The premiere party for the movie "Burlesque" was just the sort of glitzy Hollywood affair that Ronni Chasen, a veteran movie publicist, loved, and as she had for four decades, she worked the room with relish. As celebrities, including Jane Fonda and the film's stars Cher and Christina Aguilera, mingled around a rooftop pool, Chasen moved among the revelers with a songwriter whose work she was promoting.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ronni Chasen: An article in the Nov. 17 Section A about the fatal shooting of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen in Beverly Hills incorrectly described a witness who heard gunshots. Nahid Shekarchian is a 33-year resident of the neighborhood, not 33 years old. The article also misspelled the last name of publicist Stan Rosenfield as Rosenfeld. —
"She was happy-go-lucky and gossipy and fun, just like she always was," said Jim Dobson, a publicist who crossed paths with Chasen around midnight.
Less than an hour and a half later, Chasen was dead, gunned down in her Mercedes in an assault that baffled police and made a woman who spent her career touting others, the talk of Hollywood. When word of the slaying broke, some studios canceled meetings and conference calls that had been scheduled to strategize their Oscar campaigns — Chasen's specialty. One publicist set up a reward fund and others closed their offices for the day.
"I'm devastated by this," said Academy Award-winning producer Richard Zanuck, who had worked with Chasen since 1982 and had talked to her earlier in the day about the awards season campaign for his movie "Alice in Wonderland."
Detectives with the Beverly Hills Police Department spent Tuesday trying to piece together the final minutes of Chasen's life and discern a motive for the killing of a 64-year-old single woman who, according to friends, had no enemies.
"She was not a drinker. She never did drugs…. She had solid, really nice people as clients who became sort of her family," said New York publicist Kathie Berlin, a friend of 45 years.
Chasen attended the movie premiere and after party with client Diane Warren, who wrote the song "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" for the "Burlesque" soundtrack. Sometime after midnight, she steered her new E350 sedan away from the W Hotel in Hollywood, apparently en route to her Westwood condominium. At 12:28 a.m., residents of Whittier Drive, a quiet, tree-lined street often used as a cut through between Sunset and Wilshire boulevards, heard gunshots.
Nahid Shekarchian, 33, said she was in her house on Whittier when she heard gunshots — "boom-boom-boom" — and opened the curtain of her upstairs bedroom to see a Mercedes crashed into a light pole. Shekarchian rushed to the car and peered through the shattered passenger's side window. She said she saw Chasen in the driver's seat bleeding profusely from her head and chest.
Another neighbor, she said, walked to the window and asked, "Can I help you?" Shekarchian said Chasen was breathing "very heavily" and did not respond.
Chasen was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 1:30 a.m., according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Coroner's spokesman Ed Winter said she sustained multiple gunshot wounds to her chest.
Shekarchian told police she didn't see anyone else in the vicinity. She said officers told her that the perpetrator might have been on foot.
Beverly Hills police fanned out across the Westside on Tuesday in search of clues. Officers were seen removing computer hard drives, compact discs and file boxes from her luxury high-rise apartment. Investigators also searched her company, Chasen & Co., in West Hollywood. Police declined to say whether any of Chasen's belongings were missing from the vehicle.
Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino said the investigation remained open. Detectives were pursuing a range of possible scenarios, including one in which the perpetrator followed Chasen home from the hotel and another in which she was the victim of road rage.
"We don't know what the motive is," Hoshino said. "This is a fresh, active investigation."
Asked whether officers were reviewing video surveillance from businesses or the many mansions Chasen would have passed on her drive along Sunset, Hoshino said, "The department will conduct a thorough investigation and that will be part of it."
Investigators were questioning Chasen's friends and associates, many of whom had seen and talked to her in the hours before her death. Vivian Mayer-Siskind, a close friend for many years, said Chasen's employees told her that Chasen had called the office from her cellphone at 12:22 a.m. — six minutes before she was shot — leaving a to-do list for the following day on an answering machine.
"That was typical of Ronni," said Mayer-Siskind, referring to what she described as her tireless work ethic.
After hearing about Chasen's death from industry friends, Mayer-Siskind drove to the Beverly Hills police station to learn more. She later went to Chasen's office, where four staffers worked, to help write an obituary. By then, she said, the office was swarming with police, who were poring through Chasen's phone records, listening to her messages, going through her computer and taking photographs.
Chasen, born in 1946 in New York, started in the entertainment industry as a soap opera actress, Mayer-Siskind said. She began working for the publicity firm Rogers & Cowan in 1980 and later was a top publicist for MGM. She was best known for her awards season campaigns. She worked on campaigns for more than 100 movies, including last year's Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Hurt Locker," as well as "Cocoon," "Baby Boom," "On Golden Pond" and the 1989 Best Picture winner "Driving Miss Daisy."
In an age where publicists have Twitter feeds and reality shows, Chasen was somewhat old-fashioned and clients were producers, directors and composers rather than starlets.
"There were people who were newer in the business and have reputations as being hipper, but what I loved about Ronni is not just that she knew everyone but everyone knew and liked her," said Randall Wallace, the director of "Secretariat." He had planned to meet with her Tuesday afternoon to explore a possible Oscar campaign for that movie.
"She was the last of the real old-school publicists," said Valerie Van Galder, the former president of marketing for Sony Pictures.
Van Galder said that when she worked for Chasen in the mid-1980s, she relied on a teletype machine to dictate correspondence. But Chasen found an affinity for new technology because it allowed her to reach journalists at any time or place, Van Galder said. She was never far from her Blackberry and sent e-mail blasts extolling her clients' latest projects at all hours.
Friend Heidi Schaefer said that during a vacation last month to Paris, she caught Chasen using her Blackberry during a church chamber music concert. She never stopped working.
"Her hours were hideous and she organized and went to all of those functions we dread," Zanuck said.
Clients described her as fiercely protective and devoted. Producer Irwin Winkler said that when his 2004 film "De-Lovely" was not nominated for a Golden Globe, Chasen "was furious."
"She screamed and yelled at [members of] the Hollywood Foreign Press [Assn.]," the group that puts on the annual awards show, Winkler recalled.
Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer said Chasen refused to let him be jaded about the annual contests, which he greeted with "an in-built disdain."
"For 20 years, she came up with new reasons I should care," he said.
According to friends, Chasen was married once and had divorced years ago. She had no children, but, friends said, counted her clients and fellow publicists as family.
Stan Rosenfeld, a publicist and longtime friend of Chasen, said he feared that her work would be lost in the shock of her death.
"I don't remember anything hitting the nerve of this town quite like this," he said.
Times staff writers Dawn Chmielewski, Claudia Eller, Megan Garvey, Victoria Kim, Susan King, Kate Linthicum, Todd Martens, Nicole Sperling and Steve Zeitchik contributed to this report.