True crime existed well before Truman Capote’s landmark “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood set the stage for the genre for decades to come—not just in terms of how stories were reported and written, but how they appealed to Hollywood as source material.
From Dog Day Afternoon to Dead Ringers, moviemakers looked for inspiration to narrative nonfiction they found in magazines, the alternative press, and newspapers, the way they once looked to Broadway and the theater for original material. Of all the true crime journalism that appeared during the New Journalism era, perhaps none was as tailor-made for a big screen adaptation than Teresa Carpenter’s brilliant, Pultizer Prize–winning, 1980 Village Voice feature about Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, who was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend.
Star 80 (1983) starred Mariel Hemingway, who had well-publicized a breast augmentation for the role), along with Eric Roberts, as her psycho ex. It was written and directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, in what turned out to be his final film. The movie was powerful, if uneven, Hemingway perhaps miscast, Roberts solidly in the meat of his best early work. Said film critic Roger Ebert: “Devastating, violent, hopeless, and important, because it holds a mirror up to a part of the world we live in, and helps us see it more clearly.” Pauline Kale put it this way: “It is a movie about the degradation of everything and everybody . . . Fosse piles up such an accumulation of sordid scenes that the movie is nauseated by itself.”
Of course, it is a rare movie adaptation of a narrative work that lives up to the standards of the original prose, for a million different reasons. But if ever it was going to happen, perhaps the weight of the credit goes to the source material—Carpenter’s sure-handed storytelling.
Lesser writers from the tabloid set of the time relied on the blunt salaciousness of the true events to tell their versions of the events: Beautiful young woman from Nowheresville, with overbearing, screw-loose boyfriend, becomes a superstar Playboy centerfold and part of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s inner circle. When she dumps the boyfriend and takes up with a famous movie director (Peter Bogdanovich), carnage ensues.
Carpenter, on the other hand, employs restraint, precision, and detachment. The best writers of nonfiction narrative know this secret: dig deep to unearth the details and then get out of the way and let the story tell itself. Artifice seldom triumphs over the hard work of good reporting.
This understated approach, complete with droll asides and the kind of professional skepticism that was once the standard sensibility of an old-school newspaper reporter like Carpenter, helps emphasize the horror of the story. Carpenter doesn’t shy away from unpleasant details but she doesn’t lean into melodrama. She doesn’t overplay anything, which may have seemed incongruous to the style of writing popularly associated with the Village Voice at the time, the leading alternative weekly of its generation. Without essayist underpinnings or first-person musings, Carpenter plays it straight, although she’s far from square. Call it a Midwestern sense of measure, taste, and cool.
Carpenter attended the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism and spent her early reporting apprenticeship at an up-and-coming regional publication (New Jersey Monthly), where she also she met her future (and present) husband, journalist and author Steven Levy. Although Carpenter spent time covering politics and business, it was true crime that became her calling.—Alex Belth
Alex Belth: Did you grow up exposed to any counterculture literature such as Rolling Stone, Ramparts, and New Times?
Teresa Carpenter: Afraid not. More like the Kansas City Star, Kansas City Times, and the Independence Examiner. The most exotic periodical in our household was the National Geographic. My father held an advanced degree in geography from the University of Missouri, and it was his go-to read. My mom was keen on literature. She read to me from a set of children’s classics. These had been edited to the level of preteens, but I was a preschooler when she started, so I entered the grades with a leg up on vocabulary.
AB: When were you first published?
TC: Pretty young, thanks to Mom. She and my father owned a travel and touring company, and in the summer of 1964 they took my three younger siblings and me on a trip around the world. Boats, trains, planes. Before we left, Mom contacted the Examiner and asked the editors if they would kindly consider receiving “dispatches” written by me from ports of call. I was sixteen at the time. They ended up publishing five or so. If I were to dig them out, I’m sure I would find them embarrassingly sophomoric, but I do remember that thrill of seeing my first byline in print.
AB: Did you follow up in school?
TC: Yes, I was fortunate to have been pulled into the gravitational field of a tough-minded journalism teacher at Truman High, Ron Clemons. I internalized his motto: Underpromise, overdeliver. It was my dad’s as well. Might be a Midwestern thing. During my senior year I was features editor of the school newspaper.
