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The Gossip Reading Club: Issue Twelve – The Journalistic Autopsy of Dorothy Stratten

Dorothy Stratten's brutal death was dissected by the press in the most scornful of ways, a reminder of the misogynistic rot that haunted her.

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Kayleigh Donaldson

Sep 09 2021

15 min read

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Welcome to a new issue of the Gossip Reading Club. Summer is over and I’m currently knee-deep in a very frenetic digital film festival. It’s obviously a lot less glamorous than getting to go to Toronto to rub elbows with my colleagues, but I can recreate the press experience from my living room by waiting for an hour before starting the film! That’s why this issue is early. Happy Thursday!

Today, our topic is a dark one, a story of Hollywood tragedy that left a deep scar on the industry and exposed the toxic misogyny that permeated every aspect of the victim’s life. Content warning for topics of murder, sexual assault, and violence against women. I quote some very painful moments from the piece to provide proper context, so if these topics are something that could potentially trigger you, please approach with caution.  

In 1981, the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing was awarded to Janet Cook of The Washington Post for her heart-rending reporting into the life of an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. The story had inspired the nation and led the then-Mayor of Washington D.C., Marion Berry, to organize an all-out police search for the boy. They never found him, and soon, other journalists began to doubt the veracity of Cooke's piece. Eventually, Cooke confessed her lies to her editors, who then held a press conference to admit the scam. Cooke was forced to resign and never returned to journalism. Her Pulitzer was revoked and re-awarded to the runner-up, Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice. Where Cooke's story had offered a terrifying insight into every parent's worst nightmare, Carpenter's covered similar ground. What her piece did differently, however, was force America to acknowledge its addiction to misogyny.

 

The Village Voice. "Death of a Playmate." November 5, 1980. Teresa Carpenter


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Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten had been dead for less than four months when Carpenter's piece appeared among the pages of The Village Voice. She had barely been in the spotlight for two years when she was brutally murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, who then took his own life. Having been coaxed into moving to Hollywood from Canada by Snider, she soon found herself posing nude for Playboy and being named Playmate of the Month for August 1979, then Playmate of the Year in 1980. As well as becoming the new face of the magazine, she started acting on film and TV. She was cast in the comedy They All Laughed, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and they soon fell in love. She left Snider for him, who did not take too well to having his meal ticket walk away. On August 14, 1980, she met with Snider to discuss finances. He killed her. She was 20.

Almost immediately, her story became a cautionary tale to the passes, a damning indictment of Hollywood abuses, pornography, and the normalization of both. She was an example to be made of, yet another tragic woman chewed up and spat out by the world of fame. It's taken a long time for Stratten's legacy to be given more kudos than what she dealt with both during and after her life. I would recommend the Stratten episode of the “Dead Blondes” season of You Must Remember This for more context and empathy. Believe me, once you’ve read the Village Voice piece, you’ll need it.

To Teresa Carpenter, Dorothy Stratten is shockingly unimportant to the story of her own life. Rather, she is more interested in the trio of men who seemed to dominate her life: Her ex, Paul Snider, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and director Peter Bogdanovich. To Carpenter, Stratten was the puppet of these men's various ambitions and desires, and the fact that one of them ended up killing her is dishearteningly unsurprising.

The piece opens with her taking Hefner to task for a "dispassionate eulogy" following Stratten's murder "which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization." As she slyly notes, the entire aura of the Playmate brand, perfectly polished and open to everything, "does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death." For Hefner, Carpenter posits, Stratten's loss wasn't just personally devastating but a blow to the Playboy brand, which he had been trying to take mainstream with an application for a casino license in Atlantic City. The magazine had positioned Stratten as the face of a new decade, one who had legitimate talent and the potential to make it big in film and TV. As Stratten's agent explains, "They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.” Carpenter even calls Stratten Hefner’s Marion Davies, a reference to the actress and mistress of William Randolph Hearst, whose career and public image were heavily buoyed by his media empire.


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Carpenter seems cruelly unimpressed with Stratten's potential. She describes the late woman as "delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it." Moreover, Carpenter doesn't seem to see Stratten as an active player in her own life. She does not downplay the obvious manipulations of the industry and Snider, but she doesn't exactly empathize with Stratten either. Even that Davies comparison feels pointed, given that it also took that actress a long time before she became known as anything more than the ditzy mistress who inspired an especially mean Citizen Kane joke. Here, Stratten is passive but hungry for fame, a combination that makes her seem more like a prop for a morality tale than the central figure in her own story.

