Dorothy Stratten, the 1980 Playmate of the Year, is a name that will live on in infamy. Her career in Hollywood was cut tragically short just when it was starting to take off. At only 20-years-old, her life was taken by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, whose grip on the starlet was slowly starting to slip. His dreams of riding to fame and fortune on her coattails were dashed when she wrote him a letter detailing her plans on leaving him, so he did something so terrible, it left all of Hollywood in a state of shock.
Born Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten, Dorothy was only 17-years-old when she first met Paul in 1977. She worked at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, B.C. She had a sweet, almost angelic face, but a body that could easily catch and keep a man's attention. Paul, who was a low-level hustler and pimp, took a liking to the teen and saw her potential as a star. He was about nine years her elder, and, though he'd had a troubled history with the law, she saw something in him that appealed to her
The two began a relationship and Paul soon convinced Dorothy to pose nude for photos that he would send to Playboy. There was a $1,000 finder's fee for whoever found models for the gentleman's magazine that was very tempting for Paul, who often found himself down on his luck despite his attempts to gain a fortune via sleazy enterprises. Because she was underage at the time, Dorothy had to get her mother to sign off on the release of the photos.
When Playboy received the pictures, they were impressed by her beauty and selected her as the Playmate of the month in 1979. Sensing the chance to climb the ladder to stardom, Paul easily convinced Dorothy to move with him to L.A. Once there, Playboy persuaded her to change her name, shortening the cumbersome last name of Hoogstraten down to just Stratten.
Once in L.A., Dorothy's career began to take off. After he found out about her Playmate of the Month award, Paul proposed. The two got married in June of 1979 in a secret Las Vegas ceremony. Playboy wanted to keep the marriage under wraps, possibly to keep up the illusion that Dorothy was still an eligible bachelorette.
At this point, Paul had absolute control over her. He was in charge of the couple's finances despite the fact that Dorothy brought in more money than she did. He also took firm control of real estate properties the two owned. Moreover, Paul was the one whispering in her ear about how to advance her career, including the names of the men she should sleep with to get ahead. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, was at the top of that list.
Though he personally saw to her career's advancement, Hugh claims he never laid a hand on her despite his reputation. "[But] there was a friendship between us. It wasn't romantic," Hugh told Teresa Carpenter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay, Death of a Playmate. He considered himself as more of a "father figure" to the young starlet rather than a romantic interest. "This was not a very loose lady," he continued.
Under Hef's tutelage, Dorothy's star continued to rise. Her modeling career was progressing nicely and the photographers she worked with had nothing but kind things to say about her. Before long, Dorothy found herself branching out into the foray into film and television as well. She was prominently featured in The Playboy Roller Disco and Pajama Party special that aired on TV. She also appeared in an episode of Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. In the latter part of 1979, Dorothy was eventually chosen as Playmate of the Year for 1980.
By January of 1980, Paul could sense a change in Dorothy. He didn't have nearly as much control over their finances as before. When he came to her with advice on how she should treat her career and what projects she should work on next, she scoffed at him and told him that's why she had agents and managers. The further her star rose, the less Paul saw her. Even though Dorothy was among those in Hef's inner circle, Paul was not often invited to Playboy events.
He was held at a distance by the Playboy family, in part because Hef didn't approve of him. "[Dorothy] knew I had serious reservations about [Snider]," Hef revealed. "I had sufficient reservations ... that I had him checked out in terms of a possible police record in Canada. ... I used the word---and I realized the [risk] I was taking---I said to her that he had a 'pimp-like quality' about him."
Perhaps Hef's disapproval, in addition to Paul's grandiose schemes and dreams for the money she brought in, were the reasons Dorothy finally decided to begin snipping at the ties that connected her to Paul.
Before long, Dorothy was cast in a comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich called They All Laughed. She got a featured role and starred alongside Audrey Hepburn, John Ritter, and Ben Gazzara. The filming took place in New York in late March and, when Paul asked to come with her, Dorothy turned him down. Instead, she flew to the East coast on her own. Her part in the movie was small, but her beauty caught the attention of the director. Part way through filming, Peter excitedly called Hef up and told him that he'd be expanding Dorothy's camera time. Peter was "very excited about her and the film," Hef recalled. That's not the only thing about Dorothy that excited Peter.
