never showed up.

And when the Dursts returned to the family’s headquarters in their skyscraper on Avenue of the Americas that day, Dec. 16, 1994, they discovered that he had cleaned out his office.

Since then, Douglas Durst has greatly expanded the family empire, and in a roaring real estate market, the Dursts have become the city’s largest private commercial building owners. They have pioneered the development of environmentally sustainable office buildings, and they have built residential towers. They erected 4 Times Square, a skyscraper that helped prompt the rejuvenation of its neighborhood, and bought a stake in the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, 1 World Trade Center.

But even as the family celebrates the founding of the Durst Organization 100 years ago by its patriarch, Joseph Durst, Robert casts a long, dark shadow.

Douglas Durst© Michael Appleton for The New York Times Douglas DurstNow 72 and frail, Mr. Durst is scheduled to be in court in New Orleans on Dec. 17 for sentencing on a gun charge. Sometime next summer he will be transferred to Los Angeles, where he has been accused of murdering a former confidante, Susan Berman, who was found shot in the back of her head at her home on Dec. 24, 2000. Prosecutors say Mr. Durst wanted to ensure that Ms. Berman would not reveal what she knew about the abrupt disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982. In another case riddled with bizarre twists, Mr. Durst, who had been living on the cheap in Texas as a mute woman, admitted to butchering his neighbor’s body and dumping the parts into Galveston Bay. He claimed that the neighbor’s death had been accidental, that he had been acting in self-defense. A jury acquitted him of murder in 2003.

The Los Angeles trial, which will pit his multimillion-dollar defense team against a prosecutor who specializes in cold cases, promises to attract the kind of intense media interest that, once again to the family’s chagrin, will eclipse the Dursts’ legacy on the New York skyline.

Douglas expects to be a witness for the prosecution.

Of his brother, with whom he has had a tempestuous relationship since they were boys, Douglas would say very little. “Bob has always been a burden for me and my immediate family,” he said, “but it has not impacted our relations with others or the Durst Organization’s ability to do business.”

Robert A. Durst© Mike Segar/Reuters Robert A. DurstThe Durst Organization, which is led by Douglas Durst, 70, and his cousin Jonathan Durst, 62, is currently building four residential developments worth $2.7 billion that will significantly enlarge their business and portfolio of 11 skyscrapers. The projects include the 32-story Via 57, whose dramatic, pyramidal shape stands out on the Hudson River waterfront, and Halletts Point, a sprawling, seven-building, 2,400-unit complex on the East River in Queens.

“We created an enduring family business, which supports thousands of people and is responsible for changing the skyline,” Douglas said during a series of interviews in recent months. “With each generation, the business grows.”

The Dursts are in the process of grooming a fourth generation of developers: Douglas’s daughter Helena, 38; his son, Alexander, 45; Jonathan Durst’s son, Lucas, 26; and their cousin David Neil, 38.

“I can’t think of another U.S. real estate family that has lasted four generations and seen that kind of trajectory of growth,” said Mary Ann Tighe, a top executive of the commercial real estate company CBRE, who has worked closely with the Dursts. “They usually don’t have partners. It’s their own money they put at risk.”

As a builder, the Durst company keeps a relatively modest profile. The family has not put its name in tall gold letters on a museum, a hospital or a university building. It was, however, among the founders of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and it contributes substantially to the New School, the Trust for Public Land and the Roundabout Theater.

Their history, as with many of New York’s real estate families, begins with a classic up-by-the-bootstraps chapter.


  • Members of the Durst Organization, from left, Alexander Durst, David Neil, Helena Durst and Kristoffer Durst. Behind them is the site of their Halletts Point project, a sprawling, 2,400-unit complex on the East River in Queens.
  • The Dursts have bought a stake in 1 World Trade Center.
  • The 32-story Via 57, whose dramatic pyramidlike shape stands out on the Hudson River waterfront.
  • In 1989, the Dursts built the 26-story building at 114 West 47th Street, between Avenue of the Americas and Broadway.
  • The Dursts built the 41-story tower at 1155 Avenue of the Americas, between 44th and 45th Streets, in 1984.
  • The office tower at 675 Third Avenue at 42nd Street was completed by the Dursts in 1966.
1/6 SLIDES © Michael Appleton for The New York Times
Members of the Durst Organization, from left, Alexander Durst, David Neil, Helena Durst and Kristoffer Durst. Behind them is the site of their Halletts Point project, a sprawling, 2,400-unit complex on the East River in Queens.