The introduction to Snider’s story is aptly subtitled “The Pimp.” He was a violent hustler with delusions of grandeur who preyed upon young women as a means to make himself some cash. Carpenter describes his life of crime, his previous attempts at hitting the big time, and how he zoned in on the then-18-year-old Hoogstratten who "was very tall with the sweet natural looks of a girl, but she moved like a mature woman." Stratten is described as being a young woman with daddy issues -- her father walked out on their family when she was very young -- who was won over by Snider's love-bombing and expansive gifts. In describing her body, Carpenter says that Stratten's "breasts swelled into glorious lobes" when she was 16 (ew), but in her daily life, she was "a shy, comely, undistinguished teenager who wrote sophomoric poetry and had no aspirations other than landing a secretarial job." Snider is the Svengali but he won’t be the only one in her life.

Carpenter claims in her closing line that Snider's "unforgivable sin was being small-time". I think her intention with this declaration was to show that he, Hefner, and Bogdanovich were all cut from the same cloth, although in context, it seems way less piercing an insight than she supposes it to be. That indictment seems much less damning when it’s delivered by someone with such clear disdain for the victim.

At the very least, she is unflinching in describing the misogynistic business model of Playboy and the vague sheen of respectability he hoped Stratten, a Canadian 19-year-old, would bring to his enterprise. Hefner, to her, is just as pathetic as Snider, but it's less evident when you're actually successful at what you do. Not that the other women under the Playboy umbrella escape Carpenter's ire. One woman, Barbi Benton, who tried to make the leap to acting, is described as having "disintegrated into a jiggling loon" in front of the cameras.

In January 1980, Stratten flew to New York, without Snider, to star in her first major movie, They All Laughed, directed by Oscar nominee Peter Bogdanovich. By the end of the '70s, the former wunderkind of Hollywood's career had taken something of a downturn. The one-two-three punch of The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon had made him a massive star. His romance with Cybill Shepherd, for whom he left his wife and collaborator Polly Platt, became tabloid fodder and both were the targets of much mockery. After they worked together on a couple of flops, he and Shepherd split. By 1980, he was hoping that They All Laughed would put him back on road to the A-List. Having first spotted Stratten at a Playboy party, he cast her as one of the love interests of a pair of bumbling private investigators.


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According to Carpenter, they tried to keep their romance private, in part because Bogdanovich "did not fancy the publicity that might result from a liaison with a 20-year-old woman married to a hustler." He declined to be interviewed for the piece. Carpenter doesn’t spend much time talking about Bogdanovich, although she does note that "most of the crew found him a selfish, mean-spirited megalomaniac" and that he once admonished Stratten for chewing gum. Given the clear framing device of the piece, comparing these three men on equal terms as co-abusers of Stratten’s life and body, it’s a balance that doesn’t work here.

When it comes to Stratten's death, this is where Carpenter gets really gross. "Even now," she claims, "no one can say with certainty that Paul Snider committed either murder or suicide." She shares some conspiratorial possibilities for what happened on that night, and these paragraphs left me feeling especially queasy. She describes Stratten's violated body in almost mocking terms ("the shell had entered above her left eye leaving the bones of that seraphic face shattered and displaced in a welter of pulp. Her body, mocking the soft languid poses of her pictorials, was in full rigor.") She slams Hefner for using Stratten so cruelly right as she goes into horrid detail about the crime scene. Carpenter wants to remind the reader that Stratten, this near-mythic icon of perfect beauty, was a woman of flesh and blood, but boy, does she get super f**king literal about it.

The penultimate paragraph reads:

"Hype, of course, often passes for prophecy. Whether or not Dorothy Stratten would have fulfilled her extravagant promise can’t be known. Her legacy will not be examined critically because it is really of no consequence. In the end Dorothy Stratten was less memorable for herself than for the yearnings she evoked: in Snider a lust for the score; in Hefner a longing for a star; in Bogdanovich a desire for the eternal ingenue. She was a catalyst for a cycle of ambitions which revealed its players less wicked, perhaps, than pathetic."

It's her mission statement, but at best, she missed the mark by replicating the very act of objectification she accuses Snider, Bogdanovich, and Hefner of. The irony of Carpenter engaging in the same kind of dehumanizing of Stratten that she condemns Snider and company for is apparently lost on her. She doesn’t seem to understand the callousness of describing a murder victim as “perfectly pliant”, a writer of “sophomoric poetry”, and, worst of all, someone who "floated along like a particle in a solution."

