The Preppie Murder, 25 Years Later

August 26th marked the 25th anniversary of the so-called “Preppie Murder.”

In 1986, Robert Chambers, a former student of Choate Rosemary Hall, left the Upper East Side bar Dorrian’s Red Hand with 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, whom he later strangled in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum.

The story became a tabloid sensation, was eventually made into a television movie, and earned Chambers the nickname The Preppie Killer.

Earlier this week NBC News remembered the crime, writing:

They were fleeting friends, Chambers and Levin, not a couple. Two prep school kids from New York’s affluent Upper East Side, who made their way to Central Park after meeting up at Dorian’s Red Hand, a bar popular with Manhattan’s young and privileged.

During the trial and the investigations that led up to it, Chambers was exposed as a thief who stole from many people, including a teacher at an elite private school that expelled him. It was also revealed that he had a serious drug habit since the age of 14.

After initially denying involvement in Levin’s death, Chambers later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 15 years. Several years after his release he was convicted of selling cocaine and is currently serving a 19-year sentence.

Dorrian’s, still known for its preppy crowd, has remained notoriously associated with the crime ever since. — CC

50 Comments on "The Preppie Murder, 25 Years Later"

  1. Several interesting things about this case: (1) Chambers was not a typical preppie, but was the son of a lower-class immigrant single mother. He attended the many private schools he went to on scholarship. (2) In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman expresses an interest in starting a legal defense fund for Chambers, (3) Alex Kapp, the girl who enraged Chambers by breaking up with him at Dorrian’s that night, is now a television actress.

  2. @AEV – You are right that my comment sounded boorish. It was typed out quickly, and this board doesn’t allow for editing once the “submit” button is pressed. I am all for diverse classes at elite schools–and most of them have increasingly diverse student bodies. I guess what I meant was that some press depicted Chambers as highly privileged, but he wasn’t. The press’s coloring the facts that way was what I found interesting.

    Another interesting thing is that the owner of Dorrian’s actually put up hundreds of thousands of dollars for Chambers’ bail by mortgaging their own home. Why would anyone do that?

  3. Gabe was not being boorish. “Preppie” is not a term of approbation, but a social descriptor ( no matter how much AEV uses the word as an affirmative designation of meritorious distinction that he will magnanimously bestow on the worthy ). So it is entirely accurate to state, as a matter of fact, that Robert Chambers was not a typical member of the social group, particularly of his era, with which he is associated. He was raised by a single, working-class Irish immigrant mother and went to school on scholarship. It is no more boorish to point that out, than to state that Eric Blair (George Orwell) was not your typical Etonian.

  4. Honestly I’m a bit surprised, AEV, though hardly in a bad way. I’d gotten the impression via your lines of reasoning at UP that you were a staunch defender of a strict, old-guard take on prepdom.

  5. AEV —

    (1) My use of the term “preppie” had zero value content. It is neither good nor bad. You, on the other hand, clearly use the term as something positive, complimentary, or flattering. Since I use the term in a value-neutral, sociological way, it is scarcely an insult to say that someone is not prep.

    (2) “Prep” is associated with a social stratum in historical context. While the term is much more class-neutral in 2011, and not even terribly associated with prep schools any more, that was not so in the early 1980s when Robert Chambers went to school. There was more class connotation to the term at that time. Therefore, I’m not using the term in a dated way. I’m using it historically, whereas you anachronistically apply today’s connotation to the past.

    (3) Sure, there were financial aid students in the early 1980s — private schools have always had them — but not nearly as many as there are today. But even today, the percentage of students receiving financial aid at the most famous prep schools, with the exception of Andover and Exeter, is smaller than those at the top universities (Ivy or otherwise). 60% of students at Harvard receive need-based financial aid, but the proportion is around a third at Choate, Miss Porter, etc. And the less famous boarding and day schools are less generous even than that.

    (4) You allude to your New England origins a lot. Perhaps your resistance to the undeniable historical association of prep with a certain class stratum has to do with your background. But no one is saying you’re not prep because you are a middle-class product of small-town public schools. Worry not, you are preppie par excellence !

  6. @AEV – Perhaps we should have known Chambers was a pretender since he wears the verboten faux crest tie?? Just kidding!

    Your points are well-taken.

  7. Just a few observations from what little I could dig up on this case. His mother was an Irish immigrant, a nurse. Not a member of the lowest uneducated classes. The bail from Dorrians’ suggests influence from somewhere. The Cardinal of the church had some interest in the family. Scholarships are common with the wealthiest and most influential people. They have the connections to get free money.

