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November 21, 2010

Publicist Ronni Chasen laid to rest at Jewish cemetery

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Power publicist Ronni Chasen, who was brutally gunned down last Monday night, was laid to rest today after an emotion funeral service at the Jewish cemetery Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Culver City.

In life, Chasen was surrounded by Hollywood glamour; in death, she takes her 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, who are all buried at Hillside.

“As a rabbi, this is a tough one for me, because of the circumstances of her death,” said Temple of the Arts’ Rabbi David Baron, who conducted the memorial service before a crowd of some 500 people. Among the guests at the service were Sony Pictures Entertainment chair, Amy Pascal, film critic Leonard Maltin, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, musician T-Bone Burnett, Diane Warren, composer Hans Zimmer, actor Peter Fonda and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Chasen’s friends and colleagues delivered eloquent and humorous eulogies, doing their best to focus on the beauty of her life. But the tragic and mysterious circumstances surrounding her death cast a dark pall over an otherwise clear and breezy November morning. Almost a week after her killing, her death remains an unsolved mystery.

Even in the midst of her grief, publicist and friend Kathie Berlin said that she spent the week wondering about Chasen’s final moments: “Was she afraid? Was she alone? Did she know she was dying?”

“We all need this service, this ritual,” said Lili Fini Zanuck, wife of “Alice in Wonderland” producer Richard Zanuck, one of Chasen’s clients. “We need the solace of knowing we’re all hurting.”

Chasen’s tragic end brought the industry to a standstill. Despite its reputation for being fickle and shallow, the Hollywood community is tightly knit and comes together during times of crisis. 

Although Chasen was not religious, she was remembered earlier today as a virtuous and principled woman. Those who eulogized her described her as the kind of person people were proud to know, full of goodness, loyal to a fault, and possessing a wicked sense of humor. 

“Ronni was very proud of her Jewish heritage,” Rabbi David Baron said. “She was Jewish in her heart, in her ethos, in the way she lived and loved and cared for others.”

Chasen’s friend, publicist Vivian Mayer-Siskind said she was “the definition of grace” with “never a hair out of place” and that “she was the funniest human being in life”.

She was also an expert at her job: “She had an eye for talent, and knew a good film from a bad one, but could sell them both,” Mayer-Siskind said.

Chasen’s brother, screenwriter Larry Cohen, recalled their upbringing in New York’s Washington Heights. He said he once asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And Chasen replied, “I want to throw parties!”

The Friday before her death, Chasen threw a soiree for the movie “Black Swan” in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The film’s stars Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassell and Winona Ryder were there, along with director Darren Aronofsky. Chasen had been in her element—working the room, introducing people to each other. She was insistent that her client, producer Mace Neufeld meet Natalie Portman. “Ronni came over to me and said, ‘Go over there and sit next to Natalie Portman!’” Neufeld said by phone last week. “I said, ‘Well I’ve never met her.’ She said, ‘Well introduce yourself! Maybe you’ll do a movie with her.’ So I spent half an hour talking to Natalie.”

Jeff Sanderson, Chasen’s partner at Chasen & Co., the PR firm she created in 1991, said that even in a room full of movie stars, Chasen’s presence was palpable: “When she walked into a room, you knew she was there; you could feel her energy,” he said.

Sanderson said Chasen had just returned from a trip to Paris and told him she wanted to go back—after awards season, of course, and “have some fun.” She was a reputed workaholic, but at her funeral, friends revealed she was ready for a change of pace.

“I want to do something different; I want to meet new people,” Berlin recalled Chasen saying before her death.

Heidi Schaeffer, Chasen’s friend and colleague, had worked with her during the Paris trip and recalled how Chasen had made friends with everybody, from the hotel concierge to gallery owners. She even finagled her way into scoring VIP tickets to the Paris Opera. One night, during dinner with playwright Sir Ronald Harwood at the famous Café Flore, Chasen had said, “I could conduct business all day from this café!”

Now Chasen is buried next to her mother, with whom she was very close, in a cemetery renowned for its high profile inhabitants.

Because of her violent end, Chasen’s friends urged the crowd to tune out all the conspiracy theories making their way through the media.

“There have been lots of fables this week: ‘Did she have a secret life?’” Zanuck said. “Somewhere she must be laughing because she’d have loved to have had a life, let alone a secret one.”

“I beg you, don’t pay attention to the papers or the people on TV who didn’t know Ronni,” Berlin said. “If someone was following her, we ALL would have known – as well as the police and the FBI,” she joked.

Instead, she told the crowd: “Let’s imagine a Hollywood ending: a great white light in which she takes her mother’s hand…I know she’s up there somewhere, changing the seating arrangements.”

“She was the most innocent of us all,” Zanuck said. “She had no enemies.”

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