AB: What was your first actual job as a journalist?
TC: I’d graduated with a degree in English lit from Graceland, then a small liberal arts college in rural southern Iowa. My family had sentimental ties there. A degree in literature, as we know, qualifies one for any job in the “help wanted” ads. Mainly, I was looking to get out of the Midwest. I moved to Honolulu and there lucked into a job as “rewrite editor” for an obscure Japanese trade magazine.
As most of the copy came from headquarters in Osaka, the editors needed someone to smooth out awkward translations into idiomatic English. It was a really good job for someone just out of college. I got to do short interviews with the semanticist S. I. Hayakawa and Dr. Edwin O. Reischauer, former US Ambassador to Japan. I spent some time traveling in Micronesia and the Marianas, not tourist destinations in those days. After two years, however, I realized I was idling in a journalistic backwater. It was the mid-seventies, and the Watergate hearings had been drumming in the distance. Investigative journalism was the thing. So I broke camp, moved back to the Midwest, and enrolled as a grad student at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
AB: Were you reading Woodward and Bernstein’s work or was it more by reputation, their book, the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie version?
TC: I wasn’t reading the Washington Post so probably was not aware of their role in the matter or their impending celebrity. The hearings, which began while I was still in Hawaii, were heavily carried on broadcast media, probably because Senator Inouye was so visible. The book came out while I was in grad school.
AB: And you’re at Mizzou, which has a pretty much unrivaled school of journalism. Did you aspire to being a daily reporter?
TC: Not really. I did my requisite stint in the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian, but I wanted to follow the magazine sequence. It was in a state of flux at that time, so I looked around for the strongest program. That was the business writing sequence headed by Professor Lyle Harris. He dressed like a lumberjack but his worldview was quite sophisticated. He gave me a list of the books I should already have read. Among them, Michael Harrington’s The Other America and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He also had connections to publications on the East Coast. In the spring of 1976 he gave me a lead on a prospective start-up in Princeton, New Jersey Monthly.
AB: This was the golden era of the city and regional magazines.
TC: Oh, yes! Clay Felker’s New York was the best-known, but the city magazine, as a genre, began when Alan Halpern started editing Philadelphia Magazine. It was an effective mix of the glossy stuff and solid investigative work. NJM aspired to be cast in the same mold. I flew to New York for an interview at the Princeton Club with one of the publishers and was hired shortly thereafter.
AB: What was it like at a start-up?
TC: Chaotic. Start-ups usually are. The businesspeople were racing around like mad, but I was the first editorial hire. It wasn’t clear what I was supposed to be doing. I sat at my desk in a storefront window overlooking Nassau Street and tried to look busy. Things came into much clearer focus with the arrival of a managing editor, Jane Amsterdam.
AB: Tell us about Jane, I know she had a fascinating career.
TC: Jane was a Philadelphian who had interned at Philly Mag. She had been editor of Connecticut Magazine for three years or so before arriving at NJM. The thing I remember most about Jane was that she exuded self-confidence—odd, as I think back on it, because she was one or two years younger than me, (we were twenty-eight and twenty-five respectively, I think).
Jane’s vision was expansive. NJM was not going to be some paste imitation of New York and Philly Magazine. She reached out to top-tier talent from both and drew them into our fold. Fletcher Knebel. Robert Sam Anson, and others. Naturally, she edited the best writers and, again, I was assigned to rewrite, this time editing manuscripts that were solidly reported but structurally flawed. I don’t regret a moment of it. I found that you could learn as much from studying a story that didn’t work as from studying one that did.
The magazine took it up a notch when it hired three staff writers. The first was Steven Levy. Like Jane, he came from Philly where, after writing for two years at alternative weeklies he became a regular writer for Philadelphia and the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. I watched his reporting closely. He was inexorable. Calling, calling, calling. Making intuitive leaps, then calling some more. Every once in a while, he would jump on a plane, fly cross country, and show up at a source’s door. Steven won an IRE award for investigative magazine journalism in 1980. I went with him to the IRE conference that year in Kansas City. I wanted to touch base with the group’s executive director, Steve Weinberg. We had been students together at MU. I also wanted to take Steven Levy home to meet my family. By then we were a couple.
