"After that summer, I called him up," Crespo says. "I remember thinking, Ed, you're making a fool of yourself. Why should Robert Chambers bother with a fat, pimply-faced, longhaired kid? He's not even going to remember you. But he did. He came to my house like it was the most natural thing in the world."
But even as he was counseling Crespo, Chambers's close-knit world had begun to unravel. For years, his father had been suffering from alcoholism and was now never at home, according to friends who visited Robert frequently. "As a kid, Rob's dad used to take him to the park every week to play ball," recalls John Tulenko, a classmate since kindergarten. "But then as he got older, the visits stopped."
When Chambers got to Choate in the fall of 1980, he had trouble making the transition from Saint David's to the larger, more impersonal boarding school. "Robert had a difficult adjustment," says Tom Yankus, Chambers's adviser at Choate. "He came from an organization where he was very important to a school where he had to start from the bottom of the heap. Naturally, he was trying to establish himself, but Choate is such a vital community with so many options on campus that some kids get overwhelmed. Robert was so popular, always surrounded by his friends, his room always filled with people. He couldn't seem to focus his efforts, and as so often happens with the younger kids, once they fall behind, it's very hard to catch up."
When Chambers returned home for Christmas, the girls from his old group were dating boys from Columbia and had graduated from the Bandwagon to places like the West End Café, McMullen's, and Studio 54. Chambers began seeing younger girls, including a pretty eighth-grader he had met the year before. It was the first involvement for both of them. "Every night, we'd talk on the phone for hours," she recalls. "I don't think he had anyone else he could confide in. He was all balled up inside."
When friends remarked on his father's absence, Chambers told them only that he traveled frequently for business. Chambers was secretive about his girlfriend, too, often ignoring her at parties. But in private, he was considerate. "In those days, all the guys were trying to make it with you," she says. "But Robert wasn't like that. He never tried to force anything. He was always very gentle, very sensitive. He used to write me poetry."
Still, Chambers's girlfriend broke up with him in the spring after hearing he had "fooled around" with another girl. "I called him at Choate and told him I didn't want to see him anymore," she says. "He was very upset. But he didn't try to lie about it the way most guys would. He was just stunned. Later, he wrote me a letter apologizing for what had happened."
For all his charm and apparent good intentions, Chambers couldn't repair his relationship with his girlfriend or his record at Choate, which didn't ask him back for a second year. "He was aware of his academic problems, but never down about them," Yankus says. "He was so pleasant to deal with—always a big smile—that in some way he fooled me."
With his father away and his mother working nights, Chambers came to regard Dorrian's as a second home. He and Levin met there in June.
In the fall of 1981, Chambers entered the Browning School, a private school on East 62nd Street, where his academic decline accelerated. He showed no interest in his studies and was often absent from class. "Rob was spoiled," one friend remembers. "He'd never really been challenged."
Chambers's apathy may have had something to do with drugs. Marijuana and, to a lesser extent, cocaine and LSD had been common at Choate, and Chambers is said to have used drugs there. During the fall semester at Browning, he was habitually stoned. In the afternoon, he would go to the park to smoke pot, and in the evening he would hit the neighborhood bars.
On weekends, Chambers joined a larger scene that was developing among students from Manhattan private schools. Studio 54 had hired professional party man Baird Jones to bring in some new young faces. Jones teamed up with John Flanagan, who'd known Chambers at Saint David's, and Flanagan sent invitations to private-school students around the city. Once the club started drawing a crowd of attractive young regulars, a caste system developed that mimicked the social distinctions applied to the older clientele. Only select students were let in free. Young people with rich, celebrated parents or youngsters who were particularly good-looking also got free drink tickets and easy access to VIP rooms. Their B-listed counterparts, however, had to stand in long lines, pay up to $20 to get in, and were barred from the select lounges.