    His clothes and haircut in the picture suggests affluence, not items purchased at the Salvation Army store. No one mentions his father. I doubt Daddy was on public assistance. Last item is where he was eating and drinking. The menu for Dorrians’ does not include prices. I assume this means, if you have to ask, you can’t afford to be there. And finally, how does a 19 year old get served alcohol at a high class watering hole like that, unless the proprietor is not afraid he will lose his liquor license.

    Little Bobby was/is low class garbage, but nobody could call him underprivileged by any stretch of imagination. Seems to me he had more privilege than 90% of the American people.

  8. For me, “prep” is a specific historical and social phenomenon associated with the WASP elite, as well as with those who aspired to emulate them. Once you purge the word of its class and ethnic dimensions, it becomes nothing more than a term of fashion.

    Which is what it has become, today, in 2011. The word “prep” has been reduced more or less to a style — like “Neapolitan”. There are plainer prep stylists like AEV, and there are peacock neo-preps, like that Castleberry guy. But what all of these palaeo-preps and neo-preps (and crypto-preps?) have in common, primarily, is an interest in fashion and material styles.

    For AEV, specifically, “prep” is a term of approbation which he ascribes to people whose tastes meet his standard of traditional American elegance, understatement, appreciation for quality, etc. Anyone can be a prep because no one monopolises elegance, understatement and appreciation for quality.

    Which is fine. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the historical meanings of the word prep, or discuss whether someone like Robert Chambers was typical of the class to which he was assigned by the press.

  9. @Wriggles – Yes I oversold it when I said “lower class;” “working class” or “middle class” would probably be more appropriate. Your remarks about the apparent clout the family had, both with the Church and with the Irish community (i.e. the bar owner) are spot-on. That is precisely what I find so puzzling here. At first you read about this and you think he’s affluent (see the quote Christian uses from a news item) then you look into it, and he seems much less privileged, but then you read more about the story and it doesn’t quite ring true–he appears to be part of some establishment.

  10. Gratifying to see being a sociopathic grifter and petty thief didn’t cramp his style with the ladies.

  11. Tad Allagash | September 1, 2011 at 8:03 am |

    @Wriggles – Dorrian’s is far from expensive; apart from the crowd it would be indistinguishable from the other 200 upper east irish dives. It’s also well known as a spot that serves underage patrons and gets a bit tiresome post age 25 or so.

    AEV: “It does not surprise me that someone who’s blog name is that of Alexander the Great’s big-headed, untamable horse would suggest, unartfully, that my disagreement with him is somehow related to my family’s finances or where I went to school.”

    Hah great riposte. Knowledge of the classics is v prep.

  12. ( I would think a knowledge of the classics would help you with spelling, grammar and punctuation. )

    AEV —

    The idea that there were any “vaguely bigoted” comments of any kind in my remarks in respect of immigrants or of the working class, is a mere hallucination on your part. I’m neither rich nor a prep, and I am an immigrant !

    Your hallucination is also a testament to the fact that you consider “preppie” an empty term of approbation, since you obviously interpreted the mere statement that someone is not a prep for having an immigrant or working-class background, as pejorative. Or it could be that you’re just so hypersensitive in your politics that anything but the most cheerful comments, even merely neutral ones, about workers or immigrants is considered “bigoted”.

    “How the numbers compare between prep schools and colleges/universities” is extremely important. The top universities are pretty democratic (although what that means in practise is that their student bodies have gone from being heavily skewed toward the top 1% of the income distribution in 1900 to to heavily skewed toward the top 20% in 2011). But the private primary and secondary schools still remain more elitist, socially. Your contention is tantamount to saying there is no association between private school attendance and class in the United States. Can you be saying something so ludicrous ?

    As I said earlier, the best known prep schools tend to have a higher proportion of students on financial assistance. But the average for private schools in general is lower than the famous ones — lower probably than Hotchkiss’s 18% or so. I’m going to look up the national average for private schools, and I will get back to you with a precise figure.

    It also matters how the percentages at private schools evolved over time. You say the percentages “haven’t really changed much in the last 30 years”. Do you have any evidence for that claim ? Or did you just make that up on the fly ? I find that difficult to believe, because the proportion of students on financial aid at the universities has gone up substantially since 1980. But I will try to research that datum as well.

  13. AEV considers this comment “vaguely bigoted” :

    “Robert Chambers was not a typical member of the social group, particularly of his era, with which he is associated. He was raised by a single, working-class Irish immigrant mother and went to school on scholarship”.

    What on earth is bigoted about it ???

