The Violent Death of Young Jennifer Levin Sobers the Preppy Elite of New York
09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
This scene is very sick. It all came together and it's all f----d up. I can't get it out of my mind. You're going back to school. You're so lucky you're getting out of here.—One girl to another in the ladies' room at Dorrian's Red Hand, New York City
To a certain sort of teen on Manhattan's swank Upper East Side, Dorrian's Red Hand bar was a home away from home. Certainly, its 17-to 23-year-old clientele would admit, it sold drinks to minors. Yes, it had had to install attendants to stop drug use in the bathrooms. Granted, along with other clubs in what its patrons called "the circuit," it provided an underage singles' scene that often led to casual sex in nearby Central Park. ("The bar is the meat market," explained one young cynic, "and the park is the grill.") For those thousands of kids for whom such activities are part of being a New York fast-tracker's fast-track child, Dorrian's also served another function: It had a clubby side. It was not quite the big bad world. People knew one another, trusted one another. Parents would occasionally call proprietor Jack Dorrian and be relieved to find their sons and daughters there and not "somewhere else." It was, the teens said, perhaps stretching things a bit, a little like a "clubhouse."
No longer, the girls in the restroom are saying. Two weeks ago Dorrian's peace—and its privacy—were shattered when one of its regulars, lovely, vivacious, 18-year-old Jennifer Dawn Levin, was found strangled in the park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And then, that evening, police reportedly heard an admission to her killing—not from a member of the city's underclass, but from Robert Chambers, 19, a handsome young man from the best of families, considered by the girls at Dorrian's to be one of the best romantic catches at the bar. Worse still, according to police, Chambers claimed that Jennifer had died while engaging in an act of kinky sex.
At times like this, New York acts like a huge blind creature thrown into an instinctive frenzy. For days the tabloids screamed out tawdry headlines; for days career-obsessed parents looked up from their work and feared for their own children. In a week's time few conclusions had been reached about the baffling crime—either its causes or exact nature. All that could be sure to have emerged from it were one corpse, one murder charge, two shattered families and a group of very sheltered, very privileged youngsters getting their first taste of the harshest of realities. "Ever since we found out Jennifer was dead," says a Dorrian's regular, John Flanagan, "it's been a nightmare."
Until last week, Robert Chambers seemed like every teen girl's dream. The son of a record promoter, he had grown up in an elegant town house next to the Andrew Carnegie mansion, which now houses a museum. As a child he had belonged to the Knickerbocker Greys, an anachronistic but very upper-crust boys' drill team whose members have included Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and Rockefellers. Although no scholar, Chambers had been a debate team member and soccer star at York Preparatory School. "He was a rather charming, pleasant society boy," sums up his former headmaster. "Every girl had a crush on him."
That was no exaggeration, even though the past two years had not been good ones for Chambers. His parents had separated, he had been kicked out of Boston University for bad grades, according to his adviser, and he had been treated last spring at a drug rehabilitation program in Minnesota for a coke habit. On his return to the circuit, the courteous, 6'3", 220 pounder found himself as popular as ever. "He had girls throw themselves at his feet," said a friend. Adds Jack Dorrian: "He was a lollipop."
The word used most for Jennifer Levin was "magnet." Explained the director of her prep school, Baldwin: "Everyone seemed to gravitate toward her." A 5'7", 120-lb. brunette with great style—she was voted both "best looking" and "best figure" in her senior class yearbook—she "liked parties better than books," according to an uncle, Dan Levin, a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But she had a goal: Over the summer she had saved $1,600 from restaurant work toward her first year at a junior college. And she had charm. Her family recalled what happened one day three weeks ago when Jennifer, riding in a taxi, told the cabbie she was nervous about her impending driver's exam. Before long the hack had shut off the meter and was tutoring her in parallel parking.
She never got to take the test. On August 26th, Levin ran into Chambers, whom she had dated two or three times before (his lawyer later would claim they had been lovers). They met at Dorrian's, which was packed with college-bound kids making their last goodbyes. Robert and Jennifer began a long, animated conversation, and, at 3:45 a.m., headed toward Central Park, five blocks away.
It was there, in a grove of crab apple trees, that a cyclist found Jennifer dead two hours later. The police said her dress was pulled up above her hips, her bra wrapped around her neck.
The police visited Chambers for a routine interview that afternoon but became earnest when they saw vivid scratch marks on both sides of his face. By that night Chambers had made the formal, videotaped statement that would shock and perplex the city. He said that he and Jennifer had gone from the bar to Central Park, where they had sex—including a bondage game in which Levin tied up Chambers' wrists with her panties. In the middle of this, in his version of events, something went wrong. "She hurt me," Chambers reportedly told police. "I told her to stop. She wouldn't." Freeing his hands, he said, "I pulled her backwards." He claimed he hit her once.
After their examination, the police agreed only that Chambers killed Levin. They were silent on the matter of kinky sex, however, and discarded Chambers' one-blow description of the violence. The bruises and bites on her body, they told one newsman, indicated that she had fought for her life. They charged Robert Chambers with second-degree murder.
On the floor of Dorrian's today lies a tabloid with the headline, SEX PLAY GOT ROUGH. Fascinated and repulsed, the bar's patrons have read on as successive episodes of their private tragedy are played out in the press. To wit: The Chambers family hires defense lawyer Jack T. Litman, famous for having obtained a reduced manslaughter conviction for a Yale graduate who bludgeoned his former girlfriend. Litman may plead his client's insanity. Mayor Ed Koch will send undercover agents into bars to battle underage drinking. Chambers is taunted in jail by other inmates. Their own Jack Dorrian is heard from, asking whether the city wants him to polygraph potential customers about their age. And here is Jennifer's funeral, smudgy newsprint images of some of their own tear-stained faces. Her uncle reads the eulogy: "Everyone who has ever been 18 knows nothing bad can happen to you," he said. "Well, I guess we know now that isn't true."
Dorrian's knows. In the days after Jennifer Levin's killing, the temperature in New York dropped 20 degrees, as if her death had stolen the city's warmth. Leather jackets have replaced polo shirts here tonight, cunning long sweaters supplanting last week's tank tops. The "grill" will be closed tonight. It is too cold. Instead of flirting, the teenagers talk quietly and clutch one another in long, spontaneous hugs.
These New York cold spells in late August tend to stay a few days and lift, making way for Indian summer. For the kids at Dorrian's, the temperature is inconsequential. Summer is over.