In April of 1985, Hugh Hefner — the Playboy founder and owner who normally walked around his mansion in a robe with a smile that almost touched end to end — arrived to the press conference he called wearing formal attire, his demeanor much less jovial.
I suspect this will change the nature and focus of my life. To have that experience and come back from that is something of a miracle and blessing. When you come that close to the edge and look over, the dramatic nature of what occurred gave me permission in a single day to drop the luggage of a lifetime.
Hefner was talking about the stroke he had suffered just a few weeks earlier, a stroke he attributed to acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich, who had helmed classics such as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Bogdanovich had not directly caused the stroke, but rather it was the book he wrote a year earlier that caused the stress-induced health crisis of the Playboy tycoon.
The book, The Killing of the Unicorn, told the tale of a beautiful Canadian girl, who rose to prominence as a Playmate, and then a budding actress and model in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the Cinderella fantasy ended with a shotgun blast to her face, a murder that Bogdanovich ultimately blamed — at least partially — on Hefner, among others. The ripples in the sea of humanity that this young, beautiful woman’s splash created do not end there, nor do they begin there. They start at an ice cream shop in Canada.
The Idea Man
Paul Snider was not a stupid man. He would later — in a 1980 Village Voice article — be labeled a “pimp,” and perhaps he was. But, Snider had an eye for talent. It was his idea to start an all-male, nude revue show that would later become the Chippendales nightclub juggernaut. In 1977, Snider was likely not in search of talent, or an act he could attach his rope to and ride into a vault of gold, when he entered a Vancouver Dairy Queen — instead he found his greatest act of all.
Her name was Dorothy Stratten. Although she was only 17 and in high school at the time, she had already blossomed into a woman, the picturesque definition of every man’s fantasy. She had honey blonde hair, a perfectly proportioned face, and 36-24-36 dimensions —the “holy grail” in the world of voluptuous, female modeling. Peter Bogdanovich would later describe her as “the most beautiful woman (he had) ever seen.”
Snider, a nightclub promoter, knew he had to have her. The 26-year old lathered on his charms, doing his best to turn this ice cream attendant into the golden ticket he had already envisioned. It didn’t take long. That same year, Stratten and Snider became an item, and then, a married couple. But, it wasn’t Snider’s goal to just marry the beautiful Canadian, it was his goal to turn her into a star.
When Stratten turned 18, Snider began to put his plan to work. He had professionally nude photographs taken of Stratten, and sent them to Playboy for their 25th Anniversary contest. Immediately, Hugh Hefner — the Playboy magazine magnate — urged Stratten to move to L.A. She obliged, and both she and Snider made their residence in California, with Snider acting as her manager. Stratten became a “Bunny” at The Playboy Club, and a regular at the Playboy Mansion. It was there — in October of 1978 — that she would meet the “other man” in her life: director Peter Bogdanovich. In an interview with UPROXX, Bogdanovich recalled the first time he laid eyes on the stunning beauty.
I met her first at the Playboy mansion in October of 1978. She was introduced to me by one of the mansion regulars along with Candy Loving who was one of the Playboy 25th Anniversary Playmates. I remember thinking that when I met Dorothy that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. And she was a honey blonde, just gorgeous. In fact Candy Loving could tell I was smitten because she kept smiling and I didn’t even look at her.
Bogdanovich and Stratten wouldn’t speak again for one year, but during that time, the Canadian bombshell’s star was steadily rising. In August of 1979, she became Playboy’s centerfold. She described her secret dream: “To fly to the moon; to be able to hear other people think for a day.”
Her acting career began to take off; in 1979 she starred in episodes of mega-popular shows, Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers. It was also during this time that she began to distance herself from her husband and “manager,” Paul Snider. An excerpt from her memoirs revealed dismay. “A lot of men were entering my life all of a sudden and a lot of them wanted me. No one was pushy or forceful — but talk can be very powerful — especially to a mixed-up little girl.”
Her memoirs also revealed something that would eventually lead to her death. “I had to think of Paul less and start enjoying myself with other people.”
Paul Snider could feel the meal ticket he believed to have nourished, slip through his fingers. And, he didn’t like it.
A Life Cut Short
Peter Bogdanovich described to UPROXX the second time he came across Dorothy Stratten, several months after her first Playboy pictorial.