She and Peter began having an affair. When filming started, Dorothy stayed in the Wyndham Hotel. After the affair began, she quietly moved into Peter's suite at the Plaza. The two kept their tryst secret, though those on set eventually caught wind of what was going on. "I don't think that he was playing with this at all," Hef said. "I think it was important to him. I'm talking about the relationship."In the meantime, Paul was becoming desperate. He could feel a chill over the phone when he spoke to Dorothy and when he told her he loved her, she didn't say it back. Eventually, she began to screen his calls.
During a break in shooting, Dorothy met up with Paul and asked him to loosen his grip on her. "Let a bird fly," she said. The two fought and reconciled according to Paul, but it was the beginning of the end for Paul. As her husband, he technically had claim to half of the assets Dorothy had earned over the course of their marriage, but he noticed that quite a bit of her money was going to a corporation called Dorothy Stratten Enterprises, which he had no access to. He was beginning to believe that she was having an affair with Peter and assumed she was receiving advice from Peter's lawyers.
In June, Paul received a letter in the mail from Dorothy stating that they were officially separated, physically and financially. She closed out any joint accounts the couple shared and began sending Paul money via her business manager. For a while, Paul tried to go back to his old, scheming ways. He found another blonde 17-year-old girl with the same good looks as Dorothy, but she was a poor substitute for his dreams.
As the filming for They All Laughed drew to a close in late July, Paul was more certain than ever that Dorothy was having an affair but he couldn't prove it. He hired a private investigator to look into it and discovered his hunch was right. He wanted to use the information he got from the P.I. to sue Peter for "enticement to breach management contract," a clause which Paul believed was inherent in his marriage contract with Dorothy. It was a doomed effort, however, and Paul knew this. He confessed to friends that, "Maybe this thing is too big for me." The idea of going back to Canada with his tail between his legs was abhorrent to him, though, and he couldn't get Dorothy off his mind.
She, on the other hand, appeared to be loving life. She went to London with Peter on holiday, went to Dallas and Houston as part of a Playboy event, and had meetings with Hollywood bigshots about future projects. Secretly, though, she still worried about Paul. On August 8, she called him from Houston and agreed to meet with him on a lunch date. He was ecstatic that he'd seemingly gotten another shot at the woman he called his "queen," but his excitement proved to be futile. She wasn't interested in rekindling their romance and only wanted to talk about financial matters. When they went back to the apartment they used to share, she also confessed, finally, that she and Peter were in love. Dorothy took a few clothes she'd left behind in their old home and told him to give the rest away.
Perhaps it was that he'd had his hopes set so high for their final meeting and was let down that Paul was driven to his commit his final, deadly act. For the next five days, Paul's friends didn't notice anything different about him. He had become obsessed with finding a gun, but that was nothing new as they figured his old, shady dealings had left Paul uncomfortable with not having a firearm nearby. He got in contact with someone selling a 12-gauge shotgun in the classified section of the newspaper. The day after he picked it up, he asked Dorothy to come over to his apartment, ostensibly to go over a few final, financial details. She came over around 12:30 pm, but she never left. Neither did Paul.
The two were discovered later that evening by Paul's roommate, who had been unnerved enough by the silence coming from Paul's room to check in on the estranged couple. What he saw when he opened the door caused him to slam it shut just a second later. Both Paul and Dorothy were nude and both had been shot in the face with the shotgun. Dorothy, authorities later learned, had been assaulted as well as murdered. Paul, after he brutalized Dorothy, turned the weapon on himself.
All of Hollywood was shocked and grieved by the senseless crime, but none more so than Hugh Hefner. He had had a special interest in Dorothy's career and her untimely death was a huge blow to him. There was also the fact that some people wanted to lay the blame for Dorothy's death on his hands. "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," he said in an interview. "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."
Playboy rushed to pull everything related to Dorothy Stratten from their publication, but her Playmate of the Year issue had already gone to print. Instead, they scrapped all the photos they had been planning on using in Playboy's upcoming calendar, including a photo of a nude Dorothy seated next to Hugh Hefner. They also added a brief in memoriam caption to her Playmate of the Year spread that read, "The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all. ... As Playboy's Playmate of the Year with a film and a television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family."
Peter grieved privately, refusing to speak about Dorothy until They All Laughed premiered. He also wrote a book about her death, titled "The Killing Of The Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980." In it, he reflected on her beauty. "She wasn't simply beautiful, but unbelievably exquisite beauty...Her beauty was like an extraordinary mirage, too glorious to be real," he wrote. Now that beauty is gone forever, taken from this world before she could reach her full potential. There was so much more she could have done with her life, both professionally and personally. She might have been taken all too soon from this world, but her memory will live on.
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