The Passions of Peter Bogdanovich
She was, director Peter Bogdanovich would admit, an obsession. Blond, delicately featured, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten was so beautiful she seemed luminescent, as if lit from within. A year after he first met her in 1978, when she was 18, Bogdanovich cast her in a movie and, though she was married, they soon became lovers. “I could hardly believe that she really existed, that she wasn’t a dream,” he later said of their affair. “There was something miraculous about Dorothy Stratten.”
In just five months, however, the director’s dream became a nightmare: Dorothy’s estranged husband, crazed by her decision to leave him and marry Bogdanovich, raped her, killed her with a point-blank shotgun blast to the head, and then killed himself. Her murder left Bogdanovich desolate, devastated. “I haven’t been dating,” he said, 16 months after Dorothy’s murder. “I’m a widower. I don’t know if I can ever love as totally and completely as I loved Dorothy.” He gave up making movies to write a book about her death, and he became devoted to Dorothy’s mother, Nelly, and her 12-year-old kid sister, Louise.
Too devoted, some said. He sent Louise, an insecure, pudgy girl with none of her sister’s delicate features, to a private school and to modeling classes. He bought her a baby grand piano and took her along on trips to Paris and Hawaii. He gave her a gold-and-diamond necklace and, when she graduated from high school, a Pontiac Trans Am. In 1986, he gave her a movie role.
Two weeks ago, Bogdanovich married Louise, now 20, in a small ceremony in Vancouver, renewing speculation about just when his interest in the girl became more than that of a close family friend—and about just what it had become. Skeptics suggested that Louise’s motivation had a practical side; her marriage to Bogdanovich would solve a chronic problem she’d had coming from her native Canada to work in the States. Those who know the couple discounted that—and saw in the relationship an eerie reprise of the director’s intense love for Louise’s sister, Dorothy.
When allegations of a romantic attachment between Bogdanovich and Louise first surfaced in 1984, when she was 16, they were silenced by a slander suit filed by Louise and her mother. (The suit was later dropped.) Some of those who know Bogdanovich best expressed little surprise at the marriage. Polly Platt, Bogdanovich’s first wife and mother of his two daughters—who were friendly with Louise during her frequent sojourns in L.A.—says the pair “had been together for a long time.”
But Louise’s mother, hearing of the marriage at her home in Vancouver, was distraught. “I feel he wants her because of a guilt trip,” she said. “This happened to my other daughter, who got her head shot off, and it’s gonna happen to this one. He didn’t do it, but he was involved. If he is in love with one daughter, how can he be in love with the other daughter?”
The answer to that question may lie in Hollywood’s peculiar tendency to mix fact and fantasy. Bogdanovich has long been known for blurring his professional and personal lives. He fell in love with his leading ladies, and tried to make his lovers into stars.
He had been married for seven years to screenwriter and producer Polly (Pretty Baby) Platt when he saw Cybill Shepherd’s picture on the cover of Glamour. Cybill was 20 when Bogdanovich cast her in The Last Picture Show, the movie that made both their reputations. He soon left Polly and his two young daughters, Antonia and Alexandra, then toddlers, to move in with Shepherd. But their next two projects together, Daisy Miller and the musical At Long Last Love, convinced critics that the talented Bogdanovich was blinded by love. Shepherd was miscast, the movies were leaden, and both their careers were set back by the liaison. In 1978, Shepherd and Bogdanovich broke up.
At about that time, Dorothy Stratten, whose sweet temper belied a difficult childhood in Vancouver, was taking her first steps toward Hollywood. Her mother, Nelly Hoogstraten, had been twice married and divorced and often had to rely on welfare while raising her three children. (John, the second child, was one year younger than Dorothy, and Louise, the baby, was the product of the second marriage.) Nelly trained as a practical nurse, but decent-paying jobs were scarce. “When I met Nelly [in 1975] we were both single mothers, trying to raise our children on very little money,” recalls close friend Christine Fisher Koenders, whose daughter Julie was about the same age as Louise. “They were living in a tiny postage stamp of a house near an amusement park in Vancouver. It was a harsh environment. Dorothy was a beautiful girl, and her personality was even nicer. Nelly was worried that Dorothy was going down to Hollywood, but Dorothy kept telling her she was okay.”
