Her voice is strained, she's hitting sour notes and botching lyrics, but Susan Levy is determined to sing this song. "All I need is one of your smiles -- sunshine of your eyes," she croons, accompanied by an indulgent jazz instructor and pianist at Modesto Junior College. "Give me lovin' -- baby, I feel high!"
Popular nearly 40 years ago, the song just bubbled up like an intoxicating memory from her youth: "Scotch and Soda" by the Kingston Trio. It took her mind off her missing daughter, if only for a few moments. And that is why we find the mother of Chandra Levy standing at the front of a vocal-jazz classroom this afternoon, wearing an auburn wig and a yellow ribbon, singing, "Oh me, oh my, do I feel high."
The other students blink in bewilderment, then break out in applause. Levy, 54, laughs and apologizes for her ragged performance: "That was a hard song. I don't sing . . . not jazz." (Actually she does sing in choir and community theater.)
She felt naked, she embarrassed herself, but so what? She showed up on a whim to enroll in the class because that's just how she is -- spontaneous. Sue Levy says she must somehow maintain a "normal life."
You have to understand that normal existence for Levy, even before her daughter disappeared in Washington on May 1, often veered into odd circumstances. She is, by her own definition, "a little nutsy." She is a capable painter, photographer and sculptor who has followed her muse to exotic locales far beyond Modesto, a sun-baked backwater 90 miles southeast of San Francisco. Once she dropped everything to go to India for a month to witness life among the lower castes.
Her greatest talent is playing herself. Now she's been cast in an ongoing piece of performance art, the modern media drama, which accentuates all of her quirks for the world to see.
She is the Mother of the Missing Intern, the worn-looking woman who first came to Washington clutching a fuzzy yellow duck, wearing a floppy purple hat, pleading for her daughter's safe return. For 47 straight days, network pool cameras and producers have been camped in front of the family's ranch home in Golden Estate Acres, next to Sue's horse trailer. They videotape her getting the mail and record her clenched-jaw quotes, delivered in strange cadences. Sometimes she sounds like Edith Bunker -- her voice shrilly unmodulated, her laugh slightly hysterical. For recent TV appearances she has been more polished, donning pearls and solid-color pantsuits, her hair done up as befits the image of a successful doctor's wife.
Over the summer millions have seen her evolve. Into . . . what?
A projection, a symbol, a stereotype. Just as people have their opinions and theories about Chandra, they also have their feelings about her mother, and, by extension, her father. We may empathize with Sue and her oncologist husband, Bob -- their distress and pain are palpable -- but still can't avoid making judgments and raising questions.
Maybe they were too progressive as parents. Too New Age? If Chandra was guilty of poor judgment in her choice of lovers, do Mom and Dad somehow share the blame? Or was her love life none of their business? After all, she was 24 years old and, in Bob's words, "so damn independent. Always had to do it just her way. Her own way."
In some respects Chandra was like her mother: fearless, strong-willed. But, Sue says, her daughter was much more cautious. She was methodical, like her scientist father. She planned things. Chandra was not one to take risks.
So what happened? Where is she? Like the rest of us, the Levys have no answers. FINAL copy to come to acknowledge Condit interview and signal Levy response, IE: They say that Rep. Gary Condit's interview didn't provide those answers either -- the ones they believe in their hearts that he has... They can only wait to find out.
Their sprawling four-bedroom house is decorated like an ethnic bazaar, full of Oriental screens and carpets, tapestries and weavings. Middle Eastern brass urns and American Indian feather-pieces are displayed on stone fireplaces. There's Western kitsch, too: a bar stool carved like a horse's rear end.
It's mid-morning, a Saturday in June, and the house is dark, tightly shuttered against the lens of the TV cameramen who lounge on the sidewalk in the shade of two large ash trees. Sue Levy putters around in her nightgown, trying to clean up. Her maid was in a car accident and has quit.
Bob Levy, 55, sits panda-like on the sofa in the sunken living room. Periodically he buries his head in the soft cushions and sobs. When friends visit, he rises to hug them and won't let go. Some of the family's friends can no longer endure his phone calls; he starts a conversation about Chandra and dissolves into painful wails.
Weekdays he can distract himself with work. Today, in T-shirt and shorts, the doctor attends to chores and runs errands, but soon he's back in the rec room, with its billiard table and wide-screen TV, watching vacation videos. Of Chandra. Over and over again.
The moaning begins. Susan Levy plugs her ears. She can't endure his keening. It can go on for hours.
"Damn, damn fate," the father sobs.
This is how they spend their weekends.
