Photo: Julian Wasser/Getty Images
Hugh Hefner grieved in green silk.
One of his most promising Playboy Playmates, 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, had been murdered, and Hefner was giving Village Voice writer Teresa Carpenter a glimpse at what he had otherwise kept private. After Stratten was shot in the face by her estranged husband on Aug. 14, 1980, Hefner issued an emotionless press release and went into a media-free seclusion.
In his trademark silk pajamas, Hefner looked somber. Carpenter described the sight as, “The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning.”
In her article titled “Death of a Playmate,” which would win a Pulitzer Prize, she also addressed Stratten’s loss on a deeper level for Hefner. He had struggled to make stars of his Playmates and Stratten seemed destined to take him to the next level.
“There is something poignant about Hefner, master of an empire built on intimate nudes, but unable to coax those lustrous forms to life on film,” Carpenter wrote. “His chief preoccupation now is managing the playmates. Yet with all those beautiful women at his disposal, he has not one Marion Davies to call his own. Dorothy exposed that yearning, that ego weakness, as surely as she revealed the most pathetic side of her husband’s nature – his itch for the big score. Hefner simply had more class.”
For all the high and unconstrained moments of Hefner’s life before his death Wednesday at the age of 91, the brutal killing of Stratten would remain a dark event that would follow him for years. He would later blame the cause of his stroke in 1985 on accusations flung at him by film producer Peter Bogdanovich, who had met Stratten at the Playboy Mansion and later fell in love with her.
In a memoir about Stratten’s life, Bogdanovich blamed Hefner and the Playboy lifestyle for contributing to her death.
“If I had to confront my own responsibility, there could be no way to ignore his,” Bogdanovich wrote of Hefner in “The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten.” He wrote that, “she could not handle the slick professional machinery of the Playboy sex factory, nor the continual efforts of its founder to bring her into his personal fold, no matter what she wanted.”
“Sometimes I cried before I went to sleep,” Stratten wrote about staying at the Playboy mansion in a 16-page memoir that was publicly revealed after her death. “A lot of men were entering my life all of a sudden and a lot of them wanted me. No one was ever pushy or forceful – but talk can be very powerful – especially to a mixed-up little girl.”
The man who put Stratten on Hefner’s radar, and who ultimately pulled the trigger that killed her, was Paul Snider. Stratten, born Dorothy Hoogstraten, was a teenager working at Dairy Queen when she met Snider, who was nine years older than her, drove a Corvette and was experienced at wooing young women.
He bought her jewelry and cooked her dinner. He told her she was beautiful. Eventually, he convinced her to take nude photos, which were then sent to Playboy for consideration. Soon Stratten was flying in a plane for the first time in her life, heading toward Los Angeles and a place in the Playboy family.
She was named Playmate of the month in August 1979 and was picked as Playmate of the Year in 1980.
During that time, she was also weighing a wedding proposal from Snider. Hefner, who described himself as a “father figure” to her, said he expressed reservations when she told him about the proposal, according to Carpenter’s article.
“I said to her that he had a ‘pimp-like quality’ about him,” Hefner told Carpenter.
On June 1, 1979, Snider and Stratten married. Meanwhile, her career continued to take off. She was getting TV show and movie role offers. She appeared in an episode of “Fantasy Island” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” She also secured a major role in the movie “Galaxina,” which did not receive a favorable review from The Washington Post at the time. “The term ‘sophomoric’ seems too sophisticated to describe the level of humor in the science-fiction spoof,” a May 1981 review reads. “Dorothy Stratten remains the most conspicuous throwaway in a picture that mistakes facetiousness for cleverness.”
Even so, there was no question her fame was rising. She appeared on the Johnny Carson show. One of her biggest breaks came when Bogdanovich cast her in his comedy “They All Laughed” alongside Audrey Hepburn.
Filming took place in New York City and soon a relationship blossomed between the director and Stratten. She moved into his hotel suite, and later when they returned to California, she joined him at his home in Bel Air.
Meanwhile, Snider, who had described her as his “rocket to the moon,” watched her grow more distant and hired a private detective. He also bought a 12-gauge shotgun.
On August 14, 1980, Snider and Stratten were found nude in his West Los Angeles home, both dead from gunshot wounds to the head. Police later determined that Snider had raped her and then killed her before turning the gun on himself.
Hefner, after learning of the death, called Bogdanovich to tell him.
In his interview with Carpenter, which appeared in November 1980, Hefner said he decided to publicly talk about it “because there is still a great tendency. . .for this thing to fall into the classic cliché of ‘smalltown girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane,’ and that was somehow related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”
Bogdanovich later released a statement calling Stratten beautiful “in every way imaginable” and said they had planned to marry as soon as she was divorced.
Photo: Time & Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett
Dorothy looked at the world with love, and believed that all people were good deep down,” he wrote. “She was mistaken, but it is among the most generous and noble errors we can make.”
Later when he criticized Hefner for the death, he also accused him of forcing himself on Stratten. “I am, publisher of Playboy or no, a very shy man. And I could no more force myself on a woman, psychologically or physically, than could the man on the moon,” Hefner said, according to a March 27, 1986 Rolling Stone article.
Hefner, at a press conference, accused Bogdanovich of causing the stress which led to his stroke. And he did not stop there. He also threw out his own accusations, saying that Bogdanovich seduced Stratten’s little sister, Louise, who was 12 when her famous sister died, as a “pathological replacement” for the woman he could no longer have.
Louise Stratten filed a slander lawsuit against Hefner that was later dropped.
In 1989, at the age of 20, she and Bogdanovich were married. They divorced 12 years later.