Joseph Durst arrived in New York in 1902 from Gorlice, Austria (now Poland), with $3 sewn into a lapel and some training as a tailor. He had no connections and spoke no English. In a matter of years, he moved from selling children’s clothing from a pushcart to being a partner in a garment factory.

A newspaper ad from 1915 characterizes his approach: “The New Durst Way: No Salesmen! No Unnecessary Expenses. Just Plain, Solid Merchandise.”

That year, he expanded into real estate, buying his first building, at 1 West 34th Street. He also ventured into banking, helping to found Capital National Bank, which made loans in the garment district. The bank was later sold, providing Joseph the money he needed to lay the foundation for a real-estate dynasty.

The Durst Organization was not a developer — erecting buildings from the ground up — until the second generation, when the brothers Seymour, Royal and David moved into the business after World War II. (Joseph’s other two children, Edwin and Alma, did not join the company.)

The patriarch let his sons “have their own head,” Douglas Durst said. They developed a division of labor: Seymour, Douglas’s father, was in charge of acquisitions, while Royal, or Roy, handled management and David oversaw construction and design.

“They’ve always been a low-key family,” said Jeff Gural, the scion of another real estate family who knows the Dursts well. “They didn’t drive around in limousines. Seymour always took the subway.”

Seymour drove the family’s expansion. A slight man who spoke slowly, cigar at the ready, he had a knack for assembling adjoining parcels, sometimes dozens of them, for new projects. It was a job that required patience and bargaining skills.

Seymour and his brothers built four office towers on Third Avenue, which became a desirable commercial market after the elevated subway came down.

In the 1960s, Seymour turned his attention to Times Square, then a seedy neighborhood where land was cheap. He had a grand vision of building a new Rockefeller Center comprising 10 towers west of Avenue of the Americas, between 42nd and 47th Streets. “He started buying there when nobody would touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Mr. Gural said.

Seymour gained control of most of the land, but by December 1973 his dream had been undone by a recession and overbuilding. Seymour “was devastated,” Douglas recalled, adding, “He had to let go of about half the properties.”

Times Square was also the site of public embarrassment for Seymour. In 1975, Mayor Abraham D. Beame appointed him to a panel to rid Times Square of the peep shows, the massage parlors and the prostitution that dominated the area. But newspaper reports soon identified the Durst family as the owner of a nine-story building on West 47th Street that housed one of the city’s most notorious massage parlors, Luxor Baths.

Seymour insisted that he was unable to evict Luxor, but the damage was done. The mayor asked Seymour to step down, a humiliation he never forgot. “He was highly annoyed,” Douglas said. “He’d spent a lot of time trying to clean up Times Square.”

Eventually, the Dursts foreclosed on the Luxor and demolished the building to construct 114 West 47th Street, once known as the U.S. Trust tower.

Seymour had a keen dislike of government involvement in land use, which put him at odds with mayors and governors. He opposed the redevelopment of Times Square, just as he had opposed the creation of the World Trade Center, complaining that publicly subsidized properties would compete with privately owned buildings like his own. And he, like his son Douglas, was not afraid to make his point with a lawsuit.

He salted The New York Times with front-page “reader ads,” such as one that declared, “N.Y.C. has the best housing bureaucracy and the worst housing.”

But the question of succession became contentious for the Dursts. It led to Robert Durst’s severing his ties to the family and getting a $65 million payout from its trust.

Seymour Durst’s sons Douglas and Robert joined the business in the mid-1970s, but the two had never gotten along, even as children. Their sister, Wendy, did not go into the family business, nor did their youngest sibling, Thomas. Their mother, Beatrice, died in 1950 when she fell or, as Robert has claimed, jumped from the roof of the family’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y.

After graduating from the University of California, Douglas hoped to become a diplomat. Initially, he worked part time at the Durst Organization while attending New York University at night. It would be years before he got serious about the family business.

Douglas’s first foray into real estate ended badly. He and Eli Zabar, whose family runs the popular Manhattan market, bought a couple of old buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with plans to convert them into a co-op. Their contractor went bankrupt, and a recession left them with apartments no one wanted to buy.

“We had quite a bit of debt,” Mr. Zabar said. “His father basically bailed me out. That was the end for me. But I always thought Douglas would build things.”

Douglas was not convinced. He, his wife, Susanne, and their two children lived for a time in Newfoundland. One night in 1972, Douglas was cuddling his children when the coal-fired water heater next to him exploded. His body shielded the children, but the explosion ripped his leg. Neighbors applied a tourniquet and transported him 40 miles to the nearest hospital, while Seymour commandeered a jet in New York. Douglas spent four months convalescing.

“I should’ve died there,” he said. “It changed my whole outlook on life. I had to get more serious about what I was doing.”

