MAY THE GREAT HOLLYWOOD PUBLICIST NOW R.I.P.
In a press conference this week that no cable news channels interrupted their primetime reruns to cover, the Beverly Hills mayor, his chief of police and some of their officers basically said they had solved the murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen, revealing the preliminary ballistics analysis of the bullets that killed her came from the same gun their “person of interest,” Harold Martin Smith, used to kill himself.
The official announcement that a desperate and deranged ex-con on bicycle had committed the crime during a botched robbery attempt ended weeks of speculation and wild innuendo that Chasen was somehow responsible for her own death.
Her murder had remained a Hollywood mystery since November 16th when, driving home from the premiere of “Burlesque” and an after-party, Chasen was shot five times in the chest before plowing her black Mercedes into a telephone poll at the corner of Sunset and Whittier. The intersection where she died is near where I lived for almost 20 years and where I followed Ronni Chasen’s career with more than a passing interest. I have followed the reports of her murder with downright vigilance.
It was the spring of 1980, when I had just moved to the west coast from a newspaper job in Florida, that I first heard her name. I had been recommended to replace her as national director of publicity at American International Pictures, the studio founded by the legendary Samuel Arkoff who was still alive and running it back then under its new moniker, AIP/Filmways.
In my job interview with Milton Moritz, Arkoff’s nephew who’d been V.P. of publicity and marketing for 25 years, I learned about all the great publicity campaigns Ronni Chasen had run for “Amityville Horror,” George Hamilton’s comeback film “Love at First Bite,” and Natalie Wood’s last one, “Meteor.”
In a time before Entertainment Tonight and the age of the 15-minute promotional satellite junket, she had worked great publicity for her projects the old-fashioned way: by developing a good story and making it a win-win for both the studio and journalists who took the bite.
Although I was offered her job (she was moving on to a better one), I never actually replaced Ronni Chasen. As Hollywood stories go, Milton Moritz called me days before I was due to start and told me “something’s come up and I can’t bring you in.” Translation: poor Milton Moritz, as nice, loyal and talented a nephew could be, had been fired.
Still, I never forgot the respect and affection with which he spoke of his young protege, Ronni. It didn’t surprise me over the years to watch her career soar and soar and soar, working on campaigns for more than 100 movies, including last year’s best picture Academy Award winner, “The Hurt Locker,” as well as “Cocoon,” “On Golden Pond” and the 1989 best picture Oscar winner “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Most Theories Suggested an Untoward Act by the Victim
The shocking news of her murder was followed by rumors and whispers amongst the journalists, some of them my own pals seeking my advice to solve the mystery. Aha! “She wasn’t married, had no children… she liked married men, she must have hired young male ‘escorts,’ ” began round one. “Gambling debts, a message from drug dealers, perhaps one connected to Michael Douglas’ addict son” added intrigue in round two.
The rumors made their way into stories. The most preposterous one floated was that her murder was somehow connected to the fight for this year’s Oscar, suggesting a professional hitman had been hired to kill a publicist. Now Ronni was great at her job, and really helped position her clients, but kill Ronni Chasen to change the Oscar race? That notion would find even Ronni Chasen incredulous.
Sadly, most of the reports held Ronni Chasen in some way responsible for her own demise, that somehow she behaved in some way that asked for trouble. In the days leading up to the police press conference, more and more reporters were exploring who she might have pissed off. “Let’s face it, it takes sharp elbows and stiletto heels to get to the red carpet,” one said to me. Ah, sharp elbows and stiletto heels, that old chestnut of a sexist default used when assessing women who are great at their jobs. No, I argued, Ronnie Chasen got to the red carpet with A-list clients by hard work, talent and integrity.
Time to Stop Blaming the Victim
In the end of all the “blame-the-victim” speculation, the case is just about closed. And we all now know how she got to an early grave: by a senseless, random act of violence committed by a somewhat hapless criminal traveling on his bicycle. Only her loving brother relentlessly pounded the “random act” theory, arguing his sister had no enemies. Hats off to him, along with John Walsh and his “America’s Most Wanted” tipster who phoned in the lead that helped crack the case. Now, may Ronnie Chasen be remembered only for the great life and career that was… until she made that fateful stop at the corner of Sunset and Whittier.