On Christmas Eve, Susan Berman’s neighbors noticed her dogs running loose near her dilapidated Benedict Canyon home. They found the back door open and called the police. Inside lay Berman, 55, slain in her bedroom by a single gunshot wound to the head, a woman whose links to organized crime and to a 19-year-old case would make her death one of the most baffling homicides in recent Hollywood history.
The only daughter of Davie Berman, a notorious Las Vegas mobster, Berman had written two memoirs — Easy Street and Lady Las Vegas — about growing up in the spectral world of casino gambling and organized crime. She was developing a new book about Vegas high rollers and had pitched a miniseries called The Vegas Diaries to ABC and NBC. Nothing appeared to have been stolen from her spartan household; indeed, there was little of monetary value to steal.
Early reports suggested that Berman had been rubbed out in a classic Mob-style execution. If so, it would be an ironic end to a life that was both connected to Mob lore and sheltered from it. As Davie’s daughter, Berman grew up with the run of the infamous Flamingo hotel, which her father owned with Bugsy Siegel. (Siegel died in a hail of gunfire in 1947.) Still, she remained largely cloistered from the criminal side of Las Vegas, maintains her friend James Grady, a former investigative reporter. ”She was Dave’s little princess,” he says. (Davie Berman died of a heart attack in 1957.)
Left to roam the counting rooms of her father’s casino, Berman attended shul and never suspected the family’s harried midnight departures to L.A. were anything other than her busy father’s only available time for vacation — not the flights from threats of assassination they actually were. After private school and UCLA, Berman migrated to the Bay Area and became a journalist, doing stints at the San Francisco Examiner and Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine; eventually she headed east and wrote for New York. Berman, who was terrified of heights, penned a 1983 story for the magazine called ”Phobic in New York,” but her time on the East Coast was largely happy; she befriended such New York personalities as Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman and record exec Danny Goldberg, who met Berman in the late 1970s when he was a press agent for Electric Light Orchestra and Kiss. Actor and producer Robert Evans toasted her at her 1984 wedding to screenwriter Mister Margulies as ”the most seductive woman I ever met.”
But there was to be no fairy-tale ending. Margulies died at 27, and over the years Berman fell off the fast track. She had once lived in a beautiful home in Brentwood, but she ended up in a rental in Benedict Canyon, a peeling cottage sheltered from the road by tall, unruly hedges. With her ancient silver Isuzu Trooper protruding from the garage like a bowling-alley ashtray, it was hardly a showplace, and Berman found herself in and out of court in a rent and maintenance dispute (which was resolved shortly before her death).