One of four children, Durst grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and attended Scarsdale High School. He completed his undergraduate degree at Lehigh University and attended graduate school at UCLA. Reportedly, at age 7, Durst witnessed his mother's apparent suicide; she either fell or jumped from the roof of the Scarsdale family mansion. According to Reader's Digest, Durst underwent extensive counseling because of his mother's death, and doctors found that his "deep anger" could lead to psychological problems, including schizophrenia. Durst went on to become a real estate developer in his father's business; however, it was his brother Douglas who was later appointed to run the family business. The appointment in the 1990s caused a rift between Robert and his family, and he became estranged.
In 1973, Durst married Kathleen McCormack, who disappeared in 1982. Her case remained unsolved for 18 years when New York State Police reopened the criminal investigation. On December 24, 2000, Durst's long-time friend, Susan Berman, who was believed to have knowledge of McCormack's disappearance, was found murdered execution-style in her Benedict Canyon California house. Durst was questioned in both cases but not charged.
According to prosecutors, he moved to Texas in 2000 and began cross-dressing to divert attention from the disappearance of McCormack.
In 2001, Durst was arrested in Galveston, Texas, shortly after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay, but he was released on bail. Durst missed his court hearing and was declared the first billion-dollar fugitive in the US. He was caught in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at a Wegmans Supermarket, after trying to steal a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid, even though he had $500 cash in his pocket. A police search of his rented car yielded $37,000 in cash, two guns, marijuana and Black's driver's license.
In 2003, Durst went on trial for the murder of Morris Black. He hired defense attorney Dick DeGuerin and claimed self-defense. During cross-examination, Durst admitted to using a paring knife, two saws and an axe to dismember Black's body before dumping his remains in Galveston Bay. The jury acquitted him of murder.
In 2004, Durst pleaded guilty to two counts of bond jumping and one count of evidence tampering. As part of a plea bargain, he received a sentence of five years and was given credit for time served, requiring him to serve about three years in prison. 
Durst was paroled in 2005. The rules of his release required him to stay near his home; permission was required to travel.
In December 2005, Durst made an unauthorized trip to the boarding house where Black had been killed and to a nearby shopping mall. At the mall, he ran into the presiding judge from his murder trial, Judge Susan Criss. Due to this incident, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles determined that Durst had violated the terms of his parole, and he was returned to jail. He was released again from custody on March 1, 2006.
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- Charles V. Bagli (2002-01-26). "Durst Waives Extradition To Texas Trial In Murder". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
- Rubinstein, Dana (August 8, 2008). "Ryan Gosling Is Robert Durst". The New York Observer. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
- Jones, Leigh (August 22, 2008). "Movie based on Durst's wife's disappearance". The Galveston County Daily News. Retrieved 2008-08-25.
- John Springer. "Prosecution forces Durst to admit his many lies". truTV. Retrieved 2009-04-02.[dead link]
- John Springer. "Millionaire Durst acquitted of neighbor's murder". truTV. Retrieved 2009-04-02.[dead link]
- Jessica Su. "Millionaire Robert Durst pleads guilty to bail jumping, evidence tampering". Court TV. Archived from the original on 2009-03-09.
- Dan Abrams. "Billionaire Robert Durst back in jail". MSNBC. Retrieved 2009-04-02.
- Moran, Kevin (March 1, 2006). "Millionaire Durst allowed back to Houston home". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 30 April 2011.
- "Cross-Dressing Convict Robert Durst Returns to New York", Richard Byrne Reilly, New York Magazine, February 4, 2011
- Scott, Cathy (2002). Murder of a Mafia Daughter: The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Berman. ISBN 1-56980-238-6.
- Birkbeck, Matt (2002). A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst.
- Timeline gallery The Mysteries of Robert Durst at truTV
- Leung, Rebecca (September 8, 2004). "Mystery Of Robert Durst". CBS News. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
- Scott, Cathy (February 25, 2004). "Cold Case: Friends and family have a strong sense of who killed Susan Berman. So why do the authorities seem so lost?". lasvegascitylife.com. Retrieved January 22, 2010.