  14. Patrick Mallon | September 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm |

    In the picture f#$% nuts is wearing a button down shirt with a double breasted jacket!

  15. I remember reading that he was a racist and regularly made antisemitic remarks

  16. @Patrick Mallon – Although I don’t remember what preps were wearing in 1986 (I was but a lad then) I too squint a bit at the picture of Chambers here. He’s wearing a double-breasted blazer–a handsome one, but still. His button-down has pin-stripes. I wonder if this actually IS a wardrobe acquired second-hand, as Wriggles (understandably) doubts.

    @Kip – Apparently he acted out in all sorts of ways, including getting in numerous fights at Dorrian’s, and including one after which he screamed expletives and racial slurs at the police officers who responded to the situation.

    @Tad Allagash – Yes it was my speculation that Dorrian’s was not particularly expensive and that in 1986 it wouldn’t have been particularly hard to get served there as a minor. But it still puzzles me why Chambers could continue to get served there after causing so much trouble there over and over.

    Anyway, I claim to have no expertise or special insight about any of this, just idle musings, really.

  17. AEV —


    You have framed your argument in terms of “qualifying as prep”. In your initial response to Gabe, you stated you do not believe being X, Y and Z “means that one is not ‘preppie’ “. And in your initial response to me, you ascribed to me the belief that “preppie” is some state of being to qualify as. These things indicate you conceive of “prep” as an either/or condition with eligibility requirements. This mentality of yours is obviously some vestige of internet debates about the prep ideal or “what is prep”, pitting purists, traditionalists, reactionaries, modernists, etc. against one another. None of that interests me.

    My point has never been that anyone is, or is not, “by definition” preppie. I did not even define “preppie”. I said — very vaguely, I thought — it is a term of social description associated historically with the WASP elite. That’s pretty vague and I never got more specific.

    Both Gabe and I broached Robert Chambers’s background in terms of typicality. We both actually used that term, “typical”. You know, like “statistically representative”. Is Chambers’s background representative of the social group he was popularly associated with ? As such, it’s irrelevant that a substantial proportion of prep school students is middle-class (though they are actually upper-middle-class for the most part). Having a working-class, first-generation immigrant, single mother is not even statistically representative of the upper middle class today ! Never mind “preppies”. Such a background would have made him an outlier whether in the early 1980s or in 2011.


    You ask, why is it germane to mention Robert Chambers’s atypical social background ? Well, because the press scandalised the murder case in class terms. When he was dubbed the “preppie killer”, the phrase was not intended to convey to the world a sartorial caricature clad in madras sportcoat, repp bow tie, crested cable-knit sweater vest, khaki shorts cinched with whale-buckle belt, and sockless “vintage” penny loafers. Rather it was intended to signal that this violent criminal came from the world of privilege and wealth and that this was something out of the ordinary. So how can it not be germane to mention that there were aspects of Chambers’s background which are not typical of that world ? I did not introduce the class element. The media notoriety was predicated on it. Class is part and parcel of the Robert Chambers scandal.


    You accuse me now of sexism and anti-Fenianism ? You’re like some Fox News caricature of a hyper-PC New England liberal.

    I swear, the severest critic of the policies of the Israeli government is less likely to be denounced as an anti-Semite, than AEV will call someone a bigot for merely mentioning a person’s various identities. I’m rather glad Robert Chambers’s mother wasn’t black or lesbian, because I would have been accused of racism or homophobia just for mentioning her race or sexual orientation.

    Anti-Irish bigotry ? Does that even exist in the United States today outside, possibly, some circles in Greater Boston ? As for “sexist misperceptions about single mother households”, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.


    You claim data from the National Association of Independent Schools corroborates your contention that “similar percentages of students have been receiving financial aid at top prep schools for decades”. Since you mysteriously don’t actually cite those data, I went looking for them myself.

    (a) Just as I argued earlier, the percentage of students on financial aid at private schools in general in the United States is smaller than at the cluster of the most prestigious schools. Even in 2010-11, that percentage is ~23% [ ]. Just a decade earlier, it was 15.5% [ ]. There aren’t any data for the 1980s or 1990s that I can find, but surely the percentages don’t get bigger as you go back in time !

    (b) The claim of diversity is exaggerated even in 2011. There is an amorphous category called “students of colour”, but when you look at the details, the enrolment of blacks and Hispanics is small compared with their share of the US population — smaller still, positively tiny even, when you consider that the black and Hispanic shares of the US school-age population are larger than their share of the total population.


