Sunday, November 28, 2010
Ronni Chasen's murder baffles and fascinates Hollywood
No motive, no weapon, no witnesses, no suspects. The murder of veteran film publicist Ronni Chasen, shot to death 12 days ago while driving home from a movie premiere through Beverly Hills, is the ultimate Hollywood case, studded with the kind of random details that make it both kitschy and creepy.
Chasen, 64, had just left the after-party for "Burlesque," the camp film of the year. The cops secured surveillance video from the Buddy Hackett estate on North Whittier Drive showing her car traveling south after the shooting and then crashing into a lamppost. In 1946, Howard Hughes crashed his plane on the same street. Gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down near here, too.
Chasen had spent more than 30 years working as a publicist, had built up an impressive client list and crafted a sterling reputation, available to stars, directors and producers day or night. She spent nearly every evening on the town, at dinners, premieres, events. She was friendly with everyone from Michael Douglas to Elliott Gould to Bono. She was hardly ever alone.
But early Tuesday morning, she was, and by a little after midnight she was dying, slumped over her steering wheel, blood pouring from her chest and out of her nose. The violent shooting death of one of Hollywood's most respected publicists -- on a well-lit street where homes start at $5 million -- has alarmed and vexed the industry, and wild theories abound.
There are reports that a man was seen lurking on a traffic island near the crime scene a couple of hours before Chasen was shot. Rumors that a close relative owed hundreds of thousands in gambling debts.
Also, speculation that maybe it was Russian investors exacting revenge over a film deal gone sour. It was an art deal gone bad. It was some other Hollywood competitor angry or jealous over Chasen's nascent Oscar campaigns for Michael Douglas in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" or Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." The wound pattern was too tight for an amateur to have done this. She was on the phone and cut someone off with her Mercedes, making them angry.
The coroner's office, slowed down by the Thanksgiving holiday, has yet to issue its report. That has not stopped other outlets from claiming to have gotten an advance finding from the office, which reportedly states that "there were three apparent gunshot wounds to the right shoulder [and] an apparent gunshot wound to the right upper back and left upper back." One bullet, according to this report, "was recovered from her back" and is "possibly a 9mm hollow-point."
THE victim, it turns out, is just as puzzling as the case.
Chasen was born Veronica Cohen on Oct. 17, 1946, in Kingston, NY. Her father, Irving, was a frustrated artist who later moved the family -- wife Carolyn and son Larry, 13 years older than Ronni -- to Inwood. He owned six apartment buildings in Harlem, but his real passion was photography.
"He had the belief that you cannot make a living doing anything you enjoy," Larry Cohen, a legendary B-movie filmmaker, told The New Yorker in 2004. Their mother, by contrast, had a lust for life and was obsessed with the movies.
It was Larry Cohen who helped his little sister, a failed soap actress, break into publicity. In 1973, he hired Ronni to promote "Hell Up in Harlem," the follow-up to his blaxploitation epic "Black Caesar."
After working for her brother, Chasen was hired by well-known publicist Warren Cowan, who became a mentor. One night, early in their working relationship, Cowan took Cohen to dinner at the legendary LA restaurant Chasen's.
"He told her, 'You don't have a great last name,' " longtime friend and New York-based publicist Kathie Berlin said. "So she changed it . . . I don't know if she ever 'fessed up to it."
In 1985, she was named executive vice president of Cowan's firm; she'd worked on '80s blockbusters "On Golden Pond" and "Cocoon."
In September 1989, Chasen left to form her own company, Ronni Chasen Associates. In 1992, she was hired by MGM, a stint that did not work out. A year later, she reopened her eponymous firm and kept a loyal yet not-so-hip client list: Irwin Winkler, Hans Zimmer, Richard Zanuck.
"She focused on 'below the line' " personnel, said a friend, using industry slang for people who aren't movie stars. "Then she hit on composers and ran with that."
Chasen did manage, however, to attach herself to A-list projects, getting hired as an ancillary arm to work on Oscar campaigns for such films as "The Hurt Locker," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "No Country for Old Men" -- the Best Picture winners of the last three years. She was something of a Hollywood Zelig, at every party and photographed hugging nearly every establishment star that mattered: Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, director Danny Boyle.
