Seymour Durst Did Play Tennis: Otherwise, New Film Gets Lots Wrong About Real Estate Lore

In the second act of All Good Things, Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, playing characters supposedly based on Bobby and Kathie Durst, sit next to each other in the back of a taxi as it crawls through midtown some time in the mid-1970s, the bad old days of New York. Dressed in black and heavily mascaraed, Ms. Dunst’s character, called Katie McCarthy (Mr. Gosling’s is called David Marks), peers out of a filthy window and clutches her purse. They are on their way to get an abortion.

“Inspired by the story of Robert Durst, scion of the wealthy Durst family,” according to the film’s production notes, All Good Things is director Andrew Jarecki’s telling of the murder and disappearance of Kathie Durst, Robert’s wife, “the most notorious missing person’s case in New York history.” The word “inspired” here will be the subject of a lawsuit between the Durst Organization and Mr. Jarecki when the film is released Dec. 3.

In making a film about Mr. Durst, who may have killed as many as three people–his first wife, his friend Susan Berman and Morris Black, an older man he became close with while living as a cross-dressing mute woman in Galveston, Texas–Mr. Jarecki also produced a sensational, fun-house rumination on the psyche and internal politics of the Durst family, one of the city’s most established real estate dynasties. Bobby’s brother Douglas and first cousin Jody are the third generation of Dursts, an Austrian family that’s been in New York since 1902, to run the Durst Organization, which controls more than 12 million square feet of property here, including 4 Times Square and One Bryant Park, and a major stake in the rising One World Trade Center.

Mr. Gosling’s David asks the taxi driver to pull over in front of the Luxor Hotel on 46th Street. “What are we doing? What is this place?” Ms. Dunst’s Katie asks. On the sidewalk, fat cops in musty cornflower blue NYPD uniforms herd prostitutes into a paddy wagon. A middle-aged man buttons his overshirt, blue-balled.

Seymour Durst, Douglas and Bobby’s father and a giant in New York real estate into the 1990s, owned the Luxor until 1976, when he sold it to a group that the city feared would turn it into a “lavish massage parlor and house of prostitution,” according to a New York Times item then. Following the sale, Mayor Abe Beame asked Durst to resign from his Midtown Citizens Commission, a group aimed at cleaning up Times Square.

From a phone booth, David calls his father, Sanford Marks, a character supposedly based on Seymour Durst and played by Frank Langella. “I’m at the Luxor. There’s cops everywhere.”

“Listen to me, go over to the Avon–they may be next,” Sanford growls on the other end of the phone from his desk. His son says he has his hands full with his wife. “David, get your ass over to the Avon and pick up the cash!” Sanford slams the phone down. A henchman sitting on a sofa in the background of the office pulls his head away from a second telephone to tell Sanford that the mayor isn’t available to stop the Luxor raid.

The film suggests vaguely, here and elsewhere, that the Dursts were the kind of family that had City Hall in their pocket–and that Seymour drove his son Bobby insane.

David heads to the Avon, a hard-core pornography theater in the Studebaker Building at 48th and Broadway that the Durst family never owned, and shuffles around by the concession stand waiting for an envelope of cash. Meanwhile, Katie sits alone in the waiting room of an abortion clinic watching another couple, who hold hands and smile, waiting gleefully to have their own pregnancy terminated. Historical fidelity aside, the movie is weird.

The couple are reunited at dinner that night. Katie leaves the table to snort cocaine off a silvery toilet-paper dispenser in the bathroom. She snorts coke again later, this time off a toilet seat, and smokes five Parliaments while clutching a ledger she has just stolen from David’s office at her in-laws’ business headquarters. The viewer is left to believe the ledger, which Katie plans to use as a bargaining chip in a divorce settlement, catalogs money collected illegally, as rent and protection money, from the pornographers and pimps of old Times Square.

“To see a long record of hard work and civic accomplishment so casually maligned in the film is simply intolerable for the family,” wrote Richard Emery, counsel for the Dursts, in a letter to the director in July 2008. Mr. Emery suggested Durst representatives and Mr. Jarecki meet to discuss the film’s veracity (that never happened). In a second letter, in September of this year, the counsel said the Dursts would sue Magnolia Pictures upon the film’s release.

Nobody is concerned about the way Bobby Durst is portrayed in the film. Mr. Durst is an avowed psychopath who served a total of five years in Texas for tampering with evidence–using a hacksaw to dismember the body of Morris Black before dumping his remains in Galveston Bay; the Durst family keeps Robert under 24-hour surveillance whenever he comes to New York from Florida or Texas, where he now spends most of his time. The Durst Organization is first and foremost concerned with the depiction of Seymour Durst and the company’s role in helping develop Times Square under his watch.