I came to the mansion just to say hello to Hefner and leave. I asked somebody to pick me up, in 20 minutes, and I was walking through the foyer, the front of the mansion, and somebody called out my name, “Peter.” And I turned and it was and this bleach blonde girl came running up to me. I didn’t recognize her at first because her hair was so different. It was bleach blonde, almost white, didn’t look good on her. And I said “Hi, yeah, so what happened to your hair?’ So she told me the hairdresser made a mistake and screwed up her hair. Anyway, her hair was the way Hefner liked it, but that’s another story. We sat down and started talking. We talked for about half and hour and so I called my friend and said “Don’t pick me up.” I’m going to stay here for a while. And then we talked and then she had some dinner and then we talked some more.
Bogdanovich and Stratten became involved in a relationship after that second meeting, the director even asking her to star in his next film, They All Laughed. He told UPROXX that he felt he found his soulmate.
“She had a kind of wisdom and transcendent quality that is hard to describe,” he said. “She never seemed to be part of this world, she seemed to be somewhere else in a way. It’s hard to describe. She had a sense of mystery and transcendence. I don’t know how else to describe. It’s hard to describe.”
Snider was no longer in the picture, and Stratten moved into Bogdanovich’s Bel Air home. This did not sit well with the nightclub promoter.
He hired a private detective, Marc Goldstein, to follow Stratten and gather evidence of her affair with Bogdanovich. During the filming of They All Laughed in New York, Snider’s rage and jealousy were reaching a boiling point. Bogdanovich explained how Snider continued to harass Stratten, even though she had told him she wanted their marriage dissolved.
In New York she complained that he kept calling her a lot. She didn’t like it. She wrote him a letter telling him it was over and he wouldn’t accept it. …During the movie, she went back to Vancouver for her Mother’s wedding. Her mother was getting married again. And Paul showed up and she was very upset about it. And she was afraid he would come to New York. She was trying to keep him away from New York. When she came back she was quite upset about the situation with him. She didn’t want to be with him anymore and hadn’t wanted to be with him for a long time.
In the spring of 1980, Stratten was chosen as Playmate of the Year. Several days later, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the playmate and actress didn’t take too kindly to Johnny’s line of questioning. The following video does not contain her entire appearance, but the full encounter displayed Stratten’s indomitable spirit.
Bogdanovich remembers the Tonight Show visit well.
She was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson while we were shooting the movie, and Johnny says to her ‘Which part of a man’s anatomy do you like best?’ She looked at him and said ‘Stand up.’ And he stood up, the audience laughed. And she said, ‘the chest.’ Afterwards, when it was over, I asked her, ‘Why did you tell Johnny to stand up? What was that about?’ She said, ‘I got angry. I didn’t like the question.’ So she made him stand up, which embarrassed him actually. I thought it was an interesting moment. She wasn’t afraid. She was a combination of shy and quite forceful if she was angry or irritated. So she made him feel strange.
They All Laughed wrapped in July of 1980. Bogdanovich felt it was the best work of his life, and he owed it to his love and muse.
“She had more of an influence on me in the making of that picture,”Bogdanovich said. “I felt very free in this picture, I don’t know how else to put it, I felt very liberated. She had a tremendous influence on that picture. I felt very free. The freest I have felt on any picture. Very liberated.”
Stratten was eager to close the “Paul Snider chapter” of her life. Her career was taking off, and she no longer wanted to be tethered to the conniving and controlling man she had once fallen in love with. On August 14th, 1980 — against the wishes of Bogdanovich — Stratten visited the former apartment she shared with Snider, in hopes of finally ending their relationship. What she didn’t know, was that Marc Goldstein — the private investigator hired to follow Stratten — had told Snider of the contents of Stratten’s aforementioned private memoirs.
Goldstein had talked to Snider over the telephone while Stratten was in the apartment, but became concerned when he called later in the day and no one answered. He contacted two other people with whom Snider shared the apartment, and they were able to gain access to Snider’s bedroom.
Dorothy Stratten, the current Playmate of the Year, lie naked on the bed, killed by a close-range shotgun blast to her face. Paul Snider’s naked body laid strewn on the floor with a similar shotgun blast to the head — the weapon was found underneath his corpse. A police investigation uncovered that Snider had raped her, shot her in the face, then had sex with her lifeless body. After the vile act, Snider turned the weapon on himself. Dorothy Stratten was only 20-years old.
The Debris Left By The Death Of An Angel
The murder-suicide was jarring to many parties. In an interview with The Guardian, Bogdanovich said, “Dorothy’s murder sent me reeling for a long time. That event triggered a lot of reactions in me and I had to question everything in my life. I certainly didn’t think I’d ever direct another picture.” Hugh Hefner issued a statement saying, “the death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all. She was a beautiful and talented woman.”