Chasen lived alone in a no- frills condomin ium on Wilshire Boulevard. She had no view, as the more expen sive units do. Hers faced the back, which was quieter, and friends describe the décor as not very modern -- one said the large sofa was reminiscent of "classy country."
There was a large black-and-white photo, taken by her fa ther, in the living room, as well as a Pi casso. She'd occasion ally talk about wanting to adopt a dog or a cat but never went through with it.
Her personal life, said friends, was a mystery, and some thought she liked it that way.
"There were a lot of male companions, but not a lot of boy friends," Berlin said. "She'd always say, 'Do you have anybody for me?' But that meant not going to a restaurant alone. I never felt marriage was that important to her."
"She told me she had a boyfriend in New York, but it was just for fun," added Nadia Bronson, another friend. "I said, 'You seem to have a boyfriend in every port -- that's only for the young chicks!' She said, 'No, it's for us, too.' But she kept that part of her life private."
Last week, the talk among some of Chasen's friends swung to Jonathan Novak, an LA-based art dealer who was a pallbearer at her funeral last Sunday. Many believed that Novak had been Chasen's boyfriend.
"They were friends," said Heidi Schaeffer, another close Chasen pal. "It wasn't romantic."
Schaeffer told The Post that Chasen had spoken of a brief first marriage, decades ago. "She said they were sweethearts for a number of years and had an 'unconventional wedding.' " Chasen never mentioned the man's name, or why they got divorced after a year.
Chasen considered her friends and co-workers her family. When her mentor, Cowan, lay dying in the hospital, she spent days in the room with him, holding the phone to his ear so he could hear the voices of old friends and know he wasn't alone. She was with him the day he died. She'd also visit old secretaries who ended up in nursing homes.
HER favorite phrase, said Berlin, was "Keep moving." Chasen had undergone hip-replacement surgery this year, and a handicapped-parking permit was affixed to her new black Mercedes, bought shortly before the shooting. She still needed to get her other hip replaced, but she refused to slow down, having attended the "Burlesque" premiere to support her friend, songwriter Diane Warren.
"She really cared," Warren said after Chasen's death. "Her clients were like family to her."
At 12:22 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 16, as she was driving home from the premiere party for "Burlesque," Chasen finished making another "to-do" call to her office. Minutes later -- either as she was making a left at Sunset Boulevard and North Whittier Drive or as she was traveling south on Whittier -- she was shot several times through the passenger-side window.
Less than an hour later, she was pronounced dead.
There's one theory about Chasen's murder that's getting little to no attention: It was random and senseless, committed by a total stranger.
As security expert Gavin de Becker, a Chasen acquaintance, pointed out in a recent article, Chasen's case is reminiscent of the murder of Bill Cosby's 28-year-old son, Ennis, who was shot to death off the 405 Freeway in LA while changing a tire. The murderer confessed in 2001; it was a random crime, a robbery gone wrong.
There is a $100,000 reward, put up by the Palm Springs Film Festival, for information leading to the arrest of Chasen's killer. Cosby's case was solved the same way -- an informant stepped forward, prompted by a reward.
De Becker, who worked on the Cosby case, understands the need to create a motive and a theory where none yet exists.
"If it turns out the shooting was unrelated to Ronni personally," he wrote, "then it could happen to anyone -- and that concept is not palatable to most people."
Ronni Chasen’s last actions before her murder
1 Attends premiere of “Burlesque” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard with Cher and Christina Aguilera.
2 Goes to after-party at the W Hotel in Hollywood.
3 Leaves party at 12:30 a.m. in her black E350 Mercedes coupe headed for home, west down Sunset Boulevard.
4 At the intersection of Sunset and North Whittier Drive, police believe a vehicle pulls up alongside Chasen and about four rounds are fired into her car.
5 Chasen manages to make a left onto North Whittier Drive and travels approximately 200 yards until she crashes into a lamppost. She’s pronounced dead at 1:12 a.m.