Robert Durst's Wife Debrah Was a 'Lean In' Poster Girl of the 1980s


A week and change removed from Robert Durst’s startling televised bathroom confession and his subsequent arrest in New Orleans, there are still so many mysteries swirling around HBO’s true crime documentary series The Jinx: How many times did Durst visit “Beverley Hills”? Why is Bobby Durst both repulsive and sorta charming? Does Andrew Jarecki actually think that goatee looks good?

But my favorite mystery is still that wild, bitchy brunette Bobby Durst calls a wife: Debrah Lee Charatan.

For the uninitiated, Charatan, Durst’s second wife, is a side player in The Jinx. She refused, smartly, to be interviewed for the documentary, so we only see her in deposition footage and hear her in recorded prison phone calls with Durst. When she first appeared, all smokey-voiced and with voluminous dye-singed hair, I assumed that she was some sort of street walker or junkie queen that Durst had shacked up with during some interlude between dismembering a transient and pissing on CVS candy.

But no! Debbie Charatan is a bonafide New York real estate power player who seems to be eerily clear-eyed and a possible Svengali in all of Durst’s sordid dealings. When The Jinx ended with Durst’s dramatic hot-mic confession—”What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course“—Charatan allegedly sprang into action and arranged for Durst to fly to Cuba, where there is no extradition for U.S. fugitives. It looked like the couple were planning to rendezvous in Havana until the L.A.P.D. showed with a warrant for Durst’s arrest the morning before the final episode aired.

So now we ask you: has ever a woman deserved a Lifetime biopic more than Debbie??

Charatan, 58, is a native of Queens, the daughter of a one-footed kosher butcher (slow down, read that again; one-footed-kosher-butcher) and an orphaned Holocaust survivor.

“She’s an excellent broker,” a former employee of Charatan’s told the New York Times in 2003, ”but she’s also one of the most ruthless people I have ever come across.”

“For Debbie, it’s all about the money,” said a former executive who worked under Charatan for 12 years. ”When she met Bob, she hit pay dirt. I am sincerely sad for her. I don’t think this was in her plan.”

“I knew if I couldn’t be a star,” the Times quotes her as saying at some point in the ’80s, “I wouldn’t be happy.”

Charatan graduated from high school in 1974 and took a job as a secretary at a real estate brokerage for $115 a week. “Most people wouldn’t have taken that job as a secretary but I saw it as an opportunity to learn a lot,” Charatan is quoted saying in a profile featured in the 1994 book Pathways to Success: Today’s Business Leaders Tell How to Excel in Work, Career and Leadership Roles.

She worked her way up to property manager, eventually overseeing more than a thousand properties.

She put herself through college, married a lawyer, Bradley Berger, and became the president of Bach Realty Inc , an all-female real estate brokerage founded in the 1970s. Bach sold over $200 million worth of real estate in New York in the 1980s under her leadership. In 1984, Charatan was featured in Glamour as one of its 10 Outstanding Young Working Women of the year. Here is a little blurb of Charatan in the New York Real Estate Journal from the same time period:

And here is a letter penned by Charatan about her success, published in Pathways:

But by 1987, the Times reported, 2o out of Bach’s 24 female employees had quit or been fired. The brokerage later fell apart under the weight of lawsuits claiming that it didn’t pay out commissions to their brokers.

In 1988, Charatan met millionaire real estate heir Durst. She’d abruptly left Berger three years before, moving into her own apartment and taking their then-infant child with her. But then, in a custody hearing a year after meeting Durst, Charatan granted Bergen full custody of their 5-year-old son Bennat; she reportedly did not see or speak to him for over a decade. Since then, mother and son have reconciled and they now run another real estate firm together, BCB Property. Durst and Charatan were wed in December 2000, in “a Times Square skyscraper by a rabbi who said that she had picked him out of the phone book.” Police had reopened their investigation into the disappearance of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen McCormack, just a month before the marriage.

According to Crain’s New York Business, Durst began seeding BCB property four years ago. Charatan and her son have completed several real estate sales in the last two years that have provided the company with tens of millions in profit.

As Crain’s Daniel Grieger put it: “If Robert Durst doesn’t kill you, he just might make you rich.”

While it’s pretty clear that Durst and Charatan may be more business partners than lovers, it still comes as a surprise to learn that, according to the New York Post, Charatan may turn state’s witness in order to avoid criminal prosecution for her role in arranging Durst’s last-minute relocation to Cuba.

What drives Debbie? What makes the daughter of a one-footed-kosher-butcher from Queens build a real estate empire and then double down on the enterprise to help out an eye-brow-shaving-likely-homicidal-cross-dressing-thin-lipped man like Durst?

We want answers. We want more Debbie.

Have you ever hung out with Debbie Charatan? Do you know stuff about her? Are you actually Debbie? How long have you been reading Jezebel? We would love to speak with you. Do get in touch. Lean in with us, Deb!

Contact the author at [email protected].

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