A New York Times Notable Book: Acclaimed true-crime journalist Linda Wolfe delivers a riveting, comprehensive account of the Preppie Murder, a crime that shocked a city and a nation. It was called the Preppie Murder—a killer and a victim who were attractive, smart, privileged teenagers. On an August night in 1986 Jennifer Levin left a Manhattan bar with Robert Chambers. The next morning, her strangled, battered body was found in Central Park. Linda Wolfe, hailed by critic John Leonard as “one of our best reporters,” goes beyond the headlines and media hype to re-create a story of privilege and excess, sex and partying—of a teenager whose immigrant mother was determined to make a better life for her son, a petty thief and drug user who’d been expelled from the best schools. It’s all here, from the initial police investigation, during which Chambers claimed Levin died accidentally during rough sex, to the media frenzy of the courtroom, where Chambers took an eleventh-hour plea. Wolfe also delivers heartbreaking portraits of Levin’s grief-stricken father, Chambers’s in-denial mother, and the women who dated the accused Preppie Killer while he was out on bail. A finalist for the 1990 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, Wasted also powerfully depicts the freewheeling 1980s society that spawned a generation steeped in violence and the fatal impulses that drove Robert Chambers to kill.
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Linda Wolfe is the author of five true-crime books: The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness, Love Me to Death, Double Life, The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and Wasted: Inside the Robert Chambers–Jennifer Levin Murder, an Edgar Award nominee and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of My Daughter, Myself, a memoir; The Literary Gourmet, a classic cookbook; and Private Practices, a novel. Wolfe’s articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, among them Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, and New York magazine, of which she was a contributing editor. She currently writes a column about books for the website www.FabOverFifty.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Preppie Murder
By Linda Wolfe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Linda Wolfe
All rights reserved.
In the late 1950s, a pale, skinny young Irish woman named Phyllis Shanley arrived in the United States, her mind ablaze with extravagant daydreams. She had been poor in Ireland, had grown up, the eldest of six, on a back-country farm in which the principal fuel for cooking and even for fighting the omnipresent dampness had been the peat her father and brothers chopped laboriously from bogs behind the house. She had escaped the farm, gone to Dublin to study nursing, learned in the city's dreary Victorian hospitals how to deliver babies for women who couldn't afford doctors and how to care for poor sufferers from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. But her experience and training had not brought her prosperity. Prosperity did not come easily in Ireland.
America was another story. In this new country she might flourish. Become anything she wanted to become. America was the land of opportunity, a place where what mattered was not what people had been in the past but what they made of themselves once they were here. And if they made of themselves something worthy, their children and grandchildren might never know hard times and might even, God willing, become rich and powerful. Even the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants. By the time she arrived in the United States, people were saying the country might even have its first Irish-Catholic president soon. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts and a man but three generations removed from Ireland's hardships, was going to run for the office. Learning the ropes in her new country, Phyllis dreamed classic immigrants' dreams, imagining a golden life for herself and her as yet unborn heirs. And in her dreams she took literally the mythic American promise that on these shores a person could be the equal of any man or woman in the land.
She was not averse to hard work, and she quickly began plying her profession here, taking a job at a large New York hospital and doing private-duty nursing as well while waiting for fortune to smile on her. In three years it did. At a lively dance sponsored by an Irish organization, she met a handsome young man who several times during the evening asked her to be his partner and eventually asked her to be his life's partner as well.
The young man's name was Bob Chambers. Members of his Irish-English family had been in America for generations. One of his ancestors had even come before the Revolution. Bob's parents owned a house in Westchester, a cabin on Lake Placid. They'd raised Bob genteelly and comfortably, sent him to private schools and then to Mitchell College in Connecticut and The American University in Washington, D.C. Four years after Phyllis met him—it was 1965—she married him. A year later she gave birth to her first and only child.
The child, a boy, was beautiful, with sapphire eyes and a delicate pearly-white complexion. Phyllis gave him the first name Robert, after his father, and the middle name Emmet, after the great Irish patriot who had been hanged for plotting against the British.