Responding to the film is a tricky matter for the real-life family and firm. “It’s a work of fiction,” a spokesman for the Dursts told The Observer. To say anything beyond that would only create more buzz around the film.

“The notion that he was wedded to bad buildings and bad tenants strikes me as absurd,” said former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger, who got to know Seymour Durst during more than 20 years in city politics. She described him as a grandfather figure who loved to share knowledge about New York with younger friends. His was one of the most complete libraries of books about the city, and, upon his death in 1995, he donated the collection and $2 million to the graduate school at CUNY.

In business, Durst is best remembered for his policy of not buying anything that he couldn’t walk to. He would dress incognito, some say, and appraise properties himself. “He was a small person,” Ms. Messinger said. “He was compact, in a sense. He conveyed that he was a powerful real estate owner really by being able to have a powerful presence without throwing his body or his voice or his arms around.” Another longtime friend described him as “small, thin–nothing like Frank Langella.” Everyone who The Observer talked to about Seymour Durst said it was difficult to imagine him cursing at all.

“They can do whatever they want,” Ms. Messinger said about the filmmakers, “but to misrepresent somebody’s life story when there are live relatives around strikes me as–um–his right, but hitting below the belt.”

Mr. Jarecki, the director, won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003 for his last film, Capturing the Friedmans. Relying heavily on the Long Island family’s home movies, the documentary embraced complexity and nuance and honored the audience’s right to ponder. Mr. Jarecki co-founded Moviefone in 1989, and ran it as CEO before selling it in 1999 to AOL for nearly $400 million. He later wrote the theme music for Felicity with J.J. Abrams. He declined to speak with The Observer because of an arrangement with The Times to run a story about All Good Things closer to its release.

In the winter of 2005, Mr. Jarecki and his co-producer and screenwriter, Marc Smerling, who also worked on Capturing the Friedmans, invited Matt Birkbeck to meet them at the Tick Tock Diner off Route 3 in Clifton, N.J. Mr. Birkbeck wrote about Bobby Durst for People in 2000 and Reader’s Digest in 2003, and expanded his reporting in a book, A Deadly Secret.

Mr. Jarecki came to the meeting with a copy of the book dressed in “1,000 Post-It notes,” according to the author. The director wasn’t interested in optioning it, but he did want to hire Mr. Birkbeck as a consultant. “What that is is basically a cheap way to get somebody’s research,” Mr. Birkbeck said over the phone last week. He and his wife had watched All Good Things on pay-per-view the weekend before.

“How can I be kind?” Mr. Birkbeck said. “It was just bad. It was! I was surprised, too.” Ultimately Mr. Birkbeck had nothing to do with the film, but he said that Mr. Jarecki acquired the NYPD’s file on Kathie Durst and drew heavily from testimony given by Bobby Durst in a Texas court.

“He’s trying to do a Durst movie, and yet he’s changing things around to the point where it just becomes implausible, you know?” Mr. Birkbeck said. “It made no sense. I had no idea what he was doing. For a guy who did so much research, it looked like he didn’t do anything.” Mr. Birkbeck hesitated to identify any elements of the film that were accurate, aside from a scene in which Mr. Gosling’s David drags Ms. Dunst’s Katie out of a party by her hair. Also true: Seymour Durst, like Frank Langella’s character, played tennis.

Mr. Birkbeck wondered why Mr. Jarecki felt compelled to fictionalize Bobby Durst’s story. “I didn’t understand how you could screw up a story in which you got a guy who’s a nutball; two or three murders; he’s a cross-dresser; he hacks up a guy. And you got a superwealthy family.” In all of his research, Mr. Birkbeck said he never found anything about the Durst family harboring or receiving payoffs from the underbelly of old Times Square. “I can see why they were upset,” he said.

Mr. Jarecki had his own beautifully oblique way of explaining the film’s mission in press materials: “[B]y treating a story as a piece of art, we may have gotten closer to the truth of human emotion. Filling in the inexplicable gaps, probing the humanity underneath.” The press packet for All Good Things uses some form of the word “authenticity” four times–but never in reference to the film’s portrayal of the Durst family it’s supposedly based on. / @zekeft
Seymour Durst Did Play Tennis: Otherwise, New Film Gets Lots Wrong About Real Estate Lore