Crimes of Passion

Sam Sifton

  • Missing Beauty: A True Story of Murder and Obsession by Teresa Carpenter
    Hamish Hamilton, 478 pp, £15.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 241 12775 0
  • Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe
    Simon and Schuster, 303 pp, $19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 671 64184 0

Decent people, Teresa Carpenter would assert, aren’t always what they seem. In 1982 William Douglas was working as a cell biologist at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts. He was an associate professor on the tenure track, a gifted scientist, and a successful grant-getter. He was married and he lived a quiet suburban life just outside the city with his wife and three children. He was also beginning a relationship with a young, dark-haired woman named Robin Benedict who worked as a prostitute in a bar called Good Time Charlie’s which is in the Combat Zone, Boston’s red-light district. Benedict disappeared in 1983 and today her family mourns the loss of a daughter they never suspected was a prostitute. William Douglas is in jail for her murder.

How could a respected member of the academic community commit such a crime? How could a charming, talented girl from the suburbs become a prostitute? These were the questions that fascinated Boston in the wake of Douglas’s arrest. Newspapers, television news-magazines and, one supposes, book publishers sent out their hired hands to seek answers. Teresa Carpenter has done this sort of thing before (her articles about the gruesome murder of the Playboy model Dorothy Stratten led to the making of the film Star 80) and she is a talented writer. Her detailed investigation of ‘the Professor and the Prostitute’ (as the case was known in the tabloid press) yields a gripping tale of sex, infatuation and madness. From the very beginning, there isn’t much doubt that portly Bill Douglas killed Robin Benedict, but Carpenter holds our attention, and weaves a good story out of the girl’s disappearance and the Douglas family’s subsequent attempts to stonewall the investigation.

William Douglas and his family came to Massachusetts in the summer of 1978. Douglas had secured his reputation conducting lung research at a cell science facility in Lake Placid, New York and had been hired to run a lab in the expanding biology department at Tufts, a small but prestigious university. Douglas was known as the ‘jewel of the department’ by his colleagues, and the researchers who worked under him referred to him as The Man. With his pear-like body and high, squeaky voice, Douglas was hardly an intimidator, but he commanded respect, and his technical excellence in the lab was unquestioned. He was also a master at securing research grants and seemed constantly to be scurrying off to meetings and conferences that might yield more money for the lab’s coffers.

Sometime in the spring of 1982, however, something in Douglas’s life changed. He began to request a lot of petty cash money from the bursar – up to $200 a week – and began also to charge cabs to mysterious ‘meetings’ on Beacon Hill, only a short walk from his office. Usually in the lab by half-past six in the morning, Douglas began to arrive much later, offering excuses. His lab workers detected large inconsistencies in his expense reports and noted a receipt for several grosses of ‘biological fluid collection units’. Scrawled across the bottom of the chit was the brandname of the condoms. Douglas also began periodically to refer to a new assistant whom none of the staff members had ever met. Her name was Robin Benedict.

Robin Benedict was not the average Combat Zone prostitute. She didn’t look like one, to begin with, not with her fresh beauty and secretarial gait. She wore skirts and blazers, carried a purse with a full set of identifications in it. In 1979, she had edited her high-school yearbook. ‘She did not project the weary resignation of an actress,’ Carpenter writes, ‘whose misguided dreams had led her to pose nude, then strip, then sell hand jobs in the alley.’ Instead, she gave the impression of a thoughtful, prepossessing girl on her way to finding a fulfilling career. Perhaps this is what attracted Bill Douglas. He saw Benedict every night for two or three hours, paying $100 an hour. Sex was not always a part of their sessions, and he often had her accompany him to the movies, and on walks on the Boston Common. By midsummer, he was demanding that he be the last person to see her each night.

Telling how this infatuation developed into the hatred that caused William Douglas to shatter Benedict’s skull with a sledgehammer and throw her body in a dumpster is Carpenter’s monumental task, and she handles it with a slick panache. There are dozens of stories in Missing Beauty. Carpenter shows us Benedict’s headstrong father searching for his lost daughter and embracing her fiancé-cum-pimp. We see Douglas’s doggishly loyal wife, possibly an accessory to the crime, and his three children, who refuse to answer the grand jury subpoena that commands them to testify against their father. We follow the prosecutor’s formal investigation, and witness the gerrymandering of Douglas’s masterful defence attorneys. Detail by detail, we are drawn into the shady world of obsession that swallowed both Douglas and Benedict.

Carpenter is at her best following the development of the intricate legal case against Douglas. Not only was he being investigated for the murder of Benedict, he had also misappropriated funds from Tufts to pay for his liaison with her. There seemed to be enough conclusive evidence to suggest his guilt (Benedict’s coat, the bloody hammer and Douglas’s stained shirt were all found in a trash barrel along a highway in nearby Rhode Island; her purse and pocketbook were found in Douglas’s home, along with some of her credit cards and a dime-sized chunk of brain matter), but there was no body. Without concrete evidence of Benedict’s death the prosecution had to work hard to secure a conviction, and was forced to devote long hours to finding inconsistencies in Douglas’s account of Benedict’s disappearance. Carpenter, seemingly close friends with every criminal lawyer in the city of Boston, lays the story out neatly.

