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Murder in Beverly Hills

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.

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Chasen’s determination was more than familiar to the many journalists who dealt with her over the years. She would pitch her heart out however remote her chances of success. She never was unpleasant, even when firmly rebuffed — and firm rebuffing sometimes was necessary.

The relentless blond publicist was seemingly ubiquitous at industry parties. When she spotted a reporter at one of these gatherings, the wheels turned almost visibly in her head as she reviewed her client list and calculated who might get coverage from a pitch. Some journalists, it must be admitted, tried to skitter away. But the clients felt protected and cared for.

“She was like a mama lion in all the best ways,” Warren says. “Fiercely protective. She really cared. Her clients were like family to her. She’d tell you what to do, and people listened to her.” She pauses. “She was a character,” she adds with a sigh. “Who else was like Ronni?”

At the Burlesque afterparty, producer John Goldwyn headed for the door on the early side. Catching sight of him, Chasen took a moment to reach out on a project that she was handling for Fox Searchlight: the Hilary Swank film directed by Goldwyn’s brother Tony. “John, John, John — I want to talk to you,” she said. “I want to put  together a lunch for Conviction. Who do you think would be good to host?”

“Ronni, it’s a great idea,” Goldwyn replied. “I’ll call you first thing in the morning.”

Chasen continued to make her appointed rounds. Eisenhauer, the lighting designer, had flown in from New York for the premiere, but tired and not in the best mood, she had decided to skip the party. Chasen told her mild-mannered colleague Jeff Sanderson — a constant presence at her side — to call Eisenhauer and instruct her to come at once.

By then, Eisenhauer had settled comfortably at her hotel, though Chasen had made it clear that she wasn’t enthralled with Eisenhauer’s choice. “Where are you staying?” she had demanded. When Eisenhauer named the not-so-Hollywood Magic Castle, Chasen did not hide her exasperation. “I can’t talk to you about that!” she said. “Don’t even bring it up again!”

Of course, Eisenhauer took all that in stride. She had been working with Chasen since 2002, when producer Scott Rudin recommended her for the awards campaign on Chicago. “I just loved her, loved her, loved her,” Eisenhauer says. Chasen had a “great New York-y quality. … I just love the way she talked.”

After Sanderson called importuning her to come to the Burlesque party, Eisenhauer says, “I put my heels back on and went.” As soon as she arrived, Chasen started escorting her, making sure she saw and was seen by the right people.  

“She was just magic in action,” Eisenhauer says. “She was really on the move — full of life and bubbly. She went up to one person and said, ‘Are you getting taller or am I getting shorter?’ And when we got to [Burlesque director Steven Antin], she snapped her fingers and said, ‘One with Steven and Peggy!’ And a photographer appeared out of nowhere. How’d she do that?”

As the hour grew late, Chasen said her goodbyes. “I have a big week,” she told Eisenhauer. Admonishing Sanderson to “take care of Peggy,” she left. Shortly after, Warren left, too. Walking to get her car at her office, nearby on Sunset Boulevard, Warren says she felt a sudden pang of fear. It was past midnight, and for some reason, it popped into her mind that someone could take a shot at her on the street. She started walking faster and broke into a run.

By then, Warren figures, someone already may have shot Chasen, a few miles to the west of Hollywood in placid Beverly Hills. And so an unfamiliar kind of fear ripped through an industry where the biggest concern is often about the box-office grosses on a Friday night.

But for those who loved Chasen, fear is certain to be outlasted by grief.

“Ronni — of all people. Of all times, of all places,” Warren says sadly. “I can’t believe she’s not calling me [to say], ‘You can’t wear that to that!’ ”

To De Line, in retrospect, the evening had been striking for its ordinariness. But now, Warren says, “Everything since has seemed so surreal.” 

