Before Hugh Hefner’s death last week at the age of 91, there was one dark event that followed him for years: the murder of one of his most promising Playboy Playmates, 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten.

After Stratten was shot in the face by her estranged husband on Aug. 14, 1980, Hefner issued an emotionless news release and went into a media-free seclusion. However, he allowed one reporter in.

Village Voice writer Teresa Carpenter caught a glimpse at what he had otherwise kept private.

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.”

The beginning of Dorothy Stratten’s career

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.

Marriage, cheating and estrangement

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.”
  • She appeared on the Johnny Carson show.
  • One of her biggest breaks came when film producer Peter Bogdanovich cast her in his comedy “They all Laughed” alongside Audrey Hepburn. He’d met Stratten earlier at the Playboy Mansion.

Filming took place in New York City and soon a relationship blossomed between Bogdanovich, 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 Aug. 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 killed her — though they’re unsure whether it happened before or after. Then he turned the gun on himself.

Aftermath

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.

“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.”

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.”

Hefner’s statements

Hefner, at a news conference, accused Bogdanovich of causing the stress which led to his stroke in 1985. 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.

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