    You say what matters is, not the national average for private schools, but for the top tier New England schools. That depends on what you’re arguing. Yes, the New England prep schools own the origins of “prep”, but I think we can safely say, the “prep” ethos had diffused nationally to the American gentry in general long before today. So I would say, for deciding how class-inclusive and purely merit-based American private schools are today, the national average is the better gauge.


    You say, “it’s quite clear that when the data is scrubbed for things like inflation, strategic increases in class sizes and endowments, etc. similar percentages of students have been receiving financial aid at top prep schools for decades”.

    Please present these data for all to see, including those that go back to the early 1980s. I do not believe for a moment that you went and found data going back all the way to the 1980s.

    What you say doesn’t even make sense, logically. An increase in class size is a factor that reduces, not increases, the percentage of students on financial aid, unless financial aid students increase in the same proportion as class size. And why do you need to “scrub” for inflation ? Tuition inflation would be a factor in adjusting the percentage of individual tuition covered by financial aid, not in adjusting the percentage of students on financial aid. As for endowments, yes, higher endowments would enable more generosity in financial aid. But unless you performed a regression analysis of the effect of endowment on financial generosity — and we know you didn’t — it is pure speculation to suppose that adjusting for higher endowments permits your conclusion that “similar percentages of students have been receiving financial aid at top prep schools for decades”. For all you know, endowments and financial aid increased at very different rates.


    You say class is not defined by financial wealth alone. I agree with that. But most Americans would almost certainly disagree. In the democratic culture of the United States, money is reckoned the primary determinant of class, and those who think otherwise are usually the prep sentimentalist-romantics and young old fogeys such as yourself. Most other cultures ascribe non-financial characteristics to class, but these are usually considered aristocratic or elitist.


    I can’t find any grammatical mistakes in anything I’ve written. I do take conscious liberty with syntax in one instance (beginning a sentence with a relative pronoun). I may have missed something, but certainly there are no feckless blots in my writing here as egregious as your inability to distinguish between “whose” and “who’s”. You spend an inordinate amount of time niggling over brands of loafer and the like, but one would think the preservation of the distinction between two completely different words is rather more important.

  18. Longest comment in the history of style blogs. Bravo.

  19. ( It would have been longer if I had added the following comments about Taft….)

    AEV has held up the Taft School as the exemplar of a top-tier New England prep school with a democratic and meritocratic admissions policy, citing its high percentage of students on financial aid.

    But an examination of the details puts a crimp on that view. The Taft School actually posts data on not only how many of its students are receiving financial aid, but also on the number of recipients per size of grant and per family income. ( ) It’s quite revealing.

    201 out of 588 Taft students, or about 34%, received financial aid in 2010-11.

    But Taft’s own data show that nearly a quarter of its financial aid recipients (47 students) had family incomes of above $160,000 — which would put them approximately at the top 5% of the US income distribution by household income ( ). In fact, students whose family incomes would qualify them for the top 15-16% of (above $100K) were the majority (~54%) of financial aid students. Students from the top quintile — contemporary America’s crème de la crème — were therefore <60% of the scholarship kids !!!

    Those with less than $60,000 income (which is to say, below the bottom 2/3 of the US distribution) numbered 54, or ~27% of all aid recipients and ~10% of the Taft student body. But I assume the majority of those with incomes less than 60K at Taft aren’t from families with $20,000 or even $40,000 income. As for the truly middle middle class ($60-100K income, numbering 38 students), they are ~6.5% of the student body.

    Therefore, the overwhelming majority of Taft students are upper-middle-class and upper-class, at least in purely financial terms.

    Which is what I said earlier : the top prep schools have evolved from being skewed toward the top 1% in 1900 to being skewed toward the top 20% in 2011. That is, they’ve changed from being a province of the scions of plutocrats to being a province of the haute bourgeoisie AND the plutocracy.

    And if the most prestigious prep schools which make the loudest noises about diversity and openness are still financially quite elitist, then imagine how much more elitist the lesser private schools are — given that they have even fewer students on financial aid to begin with. And there’s no telling how many of those middle-middle-income students are children of employees at liberal arts colleges or in public broadcasting or at non-profits and other camp-followers of the *socially* upper-middle-class institutions.

  20. Our posts crossed, it would seem, so AEV missed my post specifically on the Taft School and how its financial aid data undermine his contention.

    But since AEV is so confused, I provide a summary :


    I never defined “prep”. I never excluded or disqualified anyone as prep on the basis of anything. Only AEV has wished to frame the argument in terms of defining “prep” or qualifying as “prep”.