Still, Dorothy’s friends were concerned about her association with Paul Snider. A small-time local photographer whose burning ambition was to crack Playboy, he bullied Dorothy, then working at a Dairy Queen, into posing for nude photographs. He peddled them to the magazine, then took his prize to L.A. in the summer of 1978. The next year, he persuaded Dorothy to marry him. Shortly afterward she was selected Playmate of the Year. Around the same time, Bogdanovich ran into Stratten for the second time at the Playboy mansion. Smitten by her beauty, he struck up a conversation and soon got in touch again to offer her a small role in his new movie, They All Laughed. By the summer of 1980, she had moved into the director’s Bel Air home.
Early in their romance, Bogdanovich presented Dorothy with a little unicorn pin because, he said, her “purity and grace” reminded him of that mythical creature. Dorothy began collecting unicorns. In May 1980, she went home for her mother’s third marriage, to Burl Eldridge. Elizabeth Norris, director of communications for Playboy Enterprises, went along and was struck by the way 12-year-old Louise “absolutely worshipped Dorothy, and Dorothy adored her little sister.”
She noticed something else. “At the wedding reception, Louise sat on Burl’s lap and held his hand most of the time. I felt that she was a little girl who had never had a father figure and was desperate for one…. In fact, they were all hungry for attention—all vulnerable—Louise, Dorothy, Nelly.”
Later that summer, Louise, who was about the same age as Bogdanovich’s daughters, went to Hollywood to visit her sister. Her letters to a friend back home were excited, if full of misspellings. “We went to the Mohobby Desert and while we were down there we saw 10 raddle snakes, 5 jack rabits. I have a grate tan and at Dorothy’s place I have my own room, push button telephone, my own bathroom, a pool and a movie porjecter.”
On Aug. 14, 1980, Stratten failed to return from a meeting with her estranged husband. Police later determined that Snider had put Dorothy into a bondage machine of his own design and raped her before killing her with a 12-gauge shotgun. He then turned the gun on himself.
Bogdanovich got the news that evening from Hugh Hefner. “I screamed,” he writes in his book. “On the floor I curled into a ball.” He could not face telling Louise.
“He told her Dorothy had to go to New York on a business trip and Louise would have to go home to Vancouver,” says her friend Julie Fisher. “She didn’t know what was going on. Then one day she asked me, ‘Why can’t we watch television? Why can’t we go out like we used to?’
“I asked her, ‘Do you want the truth or a lie?’ Then I told her, ‘Paul killed Dorothy.’ She stayed in her mom’s bedroom for two days. Dorothy and Louise were so close. It hurt a lot.” At the Banting junior high school, where Louise was entering eighth grade, a friend says she was “stared at like a freak.” Ravaged by grief, Nelly refused to talk about the murder with anyone—even her daughter. “We could always tell when Nelly had been in Louise’s room because all the pictures of Dorothy would be turned facedown on the tables,” says Julie. “She didn’t have any around in the rest of the house either.”
There were other family problems as well. According to Christine Koenders, brother John had entered into a disastrous marriage with a woman later convicted of robbery; Eldridge’s two sons were giving Nelly trouble; Burl was rarely at home; and Nelly’s marriage was failing.
In such an environment, Bogdanovich’s invitation to Nelly and Louise to come live with him and help him with the book he was writing on Dorothy must have come as a gift. Why he made the invitation is less clear. Did he feel guilty because his romance with Dorothy had, indirectly at least, provoked her murder? Did he feel a need to mourn Dorothy with the people who loved her best? At the very least, as Polly Platt would later say, he “felt he needed to take care of Dorothy’s sister.” As early as the fall of 1980, Playboy’s Elizabeth Norris, who stopped in to see the family on a trip to Vancouver, noted that Bogdanovich had “had a telephone installed in Louise’s room so she could call him, collect, every night.”
