The Preppy Murder Unpacks a Tabloid Frenzy

A new Sundance/AMC series about a 1986 homicide in Central Park explores the pervasive unwillingness to believe that a handsome white Manhattan teen could be culpable.

Sundance / AMC

Before Jeremy Meeks went viral gazing soulfully out of a mugshot issued by the Stockton Police Department in 2014, before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev peeked through tousled curls like a teen idol on the cover of Rolling Stone, the American media fell in love with Robert Chambers. In August 1986, the body of an 18-year-old girl named Jennifer Levin was found in Central Park. Within days, detectives had traced her final movements, established that Levin had last been seen leaving an Upper East Side bar with the 19-year-old Chambers, and arrested him for her murder. The evidence seemed clear: Chambers’s face and torso were covered with fresh scratches, and he admitted responsibility for her death, although he insisted, unbelievably, that Levin had sexually assaulted him and that he’d accidentally killed her while trying to defend himself. “I thought, This is the simplest case in the world,” the investigating detective Mike Sheehan tells the camera in the new Sundance/AMC series The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park. He was wrong.

What Sheehan hadn’t accounted for was that Chambers was handsome, not to mention white and male, that those qualities would seem to inoculate him in the public consciousness from the most heinous charges leveled at him. Pulchritude is its own kind of privilege, and people couldn’t bear to believe that someone who looked the way Chambers did, and who belonged to a rarefied Manhattan social set, could actually be guilty of such an awful crime. “I’ll never believe Robert Chambers capable of intentional murder,” one of the jurors assigned to the trial reportedly said, after the jury had been deadlocked for almost a week. “He’s too nice, too refined.” The tabloids rushed to label the case the “Preppy Murder,” the first of countless factors that would fetishize Chambers’s semblance and status while sidelining the girl whose death he’d caused, by his own admission.

To watch The Preppy Murder, which airs over three nights starting today, is to feel like you’re being reminded of every pernicious notion that metastasized in American culture during the 1980s. For starters, there was the sheer volume of interest the case sucked up, one murder in a city that had more than 1,580 others in 1986. The directors behind the series, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, interview a number of journalists who reported on the case at the time, one of whom blithely puts it this way: “We would always say, ‘Oh, that’s a drug murder, that one you don’t pay attention.’ But if something happens in Central Park to a white person in the 1980s, everyone pays attention to it.”

Even so, the fascination with Chambers, and to a lesser extent Levin, was disproportionate. “Here was a young man who looked like a Hollywood Adonis,” the news anchor Rosanna Scotto tells the camera, giddily. Women who knew Chambers as teenagers describe how every girl in school had a crush on him, likening him to a kind of Yorkville pied piper, with girls trailing in his wake. Maybe context helps, but looking at old photos now, there’s something disturbing about the callousness of Chambers’s face, the cold superciliousness of his eyes. Captured for the cover of New York magazine, in a photo shoot brokered by his lawyer to buttress his defense, Chambers’s features are blank, his arms taut in a self-sufficient posture. Levin, by contrast, is all animation in the photos seen in the series. She smiles at the camera; she smiles at people off-camera; she embraces her friends, all frosted lipstick and caramel suntan.

Stern and Sundberg observe, but don’t entirely probe, the minimal parenting that defined Levin and Chambers’s sphere. In the 1980s, at the height of crime surges and “Do you know where your children are?” PSAs, Upper East Side parents didn’t seem to know or care, shipping off to the Hamptons or to houses upstate and leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. What this fostered, apparently, was a dynamic social scene in which tenth graders could be regulars at Studio 54 and no fake ID was crappy enough to get a kid kicked out of Dorrian’s Red Hand, the bar where Levin and Chambers spent the evening of her death. Drugs were ubiquitous enough that neither Chambers’s addiction to cocaine nor his unfortunate habit of robbing his friends and their parents to pay for it could ostracize him.

What becomes clear throughout the series is just how reluctant everyone was to condemn a young man who looked exactly right and who was able to summon letters of support and even bail money from the Catholic Church itself. (The Preppy Murder details the reality that Chambers actually came from a working-class background, and that his mother—who had worked as a private nurse for the Kennedys, the Hearsts, and the archbishop of New York—was determined to raise her son into high society.) In ancient Greek, the word kalon means both “beautiful” and “virtuous,” and for millennia people have tended to conflate the two qualities. Beauty, Immanuel Kant claimed in 1790, “is the symbol of morality,” and Chambers became, in the words of one of Levin’s friends, “this white male symbol of beauty, power, intelligence, and money.” Never mind that he failed out of numerous prep schools and was a habitual thief. What he represented in photographs and newsprint was too powerful to resist.

This level of privilege didn’t apply to Levin. Like Amanda Knox decades later, Levin was too easily twisted by Chambers’s lawyer, Jack Litman, into a sex-crazed harridan who had forced Chambers to kill her in self-defense. Litman reportedly leaked stories to the press about Levin’s sexual partners and spun a particularly ludicrous yarn about a datebook she’d kept actually being a “sex diary.” The media coverage preceding Chambers’s trial was so heavily skewed in favor of the defendant that when pictures of Levin’s mottled neck were finally revealed in court, they shocked everyone present. Here, the prosecutor Linda Fairstein explains in the series, was evidence that was “much stronger than what Robert admitted to.” Chambers was Fairstein’s first murder trial. In 2019, she’s better known as the Manhattan district attorney who convicted the Exonerated Five in 1990, and who’s portrayed in unsparing fashion by the actor Felicity Huffman in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. (Fairstein disputed her portrayal in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.)

In rehashing the story of the Preppy Murder and its aftermath, Stern and Sundberg seem to want to reckon with the circumstances that led to Levin’s death, as well as the frenzied fascination with the case itself. The level of access they received is striking—they have in-depth interviews with Levin’s friends and family, the lawyers involved, the detectives who investigated the case, and the reporters who covered it. And the directors do an admirable job communicating who Levin actually was, her likes and dislikes, her energy, her spirit. The Preppy Murder considers, but doesn’t get hung up on, the question of what went wrong in Chambers’s life that might have led him to kill Levin without any extricable motive.

The series is the rare documentary excavation, though, where more distance would help. Everyone interviewed has some kind of profound connection to the case itself, when the more intriguing questions at this point involve the people who watched from the sidelines. “Revisiting these crimes that touched us … deconstructing these crimes and really looking at them with hindsight,” the journalist Susan Zirinsky said in a 48 Hours special about the case, is about examining not only the crime, but also the question of “who we were then.” Implicit in that is another query: Have we changed? The brash, mercenary, tabloid-fueled culture of 1980s New York persists, in more ways than one. The Preppy Murder offers just enough analysis to tease these kinds of deeper reckonings, but it’s ultimately up to viewers whether they choose to dig further.