    Gabe mentioned, and I concurred, that Robert Chambers was not typical, or statistically representative, of the upper stratum to which he was assigned ***by the press***

    [ It is not “baseless” to throw around phrases “typical of his social group”, because that assertion can be fleshed out statistically. ]


    “Prep” is a term associated, traditionally, with the WASP elite. The fact that those associations are NOW weak, and the term NOW pretty much belongs to fashion, is irrelevant. The topic at hand was about a man in the early 1980s, and whether those associations were stronger three decades ago. I have submitted that they were.


    Nonetheless, private school students nation-wide in the United States in 2011, excluding parochial schools, are overwhelmingly upper-middle-class and upper-class. If Taft is anything to go by, then that generalisation is true even of the most elite prep schools which AEV would have us believe are a classless paradise.


    AEV has argued that the percentage of students on financial aid at the top prep schools was about the same three decades ago as it is now. He has provided no evidence to back that up — unless you count his appeals to his own creepily Solomonic authority.

  21. AEV —

    Your Apache, Javanese Shiite, Zoroastrian and Rastafarian prep friends are irrelevant. Nothing I ever said has anything to do with whether they qualify as “prep” TODAY. But if a Native American or an Asian Indian student of a prestigious prep school had murdered Jennifer Levin in the 1980s, the press reaction would almost certainly have lacked that singular class dimension that it did actually have. Why? Because today’s associations are not yesterday’s !

    You reference JFK. It’s irrelevant what JFK is considered NOW. It’s irrelevant that Irish Catholics can NOW be de facto WASPs. The only thing relevant to this discussion would be, that in 1960, JFK was definitely considered outside the establishment and his Irish Catholic background was the cause of his exclusion.

    You keep referencing your personal details. While those may serve as your CV in discussing Jack Rogers sandals, perhaps a serious social topic deserves more verifiable evidence. While I’m sure you value your personal experience, no one who doesn’t know you personally can tell how accurate or objective it is.

    ( Re grammar — you confuse grammar with the conventions of American style manuals, which are not even accepted by the majority of English-speakers. The only genuine error you’ve found is “still remain” and the accidental repetition of “to”. There is nothing wrong with the rest. [ I never wrote “between private schools”.] )

  22. Epic debate…

  23. Just a line about Chambers’ clothing. I was 34 in 1986, and I can testify that his attire was very fashionable. I personally bought SB and DB Navy blazers in 1984 and 1986 respectively. I also wore red and blue pinstripe shirts with button down and regular point collars. My ties of choice were the dark maroon foulards and repp stripes. I can say that Chambers was the well dressed boy about town.

    A sharp combination was adding a yellow pattern silk tie with the blazers or a chalkstripe navy suit. I wore that yellow tie until it disintegrated. I bought a replacement in the 1990’s, but hardly ever wore it. I think I still have it.

    The thrift stores of 1986 would be full of hideous clothes from the 1970’s. Ugly, loud clothes of that era made Madras jackets look like bankers’ attire. A hint: Find a copy of the original Preppy Handbook. It spells out the 1980’s. Cheers!

  24. I appreciate Bucephalus’s unwavering defense of my initial post, and I am perplexed by AEV’s unwavering criticism of it. I thought I gave a sufficient and timely mea culpa.

    Perhaps here is where some confusion is: AEV thinks that I think that Chambers “can’t be called prep” or “is not ‘preppie'”(those are AEV’s own descriptions of my position). That’s not quite right. In fact I *did* call Chambers a prep. I called him a prep of an atypical kind. What I meant that was that Chambers was not what we stereotypically think of prep school students as. Specifically, because he was not wealthy. If AEV or anyone else has a problem with my pigeon-holing prep school students as being usually wealthy, that’s great! I pray for a day when 70% St. Paul’s and Andover students come from households with combined incomes of less than $60k. But we are not there yet.

    The press, as far as I can tell, depicted Chambers as a rich kid run amok. Like a Patrick Bateman. That is the only reason I thought it interesting to point out that he was simply a regular kid run amok. Simply someone with psychological problems. Not a prince who tended to abuse his subjects.

    Thank you for your thorough discussion of this tangent; perhaps now we can get to work arguing over something important–like whether wearing a double-breasted blazer with a button-down is as heinous of a crime as Chambers’ other offenses.

  25. @Wriggles – You beat me to the punch! Thanks for your insight on the outfit Chambers wears in the photo above. Yes, I discovered Birnbach’s OPHB as a college student while I was working shelving books at The University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library. Hilariously, it was shelved by the actual indexes and source books on boarding schools. I both transported me back to my Reagan 80’s childhood back East, and changed the way I envisioned my future.