All children take on pieces of their parents' personalities, rejecting some, integrating others. Chandra's mother studied mysticism and worked for years on an autobiography she titled "Life Is Illusion, or Is It?" She copied poems about God into her paintings.
Her daughter became a strict vegetarian, loved to exercise like her mom, but didn't go for yoga or metaphysics. They got along well, but frankly, Sue Levy says, "Chandra always thought I'm a little flaky."
Chandra inquired about Conservative Judaism. Her writing was more grounded. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and once hoped to cover baseball as a sportswriter. Then she took up a master's in public administration. She interned in the California governor's office and at the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington. She put in an application at the FBI.
Chandra's sense of focus seemed to come from her father. With him she studied the stars through a telescope and examined cancer cells under a microscope.
Robert Levy was a protective father. He urged Chandra to carry pepper spray on her key chain. She did. She came to him when she needed birth control. He prescribed it.
A family vacation snapshot: Montego Bay, Jamaica, 10 years ago. Mom's proposing another one of her wild adventures. She wants to see how the real people live on this island.
C'mon, it'll be fun. The beach resort is too artificial, Sue tells Bob, Chandra and little brother Adam. Ignoring warnings from resort management, Mom hires an unregistered taxi and drags the family into the mountains to visit a Rastafarian poet, "Mr. B," whom she met earlier in a tourist marketplace.
It's a Saturday night and the dreadlocks are partying, dancing, playing reggae, getting stoned. To them, smoking marijuana is a God-given sacrament.
Chandra, who even in junior high fixed her mind on being a cop, wants nothing to do with it. It's just too dangerous -- like the time her parents tried to get her to take hang-gliding lessons with them. Or the time they camped in Yosemite. Fearing bears, she slept in the car.
She doesn't like roughing it. She likes creature comforts. She likes the air conditioning set just so.
No, she won't dance around with strangers in the hills of Jamaica in the middle of the night. Chandra prefers to stay in the taxi, where she feels safe.
Maybe she found it thrilling. An affair demands secrecy, deception, lies and sacrifices in trade for passion. Why was Chandra drawn to Rep. Gary Condit, a married, much older politician? Her parents say they're mystified. "He's a smooth talker," Bob offers, "and obviously seduced a lot of other -- you know, it's not secret."
Love explains some of it: There's no doubt that Chandra, just starting her career in government, was smitten with Condit, three decades her senior, who had long represented her parents' district in Congress. She found men her own age too immature, her parents say. In her teens she dated a Modesto police officer, Mark Steele, then in his late twenties. (But not married.)
The Levys knew for months that their daughter was dating a politician. But Chandra never named him. She told them the congressman was divorced and in his "late forties," Bob says.
"First she said it was a Southern Democrat," Sue recalls. They pressed for details. "She kept telling me she had to keep it secret, that in five years she could make it public, that I would understand." (Chandra told confidants about a five-year plan that involved marrying Condit and starting a family with him.)
Their daughter, usually a fan of classic rock, made a tape of Frank Sinatra's romantic numbers. " 'Fly Me to the Moon' -- I wondered why she was listening to that all of a sudden," Sue remembers. "She said he listened to it."
In late April, about a week before Chandra disappeared, her mother called her and asked if the congressman she was dating was Gary Condit.
"How did you know?" Chandra replied, according to Sue.
Mother's intuition, she said.
"She told me that she couldn't say his name," Sue says, "that I would eventually understand."
Another snapshot, this one from early July. Some friends of the Levys have gathered to give them support and a platter of food. Sue is wearing an oversize T-shirt that bears the famous glamour photo of her daughter and the word "MISSING."
Bob, who's been fairly composed till now, suddenly starts kissing his wife -- on her chest. The friends giggle and gasp. But Sue turns around, rolling her eyes. "It's not that. That's not what he's doing," she says, pointing to the picture. It falls directly over her breasts.
"He's just kissing Chandra," she says, "not me."
"Goddammit, how the hell did she think she was going to get away with all this and be okay?" Sue rages one day in July. "She could be such a pain in the ass," Bob says at another unguarded moment, referring to his daughter's stubbornness.
Throughout the summer, the Levys vent their anger. At themselves. At Chandra and her secrecy. At the best target they have, the man whose name they speak with contempt and disgust. Gary Condit. It doesn't matter that the police have never called him a suspect. They accuse Condit of being a predator. They allege that he has obstructed the investigation into their daughter's disappearance.
MAY SUB FOR CONDIT INTERVIEW AND REACTION: Some may wonder why they didn't come forward with all they knew earlier, why they didn't confront the man who was most intimately involved with Chandra before she vanished. They say the police and FBI asked them not to. They say they feared a lawsuit if they publicly discussed Condit's relationship with their daughter. When they had a chance to ask him themselves, Condit flatly denied having an affair, saying their relationship was professional.
