Lowery’s aunt says the family saved to send her to Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, a Catholic school, but reports have her being kicked out of that school and finishing at Murry Bergtraum High, a public school in Manhattan. She ran track and studied criminal justice. She liked styling hair and thought about modeling, and she couldn’t wait to go away to college, to live on her own. She had wanted to attend college in Atlanta with one of her friends but ended up at North Carolina State University after reportedly temping for a year at the PR firm Rogers & Cowan. In college, she was a member of a modeling troupe called Black Finesse. She took out loans to go there but never finished. Instead, she earned a business degree at Hunter College. “When she got out of school, she wanted to be an entrepreneur,” her aunt says. She lived in Virginia for a time, then moved home to Brooklyn to live with her parents.
Here, competing portraits of Lowery have emerged: the sweet daughter and girlfriend who “would not smack a fly on her forehead,” as an ex-boyfriend told one reporter, or a scheming opportunist with larceny in her heart. She was sued in Virginia last year for not paying $515 in rent. (Her stepfather says that she told him that a roommate had left and stuck her with her share.) A high-school friend named Harolena Grant has also accused her of using her name to open up a $300 T-Mobile account and a $300 Target account. “She’s a pathological liar,” Grant told a reporter, “and blamed it all on the boyfriend she was seeing at the time.” Police eventually dropped the misdemeanor charges against her—because, Lowery’s aunt insists, she hadn’t done anything wrong to begin with.
Back in New York, Lowery found work at a temp agency called Axion, which placed her in a clerical job with Planned Parenthood; soon after, she came to work for Linda Stein. Some of her duties were ordinary—work the phone, type up contracts, track listings and appointments—but the job quickly became personal. “She would go out jogging with her,” says her aunt. “Linda would talk to her about things. She used to also do her hair, washing this lady’s hair every day.”
You would think the stage would be set for a culture clash—the Brooklyn black girl and the brassy, often nasty Jewish doyenne. But one friend who worked closely with them remembers Stein having no complaints about her new assistant. He says Lowery was the sort of assistant who blended in—energetic but not overeager, not lunging for the phone but not ignoring it, either. Stein’s yoga teacher even said Stein had complimented Lowery, said she was doing a good job. At times, Stein was flat-out kind to her. “She flew the girl’s boyfriend into town and put him up in a nice hotel for her birthday,” says a source.
Still, “Linda had her way of talking to people,” a colleague says. “It was not like The Devil Wears Prada. It wasn’t ‘Get me three lattes and be back three minutes ago.’ But it wasn’t ‘Please be more careful next time,’ either. It was ‘What the fuck happened here?!’ There’s millions and millions of dollars involved and sometimes if you miss an e-mail it can really be costly.”
Lowery apparently never told her family that Stein had ever lashed out at her. But she did tell them how badly she could treat others. “She said every time she turned around, she was yelling at people,” says her aunt. “She said she was a cancer survivor, but she still drank and smoked reefer all day long.”
The situation may have been more fraught than she let on. All boss-assistant relationships are loaded, and this one had special complications. Stein could be brutal, and certainly profane; anyone would bristle at that kind of treatment. She may have been especially hard on Lowery. Heavily invested in her own legend, now practically incapacitated by illness and medications, Stein may have been resentful, even furious, perhaps, about her dependency. The personal tasks Lowery was charged with were intrusive and arguably demeaning. And at the very least, Stein was patronizing. “Every time this girl would comb Linda’s hair, she’d tip her,” a source says. “Natavia was badly paid, and Linda was tipping her all the time.” However nice Stein may have thought she was being, what ambitious black woman getting slipped tens and twenties all day on Fifth Avenue wouldn’t walk away feeling diminished? Or even enraged?
It was 10:30 p.m. the night before Halloween when Mandy Stein discovered her mother’s body. It says something about the world of high-end Manhattan real estate that Linda helped create that in those first hours, when reports surfaced that a superstar Realtor had been murdered, people wondered which one. “We were hoping it was Dolly,” one high-end broker says with a giggle about Dolly Lenz. Even Lenz herself oddly insists she got twenty calls from people, including her son.