  26. First Dorrian’s is a local bar with a bar menu. Not dive pub…not even a nice restaurant. It has been on Second Avenue for years!!!!! Second, Robert Chambers’ parents were divorced. They are not working class. The mom was an R.N. — a professional. Many middle class parents in Manhattan work very hard to send their children to private schools. They spend lots of money and often qualify for some financial aid. Kids hang out with their classmates. So if you attend pvt. school, then many of your friends are children of privilege. The mistake that the family made was in covering up for and excusing Robert Chamber’s bad behavior. Booted from more than one school. He is a disturbed individual and took out his rage on poor Jennifer.

  27. @D. Kariss

    There are “middle class parents” in Manhattan?

    “middle class” in Manhattan means “rich” everywhere else.

  28. AEV —

    You say, terms like “middle class” are outdated and also that a household income of $60K should not be considered middle class.  But I can make exactly the same argument I did about Taft without resorting to phrases like “middle class” and “upper middle class” or without assuming what income entails what class.

    The issues are actually quite simple, brute and stark.

    There are approximately 115 million families (or “households”) in the United States, by Census Bureau definition.

    Around 85% of Taft students come from families earning more money than 80% of American families — or 92 million households.

    Around 75% of Taft students come from families earning more than 94% of American families — or 108 million households.

    The data don’t allow me to get into finer detail, but it would be statistically plausible if 65% of Taft students had families in the 99th percentile — earning more income than the bottom 99% or 113-114 million households.

    That’s pretty damned elite in a purely financial sense. If Taft were a country its income distribution would be more unequal than Brazil’s.

    Moreover, Taft’s income data do not tell us about wealth (net assets). The distribution of wealth in the USA is even MORE skewed than the distribution of income. A family making $40,000 has typically little net wealth to speak of. They consume most or all of their income and save little ; they are more likely to rent ; and they typically don’t have securities portfolios. However, a family with a $150,000 income saves more — that’s a statistical fact — and therefore will have assets, such as bank savings, equity in their house, a financial portfolio, an inheritance, etc. So, yes, a $45,000 tuition would be daunting for someone making $150,000 per annum, but such a family may have assets not reflected in income and also a far greater ability to borrow than a $30,000 family.


    Re your personal references and experiences —

    You tell me to inquire with actual preps about matters of prep.  You misunderstand my criticism of your personal references.  What’s objectionable is not your particular experience per se, as much as the very idea that one should privilege the ***personal*** experience of anyone about a topic in social history that should be documented in more objective ways.

    No one knows how disinterested that personal testimony is.  We’ve already seen in the case of financial aid at prep schools you go little beyond the surface appearances and don’t look at things analytically. Earlier you talked about the many apparatchiks at prep school admissions offices with whom you’re acquainted and how proudly they boast of their inclusive policies.  Well, maybe you’ve bought into their snakeoil, because, being such chums with these people, you can’t look at things dispassionately. You may think your preppy friends are regular guys, but perhaps you are cocooned in your hip DC hangouts and apparently don’t realise with what glitterati you consort ! Because that’s what they are — at least compared with the overwhelming majority of Americans. Is it any wonder Republicans are able to demonise East Coast liberals ?

    Back to Robert Chambers himself. Nothing I’ve asserted requires a privileged and personal knowledge of any academic institution whatever in any country whatever.  I didn’t say anything like “preps like to spill a little bit of clam chowder on their loafers as a fashion statement “.  Rather, my argument is a factual one ultimately reducible to, and definitively verifiable with, a single datum : the percentage of financial aid recipients at prep schools in the early 1980s.  Everything else that’s been said by either of us is nothing but verbal flourish.

    And since US private schools  EVEN TODAY — whether in general or at the most prestigious ones — remain bastions of the financial elite, it stands to reason they were even more so even as recently as the 1980s. So that alone would have made Robert Chambers atypical in his time.

  29. AEV keeps subtly misrepresenting my views.  Nowhere did I say that the prep schools TODAY remain a bastion of the WASP elite.  I said they remain, in 2011, a bastion of the ***financial*** elite. 

    Nowhere have I disputed the very real evolution of the ethnoreligious composition of the American elite.  The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, the man who popularised the term WASP, predicted that non-WASPs would be assimilated into “WASPness”, whether through intermarriage or cultural change.  I agree with it, and you can see it in historical action. The British-Dutch-Huguenot-descended Protestant elites of the American Northeast first admitted German-Americans into their ranks after the First World War ; and after the Kennedy presidency Irish Catholics would also be “WASPised”. By the 1990s the American elite unquestionably included Jewish-Americans. Asian-Americans have financially and academically arrived, but perhaps their “social” arrival is still in its earliest stages.

