Ronni Chasen Memorial: Stars Pay Tribute to Murdered Publicist
As Hollywood says goodbye to one of their own, renowned publicist Ronni Chasen, the question on everyone's mind is, who killed her, and why? By Christine Pelisek, Jacob Bernstein and Caroline Graham.
Ronni Chasen didn't take no for an answer. If you were a reporter who was refusing to write about an Oscar hopeful she represented, the publicist would call you, over and over again, changing the pitch ever so slightly until you relented; telling you in that unmistakable New York drawl that it really was a good story, if only you could think about it slightly differently.
"Unrelenting," is how her friend Kathie Berlin, another veteran publicist described the woman who, on a trip to Mexico got bitten by an unknown critter and, at 2 in the morning, told the general manager of the hotel to cross the border if he had to—anything to get her some Benadryl.
Surely, no one would have predicted that of all people, it would be Chasen gunned down near Sunset Boulevard, shot several times in the chest as she drove home from a movie premiere.
On Sunday, almost a week after her killing in Beverly Hills, Hollywood turned out in force to pay tribute to the star publicist.
There, in the pews at the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles, paying her respects was Jacqueline Bisset. And Elliott Gould. And Virginia Madsen. And Joan Van Ark, Peter Fonda, as well as clients like T-Bone Burnett and the superstar songwriter Diane Warren.
"There will never be another day like this in Hollywood," said actress Eva Marie Saint. "I saw her last Saturday at the Governors Ball, she complimented me on my white suit. I loved her."
At the funeral service, the question on everyone’s lips was, who killed Chasen, and why? Was she targeted? Was she killed in an act of road rage? Was this a robbery gone awry?
Berlin, for her part, dismissed a New York Post story, alleging Chasen told a friend that she was being followed for months.
"That's a lie," she said. "If Ronni thought someone was following her around the corner she would have called all of us, plus the police and the FBI, and Nikki Finke."
A few days after Chasen's death, Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad told reporters that police officials had told him that the publicist had not been gunned down in an impulsive act of violence, but that her killers had planned her murder.
Beverly Hills Police Chief David Snowden quickly shot back, telling The Daily Beast that he had never shared details of the investigation.
"The information [Delshad] received was erroneous," added Beverly Hills Police Department Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino later.
The Beverly Hills Police Department has dedicated almost half its investigative force to try and solve the murder. The Palm Springs Film Festival, meanwhile, has offered a $100,000 reward for information that will lead to the capture of the killer.
"There will never be another day like this in Hollywood," said actress Eva Marie Saint.
"We are not working on a single theory," Hoshino said. "We are continuing to look at it as a wide-open investigation. Right now it is a big Hollywood whodunit."
Two days after the Governor's Ball on November 12, Chasen attended an after-party for the Cher film Burlesque with her songwriter client Diane Warren. Shortly after midnight, she left the party, driving down Sunset Boulevard before making a left on North Whittier Drive, a quiet street with million-dollar mansions. A few minutes later, shots rang out into the night.
Chasen was found slumped over the steering wheel of her crème-colored Mercedes coupe. Her car had collided with a light post. The passenger side window was shattered. Paramedics took her to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where she died of her injuries about an hour later. The following day, a makeshift memorial of candles and flowers lay in the spot where she was killed.
After the memorial, at a reception at Sony Pictures hosted by Chairman Amy Pascal, film producer Lynda Obst discussed the crime with critic Peter Rainer. "Not a hit crime," in their opinion.
Chasen was a fast-talking New Yorker with a quick wit. Over the years, she represented a number of A-list stars and filmmakers, including the late Natalie Wood and Jaws producer Richard Zanuck.
"The entire film industry is mourning her this week," said Zanuck's wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, in a eulogy at the service. Chasen was about to launch the Oscar campaign for the Tim Burton movie, Alice in Wonderland, which Richard Zanuck produced. She "always stayed in the shadows while promoting our movies. She had no enemies. Ronni was working day and night all week before she died. As always when she hung up on me she would say 'I love you.' She was such a great friend."
Chasen's brother Larry Cohen described his younger sister as "his little companion," barely holding back tears as he told the crowd of how he used to take his sister to movies when she was a little girl. Her first brush with a star was Dale Evans. "She would say, 'I touched the queen of the West,'' he said. "That was her first star." When asked by her brother what she wanted to do when she grew up, she answered, "I want to throw parties."
"She was the funniest human being," said Chasen's friend Vivian Mayer-Siskind. "Even when she wasn't trying to be funny, she was funny…She taught me everything I know about publicity. She was the pitcher and I was the closer."
Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer, also spoke briefly. "My heart is broken," he said. "I played at the music/film festival she founded in Ghent. I last saw her on Saturday night at the Governors Ball; she was at the top of her game. I love you, Ronni," he said in a farewell, before carrying the casket down the aisle with Richard Zanuck, celebrated producer Mace Neufeld, Jonathan Novak, Jeff Sanderson and Alan Siskind.
"Hollywood has never come together like this," said Wanda McDaniel of Armani.
