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11.16.10

The Murder That Rocked Hollywood

Ronni Chasen, a popular publicist, was murdered early Tuesday as she was driving in Beverly Hills—with no apparent motive or suspects. The Daily Beast talks to her stricken colleagues.

On Tuesday, Hollywood was rocked by the news that veteran publicist Ronni Chasen, who represented a number of A-list stars and filmmakers, including the late Natalie Wood and Jaws producer Richard Zanuck, had been fatally shot while driving in Beverly Hills at around midnight.

Chasen, 64, was coming from the premiere of the Cher movie Burlesque, which she’d attended on behalf of her client Diane Warren, the songwriter, and was presumably headed to her Westwood home. According to the Los Angeles Times, the sound of gunfire caused neighbors to call 911, and police arrived on the scene at around 12:30 a.m. to find Chasen’s Mercedes crashed into a light pole. Chasen had been shot several times in the chest.

Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department told The Daily Beast’s Christine Pelisek that there was no motive determined for the crime yet. He said that the department had served search warrants on Chasen’s home and office, looking for clues.

“It is an extremely unusual crime for us,” he said. “We don’t have a crime like this on a regular basis. We are in the infancy stages of the investigation.”

He went on to say that the police are conducting a forensic examination of Chasen’s vehicle, and that, though a motive is not yet clear, “It is unlikely if someone is driving down the road, you can shoot them five times in the chest.”

He suggested that the driver most likely walked up to Chasen and began shooting. It is unclear whether her purse or belongings were stolen in the attack.

Early Tuesday, phones were ringing off the hook in Los Angeles. Particularly affected was the publicity community, to whom Chasen wasn’t just an esteemed colleague but a dear friend.

“This is a family, and we lost a family member,” Michele Robertson, head of the PR firm MRC, told The Daily Beast. “We’re all rallying together to celebrate her life, and help pick up the pieces.”

Robertson had been with Chasen at the Burlesque premiere and said she was “as beautiful as ever.” She also noted that Chasen, known for her tenacity and passion, “was taking care of business as Ronni always was.”

Another friend, who did not wish to be identified, said he’d also spoken to Chasen on Monday night, over the telephone, and that while they were discussing the recent passing of Linda Dozoretz, who like Chasen had cut her teeth at the venerable PR shop Rogers & Cowan, remarked: “There aren’t that many of us that are still alive. We have to stick together.”

“I don’t even know why she said that,” this person said, getting choked up.

Publicist Michael Levine started a reward fund to find Chasen’s killer, and is hoping to raise $25,000 over the next week.

Top 10 Clues Tom DeLay Was Born to DanceNot many were like Chasen, a fast-talking New Yorker who had a bulldog-like aggression when it came to promoting her clients, but who was always a class act, from her days at Rogers & Cowan, to when she ran publicity at MGM, to when she formed her own shop, Chasen & Co. She began her career in 1973, and along the way worked on the marketing campaigns for films such as Lolita, the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, and, more recently, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and this year’s Alice in Wonderland.

Boardwalk Empire writer-producer Margaret Nagle, a client of Chasen’s for the last five years, said: “In a business that’s based on bullshit, she didn’t bullshit. Ever. … She’d look at you right in the face and say, ‘That’s a terrible idea!’ She would just draw the line.”

Chasen was a shrewd businesswoman who never missed an opportunity to network, Nagle says, but she also possessed an authentic passion for her work and a true affection for artists.

“Once you were her client,” says Nagle, “you were always her client. I had a [TV] series called Side Order of Life on Lifetime for one season. She said, ‘Kiddo, it doesn’t matter. I believe in you.’”

Rocky producer Irwin Winkler, who was with Chasen for three decades, said over the phone on Tuesday, “She was at our Seder on Passover. She was always a part of our family. When we had a family occasion, Ronnie was a part of it. When one of my kids got married, she was at the wedding. That’s been going on for some 30 years.”

“It’s so hard to wrap my head around this news,” Winkler said, before politely excusing himself, saying he was too upset to talk.

Beyond the personal loss, Chasen’s untimely death signals the continued passing of an era in Hollywood publicity, one that was defined by the panache and gentility of Rogers & Cowan founders Henry Rogers and Warren Cowan, who set up shop in 1950 and quickly became a powerhouse, representing stars such as Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, and Paul Newman.

Chasen embodied this style. The Film Department CEO Mark Gill, who worked at Rogers & Cowan in the 1980s, recalled that when he was running Warner Independent Pictures in the early 2000s, Chasen, who was by then running her own shop, “began calling me once a week, starting in May, for the Academy campaigns for the year. She was like, ‘I want to work on your music!’ (In recent years, Chasen represented a number of film composers, including Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer.) “I was like, ‘Ronni, I don’t even know what my fall movies are yet!’

“She was always charming and, of course what happened, when it came to promoting the movie Good Night and Good Luck, Ronni got the job. Passion wins the day.”

Awards season was when Chasen came to fullest life, and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord fondly remembered being with Chasen last year, when Chasen threw an intimate party at a small jazz club for the indie drama Crazy Heart. It was an unusually communal evening, one in which Hollywood’s typical paranoid reserve seemed to dissipate, and Swicord said that Chasen was moved by the spirit of the room.

“She said, ‘There was such a feeling of community in the room and I wish it were that way all the time. And there was a place we could go together and have a nice time and we wouldn’t be competing with each other,'” Swicord recalled. “That was the woman that I really knew. Underneath the job she had to do, there was this person that really longed for community.”

Chasen married and divorced in her twenties, and was single when she died. She is survived by her brother, Larry Cohen, the screenwriter and director, who wrote the Colin Farrell movie Phone Booth. Through his manager, Cohen declined to comment.

Chasen's death was the third homicide this year in Beverly Hills.

Christine Pelisek and Gina Piccalo contributed to this report.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.