In the spring of 1981, Louise and Nelly moved into the guest wing of Bogdanovich’s L.A. house. When she came for a visit a few months later, Louise’s friend Julie was impressed by their new life. Louise and her mother both had new wardrobes and a private tap-dancing teacher. Bogdanovich had put Louise in a private school and arranged surgery to correct her protruding jaw—a defect caused by feeding difficulties shortly after her premature birth. “They finally had to break it and wire it shut for a while,” says Julie. “But you could really see the difference afterwards. I think, while she was at it, she had the shape of her nose changed too. You can see in the snapshots I took of us over the years she has a new nose now. More like Dorothy’s.”
Bogdanovich, Julie recalls, spent most of his time at work on his book in Dorothy’s old room, amid her untouched collection of unicorns. When the kids, Julie and Louise and his daughters, Sashy and Toni, crashed in on him, recalls Julie, “he was pretty good about it, like a nice uncle. Sometimes he’d come out. But most of the time, he’d have someone take us shopping or out to a movie or to get ice cream.”
Louise and her mother stayed on for a year, during which time Louise wrote girlish letters home, on stationery decorated with rainbows and unicorns, about clothes and her Vancouver boyfriends. After mother and daughter returned to Canada in 1982, however, Bogdanovich was still very much in the picture. For most summer vacations and holidays, Louise traveled to Los Angeles, sometimes accompanied by her mother, sometimes not.
“Peter showered her with presents,” says Julie. “She had all kinds of gold chains and all these rings. She had two rings on each finger.” By 1984, when Louise was 16 and Bogdanovich had published his memoir, The Killing of the Unicorn, people were beginning to talk.
“I know you know that Dorothy Stratten was the 1980 Playmate… [whose] lover was Peter Bogdanovich,” wrote New York Post columnist Cindy Adams. “What you might not know is Dorothy had a sister, Louise. What you for sure don’t know is Louise’s new beau is Peter Bogdanovich….Louise is a teenager.”
On April 1, 1985, Hugh Hefner—stung by charges in Bogdanovich’s book that his magazine’s treatment of Stratten contributed to her death—made a more pointed claim. “There was pursuit of Dorothy’s entire family in the months and years after her death,” he said at a press conference. “Pursuit of the mother, and the husband claiming adultery, followed by the seduction of her sister…as a pathological replacement of Dorothy that has continued from that time to the present.”
One week later, Louise Hoogstraten and her mother brought a $5 million slander suit against Hefner. Five months later, they dropped the charges. The depositions taken in the case have never been made public, but Keith Morgan, a reporter for the Vancouver Province, who also tried for several months to uncover the truth about Bogdanovich’s relationship to Louise, says that, while there was a lot of innuendo, “no one I talked to actually saw anything above a kiss and a cuddle.”
In 1987, Louise made her film debut in Bogdanovich’s Illegally Yours. She took a stage name for the occasion: L.B. Straten.
No family members were invited when Peter Bogdanovich (who is now working on Texasville, a sequel to The Last Picture Show) quietly married the new star of his life at the Wedgewood Hotel in Vancouver on Dec. 30. “We were shocked,” says one relative of the bride. “However, in looking back, Peter was so in love with Dorothy that the only person he really even associated with was that little baby sister. He has never been able to let go of the feeling. Perhaps he’s trying to capture what he had with her.”
When Louise left Peter in L.A. for a trip home two weeks after the wedding, cynics leaped to the conclusion that the marriage had been only a convenient solution to her immigration problems and was already over. In fact, insiders say, she had gone home to try to reconcile her mother to her new life. Bogdanovich’s ex-wife Polly Piatt, for one, has no doubt that Louise and Peter are a love match. “I like Louise very much,” she says. “She’s a lovely person, and she’s very close to my children. She’s very young, yes, but she’s genuine. All this is so difficult to explain. She’s a victim of all this, not a perpetrator in any way. We were all victims of the murder. But I feel good about this. I told Peter long ago, ‘You should marry Louise.’ She certainly loves him very much. She look at him the way. I guess that men dream of being looked at. It’s better for her this way. Who can whisper when there’s a ring on your finger?”
—Joyce Wadler, and Doris Bacon in Vancouver, Suzanne Adelson and Leah Feldon in L.A., and Barbara Kleban Mills in Chicago