Chasen began her career in 1973, worked at Rogers & Cowan, and ran publicity at MGM before she formed her own company, Chasen & Co. Over the years, she worked on the marketing campaigns for Lolita and the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy.
"What made Ronni special is her ability to build relationships whether it was with media or film houses," said Colleen Holland, who worked as an intern for Chasen in the early '90s. "To do that is a full-time job. She has to meet them for lunch; pitch stories for the press; create media schedules; throw parties. No one did it better than Ronni."
Like many old school Hollywood publicists, Chasen also had a quirky, eccentric side. She liked to eat early because she would get better service when there weren't as many other customers around. At the swank Beverly Hills Polo Lounge, she would order a coffee with a little bit of cottage cheese.
Despite a reputation for toughness, Chasen also had a softer side. When Chasen's one-time boss Warren Cowan of Rogers & Cowan was dying in the hospital in 2008, Chasen was there for him until the very end, holding his hand. "She held a lot of people's hands," said her friend Kathie Berlin, herself a noted publicist.
Holland recalls Chasen picking her up three mornings a week at her UCLA sorority in Westwood in her vintage Mercedes Benz, taking the younger woman to lunch at Neiman Marcus. And when Chasen was hired to work at MGM in the early '90s, she continued to pay Holland out of her pocket. For Holland's 21st birthday, Chasen introduced her to Johnny Depp. "He did it as a favor of Ronni," she said. "It was a big deal for me and she arranged it."
Many younger publicists she encountered fell in love with Chasen's Runyon-esque New York accent, the perfectly coiffed hair. "That was a production in itself," said her friend, publicist Heidi Schaeffer. "She used about six different brushes when she did her hair and she would put them in and then leave them in so she'd have six brushes sticking out of her head just to give it the fullness and the height. She was a perfectionist."
Some would have found the Oscar campaigns that have come to seem like yearly, mini-presidential campaigns a drag. Not Chasen.
"Call me when the Oscar ballot comes in the mail," she would say to the voters.
There wasn't a week during the height of the season when she wasn't out and about, although she wasn't exactly an early riser. "She was not up at the crack of dawn," Schaeffer said. "She was a night person, it was the way she was wired."
And her clients were like a second family—she spent Jewish holidays with Irwin Winkler, the producer of Raging Bull and They Shoot Horses, Don't They.
"Work was everything," said Schaeffer. "She thrived on it."
Chasen was divorced but when her friend Berlin got married to a Washington-based NBC correspondent, the publicist joked about getting set up with John Warner, five-term United States senator and the ex-husband of Elizabeth Taylor. "If he's funny enough for Elizabeth Taylor, he's funny enough for me," she quipped, according to Berlin.
Berlin recalled that Chasen was often to be found in the company of men. "But I don't think any of them were that serious, or serious enough for her to get married. She never took a man to an event. She was always working the room, it would have been a hindrance for her."
Added Berlin: "She had this big presence even though she was this little girl."
Things seemed to be going well for Chasen. Last month, she and Schaeffer traveled to Paris and then onward to the town of Ghent to celebrate Chasen's 64th birthday. Always thoughtful, Chasen made sure to buy treats at a candy store for her small staff at her boutique PR firm Chasen & Co. in Beverly Hills. She enjoyed the trip so much that she made plans to return and rent an apartment for six months after Oscar season ended. She told friends that she already had an office at L'Hotel.
By the time she returned to Los Angeles, Oscar voting was in full swing and Chasen threw herself back into her work, running eight Academy Award campaigns, including one for Michael Douglas who she was hoping would get a best supporting actor nod for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
The workaholic with the love of white suits and the slogan, "Let's Keep Moving!" was in good spirits when she told her close friend Lili Fini Zanuck that she was going to return to Paris, maybe get a little bit of plastic surgery around her neck, and shed at least five unwanted pounds. She also told her Chasen & Co. partner Jeff Sanderson about how they should go to Paris and Spain after the awards season.
As always, Chasen was immaculately dressed, her hair perfectly in place, her lipstick applied discreetly when she hosted an academy luncheon for voters for the Natalie Portman film Black Swan at the Sunset Room in the Beverly Hills Hotel on November 12. " Black Swan was the movie and all the stars turned up," said Neufeld, producer of Invictus and Clear and Present Danger, among other movies. "Ronni said to me at lunch, go sit with Natalie Portman and do your next movie with her! Clint Eastwood and Terry Semel came in half way through the lunch, Ronni had run into them in the lobby."
The next night, Chasen attended the Governors Ball.
Two days later, she was dead.
Lord Julian Fellowes, her client, who won an Oscar for the Gosford Park screenplay 2001, wrote from England when he heard of her death. "I am shocked and horrified at Ronni's death. I would never expect someone to die in the hail of bullets by the roadside."
But another friend found some solace in the way Chasen spent her last day.
"The only thing that gives me comfort is that Ronni was on a red carpet right before this happened, in her element. She was doing what she loved."
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.
Caroline Graham is founder of C4 Global Communications and former West Coast editor for both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Prior to working with Conde Nast, she was a prominent newspaper columnist and director of the Monaco Government Tourist Office.