November 22, 2010
Ronni Chasen: A Hollywood murder mystery
It was fitting, in that Hollywood way, that the last time Ronni Chasen was seen alive was at a movie premiere. She was there in all her usual glory — stylish and smiling, effortlessly working the room, among friends.
It was just after midnight as the power publicist was driving down the dark winding stretch of Sunset Boulevard into Beverly Hills, when shots rang out in the night. Chasen’s black Mercedes crashed into a lamppost, and she was found slumped over the steering wheel, bleeding to death. She had been shot multiple times in the chest and died an hour later.
Chasen’s violent and mysterious death sent shockwaves throughout the entertainment community. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Who wanted her dead? It was the end of a life, but the beginning of a Hollywood murder mystery that as of press time had turned up no leads. No suspects. No motives.
It has, however, turned up a reward: The organizers of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, whom Chasen worked with, have offered $100,000 for any information leading to the apprehension of the killer.
At her funeral on November 21, friends couldn’t help but allude to the bizarre circumstances of her death: “There have been lots of fables this week,” said Lili Fini Zanuck, whose husband is Richard Zanuck, a Chasen client and producer of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Did she have a secret life?”
Those in the industry who knew Chasen, a ubiquitous presence at all the parties, awards shows and chic restaurants in town, remember a vivacious tour-de-force who drew little distinction between her professional and private lives.
In Chasen’s world, work was life and clients were family; she was Jewish by birth, but her religion was Hollywood.
“She had a place in this community and in the solar system of Hollywood,” said Tom Tapp, a former editor at Variety. “It’s kind of like one of the planets is missing.”
Over the course of her career, Chasen tirelessly pounded the pavement, helping win Oscars for her A-list clients, including the late Natalie Wood, producers Zanuck (“Jaws,” “Planet of the Apes”) and Irwin Winkler (“Rocky,” “Raging Bull”) and a slate of composers including Hans Zimmer, who spoke at her funeral.
In an industry known for big egos and flimsy loyalties, Chasen was considered a class act. She was deeply principled, known as an elegant, caring woman. “She was totally professional. She didn’t badmouth people. Her clients and her business were her life,” Neufeld said.
Indeed, Chasen celebrated everything from birthdays to holidays with her clients. Lynne Segall, publisher of Nikki Finke’s entertainment news Web site Deadline.com, said Chasen attended Irwin Winkler’s Passover seder and Yom Kippur break-fast each year. Neufeld remembers a time 11 years ago when he and Chasen attended the Venice Film Festival during the High Holy Days. Chasen was restless, scouring the streets of Venice, Italy, until she found a synagogue.
Chasen also had a brother, Larry Cohen, a well-known B-movie writer/director to whom she was close. They had grown up in the Washington Heights and Riverdale sections of New York, where their father was a real-estate broker and their mother a homemaker.
But the centerpiece of Chasen’s Jewish life was at Temple of the Arts on Wilshire Boulevard, where she was a member and regularly attended High Holy Days services, according to Rabbi David Baron, who officiated at her funeral service at the Jewish cemetery Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.
“As a rabbi, this is a tough one for me, because of the circumstances of her death,” Baron said to a crowd of some 500 people. The funeral drew the Hollywood elite, including Sony Pictures Entertainment chair, Amy Pascal, film critic Leonard Maltin, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, musician T-Bone Burnett, the songwriter Diane Warren, the actor Peter Fonda and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Funeral eulogies portrayed Chasen as the kind of person people were proud to know, full of goodness, loyal to a fault, and wickedly funny. She was the kind of Jew whose virtuousness made up her religious practice.
“Ronni was very proud of her Jewish heritage,” Baron said during her funeral service. “She was Jewish in her heart, in her ethos, in the way she lived and loved and cared for others.”
Chasen, a beauty in her youth, began her career as an actress. She appeared on a smalltime soap opera, but quickly defected to the world of PR, where her star shone even brighter. She ascended the ranks at the firm Rogers & Cowan, where the late legendary publicist Warren Cowan took her under his wing. For a time she ran publicity at MGM, until finally setting up her own shop, Chasen & Company in 1991.
“She was a straight shooter, and she never took no for an answer,” said producer Zvi Howard Rosenman, who met Chasen in 1976, when few women were in positions of power in the industry. “In the ’70s, it was like, ‘Ohmigod, she’s so aggressive.’ But her aggression was never edgy or ugly; it was always in the service of her clients.”
Journalists found her aggressive, relentless and incredibly effective: “She wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, no matter who it was. She was dogged in her commitment to her clients.” Tapp said. “As an editor of Variety, I spent many hours on the phone with Ronni when she would pitch things that I thought were impossible for a story. But she just kept at it, and, I’d say, a lot of the time she convinced me. She was someone who could do the impossible in Hollywood.”
Until the impossible happened to her.
“I think it was a random act or an attempted robbery,” Neufeld said.
The mystery of her murder has prompted conspiracy theories and rumors of a dark shadow side to her life. Was there a mafia connection? A secret spurned lover?
She was a very private person, but friends say she had a string of low-profile romances with high-profile men. “She was like a Howard Hawks broad,” Rosenman said. “She could drink and swear with the men and flirt like a woman. She was alluring like Lauren Bacall — she had that quality.”
Chasen married and divorced when she was in her 20s but never had children. She came from a generation of women who made huge personal sacrifices to get to the top, of a sort that the women who followed her didn’t have to.
“She was an iconic figure — she was an original,” said publicist Michael Levine, the founder of Levine Communications Office, a premier PR firm. “Her clients had almost familial relationships with her. She had a very good reputation; she was well respected, well known, feisty and tenacious.”
But for all the time spent in the spotlight, at the end of the day, Chasen drove home alone. And whatever darkness might have lurked beneath her shiny surface remains a mystery. “There was nothing dark about her,” Rosenman said. “She wore white; she had blonde hair!”
“I beg you, don’t pay attention to the papers or the people on TV who didn’t know Ronni,” publicist Kathie Berlin said at her funeral. “If someone was following her, we all would have known — as well as the police and the FBI,” she joked.
Chasen’s death was so stunning, it left the Hollywood community grasping for answers.
Even Berlin, who struck a defiant tone at the funeral, admitted that in the midst of her grief, she wondered about Chasen’s final moments: “Was she afraid? Was she alone? Did she know she was dying?”
“She had so many people that loved her completely,” Deadline.com’s Segall said of her late friend of more than 20 years. “This was such a senseless, random, violent way for someone to go.”
“We all need this ritual,” Zanuck said in her eulogy. “We need the solace of knowing we’re all hurting.”
The violence of Chasen’s tragic end has left its scar, but it has also emboldened her loved ones to seek justice: “We will find the person who did this,” Berlin said. “And they will never again see the light of day.”
In life, Chasen was surrounded by Hollywood glamour; in death, she takes her final resting place among some of the entertainment industry’s most prominent Jews, including studio mogul Lew Wasserman, producer Aaron Spelling, Milton Berle, Al Jolson and Dinah Shore, all buried at Hillside.
But it remains uncertain whether Chasen’s story will have a Hollywood ending.
“I can tell you that for Hollywood, this is not merely a murder — this is a 9/11 moment,” Chasen’s colleague, Michael Levine, said. He, like most of the publicist’s inner circle, is dismissive of any murder plot.
“Life is short, and life is unpredictable, and this is extremely unsettling. So we seek explanation, we seek order, when sometimes, there isn’t.”