The Gruesome Murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten

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In her 1980 photoshoot for Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten posed — nude — in the style of past bombshells like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. A similar, future spread was also planned for Stratten: “Dorothy Stratten’s Century of Famous Blondes.” But the photos were never published. And Stratten would soon meet a crueler fate than any of those tragic, historic starlets.

Just months after gracing the cover of Playboy, the 20-year-old Stratten was murdered by her ex-husband. Her corpse, mutilated. Descriptions of the horrible crime scene read like pulp fiction.

Entering the Playboy Mansion

Dorothy Stratten via Heavy.com

Dorothy Stratten was born Dorothy Hoogstraten in Vancouver in 1960. Her parents were Dutch immigrants and had two more children together, a son John and a daughter Louise, before Dorothy’s father left the family. 

While in high school, Dorothy worked part-time at the local Dairy Queen where she met Paul Snider, a 26-year-old promoter and pimp. They began dating, and Snider encouraged Stratten to pose for nude photos which he sent off to contest for Playboy. Dorothy was chosen as a finalist and in 1978, headed off to Los Angeles with her older boyfriend. They married in 1979. That same year, Dorothy was chosen as August’s Playmate of the Month. 

She changed her surname to the catchier Stratten and began waitressing at the Playboy Club, where Hugh Hefner took a particular interest in her. And though he was a notoriously jealous partner, Snider encouraged the relationship. It was mutually beneficial for Snider who, at this point, was living off Stratten’s money.

Around that time, Stratten had also begun acting. She appeared in episodes Buck Rogers and Fantasy Island and featured heavily in the early Patrick Swayze comedy Skatetown, U.S.A. It was this performance that garnered Stratten extra attention and she was cast in the exploitation film Autumn Born. All were filmed in 1979.

Then, in 1980, Stratten’s career hit an even bigger stride. She was chosen as Playboy‘s Playmate of the Year. high

And the while, Paul Snider was becoming increasingly violent. 

Playmate of the Year

The Dorothy Stratten cover via The Daily News

For her Playmate of the Year photoshoot, Dorothy Stratten posed fully nude. According to the podcast, You Must Remember This, it marked a stark transition from her previous, comparatively demure Playmate of the Month photos. Photographer Mario Casilli staged Stratten in poses that were directly reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s own calendar shots, on red satin, published in Playboy decades earlier.

Marilyn Monroe in 1952 via limitedruns.com

The spread was published in the magazine in April of 1980. By that point, Stratten had left Paul Snider and taken up with hotshot director Peter Bogdonavich.

Meeting Peter Bogdonavich

Peter Bogdonavich solidified his film reputation with three early hits: The Last Picture Show, Paper Moons, and What’s Up, Doc? During the filming of The Last Picture Show, in 1971, Bogdonavich left his wife (and mother of his children), production designer Polly Platt, for the 20-year-old star of his movie: Cybill Shepherd. Platt was collaborating with her husband on The Last Picture Show, and the affair took place right under her nose.

Once filming was completed, Bogdonavich left Platt for Shepherd officially, and the young actress became his muse. Shepherd would star in more movies for her boyfriend and as the ’70s wore one, the bespectacled Bogdonavich one-half of a bona-fide Hollywood it couple. The popular pairing truly represented the era’s New Hollywood mainstream.

But Shepherd and Bogdonavich broke up in 1978, and he began to hang out at the Playboy mansion. It was a time of self-described “devastating promiscuity” for the director… until he met Dorothy Stratten at the mansion. In 1979, they struck up a friendship.

Bogdonavich was obviously attracted to Stratten, who was still married to Paul Snider. And for a while, he refrained from making a movie. Instead, he re-wrote the script he’d been working on — They All Laughed — to emphasize a new lead role that Stratten could play. She joined the film and, while on set in January of 1980, they finally became romantic. The affair ramped up throughout shooting. But, little did they know, Snider was spying on them. Stratten’s husband had hired private detectives to tail her.