For months, Bob Levy was unable to discuss Chandra without weeping uncontrollably. He took tranquilizers, but wouldn't wear a microphone on talk shows, fearing he would break down. He equated his emotional state to torture, a long-term Hell, an unending slow-motion car crash.
By mid-August, he's more stable. He can view the case in more dispassionate metaphorical terms. It's like cancer, the doctor says. You have to try treating it however you can. "But it's not gotten better," he sighs. "Not responding."
On his lunch break, he visits the mini-mall offices of the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, created by relatives of three sightseers killed in Yosemite National Park in 1999. Susan Levy volunteers here, helping to track cases of missing persons nationwide. Wall charts and maps pinpoint where they've been lost or found -- dead or alive.
"And there's my daughter there," Sue says, pointing to an array of "missing" mug shots on a wall.
"It is scary. It's like a coin standing on its edge. You don't know which way it's going to go. It could go either way."
Early on, a private investigator working for the Levys told them to expect the worst. He said he wasn't looking for a live body.
But for the Levys, keeping the faith -- even if it's a blind, unreasonable faith -- gives them purpose. They say their marriage has grown stronger.
Sue: "It's brought us even more closer. . . . We've had to really . . ."
"Prop each other up," Bob says, immediately finishing her sentence.
Later, technicians from CBS's "Early Show" lay cables through their living room. It's now Day 107 in the missing-intern case. "We at least have to do what we can to keep attention on it," Bob says. He inhales and exhales deeply.
He speaks in fragments: "To see if someone comes forward. Knows something. And keep the pressure on. To try to get answers."
They've stepped up their criticism of Condit in a series of recent TV appearances, carefully orchestrated by a team of Washington public relations experts. The Levys don't mind the media stakeout on their lawn. It's actually reassuring. They don't want the story to die.
"Any parent would do it if they could," Bob says. "We have to do it. Because what else can we do?"
Otherwise, the waiting becomes intolerable, a crucible of mourning and self-recrimination, of trying to rewind the past, pause it, and somehow change one detail or decision to prevent a disastrous result.
If only Chandra had studied to be a doctor . . . If only she'd never gone to Washington . . . If only we'd called on April 30 . . . If only we'd never left Ohio . . .
Susan Barbara Katz met Robert Lee Levy at Ohio State during the late '60s, the height of the counterculture movement. He wasn't a hippie -- quite the opposite. The young scientist she fell in love with was a graduate of ROTC; he'd done his basic training in 1967, while antiwar protesters were torching campuses. Bob, a microbiologist working on a master's degree, would later become an Army first lieutenant, deployed to Korea in 1970-72.
"We did not go to Woodstock," Sue feels compelled to point out. "I did not have a guru."
She was an art education major who considered joining the Peace Corps or working on an Indian reservation. Both had tragic family histories that compelled them to fully embrace life, in very different ways.
Bob's parents barely escaped the Holocaust, fleeing from Germany in 1939 on French visas. Many of his relatives were not so lucky. He learned that fate could be random and cruel. You just had to keep hoping that things could be better.
While working at a military hospital in Seoul, Bob decided to become a doctor. He and Sue married, in a traditional Jewish ceremony, on the weekend she graduated in 1972. After earning his medical degree, he spent two years on a research fellowship in Richmond, trying futilely to find a cure for cancer.
In a branch of medicine where victories over death are hard-fought and rare, Levy didn't just do battle with drugs and radiation. He deployed aggressive optimism and a holistic approach that would later earn him a nickname among colleagues: "Last Chance Bob."
Sue struggled with a learning disability to become an art teacher. She says she suffers from auditory dyslexia: Sometimes words and conversations get mixed up in her mind. This appears to contribute to her disjointed manner of speaking. She flits from topic to topic, her ideas connecting at right angles instead of in straight lines.
Her mind is open to signs, she heeds the vibrations of intuition, she explores various spiritual paths: Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu. She describes God as a positive loving force. She strives to make every moment count; she exists full-on.
"I do life," she says.
Her own father was not that way. A failed businessman, he chose to kill himself in despair. Sue discovered his body. She was 16 years old.
As a mother, Sue wanted to connect her children to the fullness of the world; she brought them to Peru, Africa, the Galapagos Islands. She also wanted to connect them to a higher plane. She did that on the day her first child was born in April 1977.
Bob and Sue picked for their daughter's name a Sanskrit word that seemed to suit her luminous presence. It is the name of a Hindu demigod; it translates as "moon." Chandra.