    You can see this transformation reflected on Wall Street : in 1980 there was a division between the prestigious “white shoe” firms like Morgan and Brown Bros Harriman, and the “scruffier” firms like Solomon and (at the time) even Goldman. But a combination of financial deregulation and social change dethroned the traditional WASP partnerships, most firms became large publically traded conglomerates, and Wall Street is now under the control of MBA technocrats composed of diverse whites with some Asians thrown in.

    So, yes, the ethnoreligious character of the American elite has evolved.  But 30 years ago — before the baby boomers filled positions of power and influence, before the economic changes induced by the conservative revolution, and well before the peak of the immigration boom started by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — the American elite was still mostly WASP.  Not as much as it was in 1960, but certainly more so than in 2011.


    You say you were insulted by my reference to Chambers’s Irish mother because your own grandmother was Irish.  But aren’t you overfixated on the Irish part ? I did also say working class immigrant. Irish-Americans by the 1980s had already been assimilated / intermarried enough to be no longer a terribly distinct group (except in certain pockets like Boston or NY). There was little class stigma to Irish-Americanness (and there never had been for Protestant Irish).  But Ireland itself in the 1970s/80s was still a quasi-third world country with net emigration, and both Massachussetts and New York City had many illegal immigrants from Ireland (many of whom were later amnestied with the help of Ted Kennedy).  In NYC there was still a certain amount of “ethnic white” class stigma to being an Irish immigrant, because of the illegal population, because they were disproportionately working class, and because they tended to cluster in places like the Bronx.

  30. AEV says I’m delusional for claiming I have never defined “prep”.

    I repeat : I haven’t defined “prep” and haven’t disqualified anyone from being anything.

    Listen to Gabe.  Neither of us said Chambers does not “qualify” as prep.

    I don’t know how many different ways I can say it.  If I say it in complex ways, AEV says I’m twisted in knots.  If I say it in a simple way, he replies I’m changing my tune.

    In my very first post on the subject, I discussed how typical Chambers’s background was.  I also said prep is a social descriptor, which it is, but its social connotations evolve, which it has done.

    One more huzzah for New England schooling : AEV is unable to distinguish between a categorical either/or statement and a degree-of-typicality statement.

    To say that Robert Chambers was not typical of X is not to say he doesn’t “qualify” as X.  It’s not hair-splitting.  One is either male or female, but there are degrees of belonging to a social group. 


    As for the media depiction of Robert Chambers….

    AEV says he was called the “preppie killer” because he dressed preppie and went to prep schools. Yes, but the whole point was that he was perceived as an upper-class cad or twit who did something bad. Is AEV actually denying the class angle here ? Gabe put it much more concisely and eloquently than I : Chambers was portrayed as a “rich kid run amok”. That is what the press made of the scandal. Must I research newspaper archives to prove this point for AEV even though it is obvious for anyone without self-serving reasons to deny it ?

  31. AEV says I have made “sophomoric and hyper-academic references to ‘diversity'”. Actually, my intention was not to caricature his earnest “multicultural prep” rhetoric when he talked about the ethnic diversity of his acquaintances. Had I wished to do that, I might have put the following words into his mouth : “But I went to school with this Argentinian polo player ! He’s preppy AND Spanish !”

    [ “Spanish” is a term sometimes used by the unofficial Census category called “Moron-Americans”, instead of “Hispanic” or “Latino”. ]

    I wondered if I could elicit even more accusations of bigotry from AEV merely by referring to some randomly and absurdly chosen names of ethnic and religious groups. AEV does not disappoint ! But I was a little surprised how ignorant and provincial his reaction was.

    I did not use “Apache” as a catchall term for Native Americans.  Doesn’t AEV know Apache is a distinct ethnic group and a distinct language ?  I also did not refer to African-Americans as Rastafarian.  I did not refer to African-Americans at all in the post ( ) !  Rastafarian is not even a racial category.

    I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the word “Javanese” would strike a mind mostly concerned with clothing, shoes, watches and bags, primarily as an antique term. But the Javanese people, nearly a 100 million strong, are the majority ethnic group in Indonesia. Is Zoroastrian even an antique term?  Zoroastrianism, Mr Classicist, is the original religion of Persia (you know, like Thucydides and the Pelopponesian Wars) and its adherents still hold out in modern Iran and around the world.

    Hell, Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian !

