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East Side Story

Though many of the students who went to Studio 54 and other clubs and bars were underage, getting served drinks was no problem, since fake I.D.'s were easy to come by. The bar and club owners insist they have no defense against the fake I.D.'s, especially since many students dress and use makeup to appear older than they are. Jack Dorrian, whose wife and daughter own Dorrian's Red Hand, told the Times shortly after Levin's death, "Everyone has to have two pieces of I.D. to get in this place. Everybody has I.D.'s, not just these kids. If you were nineteen and you wanted to go into a bar, you'd have fake I.D." (It's against the law to serve liquor to anyone under 21 in New York, and bar owners are responsible for determining the ages of their customers. But the state says it lacks the manpower for aggressive enforcement.)

When the scene shifted to Studio 54 and other late-night clubs, many of the students started staying out much later. After all, the action at these places didn't really get going until after midnight. Some parents found it hard to enforce a curfew when the social lives of their children were at stake. "A lot of kids who weren't allowed to go to Studio 54 felt left out of the scene," recalls Arthur Altschul Jr., who threw parties at the club when he was at Collegiate. "Most parents were made to recognize this and had to give in when they realized that other parents were letting their kids go out."

As his self-esteem sank, he used more drugs, yet his problems apparently escaped notice.

One Spence mother remembers being dragged to Studio 54 by her fifteen-year-old daughter to see that it really was a meeting place for her friends and classmates. Other students simply sneaked out of the house or devised schemes to make their parents believe they were sleeping over at a friend's. And some parents didn't care, or weren't home themselves.

Part of the problem was that many of the young people—in spite of their wealth and privilege—had no other place to go. Most of the schools had stopped holding dances, the Bandwagon had closed, and many parents—scared off by the wide use of drugs and alcohol among teens—refused to play host to parties.

When the clubs took over the social lives of these teenagers, they also took over their values—at least for some of the kids. The party environment encouraged drinking and drug use, and the club scene gave lessons in trading on family names and celebrity. "We were emulating an older bunch of guys we met there, whose biggest standard of success was getting over on a different girl every night," says one young man.

Chambers hung out occasionally at the clubs, but as his troubles got worse at school, so did his alienation from the glitter set at Studio 54. He was expelled from Browning after the fall semester, for drugs and theft from a teacher, according to a law-enforcement source. "Getting kicked out of Browning was a big shock for Rob," remembers one close friend and classmate. "For the first time, he felt he'd been expelled from the clique. I mean, if you get kicked out of Choate, you can still go to Browning. But when you get kicked out of Browning, then where do you go? I remember conversations with him at the time, him saying, 'Ah, preppies, the hell with them. F--- the whole scene.' "

Chambers's next stop was York Prep, a private school on East 85th Street. His headmaster, Ronald Stewart, describes him as a mediocre student, but a close friend and schoolmate says, "Rob never studied. He never concentrated on his homework, and he just barely passed."

As his self-esteem sank, he used more drugs. To pay for them, his friends say, he began to steal—jewelry from the apartments of friends' parents, ski equipment, petty cash. By the end of the tenth grade, Chambers was leading a secret life that involved drinking, drugs, and theft.

The seriousness of his problems apparently escaped notice. "He was a nice, normal boy," recalls headmaster Stewart. "Yes, he was lazy. Some teenage boys are lazy. Yes, he occasionally drank beer. Some teenage boys drink beer. But we liked him here, and if you had met him, you would have liked him, too. Everybody now is looking for a dark side of Robert Chambers. But I just didn't see it."

An old friend recalls a time when Mrs. Chambers caught them smoking pot in Chambers's room. "She sat us down on the bed," he says, "and put her arms around us and told us that if we had any problems, we should talk them out with her. Rob and I were doing all we could not to burst out laughing. I mean, she was very nice, but completely out of touch."


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