Their curly-haired little girl was 4 when they moved to the middle of Northern California. Modesto was literally one of the names they put into a hat after Bob completed his residency. They could have ended up in the Zanesville, Ohio, or Council Bluffs, Iowa, where hospitals also were interested in hiring him.
Modesto didn't offer much in the way of culture or excitement -- it's a dusty, tortilla-flat farming community with grim pockets of poverty. This despite its overreaching promotional slogan -- "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" -- emblazoned in lights on an ornamental arch downtown.
At least money went further here. The family was able to afford a big new home with a pool in the back yard -- and a one-acre horse corral. Sue had loved riding since childhood; now she had her own stable of horses. (Their names include Joker . . . and Ebola.)
Emotionally invested in his work, Bob often toiled late. "I'd run into him, not infrequently, taking care of patients at 9 or 10 at night," recalls Mitchell Major, an anesthesiologist who handled cases with Levy. "Physicians, frankly, are trained not to feel. You lose the human perspective. Bob did not."
Bob was known to come home and cry after losing a patient.
Major, who once lived down the block, believes Sue's New Age thinking -- the linkage of mind, body and spirit -- rubbed off on Bob: "This is going to sound very California, but Bob and Sue are very connected to an awareness that is not taught in medical schools, that is not strictly scientific, that touches the human condition."
Another close friend, Jane Lund, says: "He listens. He is someone people go to when no one else works." Of Sue Levy, she says, "What I love about Sue is her honesty, her openness, her ability to see people's spirits."
She may seem scattered, but friends say Sue has a genius for organizing events and bringing diverse people together. She set up a children's museum. She headed the neighborhood watch. She collected food and blankets for the Red Cross during floods and earthquakes.
"I am not a typical doctor's wife," Sue likes to say. But she certainly can play the role. "She'll go and have a makeover and it's like, 'Where's Sue?' " says Lund, who is married to an internist. "She'll have a gown on and makeup. But she laughs and thinks it's so fun. Like a character in a play."
Lund offers this summation of the couple she has known for a dozen years: "Together they are a very interesting person."
The limo's coming at 6 p.m. They're also sending a Gulfstream jet. All courtesy of "Larry King Live."
It's a scorching August afternoon. Sweating under her pixie wig ("I have to tell you, it's a bad-hair day"), Sue Levy is a whirlwind in her kitchen. Notes to herself, mail and press clippings are strewed about. Some people send checks but others offer hurtful theories, including how their daughter's body was small enough to fit in a black plastic garbage bag. There's an article from the Las Vegas Israelite: "An Interview with Chandra Levy's Rabbi."
The breakfast dishes still aren't put away; Sue asks a reporter to help load the dishwasher. The family's fuzzy black chow, Bogey, surveys the scene with an amused look.
"I'd rather not have the VIP treatment because of my daughter," she is saying into the phone. But it's the only way to quickly get to Los Angeles to tape King's show. "I'm just trying to get my daughter back."
She needs to locate and pack one of her nicer outfits. "And which shirts for Bob? . . . What about Bob? We don't know where he is!"
Peals of girlish laughter issue from a back bedroom, where Sue and a staffer from the Carole Sund/Carrington foundation are trying to find suitcases. It sounds like prom night.
Son Adam, 19, gangly and dark-haired, arrives from his day at junior college. He's a long-distance runner, an Eagle Scout. He avoids the media. Like his big sister, he values his privacy. For weeks this summer he occupied his time in Chandra's room, building a five-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, using toothpicks.
Family friend Jane Lund describes Adam as a calming presence in the household: "He is holding the family together right now."
Bob arrives, sheds his white doctor's coat and picks a TV-friendly outfit. He and Sue explain to Adam that they'll have to be away for the night. So be sure to lock the doors, they say.
"It's all worth it if you get some news," Bob says, before the limo arrives to take them to the airport.
In the music classroom, Allen Boyer, a white-bearded instructor in a spiffy Hawaiian shirt, begins by asking the students, "So we're all looking for vocal jazz?"
Sue Levy shifts in her wooden seat and whispers to a reporter, "What I'm looking for is not in this room."
In blue marker, on a nearby white board, notes on the "Theatrics of Singing" are outlined:
Keep in mind getting it across to your audience.
Draw an emotional chart.
Let character take over.
Know your character completely.
Boyer encourages the students to not be shy, to try out their material: "Good heavens, if Bob Dylan can sing, we all can sing."
But of the 20 in the room, only three take the challenge. One is a large, middle-aged woman who does a passionate version of "Fever." One is a girl with dyed pink bangs who renders a quivering "Summertime."
One is a strangely giddy doctor's wife who needs a whole lot of practice on "Scotch and Soda." But nothing is going to stop her from singing.