Her book has its flaws, however. It is not a novel, and her attempts to make it sound like one fall flat. One tires of hearing about cities and places as they ‘were’ five or six years ago; in the main, most of them remain unchanged. This is a fault more of the form than the author. Since Tom Wolfe made his call for the non-fiction novel in the late Sixties, journalists have from time to time adapted the novel’s form to the telling of a true story. Unfortunately, it rarely works. No matter how much research the author does (and Carpenter has done a lot), the non-fiction novel can never live up to the ‘reality’ of the novel. The author cannot, after all, know the thoughts of the people involved in the story. So even as Wiliam Douglas pleads guilty to the murder of Robin Benedict, we cannot really say what prompted him to kill her.

Of course we have an idea. Benedict, after a year of Douglas’s frenzied doting, was pushing him away, and at the same time was making large financial demands on him. Douglas was convinced that he could make Benedict love him. She wanted to quit working and marry her boyfriend. They fought, and Douglas bashed her head in. Reading Missing Beauty, that’s about as close as one gets to a motive. The story itself, however, is unrelenting. We are borne along only to wonder at how two families could bear the strain of such an unrelenting investigation. And for all its use of a fictional form, Missing Beauty presents a view of two American families that a novel – even one by Tom Wolfe – would be hard-pressed to re-create.

Jennifer Levin was found strangled in Central Park in New York City on an August morning in 1986. She was white, pretty, 18, and she travelled in the wealthy circle of New York’s private-school set. Her murderer, who had secretly watched the police collect the body from across the street, confessed a few hours later. He was Robert Chambers, 19, another member of the prep-school crowd, and he claimed that it had been an accident. After a long night of drinking at a tony East Side bar called Dorrian’s Red Hand, Jennifer had taken him to the park to have sex, Chambers said. There she had ‘forced herself upon him’ and engaged in kinky acts so aggressive that he had unthinkingly reached up to stop the pain, put his arm around her neck and flipped her off his prostrate body. Somehow, she died in the process.

No sooner had the story broken than the media – and the public – had a new favourite couple. Chambers was a true rogue, handsome and raffish. He was a graduate of the Knickerbocker Greys, an established society drill group which met after school and was known as the Social Register’s Little Private Army. And Levin, for her part, was Trouble. She had a diary, the world soon found out, that was filled with fantasies and tales of sexual prowess. The crowd they both hung around with did a lot of drugs, mostly cocaine, and had money to burn. The Preppie Murder captured the attention of the nation. Everyone involved was beautiful, everyone was rich, and everyone, it seemed, was corrupt.

Like Teresa Carpenter, Linda Wolfe uses the language and tone of the crime novel, except that this account of Jennifer Levin’s murder and Robert Chambers’s trial is not much better than pulp fiction. Unlike Carpenter, Wolfe has not stopped her investigation at the available facts, but has gone on to extrapolate – for example – what Robert and Jennifer were thinking the night of the murder. ‘Robert was still there,’ Wolfe has Jennifer think after Chambers has ignored her at the bar the night she was killed. ‘He looked as handsome and as sexy as ever. Maybe it had been a mistake to give up on him, she began thinking. Persistence had always been her strong suit, and maybe if she stuck to it, stayed at Dorrian’s long enough, she’d be lucky.’ This is just the sort of narrative that the aficionado of true crime literature grows to hate.

Linda Wolfe has a naive view of Levin’s murder. To her mind, drugs are at the heart of the incident. More dramatically, Chambers killed because he hated his mother and Jennifer Levin died because she palled around with a fast crowd of kids and her mother smoked pot. Of course Wolfe doesn’t lay it out that simply. Chambers was not, despite all appearances, a child of privilege. His mother was a hard-working Irish immigrant with dreams of social success. His father was a penniless alcoholic, unable to hold down a job. Yet Robert was sent to the best schools and his friends constituted the social élite of the city. He resented the wealth the other kids had, Wolfe posits, and he directed much of his resentment at his mother. She pushed him relentlessly, urging him to greater heights than he was capable of attaining. And he rebelled, turning first to drugs, then to burglary, and finally to murder.

Jennifer Levin wasn’t as poor as Chambers, but she was no more a pampered East Side preppie than he was. Born on Long Island, Levin attended public schools in the suburbs and later in California as she shuttled between the homes of her divorced parents. She came to New York in 1982 to live with her father and went to a private school that catered for bright children, some of whom, like herself, had trouble keeping up with traditional curricula. Levin was a popular girl, extroverted and sparkling. She loved attention, Wolfe tells us ominously, ‘and had no qualms about reaching out for it’. Before long, she had established herself in school and was part of a coterie of girls who spent their weekend nights dancing at Studio 54, a fancy discotheque once popular with the jet set, drinking sparingly, sometimes snorting cocaine. It was only natural that she should be attracted to Robert Chambers, Wolfe seems to think: he was the coolest, the boldest, most dangerous person in the whole Studio 54 crowd.

Chambers was ultimately found to have intentionally caused Levin’s death and sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison for his crime. Wasted tells the story of how he came to get such a relatively lenient sentence, but at no point does it delve much deeper than the obvious. Linda Wolfe never gets further than the mighty generalisation that drugs and lack of parental supervision created Robert Chambers and killed Jennifer Levin. Instead of painting a picture in which Chambers was a bad boy gone rotten and Levin a good girl who wanted too much, Wolfe should have studied the curious sexual politics of the case. When Chambers had finished giving his confession to police detectives the day after the murder, he seemed unrepentant and cool. Wolfe doesn’t report it, but according to detectives he kept talking after the videotape had been turned off. ‘That fucking bitch,’ he told his father, ‘why couldn’t she leave me alone?’