Linda Kay Friedman Wolfe ’55, a writer who took her readers behind the scenes of true crimes and into the minds of their perpetrators, including the young man who committed the so-called preppie murder and the judge who stalked his socialite ex-mistress and landed in jail, died on Feb. 22, 2020, in Manhattan. She was 87. Her granddaughter Rachel S. Bernstein said the cause was complications following bowel surgery.
Ms. Wolfe went to high school at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn and attended Antioch College in Ohio before transferring to Brooklyn College. She graduated in 1955 with a major in English literature and received a master’s degree in American literature from New York University in 1959.
Ms. Wolfe studied literature and planned to write short stories. She worked at Partisan Review and Time-Life Books and wrote short fiction as well as writing and editing an anthology cookbook, “The Literary Gourmet” (1962), which consisted of dining scenes and recipes from literature.
All the while, she was clipping out newspaper accounts of true crimes, thinking they would help her plot her fiction.
A turning point of sorts came in 1975, when twin doctors, both gynecologists, were found dead in their trash-filled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It turned out that Ms. Wolfe had been the patient of one of them, years before — only briefly, but that was enough to propel her to investigate the case and turn to a life of writing about crime.
“This will sound callous,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1994, but she felt lucky that she had had “the ‘good fortune’ of knowing somebody involved in the kind of story I had been clipping.”
Both doctors had been barbiturate addicts and had died not of an overdose but of the drug’s typically severe withdrawal syndrome. Ms. Wolfe, by then working at New York magazine (she worked there for 25 years as a contributing editor, writer and restaurant reviewer), wrote a journalistic account of the case, “The Strange Death of the Twin Gynecologists.” Her article inspired the David Cronenberg movie “Dead Ringers” (1988), which starred Jeremy Irons.
She later wrote a novel about the twins, “Private Practices” (1979), told from the vantage point of a pregnant patient. Ira Levin, the author of “Rosemary’s Baby,” called it “frightening.”
But after she had written her factual account of the case, she was “bitten by the bug of actuality,” as she put it to The Los Angeles Times. She had become especially intrigued by the psychological motivation behind startling crimes and the events leading up to them.
“I’m more interested in what went before and what comes after than in the actual crime itself,” she said.
She would go on to write several books and magazine articles that delved behind some of the nation’s most sensational headlines. Her articles included “The Professor and the Prostitute” (1983), about a Tufts University professor who bludgeoned to death the prostitute he loved, and “From a Nice Family” (1981), about a teenager in Dallas who killed his mother and his father, who was the president of Arco Oil and Gas.
One of her best-known books was “Wasted: The Preppie Murder” (1989), so called because the perpetrator, Robert E. Chambers Jr., had bounced around various elite schools and lived on the Upper East Side. He pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the 1986 strangulation death of Jennifer Levin in Central Park after they had had sex behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was released in 2003 after serving 15 years in prison and subsequently went back to prison on drug charges.
Ms. Wolfe’s book explored their family backgrounds and exposed a privileged urban youth subculture awash in alcohol, drugs and sex. The New York Times named it a Notable Book of the Year.
Another of her books ripped from the headlines was “Double Life: The Shattering Affair Between Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and Socialite Joy Silverman” (1994).
The charismatic and ambitious Judge Wachtler, the married chief judge of New York State’s Court of Appeals and a potential candidate for governor, had been despondent over the breakup of his affair with Joy Silverman, a Republican fund-raiser.
He posed as a private investigator and stalked her, sending her vulgar letters and threatening to kidnap her daughter. In 1993 he pleaded guilty to one count of harassment and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Ms. Wolfe wrote that Judge Wachtler, whom she interviewed at length, was guilty of hubris. She accepted his contention that his outlandish behavior was partly the result of his dependence on prescription drugs.
She told The Los Angeles Times that she knew she would write about the Wachtler case “the minute it happened.”
“I felt it had my name on it,” she said. “All my work had led up to it.”
Linda Kay Friedman was born on Nov. 15, 1932, in Brooklyn to Harry and Mina (Kaufman) Friedman. Her father was an accountant and the vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Her mother was a homemaker and a secretary at the society.
She was married in 1956 to Joseph D. Wolfe, a magazine editor. That marriage ended in divorce. In 1971, she married Max Pollack, a psychologist, who died in 2007.
In addition to Rachel Bernstein, her granddaughter, she is survived by another granddaughter, Miriam Bernstein; a daughter, Jessica Bernstein; two stepdaughters, Deborah and Judith Pollack; two step-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.
Her other books included “The Murder of Dr. Chapman” (2004), about a 19th-century killing in Bucks County, Pa., and “Love Me to Death: A Journalist’s Memoir of the Hunt for Her Friend’s Killer” (1998), about a man who killed several women, including a friend of Ms. Wolfe’s.
Her most recent book was a memoir, “My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey” (2013), which detailed her daughter’s stroke at age 38 and her recovery. Before her death, Ms. Wolfe had completed a draft of a novel, “Unforeseen Circumstances,” based on the life of a friend, an American woman who found herself trapped in Nazi Germany.