AB: Was it helpful to be in a relationship with a writer?
TC: Steven encouraged me to write my first magazine piece. It was some fluff about video-dating, but it displayed a sense of humor and a surprisingly strong writer’s voice. I asked to be moved down the masthead from editor to staff writer and I did everything from service pieces, “Best Irish Coffee in Name-the-City,” to hard reporting on the upsurge of the Ku Klux Klan in South Jersey. It was a good run while it lasted, but there was a diaspora of talent. Jane went to New Times as editor and by then NJM was struggling financially, so it shed staff writers. Steven had already quit but I was among the ballast tossed overboard, so he and I moved to New York to try our hand at freelancing.
We found an apartment in what had once been a luxury hotel in Greenwich Village, and we set up our “newsroom.” I took the bedroom as my office and Steven took the living room. Our desks were literally face-to-face with a wall between. The phones on each side were constantly busy. Actually, alternatively busy as we could only afford one line. We were grabbing work wherever we could get it. Steven wrote for New York, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines. I had my sights set on the Village Voice.
Why, I suppose, seems odd, given my conservative upbringing. I’d been the first member of my family to vote Democrat, an act tantamount to joining the Comintern. On the other hand, being a “liberal” left me much to the right of most staffers on the Voice. Fortunately, that wasn’t disqualifying at the publication as it existed under then editor-in-chief David Schneiderman. I don’t know what David’s politics were, or are, but he was not an ideologue, and he was welcoming to new talent, providing that talent was willing to work for Voice fees; about a quarter to a third of what one could expect from Esquire or Rolling Stone. The upside was getting your work out there where it could be seen. The nationals had only one cover a month; the Voice had four. If you wrote well enough, yours could be one of them. A Voice cover story would stay on the stands, highly visible, for a week, being picked up and read on both coasts and points in between. Although an alternative weekly, it really was a national publication.
AB: How did you approach the Voice?
TC: Jane Amsterdam introduced me to the managing editor, Susan Lyne, whom she knew from New Times. Susan had graduated from UC Berkeley and worked on the alternative weekly, City. Like Jane, she projected an almost other-worldly confidence. No matter what battles were raging around her, she was unflappable. I found her an outstanding editor whose most endearing habit, perhaps, was to read your manuscript soon after you turned it in and get back to you within the day. If there was anything at all to like about it, she’d gush. Why more editors don’t do this amazes me. Do they think that saying something complimentary right out of the gate will make a writer stop working? Quite the opposite. Anyway, she’d read my clips and was enthusiastic. The Voice, at that moment, needed a crime reporter.
I was already a fan of true crime. While in college, I’d skipped classes during a blizzard one afternoon to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I was thrilled by this “nonfiction novel.” Those details! The wedding band wobbling on Mrs. Clutter’s ring finger. How does such horror spring from out of nowhere? Since the Princeton days, I’d admired the true crime reconstruction pieces in Texas Monthly. They were stories about people whose lives would not ordinarily have come to light, but under the circumstances entered a public record. True crime was a kind of populist anthropology. I’d studied business reporting in grad school and edited political news at New Jersey Monthly, but reporting crime seemed more compelling. “Sure,” I told Susan. I could do it. I wrote three major crime stories in succession.
“Murder on a Day Pass” dealt with the troubled marriage of a Polish immigrant couple on Long Island, Ewa and Adam Berwid. Adam was mentally ill and violently so. The two were engaged in a custody battle over their two young children. He’d announced in court that he intended to kill his wife, after which he was committed to a state mental institution upstate for ninety days of “observation.” Once he entered the mental health system, it was mandatory that the criminal charges against him be dropped. No matter how crazy he appeared, the system was pushing to get him out and integrated into the community, where he could ideally regain his health in the bosom of family and friends. Berwid was transferred to the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, where he cajoled a psychiatrist into giving him a day pass. After an hour-long train ride home, he broke a basement window, climbed the stairs, and stabbed Ewa, who was frantically calling 911.