There have, unfortunately, been many women in the public eye who saw their lives reduced to lessons to be learned and lurid true-crime obsessions to be made into E! specials. As Karina Longworth noted on her “Dead Blondes” season of You Must Remember This, the tools and the aims of such misogyny are nothing new. They endure because the tenets of power and abuse that dominate the entertainment industry still reign supreme. Yet surely it is the job of the journalist or critic to scrutinize this with clear eyes and a hefty dose of empathy? How does one fight sexism while utilizing its most effective tools? Carpenter’s stance may have seemed normal in 1980, but that doesn’t feel like a good enough excuse for her mistreatment of Stratten. She may not have been important to Carpenter but that doesn’t mean she was without value.

Stratten's life and death were depicted in two films: the made-for-TV movie Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Star 80. The latter, directed by Bob Fosse, was directly adapted from Carpenter's article, and as such, contains a lot of the problems of its source material in terms of its framing of Stratten. It does get a few things extremely right, mainly the portrayal of Snider as a deluded egomaniac with a complete inability to see women as anything but objects. Eric Roberts is truly terrifying in this role. Even a lot of Fosse die-hards dislike Star 80 or see it as the black sheep of his filmography, but I think it's a perfect fit for his view of showbiz as a glittering cesspool that will inevitably destroy all who become stuck in its fray. Still, even then, it's not exactly focused on Stratten herself. Once again, she was a thing to be discussed. Not even Mariel Hemingway, the Oscar-nominated actress who played her, could escape the press’s snide objectification of the woman she played. The biggest story surrounding the movie seemed to be speculation over whether Hemingway had undergone breast augmentation to match Stratten’s frame (she did have surgery, but she said she had it before she was approached about Star 80.)


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In August 1984, four years after Stratten's death, Bogdanovich released a book called The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980. By this point in time, he was close to declaring bankruptcy, having self-funded the theatrical release of They All Laughed to little success. He wanted to rescue Stratten's legacy by showing the world the performance he was convinced would have made her a star. Audiences didn't seem especially excited to watch a rom-com starring a woman whose violent death had been agonizingly covered by the press. The Killing of the Unicorn was another attempt to help rewrite the Stratten narrative that the likes of Carpenter and Fosse had reinforced. It was also an opportunity for Bogdanovich to settle a few scores against Hugh Hefner.

In the book, Bogdanovich claims that Hefner sexually assaulted Stratten, although due to legal reasons, he uses the term "seduced" instead of his original choice "raped." He goes further to claim that Stratten married Snider not out of love or obligation but to defend herself against Hefner, and that Hefner is partly responsible for the murder because he had banned Snider from the Playboy mansion days before he killed his wife. The book is out of print and only available second-hand for an exorbitant cost, which means I can't really discuss its contents for myself. From what extracts and contemporary reviews suggest, Bogdanovich was clearly laying out his trauma and fury for all to see. Roger Ebert said that he had great empathy for the director and understood why he felt the need to write the book, but "I wish he hadn't published it." Reviews mostly seemed concerned with his potentially libellous claims and newfound anti-pornography stance, which certainly fit in with the times. He added much-needed shades to Stratten's story but all anyone could talk about was the war between Bogdanovich and Hefner. That only got worse when Hefner accused Bogdanovich of statutory rape with Dorothy's then-15-year-old sister Louise. They both denied the claims. Louise married her sister's former lover when she turned 20 and Bogdanovich was 49. They stayed together until 2001.

Because Stratten left behind such a small body of acting work, as well as her modelling career, she has been denied the critical re-evaluation that many gone-too-soon stars receive. Sadly, she is still primarily known for her violent death. True crime has never been more popular, meaning her story has found a new audience hungry for the most upsetting details. I searched her name on Google News and the top story was a headline from The Sun, home of Page 3, that read, "I walked in to find my flatmate had raped and murdered a Playboy model, after he shot her face off."

"...Racing

To catch up with time,

But, when out of breath,

Time still races on

And laughs.

Yet now

There is no need to race,

But time to rest,

And let time's silly game

Be played by someone else."

(Dorothy Stratten.)


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Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email at hello@kayleighdonaldson.com.

You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, Slashfilm, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. If you like esoteric vampire pop culture, you can listen to my latest podcast Fangthology. We have a new episode on the fascinating flop of the Broadway musical, Lestat. This past fortnight, I wrote about the sinfully underrated one-season John Cho comedy Selfie. I also reviewed the new Cinderella film starring Camila Cabello. I also talked about a new romance novel featuring a minotaur d**k milking farm. It's really good, I swear!

The Gossip Reading Club is free to read and shall remain so. However, if you would like to donate a couple of dollars towards its upkeep, you can do so on my Ko-Fi page. It takes a lot of work to put these together and now I have to pay for the newsletter service. Thanks so much to everyone who has been so generous in recent weeks. I seriously appreciate it!

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