He was a docile infant, his temperament mild and malleable. And he was responsive, an early babbler and smiler. By the time he was a year and a half and had handily learned to talk and walk, taking his tumbles manfully, Phyllis was head over heels in love with him.
She was not demonstrative. She didn't hug and kiss him the way other mothers hugged and kissed their little boys. But she read to him and played educational games with him, and by the time he was three, she had taught him many things, among them to shake hands when he was introduced.
They were living at the time in a vast apartment complex in Woodside, Queens. They didn't have much money. Bob had a good but not especially well-paying job in the credit department of Dun & Bradstreet. Phyllis was still doing part-time nursing. Most of her patients lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side, in sprawling apartments where the walls were hung with exquisite landscapes and family portraits and the rooms decorated with crystal, silver, and woods so highly polished they shone like gems. Woodside seemed depressing in comparison, and Phyllis dreamed of some day living on the East Side herself. Apartments were cheaper on the bourgeois West Side or in the raffish downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan. But the East Side was patrician and grand, its boulevards lined with palatial apartment buildings, its side streets with opulent town houses and discreet residential hotels. Bob's grandmother lived in one such hotel. It had a posh dining room, and sometimes the old lady invited Phyllis and little Robert to dine there in splendor with her.
After several years in Woodside, Phyllis and Bob left the area for a better apartment in Jackson Heights. It wasn't the East Side of Manhattan, but Phyllis was pleased with the move. Husbanding her earnings, she decorated the new apartment tastefully and tended it zealously, often spending hours polishing her handsome dark furniture until it glowed.
She was working at the time not just for the wealthy but for the extremely wealthy. And one day she got a nursing assignment that thoroughly stimulated her dreamy nature. She was hired by her new country's most famous family to look after the nation's most famous little boy, John-John Kennedy, while he recovered from a respiratory illness.
The day after she started working for the Kennedys, Bob Chambers noticed that his wife was wearing a new expensive looking pair of sunglasses, and that she was wearing them not over her eyes but perched on top of her head, just the way Jackie Kennedy did.
The job didn't last—John-John got well—but its effects did. When Robert was four, Phyllis enrolled him in a prestigious Manhattan nursery, the nursery at the St. David's School on East 89th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. St. David's was a Catholic school, although it also took children of other faiths, and the Catholic families that placed their offspring at the school and in particular at the nursery were exceedingly prominent. The Hearsts, the Skourases, the Burkes had all sent children to the St. David's nursery. A few years before Robert entered it, the sons of John F. Kennedy's sisters, Mrs. Peter Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, had attended. So had John-John Kennedy.
On Long Island that year, two-year-old Jennifer Levin was growing up in a small ranch house in the commuter town of Merrick. Out back was a large tree-studded yard. In front of the TV, an undulating waterbed.
She was the second daughter of Steven Levin and Ellen Domenitz, whose families were Jewish and who had themselves each been raised in green and homogeneous suburban towns, Steve in Massachusetts, Ellen on Long Island.
They'd met in Boston while Ellen was going to a junior college and Steve was attending an acting school. Acting was in Steve's blood. His grandfather, who'd emigrated to the United States from Russia in the early part of the century, had made his living in the shoe business, just as Steve's father did after him, but the old man had always wanted to be an actor and toward the end of his life he had even become one, performing with a Yiddish theater group. Steve had his gifts for comedy, could do hilarious imitations, and had consequently set his heart on a theatrical career. But he gave up that ambition after he and Ellen married and went into real estate. By the time Jennifer was born, he and a partner had begun to have some success with a small real estate firm in Manhattan.
Of the two little girls, five-year-old Danielle was the beauty, the neighbors used to say. But Jennifer would be okay. She had personality. Was a live wire.
She spent much of her time trying to join the games of Danielle and Danielle's friends. They slammed doors on her, or ran giggling away on longer, swifter legs. She would howl, but doggedly keep after them, rattling doorknobs or clumsily tagging behind as the group raced ahead of her. And sometimes, miraculously catching up, she'd chant and sing and parade around the older children, and act so antic that they'd laugh and soften and let her play with them.