Berwid was a Ken Kesey nightmare in reverse. The mental health “reforms” of the sixties were meant to empty out asylums, which were often rat-ridden hellholes where the poor were warehoused. The state assembly held hearings to rethink this. Why were the dangerously insane not held, as a matter of course, in secure facilities? Of course, it all boiled down to one question: how can you predict dangerousness? No one had, or has, an answer. The best idea anyone could come up with was to caulk the gap between criminal and mental health law by allowing prosecutors to monitor the whereabouts of those committed as “criminally insane.”
The second article came soon after the first. Dennis Sweeney, a white activist in the civil rights movement of the sixties, shot and killed his erstwhile mentor, former congressman Allard Lowenstein, in March of 1980. The facts of the murder were clear. Sweeney came down from where he was living in Connecticut, visited Lowenstein at a Manhattan law office, and shot him with a Spanish pistol. The challenge was to get to the motive. When a public figure is killed, in this case a former congressman, the public needs to know why. Was it a political hit, a private grudge, or was it the work of a delusional madman? I spent time at Stanford interviewing Sweeney’s former friends and cohorts in the civil rights movement. They said that Dennis had become increasingly delusional, and his animosity toward Lowenstein apparently had its roots in, among other things, a sexual advance that Lowenstein had made toward him during their travels in the South. The story, published as “From Heroism to Madness,” made a number of Lowenstein’s friends and associates very angry. The article was reprinted in part in the Washington Post, which inspired fifteen congressmen to send a letter decrying the story as “rife with unsubstantiated assertions and gratuitous innuendo.” I was startled but not intimidated. The story was solidly sourced, and I knew I was right. The “petition” seemed to me to be one of the sort of mildly corrupt favors that members of congress do for influential constituents.
The third, Death of a Playmate, is possibly the best known of the three. It dealt with events leading up to the murder of Dorothy Stratten, a Dairy Queen counter worker who went on to become Hugh Hefner’s best shot at a breakthrough movie star. Sometime in August 1980, I received a call from an executive at Playboy who tipped me off the record that there was more to the story than had been reported to date. Basically, three men were looking to control Dorothy: Paul Snider, her husband and promoter; Hugh Hefner; and director Peter Bogdanovich, who stole her away from Snider. Snider had committed suicide after killing Dorothy at shotgun point.
Bogdanovich and his people weren’t talking. But it was one of those rare assignments where everything seemed to fall right into place. Hefner gave an interview. In his version, of course, he was a “father figure” to Dorothy. Later he was furious at me for poking holes in that fantasy. Other Playboy personnel agreed to talk off the record. The biggest break came when the LA County Medical Examiner-Coroner was leaked to me through a confidential channel. That nailed the reporting. In the end it was probably the best-written story of the three. The first two, while structured as magazine pieces, have a terse, reportorial style. Stratten is more lyrical.
AB: Not quite a year after your first crime piece, you received a Pulitzer. Can you tell us a little about that?
TC: After Stratten I was still turning out cover stories for the Voice, hoping to be hired as a staff writer. On April 13 of 1981 I was driving home after reporting a story in Pennsylvania coal country. I was very tired when I got back to New York that night. Steven opened the door and said, “You’d better sit down.” The Pulitzer Prizes had been announced that day, he said. That meant nothing to me as I didn’t know what time of year they usually came due. “The features jury voted unanimously for your entries,” Steven said, “but the board gave it to someone from the Washington Post. A “Janet Cooke”? I didn’t even know my entries had been submitted. I was a freelancer, not on staff. Usually, newspapers promote their most promising in-house talent. The Voice had asked for a bio sometime earlier, but I thought that it was apropos of my bid to be hired.
AB: That’s crazy.
TC: My first thought—honest to God—was “how flattering to be considered.” I was just too tired to muster anything more. Next morning I had an appointment in Midtown and when I returned home, the phone was ringing off the hook. We were getting calls from journalist friends saying that the Post was questioning Cooke over the accuracy of her story. By now we knew that she had originally been entered in the “Metro” news category but had been deliberately switched to “Feature Writing.” The Pulitzer board had the prerogative to do this and did, albeit infrequently. In this case they ignored the jury’s choice of the Voice entries to make way for the Cooke entry. Judith Crist, who headed up the features jury, made a courtesy call to me to confirm that the jurors’ vote for the Voice pieces had been unanimous.