Before filming They All Laughed, Stratten had already decided to leave Snider. Wary of Snider’s scary and possessive behavior — he’d even poisoned her puppy — she had arrived on location with six suitcases. Stratten’s mother warned her repeatedly that Snider was out for blood.

The Murder

In June of 1980, Dorothy Stratten legally separated from Paul Snider. In response, he took $15,000 from their joint account and went to her Los Angeles bank with another blonde attempting to empty out her own account. Stratten decided to move forward with the divorce.

Meanwhile, Snider hired photographers who proved that Stratten and Peter Bogdonavich were having an affair. Stratten then sat down with Snider for lunch to explain this development. Soon after, she moved into Bogdonavich’s home. And Snider bought a shotgun.

On August 13, 1980, Stratten arrived at Snider’s West Hollywood home to further discuss the terms of their divorce. She’d come alone. That’s when Snider shot her in the face. When her body was found, she was missing a fingertip too, indicating how she’d tried to shield her face from Snider’s bullets.

After she was dead, Snider dragged her body across the room to a homemade bondage machine he’d made. Evidence showed that Stratten’s corpse was raped and raped. Then Snider had killed himself. His own body was found at the foot of his bed, clutching Stratten’s blonde hair.

By the time the bodies were found, all the blood was caked with a line of ants marching through it.

Stratten was cremated and her remains still sit in Westwood Memorial Park, the burial place of Marilyn Monroe.

The Dramatic Aftermath

It was Hugh Hefner who called Peter Bogdonavich to tell him the horrible news. He was devastated and stepped away from filmmaking for some time. However, he completed They All Laughed and wanted audiences to the film which could have made Stratten a star.

Amidst the tragedy though, 20th Century Fox, which owned They All Laughed, decided not to promote the movie. So Bogdonavich went bankrupt buying the rights back, and self-released it in 1981. But without studio press, it flopped — despite positive reviews, for Stratten’s performance in particular. Watch it in full, above.

The following year, Bob Fosse’s Star 80 was released. It offers a theatrical re-telling of Stratten’s life, based on Teresa Carpenter’s award-winning Village Voice article, “Death of a Playmate.” It starred Muriel Hemingway as Stratten and received favorable reviews, but Bogdonavich objected to the portrayal of his late girlfriend.

In response, he tried to offer his own account of the events and spent the next year writing The Killing of the Unicorn: a personal book about Stratten, their relationship, and her death. It’s also, essentially, and anti-porn and anti-Playboy manifesto. Which did not go over well with Hefner.

In The Killing of a Unicorn, Bogdonavich asserts that Heffner had raped Stratten in a jacuzzi, right around the time she entered the Playboy mansion.

In response, Hefner went on an all-out media blitz tarnishing Bogdonavich. Heffner hired a psychiatrist to go on the record stating that Bogdonavich was exhibiting symptoms of psychosis and he commissioned a Rolling Stone profile to affirm his own, cool reputation.

He eventually, also, counter-accused Bogdanovch of rape.

In a 1985 press conference, Hefner told reporters that Bogdonavich was now in a relationship with Louise Stratten, Dorothy’s 16-year-old sister who had been 12 at the time of the murder. As a witness, he called upon a former boyfriend of Nelly Hoogstratten, their mother.

Louise and Nelly filed a slander suit against Hefner (though it was eventually dropped) and an LAPD investigation turned up no evidence of an inappropriate relationship. But in 1988, the 49-year-old Bogdonavich married Louise, then 20.

They were, admittedly, trauma bonded. Bogdonavich has told multiple sources that he and Louise clung to each other like survivors after “a shipwreck.” But the attraction was also physical:

“It’s like, ‘Is there any more at home like you?’ People acted like it was some strange thing that Dorothy had a sister I might be interested in, but I don’t know why. It was her sister. It’s sort of normal, I think. Not such a stretch.”

— Peter Bogdonavich, reflecting on his relationship with the younger Stratten

They remained married until 2001 and close for years after. As of 2019, Bogdonavich still lived in an apartment with both Louise and Nelly. He died in 2022 at the age of 82.

READ MORE: Brooke Shields Posed for Playboy at 10-Years-Old

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