St. David's, where four-year-old Robert was daily escorted by one of his parents, was a beautiful school with Georgian-style architecture that suggested permanence and stability. It was also utterly different from the institutions Phyllis had attended as a youngster: Irish convent schools. Her teachers, black-garbed nuns, had focused on self-discipline and obedience as much as on academic subjects. The teachers at St. David's, Catholic lay people for the most part, were gentle, lenient, and devoted to inculcating knowledge in their young charges.
Phyllis was pleased that she'd decided to send Robert there, even though it was far from home and expensive. But her life was not altogether happy. Around the time Robert started at St. David's, Bob, who was a drinker—he had started using alcohol when he was a teenager—began drinking more heavily. Sometimes he wasn't home when he was supposed to be home and sometimes he wasn't at the places he'd said he'd be at.
His mother hit him with a strap when he was bad, little Robert told a teacher at St. David's. The teacher thought that no doubt the mother was well-meaning, if a bit old-fashioned and strict.
Cynthia White, Robert's steady babysitter, also found Phyllis a strict mother. But a superb one as well. She had a lot of rules, but they were sensible. Robert had to do his homework before he did any playing, he couldn't watch a lot of TV, and he had to go out of doors every day, no matter how inclement the weather.
Cynthia admired Mrs. Chambers. And she was enchanted by little Robert, who was charming and polite and so obedient she didn't have to tell him twice to put away his toys or go to his room and get ready for bed. But Cynthia was concerned about him. He didn't see that much of his mother—she had started working full-time taking care of the aging Millicent Hearst, wife of the newspaper baron—and he had no friends. Was he lonely? Cynthia worried. And had Mrs. Chambers done the right thing in sending him to St. David's? It set him off from the neighborhood boys, made him a bit of an isolate.
Still, Robert didn't complain. He wasn't one of those whiny, difficult kids. He kept most things to himself. Even pain.
One day he was climbing on the back of a wing chair. "Don't do that," Cynthia warned him. "It's dangerous." He didn't listen, just went on climbing. A second later he tumbled to the floor.
"Are you all right?" Cynthia asked.
"Yes." But then he retreated into his room.
Cynthia waited for him to emerge. But when after twenty minutes he still hadn't appeared, she went inside to check on him. She found him curled up on his bed, straining to hold back sobs. Which took some doing, because the injury turned out to be no small affair. He'd broken his collarbone.
Sequins. Ribbons. Her mother's high heels. In Merrick, four-year-old Jennifer was displaying a passion for dress-up and, once in costume, would strut and sing and spin around like a whirling human top.
Sometimes she was a bit too lively. The mothers of playmates found her hyperactive and difficult to control. One mother mentioned this to Jennifer's father, and he suggested that when Jennifer visited she be given diet soda instead of Pepsi or Coke, because sugar overstimulated her.
But Jennifer's frivolity served her well. It brought her attention, friends. One afternoon when she and her sister were visiting two boys, the elder of whom considered Jennifer a baby and ignored her, she took the younger brother aside, dressed him and herself up in makeup and funny costumes, and began cavorting around the room. The older boy, eager to reject her, nevertheless cracked up, laughed till he thought his sides would split. "You can be our court jester," he said, and explained how kings kept attendants just to make them laugh.
In the summer of 1972, just before Robert turned six, Cynthia traveled to Ireland with him and his mother on a visit to Phyllis's parents. The three Americans flew to Shannon, then took a trip deep into the Irish countryside, to the town of Bournacoula in County Leitrim, where the Shanleys lived and Phyllis had grown up. Leitrim is one of Ireland's poorest counties, a long narrow spade of land that has a remote, forgotten feel to it. The Shanleys' farm also, to Cynthia at least, seemed forgotten, a thing of the past. The farmhouse was a rambling four-bedroom affair. There was a paved road in front of it, but behind were pens for chickens and ducks, and beyond that, fields in which cows and horses grazed. Further still in the distance were desolate peat bogs. Phyllis's father drove by wagon to the bogs and brought back the peat, and Phyllis's mother cooked with it on a big blackened stove. She stewed and simmered on the stove's surface, and baked loaves of delicious bread inside its ancient oven. She baked daily, telling Cynthia, "The bread's not the same if you eat it when it's old. Even a day old."
