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Slain publicist was master at stirring Oscar buzz

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Slain publicist Ronni Chasen styled herself after old Hollywood press agents
  • Her clients included screenwriters, directors and composers
  • She mounted seven Oscar-winning campaigns for Best Picture
  • She was shot to death on the way home from the "Burlesque" premiere

(CNN) -- Ronni Chasen came to California to be an actress and spent the next four decades as a Hollywood publicist.

But she didn't like being called a publicist, a flack or a mouthpiece.

"I'm a press agent," she'd say, according to her fellow publicist and friend, Vivian Mayer-Siskind. "She was really just the quintessential press agent. Her work was her playground. She just loved movies."

Chasen, 64, was in her element when escorting this screenwriter or that composer to entertainment industry events and premieres. On Monday night, she walked the red carpet for the last time at the premiere for "Burlesque," the highly anticipated film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera.

Chasen's clients that night were "Burlesque" producer Donald De Line and one of its songwriters, Grammy-winner Diane Warren. The movie already is receiving Oscar buzz, and Chasen was talking up the soundtrack.

She rushed from Grauman's Chinese Theater to the W Hotel in Hollywood for the after-party at about 10:30 p.m., dashing off an e-mail with the next morning's to-do list for her staff, Mayer-Siskind said. She followed up with another e-mail at 12:22 a.m., according to police.

"We were all on such a high," Warren said. "And then she left -- I'm guessing about 10 minutes before I did. What on earth? What happened? Why?"

Somebody shot Chasen several times in the chest as she drove her Mercedes Benz coupe west along Sunset Boulevard, past the Sunset Strip and Beverly Hills Hotel, cutting over to Whittier Drive, a residential street lined with palms, pines and mansions.

Crossing Sunset Boulevard near the Los Angeles Country Club, Whittier Drive is a popular shortcut for people wanting to avoid a congested, winding section of Sunset. Chasen was likely headed from Hollywood to her luxury condo in the Wilshire corridor of Westwood, police said.

What on earth? What happened? Why?
--Songwriter Diane Warren
Hollywood reacts with shock
Ronni Chasen was killed in Beverly Hills

The Mercedes crashed into a utility pole in the neighborhood known as the Beverly Hills flats, once home to old-style Hollywood stars such as Lucille Ball.

The Los Angeles County Coroner's office said Thursday that Chasen's death had been ruled a homicide by multiple gunshot wounds.

There are no suspects, and clues are few. Robbery does not appear to be a motive, police say. Investigators are poring through Chasen's office computer files and checking business and residential surveilance cameras along Sunset.

Chasen's slaying sent shock waves through a community famous for its pampered self-absorption.

"Everybody's running around town with their mouths dropped open. We're all a little shell-shocked," said publicist Howard Bragman.

"To lose somebody so suddenly -- and the way she was taken -- that's not the kind of thing you'd expect to see in this community," he added. "A publicist? I've had unhappy clients, but she's the last one you'd expect this to happen to. P.R. is generally not a dangerous job."

An impromptu memorial was held Tuesday night at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was a suitable setting for a publicist's send-off because the hotel is used so often for movie press junkets. About 100 people attended, Mayer-Siskind said.

The tributes have been pouring in ever since. Chasen & Company, her public relations firm, quickly made them available, along with her obituary.

"There was no one like Ronni Chasen," said Jeff Sanderson, her partner in the boutique firm. "She was an iconic publicist who loved her clients and always strived to do her best for them."

Chasen grew up in New York, and had a fondness for the theater. She dreamed of being an actress, but only got as far as the soaps. No one seemed to remember which ones.

She became head of publicity at American International Pictures and then handled movie clients for the A-list agency Rogers & Cowan. She jumped to MGM, where she was a top publicist.

For nearly 20 years, she headed her own P.R. firm, representing clients on the creative and the business sides of the industry.

"She respected the filmmakers, the actors and the reporters equally," said Mayer-Siskind, who was hired by Chasen in 1993 and became a close friend. "She just managed everyone well."

I was devastated. I have a pretty hard shell, but this one just crushed it.
--Publicist Stan Rosenfield
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As an awards strategist, Chasen mounted successful campaigns for seven Best Picture Oscar winners, including "The Hurt Locker," "Slumdog Millionaire," and "Driving Miss Daisy." Her music clients won Grammy Awards in six major categories, including Album of the Year for Alanis Morisette's "Jagged Little Pill."

She represented many of the leading film composers.

"This was a nice woman. Everybody loved Ronni," Warren said. "She was the best at what she did. A great person. She worked her butt off all night, then goes home and someone does this to her. I'm angry [at] whoever did this."

Many of her colleagues last saw Chasen at an event on Sunday. She wore a white pantsuit and "was radiant," a friend said. "You think back and you go, 'Oh, my God, she was having such a nice time,'" publicist Stan Rosenfield said. "Who knew she'd be dead in 72 hours?"

He learned of her slaying while on a flight to New York.

"I was devastated. I have a pretty hard shell, but this one just crushed it."

Rosenfield, who represents actors George Clooney and Danny DeVito, among others, said he offered Chasen a partnership in his public relations firm years ago. "And she said, 'Look, I just want to do what I do. I don't want to worry about the paper clips,' which meant she didn't want to get bogged down in the administration."

He said Chasen was passionate about her Oscar-winning specialty, which he compared to mounting a political campaign. "You hire people to go out and get votes. You don't go up to somebody and go, 'Will you vote for me?' You arrange screenings and media and events that draw attention to your project. If she was on board with something, you benefited."

Chasen will be laid to rest after a Sunday morning service at Hillside Memorial Park. She will be in good company. Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Al Jolson, Dinah Shore, Michael Landon and Shelley Winters are buried there.