It happened among the young and the privileged of Manhattan’s Upper East Side during the early morning hours of August 26, 1986. After a night of underage drinking at a bar called Dorrian’s Red Hand, Robert Chambers, then 19, left the popular pub with Jennifer Levin, 18. Just before daybreak, a jogger discovered Levin’s battered, semi-nude dead body and, in short order, police arrested Chambers for murder.
Given the upper-class environment, the lavishly stylish lifestyles of the figures involved, the allegations of “rough sex,” and the almost shocking movie star looks and charisma of Chambers, the case immediately and indelibly got labeled “the Preppie Murder.”
From Shakespeare’s royal tragedies to the real-life travails of the Kennedys, public entertainment naturally devours any and all accounts of mayhem and misconduct among the ruling elite. “The Preppie Murder” supplied so much fodder on that count that it launched a virtual cottage industry — and the interest has never entirely waned.
- Tabloid TV
With almost eerie timing, an American version of the sensational Australian newsmagazine A Current Affair debuted in July 1986. “The Preppie Murder” hit the Maury Povich–hosted program like gasoline poured onto a fire and, for more than a year, Chambers news often led off A Current Affair’s top stories.
In April 1988, the show permanently defined itself by airing home video of Chambers, surrounding by scantily clad giggling teenage girls, mockingly twisting the head off a doll and saying, “Hello, my name is — oops, I think I killed it!” A Current Affair made sure to tease the video out in small doses over several airings.
Largely due to its coverage of the Chambers case, A Current Affair proved so popular it spawned an entire genre of sensationalized, high-impact series labeled “Tabloid Television,” or, as it was called on a Newsweek cover that featured Geraldo Rivera after his nose was broken on-camera by racist skinheads, “Trash TV.”
2. The Preppie Murder TV movie
ABC aired the two-hour tele-drama The Preppie Murder on September 24, 1989, after Chambers plead down to manslaughter during his trial and began serving his 5-to-15-year sentence.
William Baldwin stars as Chambers. Lara Flynn Boyle plays Jennifer Levin. Danny Aiello largely drives the narrative as Detective Mike Sheehan.
Except for the distinguished cast, including Sandra Bullock in a bit part, The Preppie Murder is a standard TV movie wallow. Even though director John Herzfeld claimed that the film’s aim was to “clear a little of the mud off [Jennifer Levin],” critics berated the film, and Ellen Levin, Jennifer’s mother, said, “It’s exploitive, all it does is bring us back, hurt us, make us sad.”
Ratings came in big, though, and The Preppie Murder has since been released on both VHS and DVD.
3. Law & Order: “Ripped From the Headlines”
On October 11, 1990, NBC’s innovative crime drama Law & Order, just four shows into its debut season, aired a plot that was unmistakably based on a famous real-life New York City case.
Titled “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die,” Thomas Calabro, later known to Melrose Place viewers as Dr. Michael Mancini, guest stars in the installment as an strongly attractive and seemingly together Upper East Side youth whose violent past comes to light after he murders a Jennifer Levin–esque acquaintance in rage.
With that, Law & Order premiered its very first “Ripped From the Headlines” episode — the trope that would become the series signature over its nearly two-decade run.
4. One True Crime Classic and One Killer Fictional Cameo
While the so-called Preppie Murder would seem to lend itself automatically to quick cash-in paperbacks (see, for example, the bounty of mass market pulps on New York’s Son of Sam serial killer or the “Satanic panic” crimes of murderer turned suicide Ricky Kasso), only the 1988 title The Preppy Murder Trial by Bryna Taubman seems to fit that bill.
Instead, one major book emerged from the event, and it’s a classic of top-tier journalism, impassioned reporting, and human drama. Wasted: Inside the Robert Chambers – Jennifer Levin Murder by Linda Wolfe proved to be both a best-seller and one of the most acclaimed true-crime accounts ever written.
Otherwise, Robert Chambers’s most noteworthy appearance on a printed page occurs in Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 “greed is good” satire, American Psycho. Patrick Bateman, the novel’s money-driven, status-obsessed homicidal anti-hero, mentions starting a defense fund for Chambers.
5. Murder Ballads
High-profile criminals have inspired rock songs from Paper Lace’s Al Capone anthem “The Night Chicago Died” to the 1975 Cleveland teenage school shooter of “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats to “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” by Sufjan Stevens.
Add Robert Chambers to that list. In addition to the 2004 track “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” by popular alt-rockers the Killers, New York critics’s darlings Sonic Youth allege their 1988 number “Eliminator Junior” is about Chambers, and Texas noise giants Pain Teens make their subject plain with the title of their 1990 screamer “Preppy Killer.”
Main photo: Robert Chambers’s mug shot. [New York State Department of Correctional Services]
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