Dorothy Stratten made lurid headlines in 1980, when her estranged husband, Paul Snider, raped her before murdering the reigning Playboy Playmate of the Year with a 12-gauge shotgun blast to the face.
She was 20 years old. Snider, 29, then turned the gun on himself.
Nearly 40 years later, the stunning blonde is trending again thanks to the new ABC News documentary “The Death of a Playmate.”
The two-hour true-crime tale retraces Stratten’s whirlwind life — from scooping ice cream in Vancouver, British Columbia, to being a Playboy Bunny in Los Angeles, to her short time as a burgeoning big-screen star opposite Audrey Hepburn.
Dr. Stephen Cushner and Patti Laurman — the couple’s former housemates in LA — knew Stratten was going to the home she once shared with Snider to negotiate a divorce settlement. Worried about her safety due to the scorned Snider’s increasingly erratic behavior, they went to check on her.
They knocked to no avail before opening the door to “a picture that never goes away, a mental picture that’s stuck in here forever,” Laurman recalls in the “20/20” production. “It looked like it was a horror movie. A staged horror movie — like mannequins and fake blood.”
But it was instead a very real tragedy some who knew them considered almost inevitable. By many accounts, this centerfold was an angel.
“She didn’t believe that everybody lied, and all the liars came to [Los Angeles],” recounts actor pal Max Baer Jr., best known as Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“I said, ‘Do you care about her?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, if you really care about her . . . take her back to Vancouver. She doesn’t belong here.’ I said, ‘She’s nice. She’s got a great figure, got a beautiful face and this town will destroy her.’ ”
How a ‘Jewish pimp’ lured a ‘babe in the woods’
Dorothy Ruth Hoogstratten was an introverted 17-year-old helping her single mom make ends meet by working at a Dairy Queen in 1978 when sleazy Snider first spotted his raw ticket to the big time. Teresa Carpenter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1980 Village Voice cover story about Stratten’s life and death, recounts how Snider earned a “decent living” promoting auto shows.
“But it wasn’t enough to accommodate his extravagant taste, so he began to procure girls and pimp them on the side,” Carpenter says in the new doc. “He didn’t keep a low profile in that he drove a black Corvette, wore a mink coat and a Star of David encrusted with jewels that he hung on his chest. He was called the Jewish pimp and he cultivated that.”
But his new girl was different, and Snider set about “grooming” his “class merchandise.” Stratten’s friends detail how the opportunistic hustler was the first man to tell the high school student she was beautiful — and escorted her to her senior prom.
When Playboy launched its “Great Playmate Hunt” to discover the cover model and centerfold for its 25th-anniversary issue, Snider convinced his discovery, then 18, to pose for nude photos.
“It took him a little while to talk me into agreeing to taking some test pictures,” says Stratten in a clip from a local Canadian talk show. “I had never taken my clothes off for anyone I didn’t know . . . It took me about two weeks to agree.”
Hugh Hefner’s talent scouts, however, were instantly hot for the “innocence” of Stratten’s test shots.
“I wanted her on the next plane — she was a total babe in the woods,” recounts photo editor Marilyn Grabowski, who worked at Playboy for 43 years. “I cannot remember another Playmate being that — I don’t want to say naive, [but] inexperienced, unused to her surroundings and not used to thinking that she was really beautiful.”
Crippled by shyness, the newly christened Dorothy Stratten missed out on the 25th-anniversary Playmate gig — but went to work — and earned her green card — as a Bunny at the Playboy Club West, where she wasn’t old enough to serve alcohol.
When she was fast-tracked to Playmate of the Month for August 1979, “small-time hustler” Snider tightened his grip on his asset. To prove her loyalty, and against Hef’s wishes, she married Snider two months before her issue hit newsstands.
From Svengali to shooting star
“She was on the phone with him daily when we shot her,” says Grabowski. “She would call and tell him how great it was going. She thought that whatever success she was having — and it was embryonic at that point — was totally due to Paul.”
Soon, however, Stratten was booking mainstream acting roles, from a low-budget horror flick, “Autumn Born,” to guest shots on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and “Fantasy Island.” Meanwhile, her husband was blowing her earnings on a series get-rich-quick male stripper shows.
In 1980, she was named Playmate of the Year and headlined the Playboy-produced sci-fi film “Galaxina.” It was that year when she met Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”), newly single after a high-profile split from actress Cybill Shepherd — and cruising at the Playboy Mansion.
He fell “madly in love” with Stratten — and wrote a wholesome, girl next door role specifically for her in his film “They All Laughed,” starring opposite A-listers Audrey Hepburn and John Ritter.
Stratten was fast outgrowing her Svengali and seeing through his exploitation, “The Death of a Playmate” reports. An enraged Snider was banned by Hef from the Playboy Mansion — and his trophy wife stopped returning his calls.
When she and Bogdanovich returned from location shoots in New York City, they moved in together. Stratten informed Snider she wanted to discuss a divorce settlement.
Former Los Angeles homicide detective Richard DeAnda tells ABC’s crew how Snider scoured classified ads for a shotgun — and bought one on Aug. 13, 1980.
Stratten and Snider’s former housemates, Cushner and Laurman, discovered their dead bodies the next day.
“[Paul] ultimately had to do what he did, and basically — to Hefner, to Bogdanovich, everybody else, to society in general — put up not one but two middle fingers and say, ‘That’s what you get for messing with Paul Snider,’ ” Cushner says.
“I think that if you look at the control factor of . . . forcing sex upon her, I think that’s all a part of his regaining his position of power,” DeAnda adds. “I think it was more realizing that he had no future without her and didn’t want anyone else to have a future [with] her.”
In a haunting twist of fate, Stratten was buried at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park — the same final resting place as inaugural Playboy cover model Marilyn Monroe.
“They All Laughed” was released on Aug. 14, 1981. It received mixed reviews at the time but has since gone on to some cult critical fame. Stratten’s truncated life also inspired the Bob Fosse-directed biopic “Star 80,” featuring Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts, and the TV movie “Death of a Centerfold,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
“To be candid, I think I lost my mind a bit,” Bogdanovich wrote in his book about Stratten, “The Killing of the Unicorn.”
“[I miss her] wisdom, her laugh, her warmth, her beauty, her humor, her charm, her elegance [and] her empathy,” the veteran filmmaker added in a later statement to Fox News. “Everything about her I miss.”