  32. ( I misspelt Peloponnesian. My spell check must be on the fritz ! )

  33. Total word count so far: 9,800.

    You guys are getting close to book length.

  34. @Bucephalus – you are getting your ancient wars confused, Persia had nothing to do with the Peloponnesian War, which happened after the famous Greco-Persian battles of Marathon, Platea, Salamis, et al.

    Random fact: Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar.

  35. Tad Allagash — Actually, no, Persia was very much involved in the Peloponnesian War — on Sparta’s side. But you are right in spirit — the war between Greek city-states and Persian was much earlier.

  36. @Bucephalus – perhaps they were involved at the margins, but Herodotus would have been a more relevant reference to Persia than Thucydides.

  37. Of course you are right.

  38. One more thing about the Taft School, financial aid and meritocratic admissions at prep schools.

    [ Bracing for accusations of racism.]

    Earlier, I said that African-Americans and Hispanics were underrepresented at private schools overall, relative to their share of the US population. But since these two groups have below-average academic performance, their underrepresentation at private schools probably has little to do with financial aid availability.

    But Asian-Americans outperform all other Census groups in the US, and this is even more the case if you filter out those of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Filipino descent, who actually underperform.

    At the elite universities, the Asian-American share of the student body is ~18-20%, which is several times higher than their share in the national population. Still, the Ivies, MIT, Stanford and the like are routinely accused of placing implicit quotas on Asian-American admits by means of non-academic and subjective criteria for admission. We know that since the UC system implemented race-blind admissions, the percentage of Asian-American students jumped to 40% at Berkeley and UCLA. That could be in part because there are many more Asians in California than elsewhere, but I’m reasonably certain most Asian-Americans aren’t going to turn down Harvard just because it’s on the other side of the country, and of course Stanford would be just as local as Berkeley. So it’s very possible that even the 18-20% share for Asians at the top universities is low, relative to academic merit.

    What is the percentage of Asian students at the Taft school ? About 10%. It’s possible Asian families may be averse, for cultural reasons, to sending young children off to boarding school, far away in the Connecticut hinterland. But what about private day schools ? According to , Asians represent 5% of private day school students. If you look up the Asian representation at famous New York day schools such as Horace Mann and Dalton, you would find the percentage is about 7-11%. Why so low? There’s no shortage of Asian-Americans in the New York area.

    Could it be that American private schools even in 2011 are not as democratic and meritocratic as AEV supposes ?

  39. Best swagged out comment section debate, for a style blog.

  40. @AEV and Becephalus – Gentlemen, let’s put this to rest. I propose that we three, rather than arguing, devote this energy to a shared effort to donate some smallish donations to schools, earmarking our donations to need-based financial aid. It appears that all three of us think that it is a good thing for middle-class students to be able to avail themselves of a solid boarding school education. We could coordinate with each other and match each-other’s donations. We could give to Taft, or to St. Paul’s, or wherever. I like to give to Pomfret when I have a few extra dollars, because I love Stillman’s Metropolitan. What do you guys think? Want to take this Internet scrum to a positive place and do something that matters?

  41. If you guys say yes, I’ll post my email.

  42. *cricket sounds*

  43. Why encourage *more* middle-class flight from public schools ? I think *public* schooling should be strengthened.

    Besides, only 1% of American students go to independent private schools. If even half of all the private school places went to low- and middle-income admits, or even if private school places were doubled just to accomodate these groups, the end result would still be a trivial aggregate impact on the education of American students. All it would do is allow private schools and their camp followers to pat themselves on the back for being virtuous and inclusive.

  44. Christian, I applaud the fact that you do not censor comments here, but this kind of exchange is getting tiresome and it takes away significantly from the entertainment value of your website.

  45. Thanks for the input, Sartre. Recently I’ve declined to approve a few comments that were nothing more than just tedious baiting.

    This thread was epic, though, with a great deal of thought put into the comments (regardless of what any of us thinks of them), hardly just annoying name-calling, so I wonder why you felt compelled to leave this remark.

  46. Wow. I really can’t win, huh?

  47. ^ That’s a fair question, Christian. It’s a visceral reaction, really: I read the post, look at the number of comments, see there’s more than perhaps 30 or so, and immediately know that a (predictable) handful of characters will have hijacked the post to trot out their (predictable) social, political, etc. hobbyhorses. I know that they will have very quickly dug into their positions and be defending them to the end. You may be right about the quality of this particular thread, I don’t think I made it past the first dozen comments.

  48. I’m curious, Do any of you know either of these people? Have you met or did you know know Jennifer Levin or Robert Chambers?

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