Saturday, August 14, 2010

Star 80

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died."

Theodore Roosevelt
On the death of his first wife

It was 30 years ago today that one of the most tragic events of my youth — up to that time — occurred.

Now, there had been other tragic events in my then–young life — the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, for example, or the unexpected death of Elvis Presley — but the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten had to rate as one of the most shocking.

She came from Canada, where she had met a pimp (there is no kinder word to use) who fancied himself a big–time promoter. He became something of a Svengali to her, making nude pictures of Stratten when she was still underage and submitting them to Playboy. The editors apparently agreed that she was very beautiful and made her the Playmate of the Month in August 1979, when she was 19.

The next year, she was named Playmate of the Year, which she discussed with Johnny Carson in the attached clip. She had started making movies. Her license plate read "Star 80," and she certainly seemed to be.

But Stratten made a fatal mistake. She married the pimp the summer she was Playmate of the Month, and his behavior became increasingly erratic and irrational as her life and career began to take off while his seemed to stagnate. The couple separated.

Her husband became obsessively jealous of Stratten, something of which many of the people in Stratten's life — including Hugh Hefner — sought to warn her. He hired a private detective to follow her, and the reports the detective gave him were not good.

By August of 1980, Stratten had begun an affair with director Peter Bogdanovich, who was directing what turned out to be Stratten's final motion picture, "They All Laughed," and she agreed to meet with her husband to discuss what she apparently hoped would be the terms of a civil divorce.

But it was not to be.

What happened on that day can only be surmised. Stratten's husband was still living in the house he had shared with her, but he was then sharing it with a mutual friend and two women. Stratten came to the house around noon. The investigator called the house about 30 minutes past noon, and Stratten's husband answered the phone and assured the investigator that everything was fine.

A few hours later, the women came home from work. They saw the cars belonging to Stratten and her husband in the driveway, and they saw that the door to his room was closed. They assumed the couple needed to be alone and did not disturb them. Shortly thereafter, they left to get some dinner.

Not long after that, the mutual friend came home and, acting on the same set of facts, chose not to interrupt the couple. When the women returned from dinner, they told the friend they hadn't checked on the couple earlier. Apparently, no one did for three more hours, until late that night — when the detective called and said he had been trying to reach Stratten's husband for several hours but there was no answer.

The friend then forced his way into the room and found them both naked and dead. Investigators, using the evidence from the scene, could only piece together the sequence of events. Stratten's husband apparently killed her with a shotgun, then killed himself.

When I heard the radio reports the following day, nothing was said about the two being naked or what may have happened prior to the shootings. But the sordid tale soon was told, first in a comparatively tame made–for–TV flick called "Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story" starring Jamie Lee Curtis and then in a more graphic big–screen version called "Star 80" starring Mariel Hemingway.

As I say, it may have been the most tragic event of my life to that point.

Other tragedies have followed, of course, in the three decades that have passed — public ones, like the murder of John Lennon a few months later, the explosion of the Challenger shortly after takeoff in 1986 and the death of Princess Diana, as well as private ones, like the deaths of my mother and various friends — and they seem to come and go with a certain amount of regularity.

Many of those tragedies seldom cross my mind (except for the ones that touched me personally), but, even though I never met her, Dorothy Stratten's sad story has stayed with me all these years, and I have thought of her more often than I ever thought I would 30 years ago.

Why? Perhaps it is because she was so young and beautiful and then was snuffed out, as Elton John wrote, like a candle in the wind.

I have seen her movies (there are only half a dozen or so, and she isn't credited in at least one of them, so small was her part in it) and I think she had some talent, but it is hard to tell. Once in awhile, you come across an actor or actress who may be physically attractive but makes it clear from the beginning that he or she is much more than a pretty face.

More often, though, it seems to me that you need to see someone in several films before you can reach a conclusion about his or her talent.

And that, I guess, is the tragedy of Dorothy Stratten. The potential was there. But it was unfulfilled.

If she hadn't been murdered, she would be 50 today. She might still be beautiful, but it would be a mature beauty, and she would have played progressively more mature roles. As hard as it may be to believe, she might have played the role of a grandmother in the movies a time or two by then. In 30 years' time, she could have become a mother and a grandmother in real life.

It is safe to say that we would know, on Aug. 14, 2010, what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story." We would know whether she was as great as she was often said to be.

But that we will never know.