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East Side Story

Robert Chambers, Jennifer Levin, and a death that shocked the city.


From the November 10, 1986 issue of New York Magazine.

For the young crowd at Dorrian's Red Hand, the early-morning scene on August 26 was like an unplanned reunion. Many of the regulars at the Upper East Side bar were just back from their holidays, and they table-hopped eagerly—drinking and laughing, embracing friends they hadn't seen over the summer. "We were all in there buzzing around," recalls one. "We all had fun that night."

At the edge of the gaiety, one Dorrian's regular, a tall, handsome nineteen-year-old named Robert Chambers, sat at the bar, drinking beer by himself. Chambers is a good drinker, his friends say, and he can be aloof. But that night, he seemed particularly moody, at times looking straight ahead and ignoring the festivities around him. At about 1 A.M., his girlfriend, a pretty sixteen-year-old junior from a top private school, came over. They'd had a date to meet earlier, but Chambers had shown up more than an hour late and hadn't spoken to her yet. Now she confronted him and, angered by his noncommittal reply, told him she didn't want to see him again. Chambers just laughed.

Another pretty student, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Levin, may have overheard the exchange. She was high-spirited and popular, and she'd been interested in Chambers for some time. They'd had a few flings, and she'd confided to friends how sexy she thought he was. Levin now told the other girl that she wanted her boyfriend, and over the course of the next three hours, friends saw Levin flirting and talking with Chambers at the bar. At around 4:30, they left together.

Less than two hours later, Jennifer Levin was found dead in Central Park. The police said that her clothes were disheveled and that she had been strangled. Later that day, they picked up Chambers, and after hours of questioning, he admitted causing Levin's death, but he denied intending to hurt her. What had happened, he said, was an accident—rough sex play that got out of control. About 24 hours later, he was arraigned on the charge of murder.

The death of Levin and the charge against Chambers stunned and baffled the city, and raised questions about the way children grow up in New York, about underage drinking in public bars and casual sex in Central Park. How, people asked, could an apparently innocent teenage tryst end in death?

Both Levin and Chambers lived in a world in which hardship seems remote, murder unthinkable. Only days away from her first term at a Boston junior college, Levin was a bright, gregarious girl who had been voted best-looking in her graduating class at the Baldwin School. Friends say she was full of life, the least likely victim.

Chambers also went to good schools. He was an altar boy at his parish church, a member of the Children of the American Revolution, and an officer in the Knickerbocker Greys, a uniformed drill troop whose members include the sons—and now daughters—of many prominent New York families. His mother, who was president of the board of that organization, said five years ago, "It's a very tough world out there. A boy who receives this training is less likely to fall by the wayside later on. The Greys teaches what society should be about, the niceties of life."

But the world of Levin and Chambers had its shadows. Both came from broken homes, and both had embraced a troubling scene—a particular community of private-school students in which drug use, alcohol, casual sex, and chronic underachievement sometimes start when the students are as young as thirteen.

Of course, not all young people are part of the scene, and not all want to be. But it draws from the city's best-known private schools, luring students with its aura of glitter and elitism. Both Levin and Chambers probably understood the short-comings of their young social world—Chambers, in fact, had told friends he hated its superficiality. Other students no doubt feel the same way. But they also say the scene provides them with a sense of belonging that they don't get elsewhere.

Levin was about to escape from that world, but Chambers was apparently trapped in it. He had failed at several schools, he'd had a serious bout with drugs, and some of his friends claim that he lied and stole. Police have charged that he took part in a string of East Side burglaries.

Chambers's admirers say he was turning his life around in the weeks before the killing, and Chambers himself told friends that he had to pull things together. He'd got out of a drug rehabilitation center in May, and he was talking about trying to get into Columbia. Just six days before Levin died, Chambers had called his former parish priest, whom he hadn't spoken to in years.


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Nov 10, 1986 issue of New York
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