Stratten’s mother, Nelly, and 12-year old sister, Louise, were grief-stricken, and they moved into Bogdanovich’s guest wing of his L.A. residence. 20th Century Fox — in the wake of the shocking murder — was not interested in promotion of Stratten’s final film, They All Laughed. Bogdanovich rebelled, and bought the negatives of the film out of his own pocket, releasing it in 1981; it bombed. The cost of buying and distributing the film out of his own funds, coupled with the film’s poor box-office performance, cost the director $5 million, and he would later file for bankruptcy.
While Bogdanovich cared for Stratten’s mother and younger sister, he went to work on a book about the fallen star, eschewing any jobs as a film director for several years. In 1984, his memoir, The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980, was released to less than positive reviews. A review in People magazine stated, “In this sometimes provocative but relentlessly self-serving version of Stratten’s life and death, Bogdanovich, 45, blames Hefner’s hedonistic philosophy for Dorothy’s death and just about all of society’s ills except the size of the federal deficit.”
Indeed, Bogdanovich, in his grief and sorrow, placed blame on Hefner, Snider — of course — and Marc Goldstein, who had supplied Snider with the contents of Stratten’s diary. Goldstein sued the publisher, William Morrow & Co., for slander. He won a settlement that also resulted in chapters of the book being rewritten, but that wasn’t the only lawsuit in the wake of the murder.
In 1982, Bogdanovich and Stratten’s estate sued Goldstein, NBC and MGM over use of Dorothy’s memoirs in preparing a made-for-TV movie about the playmate. The suit was dismissed, the use of the memoirs deemed exploitative, but ultimately not confidential. By 1985, rumors began circulating that Bogdanovich was dating Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise. The same year that Hefner had his stroke — which he blamed Bogdanovich for — Hefner went on the offensive against the director, and the whispers that he was taking advantage of Stratten’s teenage sister. He issued a statement saying, “There was pursuit of Dorothy’s entire family in the months and years after her death. Pursuit of the mother, and the husband claiming adultery, followed by the seduction of her sister…as a pathological replacement of Dorothy that has continued from that time to the present.”
Within weeks, Louise and Nelly sued Hefner for $5 million, but the charges were dropped five months later. In all of the wreckage and debris that followed the death of Dorothy, Bogdanovich did, though, find solace — and a sense of empathy he could never find in someone else — in Louise.
“It was like it was an explosion—Dorothy’s death was like this terrible atomic explosion,” he told UPROXX. “And, Louise was very close to her. And, we both hung on to the same piece of driftwood, I guess you could say. And, we relied on each other to get through it. And, we did.”
Bogdanovich was 49-years old, when he married Louise, 20, in 1989. Their marriage lasted 12 years, before they divorced in 2001. Still, the Stratten’s — surname Hoogstraten — and Bogdanovich remain friends in grief. “…I see her mother quite often,” he says. “I’m staying at Louise’s apartment while I’m in Los Angeles. Her mother, sister, and I are quite close.”
Yet, amid all the lawsuits, the loves gained and lost, the work (Bogdanovich went back to directing with 1985’s Mask), and the public defamation, one thing still remains — the sting of a beautiful soul taken from this world too soon. Bogdanovich spoke to UPROXX about the lingering pain:
She had great potential. We only did one picture together, but she was amazing. Very smart. None of the portrayals of her in movies gave any indication of how smart she was and thoughtful. She was a great student. And wrote beautiful poetry and thoughtful essays when she was in school. She was very receptive. She was a great woman. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her.
It’s hard to not point fingers when something so terrible happens to someone who doesn’t deserve it. But, when something is gone forever, culpability is just an afterthought. Certain voids cannot be filled, no matter who is to blame; they can only be glossed over, perhaps forgotten for moments at a time.
Dorothy will be remembered for how much she gave in such a short span. She was plucked from obscurity because of her outward beauty, but it was her gorgeous spirit and demeanor that left a gaping hole in those she touched. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is a common phrase meant to examine the relativity of opinion. In this case, though, beauty may have been an albatross. Peter Bogdanovich relayed a poignant story about Dorothy to UPROXX:
…We went to a bookshop while we were in New York, Double Days was open late, and we went there one night and she got very interested in the book about the elephant man. The real elephant man. And, she would look at these photos that were quite horrible really, and then she really wanted the book. She asked me to buy it for her, I was buying books for her. I couldn’t understand why she was so interested in that. I realized later, after she was killed, making Mask, that being a great beauty can be just as limiting as great ugliness.
As for her secret dream, “to fly to the moon” — Dorothy made it past that.
Chloe Schildhause also contributed reporting to this piece.