It’s easy to find cynical views of Hollywood in the press, and even in fictional films and TV shows. The venal industry depicted in Entourage seems all too credible to insiders and civilians alike. Turner Classic Movies’ Moguls and Movie Stars series reminds us that scandal has been a part of Hollywood since the silent era. But it’s rare for anyone to write or talk about the human side of this company town. I saw that aspect of Hollywood this past week in the wake of a terrible tragedy when longtime publicist Ronni Chasen was murdered Monday night.
I worked with Ronni over the years, and while I can’t claim to have known her well, I was shocked and dismayed, like everyone I know, when I heard the news of her grisly, mysterious death in Beverly Hills. Two of my best friends were extremely close to her, and invited my wife and me to attend an informal gathering Tuesday night at one of her favorite restaurants. The minute we walked in we saw exactly the faces we expected to encounter there: the people we think of as “the good guys” in this business, the kind who build and maintain relationships. There are some studio publicists I deal with all the time but only know through e-mails. Ronni was of the old school, like her mentor, the legendary Warren Cowan, and it was fitting that the friends, colleagues, protégés, and journalists who turned up to remember her that night all share her—
—hands-on, intensely personal approach to work. That’s why so many “business associates” wound up being friends.
One colleague told me that she made every one of her clients feel like she represented them and them alone. Loyalty was one of her hallmarks. Clients like composer Hans Zimmer and director Norman Jewison have been with her for decades. As the head of her own public relations shop with a payroll to meet, she also knew how to “play the game,” but typically, she did so with discretion. I was told a funny story about a meeting she had regarding one film’s Oscar promotion with the formidable Harvey Weinstein. At one point he snapped, “How many Oscar campaigns are you working on right now?” and without missing a beat she replied, “Don’t ask me that!” Ronni was so good at her job that no one would have known when she was representing competing pictures.
On Sunday morning a thousand people showed up at Hillside Memorial Park, to attend her funeral service, followed by a reception at Sony Pictures studio. People from Sony, Warner Bros, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company collectively hosted her memorial, just as fellow publicists volunteered to help out her shell-shocked staff during this difficult week.
This is the Hollywood you never read about: the community of women and men who make their living in show business and, like Ronni, thrive on it. Unlike some ambitious people she was happy to share her knowledge, and work ethic, with younger people on the way up; no school could have taught them the ropes nearly as well.
One of the p.r. executives I saw the other night related that when she landed her latest job at a major studio she told her mostly-younger staff to get away from their computers, call their contacts on the phone and take them out to lunch. That’s how Ronni Chasen made lasting friends and earned the trust of the entire industry. She was single-minded, direct, and good as her word. Friends who spoke at her emotionally-charged service remembered her sense of fun and love of travel. They also recalled that she worked like a demon. It isn’t surprising to anyone that she left a voice mail for her office staff after midnight on Monday. She loved what she did, and it showed.