Well, as we know now, “Little Jimmy” wasn’t real. The paper would be giving back Cooke’s discredited Pulitzer. It was unclear what would happen next. Then we received word from my agent affirming that the prize would be going—or coming back—to me. The next morning our lobby was full of floral bouquets, and there were congratulatory telegrams from people I hadn’t heard from in years. It was lovely.
AB: How did the Pulitzer change your life?
TC: When people asked that, I was never sure what to say. It was satisfying to realize that one enjoys the respect of one’s peers. I did get that staff position at the Voice, but as you know, salaries were famously low. I had to take outside jobs, but I still worked from home where Steven and I continued to share a phone line. The Pulitzer did, for sure, open doors. I reviewed books for the New York Times and contributed to the Arts and Leisure section. I wrote profiles and cover stories for Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, and Premiere and others. Hardcover publishing was the next most obvious—and enormous—step and I went for it, signing my first book in 1983. If I may offer a practical observation for others thinking to do the same: a magazine article is an island; a book is a continent. But that’s a story for another day.
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DEATH OF A PLAYMATE: A TRUE STORY OF A PLAYBOY CENTERFOLD KILLED BY HER JEALOUS HUSBAND
Dorothy Stratten was the focus of the dreams and ambitions of three men. One killed her.
IT IS SHORTLY PAST four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “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.”
That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings, known as “Queen of the B-Movies,” was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.
But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the “Eighties’ First Playmate of the Year,” who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging goddesses of the new decade.”
She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. Her screen roles were all minor ones. A fleeting walk-on as a bunny in Americathon. A small running part as a roller nymph in Skatetown U.S.A. She played the most perfect woman in the universe in an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She was surely more successful in a shorter period of time than any other playmate in the history of the empire. “Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”
No wonder Hefner grieves.
“The major reason that I’m . . . that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is 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.”
The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis. And on August 14 of this year he apparently took her life and his own with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Paul Snider knew that gaping vulnerability of a young girl. Before he came along Dorothy had had only one boyfriend. She had thought of herself as “plain with big hands.” At sixteen, her breasts swelled into glorious lobes, but she never really knew what to do about them. She was a shy, comely, undistinguished teenager who wrote sophomoric poetry and had no aspirations other than landing a secretarial job. When Paul told her she was beautiful, she unfolded in the glow of his compliments and was infected by his ambitions for her.
Snider probably never worked Dorothy as a prostitute. He recognized that she was, as one observer put it, “class merchandise” that could be groomed to better advantage. He had tried to promote other girls as playmates, notably a stripper in 1974, but without success. He had often secured recycled playmates or bunnies to work his auto shows and had seen some get burned out on sex and cocaine, languishing because of poor management. Snider dealt gingerly with Dorothy’s inexperience and broke her in gradually. After escorting her to her graduation dance—he bought her a ruffled white gown for the occasion—he took her to a German photographer named Uwe Meyer for her first professional portrait. She looked like a flirtatious virgin.
About a month later, Snider called Meyer again, this time to do a nude shooting at Snider’s apartment. Meyer arrived with a hairdresser to find Dorothy a little nervous. She clung, as she later recalled, to a scarf or a blouse as a towline to modesty, but she fell quickly into playful postures. She was perfectly pliant.
“She was eager to please,” recalls Meyer. “I hesitated to rearrange her breasts thinking it might upset her, but she said, ‘Do whatever you like.’“
Meyer hoped to get the $1,000 finder’s fee that Playboy routinely pays photographers who discover playmates along the byways and backwaters of the continent. But Snider, covering all bets, took Dorothy to another photographer named Ken Honey who had an established track-record with Playboy. Honey had at first declined to shoot Dorothy because she was underage and needed a parent’s signature on the release. Dorothy, who was reluctant to tell anyone at home about the nude posing, finally broke the news to her mother and persuaded her to sign. Honey sent this set of shots to Los Angeles and was sent a finder’s fee. In August 1978, Dorothy flew to Los Angeles for a test shot. It was the first time she had ever been on a plane.
Copyright © 1980 Teresa Carpenter
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