(This summer, Mr. Durst had the lower part of his right leg amputated, ending a lifetime of pain. He now uses a prosthesis.)

In a turnaround that might have bewildered his father, Douglas built the first of four new towers that were part of the government-sponsored redevelopment of Times Square. Later, the family would pay $100 million for a stake in 1 World Trade Center.

“Once we assumed responsibility for the family company,” Douglas said, “we tried to look at things differently.”

His brother Robert Durst married Kathleen McCormack and joined the family business in 1973 but was an intermittent presence at the office.

In 1982, Mrs. Durst vanished. Robert waited five days to report her missing; he suggested that she might have run away with a drug dealer. A close friend, Susan Berman, served as Robert’s spokeswoman. The Dursts’ marriage had unraveled amid violence and Robert’s controlling personality, prompting some of Kathleen’s friends and neighbors to suspect him of killing her. But the police at the time did not focus on Robert, who has never been charged in the case. The McCormack family has long complained that Seymour Durst never offered them any comfort or consolation after Mrs. Durst vanished.

It was months before the tabloid headlines faded, and years before Robert returned to work. His behavior, Douglas said, became increasingly erratic.

Seymour’s brother David Durst shared Douglas’s misgivings about Robert, according to David’s son, Jonathan Durst, who joined the Durst Organization in 1984 after a career in the auto industry. “He’d be sitting in the family meetings on the edge of his chair,” Jonathan said of his father, “never knowing what Bob would say or do.”

The issue came to a head in 1994 when Seymour and David picked Douglas to run the company, rather than Robert, who had lost their confidence. Robert quit.

In 1999, a new investigation into Mrs. Durst’s disappearance by the State Police and Jeanine F. Pirro, then the Westchester County district attorney, focused exclusively on Robert’s role and generated another round of headlines and more suspicion, but little progress in the case.

“All Good Things,” a crime drama directed by Andrew Jarecki and inspired by the events, came out in 2010, with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst in the lead roles. Robert liked the film, but its depiction of Seymour Durst as an overbearing father and landlord to pornography palaces infuriated the family.

This year, Robert, his strange comings and goings, and the longtime suspicions of law enforcement officials were on full display in a six-part HBO documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” also directed by Mr. Jarecki, which drew a huge audience and won the filmmakers an Emmy.

Based on extensive research and 25 hours of interviews with Mr. Durst, the documentary explores the murder of Ms. Berman, who was found dead after he learned that the authorities had reopened the investigation into his wife’s disappearance. “The Jinx” also follows Mr. Durst’s path to Galveston, where, according to his court testimony, he fled in 2000, rented a room posing as a mute woman and shot and beheaded a neighbor, Morris Black, in 2001. Mr. Durst, who claimed the man’s death was an accident while they grappled for a gun, was acquitted of murder in Texas.

In 2000 he married Debrah Lee Charatan, a real estate broker who also was estranged from her family. Over the years, Ms. Charatan, who now lives with a lawyer for Mr. Durst, has provided the scion with a safe berth at her house in the Hamptons and served as an heir who could inherit his $100 million estate, preventing the money from flowing back to the family coffers. Investigators also say Ms. Charatan knows Mr. Durst’s mostly closely guarded secrets.

“The Jinx” concludes with Mr. Durst, finished with his interview but still wearing a microphone, muttering: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

The day before it was broadcast in March, Mr. Durst was arrested in New Orleans, where he had booked a hotel room under a false name. A few days earlier, in Los Angeles, the authorities had issued a murder warrant for him in the death of Ms. Berman.

Robert Durst continues to insist that he is innocent.

His brother Douglas Durst says he initially believed Robert’s account of Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. But that changed after Robert was arrested in 2001 in Mr. Black’s killing. Robert jumped bail and after a 45-day manhunt was arrested in Pennsylvania, but not before he had pulled into the driveway of Douglas’s home in Katonah, north of New York City, with two loaded guns in the car. Robert ultimately drove away, but his brother says he has feared for his life ever since.

In “The Jinx,” Robert concedes that he lied about his whereabouts the night his wife disappeared. Further, in what seemed to be an effort to implicate family members in a cover-up, he says both his father and Douglas sat in on meetings with his lawyer, Nicholas Scoppetta, in which his version of events was challenged by a private investigator. But Douglas has insisted that he was never privy to those meetings, a claim backed up by both the investigator and Mr. Scoppetta (who later was New York City fire commissioner).

“Up until 2001,” Douglas said, “I thought my brother was innocent. I’m going to be a witness in Los Angeles, so they don’t want me to talk too much about anything after 2001.”

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