RONNI REMEMBERED: Her friends recall her drive, humor, style and loyalty

“When we won the Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy, I thanked her twice, but I meant to thank her a thousand times. We were making a film that nobody cared about. Ronni was determined we get this movie out there, but she could not get anybody to come to Atlanta to do a set piece. She finally got this girl from the New York Times to do a piece on plays being made into movies. Ronni took that one piece and parlayed it into our being this incredible underdog. Anybody else would have given up. I remember going to Warner Bros. to talk about an Academy campaign, and they looked at me like I was crazy. But Ronni kept taking the movie to New York, showing it to opinion-makers. The day we opened, we won the National Board of Review. That campaign is one of the reasons everyone hired her to do Oscar campaigns because it was brilliant.”
Lili Fini Zanuck, producer

“We had a long day at the Ghent Film Festival, and a group of us went out to get a drink. By accident, a glass broke, and it cut my hand very badly. I was content to wrap it in a towel and forget about it, but Ronni insisted we find a hospital. Ronni insisted on being in the room when the doctor stitched up my hand. It required 14 stitches, and as the doctor was working, Ronni was saying, ‘You know, he’s an Oscar-winning composer. Do you know his music? Have you ever heard Frida?’ It was quintessential Ronni.”
Elliot Goldenthal, composer

“She worked on all of our Academy films. She was a huge part of Slumdog Millionaire, Crazy Heart, Little Miss Sunshine. She worked with incredible intensity but also made the work a great deal of fun. When I went to the parties, I would be happy to see Ronni and know I had a friend in the room. She had a wry, observational humor. She could see the small things going on at parties and make it really funny."
Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight president

“She was always very practical. When I got nominated for In America, she said, ‘Jim, do you have a black tie?’ I said, ‘Ronni, it’s about nine years since In the Name of the Father; I don’t know that I do.’ She said, ‘I can get you a free one at Brooks Brothers.’ She was always looking out for you like that.”
Jim Sheridan, director

“One thing that comes to mind: We had a great premiere for De-Lovely, the picture I did about Cole Porter that I directed, as the closing night at the Cannes Film Festival. MGM invited the whole cast, which was considerable because it involved all the singers that did cameos in the film besides Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. It was Ronni’s job to get everyone together to go to the premiere, to go down the red carpet. I never saw anybody work so hard, but I said to my wife, Margo, at the time, that her hair never was ruffled. In the midst of this incredible chaos which is the closing night at the festival, there was Ronni in her magnificent evening gown, and her hair was perfect. We were all a little frazzled, but she was calm. And I remember thinking that night, ‘How does she keep her hair so perfect?’ But she always looked great — that night especially.”
Irwin Winkler, producer-director

“When I was working for Ronni at MGM, she was working on a story with Bernie Weinraub at the New York Times. She came into my office and said, ‘If I call Bernie one more time, he’ll hang up on me. I pitched it, you close it.’ ”
Vivian Mayer-Siskind, publicist

“We were at the Black Swan luncheon at the Polo Lounge. We were sitting at a table, and Ronni got up — she was circulating in the room and then kind of disappeared. Five minutes later, she walked back in with Clint Eastwood. I said to somebody, ‘I didn’t know Ronni invited Clint.’ He said, ‘She didn’t; she just heard he was in the lobby, and so she went outside and walked him into the room.’ ”
Mace Neufeld, producer

“Ronni had a wonderful gift in that she connected to all sorts of generations, but she was mischievous about her age. She would get together with friends like Kathie Berlin and Nadia Bronson, and Kathie would say, ‘I’ve known you for 45 years,’ and Ronni would almost lose her mind. She would be very funny about anybody ever pinning her down about how old she was. She didn’t want to date herself.”
Megan Colligan, co-president of marketing at Paramount

“Somehow or other, with love, she got me to do all the things that I was dreading the most. I get really bad stage fright, and somehow she got me to do concerts. She got me to go to Belgium and do a huge concert there — over a hundred people on the stage. She cajoled me into doing things which were only to my benefit but which I was like a stubborn donkey against. It wasn’t just because she was brilliant and because she was good and had so much history of things. The defining thing in my relationship with her is that I always knew she came from a place of love for me, she always came with only 
my best interest at heart.”
Hans Zimmer, composer

VICTORIOUS MOMENTS: The films Chasen helped win best picture Oscars

Driving Miss Daisy 1989
Shakespeare in Love 1998
Chicago 2002
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003
No Country for Old Men 2007
Slumdog Millionaire 2008
The Hurt Locker 2009
 

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Nick Ut/AP Photo
Alan D. Hunter/Globe Photos
John Heller/NFL