The babysitter was awed by the amount of labor the aging Shanleys had to expend on tasks that took no time at all back home, where the flick of a knob brought fuel and bread could keep as fresh as new in the freezer. "Life is so hard here," she said.
"It's nothing, nothing at all," Mrs. Shanley replied. "Why, just a few months ago we had to go upstairs to the bathroom to get water for doing the dishes. That or draw the water from the kitchen pump."
It's no wonder, Cynthia thought after the trip to Bournacoula, that Mrs. Chambers wants Robert at St. David's, even though it means his having to travel so long every day, and his having no one his own age to play with after school. She wants him to make up for what she lacked. She has the American Dream.
By 1973 the Levins' marriage was foundering. To some extent the trouble lay in their temperaments. Both were excitable and tempestuous. But they also had different priorities. Ellen Levin liked pursuing artistic and bohemian pleasures—she was "a leftover flower child from the sixties," one of her friends recalled. Steve was sterner and more pragmatic, and increasingly he was focusing on his real estate business.
Eventually, the pair separated. Steve moved into Manhattan, and Ellen remained behind in Merrick with the two little girls. Jennifer was five.
Seven-year-old Robert was starting his religious instruction at St. David's, studying under an energetic and thoughtful priest named Father Thomas Leonard. Leonard's classes were crowded with shy, attentive, well-scrubbed faces. Robert was just one of the crowd. But the boy's mother was another story. She always spoke up at parents' meetings and made her presence felt.
She was, by then, daily leaving County Leitrim behind. She still spoke with a brogue and clung to the stern religious beliefs of her childhood, but she was rapidly becoming ever more Americanized—and in all outward manifestations an American of high social class. Shopping carefully and cleverly, often in thrift shops to which women like those she worked for donated their wardrobes when they were but a season old, she dressed with sophisticated East Side flair. When she entertained at home, she set her table with fine linens and china, just as the women she worked for did, differing from them only in that she purchased her wares in out-of-the-way secondhand shops.
In 1974, when Robert was eight, Phyllis enrolled him in the Knickerbocker Greys, an after- school military drill group that taught discipline and patriotism to well-to-do boys and had come to be nicknamed the Social Register's Private Little Army. She knew that the Greys weren't what they had been. Once they were so elite that even some of New York's richest boys could not join. Once they were a training ground for the city's princes. Frederick Warburg and Cornelius Vanderbilt had been Greys. So had Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, and Thomas Hoving. But things had changed. The most socially eminent families in the city had turned away from the group, and their defection, combined with the antimilitaristic sentiment that had swept the country during the Vietnam war, had made the Greys easier to join. Nevertheless the corps still drew its members primarily from Manhattan's most exclusive private schools. Phyllis was aware of this, and she was eager to see Robert enter the ranks and make the right sort of friends.
Robert was nervous the first time he passed through the massive wrought-iron gates and majestic wooden doors of the fortresslike armory on Park Avenue in which the Greys met. For years he had seen older boys at his school wearing the Greys uniform to class, and he had dreamed of wearing one, too. But he had heard he would have to take part in a competition on the first day, and he was fearful he wouldn't pass muster. He needn't have worried. His first day went off without a hitch, he was accepted into the corps, and his parents bought him the coveted uniform. He began dreaming right after that, he wrote in a school essay, of becoming a sergeant. Sergeants got to carry swords.
Excerpted from Wasted by Linda Wolfe. Copyright © 1989 Linda Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPROLOGUE: THE END OF SUMMER,
PART I: JENNIFER AND ROBERT,
Chapter One: New Lives,
Chapter Two: Coming of Age,
Chapter Three: Valentines,
Chapter Four: The Summer of '86,
PART II: WOMAN DOWN,
Chapter Five: The Body in the Park,
Chapter Six: The Interrogation,
Chapter Seven: Rough Sex,
PART III: THE PEOPLE v. ROBERT CHAMBERS,
Chapter Eight: Hopes and Prayers,
Chapter Nine: The Long Wait,
Chapter Ten: The Trial,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,