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Murder in Beverly Hills

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Jeff Bridges and Ronni Chasen
Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images
GOLDEN NIGHT: 
Ronni Chasen celebrated Jeff Bridges’ Oscar win this year for Crazy Heart, one of the many films she
promoted to awards glory.

Clients and friends describe how it was just another night on the Hollywood party scene as renowned publicist Ronni Chasen escorted clients to the Burlesque premiere. Just hours later, news of her violent death rocked Hollywood.

The evening had been vintage Hollywood and vintage Ronni.

A red-carpet fixture for more than three decades, veteran publicist Ronni Chasen had no fewer than three clients at the Monday, Nov. 15 Hollywood premiere of Burlesque, an old-fashioned bit of big-budget entertainment filled with song and dance and actual glitter. Among them was songwriter Diane Warren, who had written a tune that Cher sings in the movie called “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”

“Me and Ronni were so excited,” Warren remembers. “It was just the funnest night.”

Chasen, 64, was “the best of old-school,” as Warren puts it, fussing over her clients, pushing them around and working tirelessly to get them a few moments of limelight. On the red carpet outside of the storied Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Chasen affectionately greeted one of her clients, Burlesque producer Donald De Line. “She was being her usual mother-hen self,” De Line says. “It was so not anything out of the ordinary. Just completely like a hundred other nights — another premiere, another red carpet. She was loving it.”

Adds Warren: “She was really in her glory. She really loves all that shit.” Speaking — as many still do — in the present tense.

The next morning, Hollywood would be shocked to learn that Chasen had not survived the night, that someone had gunned her down sometime around 12:30 a.m. as she drove in her black Mercedes E350 Coupe past multimillion-dollar houses through a normally tranquil section of Beverly Hills, apparently en route to her spacious Westwood apartment. Chasen was shot five times at close range and crashed her vehicle — with its handicap parking tag still intact on the rear-view mirror — into a light pole on lush Whittier Drive. She was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

To an outsider, Chasen seemed as unlikely a target as a sometimes-crazy industry could produce. A seemingly uncontroversial, unmarried woman, she was best known for representing such clients as Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer and producers Richard and Lili Zanuck. Awards season was an especially busy time at the Chasen and Co. offices on Beverly Boulevard.

The motive for the crime instantly became the stuff of endless but fruitless speculation. By press time, as Beverly Hills police assured the public that this was a “rare, isolated” incident, the mystery persisted: Who would do such a thing and why?

Having made good money from murder stories for decades, Hollywood is now caught up in a real-life version so bizarre that its citizens don’t know how to process the event. “No one has an understanding of how to cope with this,” De Line says. “This kind of thing hasn’t touched our lives before. Even with an accident, you say it’s shocking and devastating, but it’s something that happens in life. This is unthinkable.”

The stunning crime drew the community together in rare fashion: Within days, all the major studios had united to host a reception in Chasen’s honor on the weekend after her death. Because aside from the horror, there was of course grief — the need to say goodbye to a woman who had treated clients like family, started many in their careers, known absolutely everyone and for years had been a Hollywood institution.

To an outsider, at least, the final days of Chasen’slife seem to have been entirely routine. With the awards-campaign season in full swing, she had been going at full tilt. The previous Friday, she’d organized a luncheon for Black Swan at the Polo Lounge on behalf of Fox Searchlight. The next day, she’d been at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards with Warren and Zimmer. And Monday, at the Burlesque premiere, she was representing Warren as well as producer De Line and Peggy Eisenhauer, the lighting designer on the film.

On Saturday, she had called Warren and asked what she planned to wear to the awards dinner — and it wasn’t a girlfriend question. Warren told her: a jacket, pants, a scarf. “You’re not wearing that!” Chasen barked in her distinctive New York-inflected accent. “You’re not dressed up enough!”

“It was so Ronni,” Warren recalls. “That voice!”

But Warren wore the same jacket a couple of nights later to the Burlesque premiere, and this time, Chasen didn’t object. She had other matters on her mind. She was determined to get a photo of Warren with Cher on the red carpet. The two women sidled up to the diva but couldn’t quite get themselves into the right spot. “She just, like, hovered with me,” Warren says. “She goes, ‘I don’t care what I have to do — I’m getting that picture!’ That was Ronni — she had something she wanted to do. … And she got the picture.”

After heading the Rogers & Cowan film department and moving on to MGM, Chasen had spent nearly 20 years running her own boutique firm. She represented an array of clients and waged many Oscar campaigns, but she carved out a particular niche representing composers — not always the easiest clients to place in the press.