Dorothy Stratten’s Cause of Death: How Did She Die?

dorothy stratten

Getty Dorothy Stratten.

Dorothy Stratten died a violent death at the hands of her estranged husband, Paul Snider, who was fueled by a jealous rage.

They were found dead from shotgun wounds in the Los Angeles apartment they once shared. Stratten was 20, and Snider was 29.

Stratten was a rising film star when she was murdered. She was known best as a Playboy Playmate, but she was making a name for herself in the film industry. It was in film that she met a lover who would spur Snider’s murderous rage: Director Peter Bogdanovich.

Stratten was the first Playmate of the Year for the 1980s. In June, the magazine touted her as “one of the few emerging film goddesses of the new decade,” according to a December 1980 issue of The Village Voice.

Her story was told on ABC’s 20/20 in its October 18, 2019 episode, “The Death of a Playmate.” The episode was given the same name as The Village Voice article, which was published a few weeks after her death and won a Pulitzer Prize. The 20/20 episode airs at 9 p.m. EST.

Here’s what you need to know:

Dorothy Stratten Was Raped, Murdered & Killed With a Shotgun by Her Estranged Husband, Paul Snider

The murder scene at the home Paul Snider and Dorothy Stratten once shared was a grisly one. At the apartment in West Los Angeles on August 14, 1980, Stratten’s body was found nude. Her cause of death was apparent. The Village Voice wrote she was found with “her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot.”

Immediately after the bodies were found, Los Angeles Police determined the deaths were likely caused by a murder-suicide, but continued their investigation to rule out any other possibilities, according to an article published in the Los Angeles Times August 15, 1980.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Glenn Ackerman told the newspaper at the time that police believed Stratten was killed in a murder-suicide, adding, “but we have to explore all angles.”

The next day, Lt. Dan Cooke told the newspaper police believed the motive for the shooting “was apparently that [Snider] was despondent over the breakup of the marriage.”

The newspaper described the scene outside the home the day of the murder-suicide in the article published immediately after her death.

“Outside the two-story stucco house in the shadow of the Santa Monica Freeway, a car was parked with Galaxena (sic) on the license plate,” the article says, referring to a movie featuring Stratten and released the day after her death. “Beside the house in the weed-choked yard, a German shepherd dog named Sparton looked curiously at the camera crews taking his picture.”

Although Snider seemed to be caught up in Stratten’s success, she was unfazed by the limelight, her business manager, Robert Houston, told the Los Angeles Times in an article published August 16, 1980.

“Stratten’s business manager, Robert Houston, described the young actress as serious-minded but friendly, with her head unturned by success,” the article said. “‘She had everything going for her,’ Houston said, “but she was living a cautious financial life. It was a dream come true, but she was not caught up by the lights of Hollywood.'”

Autopsy results officially ruled the cause of death for both Snider and Stratten, saying they both died from gunshot wounds to the head, according to a Los Angeles Times article published August 17, 1980.

“Autopsies confirmed that shotgun wounds to the head killed both Dorothy Stratten, 20, Playboy magazine’s 1980 ‘Playmate of the Year,’ and her estranged husband, Paul Snider, 29,” the article said. “Both were found in Snider’s West Los Angeles home. Police said Snider apparently murdered his wife, then killed himself.”

Los Angeles Police later officially ruled the death a murder-suicide, saying Paul Snider killed Stratten before turning the gun on himself, according to The Washington Post. Snider also raped Stratten, police determined.

The Village Voice reported in 1980 investigators found bloody handprints on Stratten’s buttocks.

“Dorothy had, apparently, been sodomized, though whether this occurred before or after her death is not clear,” the article said. “After the blast, her body was moved and there were what appeared to be bloody handprints on her buttocks and left leg. Near her head was Paul’s handmade bondage rack-set for rear entry intercourse. Loops of tape, used and unused, were lying about and strands of long blonde hair were discovered clutched in Snider’s right hand.”

Hugh Hefner released a statement following her death through Playboy. It said, “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all…As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and 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.”

Stratten was tied up and shot in Snider’s West Los Angeles apartment, where they once lived together. She was killed August 14, 1980 at age 20. She is buried in West Los Angeles at the Westwood Memorial Park in West Los Angeles, according to Find a Grave.

Her tombstone includes a portion of a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them…it kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry,” her headstone says, according to Find a Grave.

Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel Hemingway portrayed Stratten in Star 80, a film about Stratten’s life and death.

“‘Star 80’ is his most despairing film,” critic Roger Ebert wrote of the film. “After the Nazi decadence of ‘Cabaret,’ after the drug abuse and self-destruction in ‘Lenny’ and the death-obsessed hero of ‘All That Jazz,’ here is a movie that begins with violent death and burrows deeper. There were times when I could hardly keep my eyes on the screen, and a moment near the end when I seriously asked myself if I wanted to stay in the theater. And yet I think this is an important movie. 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. In particular, it examines the connection between fame and obscurity, between those who have a moment of praise and notoriety, and those who see themselves condemned to stand always at the edge of the spotlight.”

He gave the film four out of four stars. It was released in 1983.

“Dorothy Stratten’s story was brief, glorious and tragic,” her IMDB profile says.

Hugh Hefner Said Stratten Was Murdered Because ‘a Very Sick Guy Saw His Meal Ticket & His Connection to Power…Slipping Away’

Hugh Hefner spoke to The Village Voice following Stratten’s murder in 1980. He said Stratten’s life and death can fall into a cliche plotline that is untrue.

“The major reason that I’m…that we’re both sittin’ here, that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency…for this thing to fall in the cliche of ‘small town girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane, and that somehow was 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, etc., slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her,” Hefner said.

When Snider sensed his control over Stratten was fading, he demanded control over her finances and the movie offers she accepted, even though she had an agent, according to The Village Voice.

Stratten began an affair with Director Peter Bogdanovich while filming They All Laughed, which could have been Stratten’s big break into the film industry. Snider was left home in Los Angeles while Stratten filmed in New York City.

The couple was separated around that time in May 1980, less than one year after they were married, according to an article published in the Los Angeles Times August 15, 1980. They were going to marriage counseling, a friend told the newspaper.

She had multiple successes in film that were just reaching fruition at the time of her death. The All Laughed was released in theaters in 1981, after her death. Galaxina was released the day after she died, then quickly pulled from theaters and re-released in November of 1980, according to a September 20, 1980 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She played “the most perfect robot in the galaxy.”

“The Last Playmate: Her name was Dorothy Stratten and she was just 20 years old when she was shot to death by her estranged husband last month,” the 1980 article said. “The science-fiction satire film in which she starred, Galaxina, opened the day after she was killed, but it was quickly withdrawn, and now comes word that it will be released in November.”

Paul Snider Proposed to Dorothy Stratten Immediately After She Landed the Deal With Playboy & Later Had Her Followed When He Suspected an Affair

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Immediately after Dorothy Stratten was hired as a Playboy Playmate, he got down on one knee. Stratten was hesitant about marrying him, and asked her friends for advice. They told her not to marry him, saying it could hurt her career. He called their lives together “a lifetime bargain” and “pressed” her to marry him, according to The Village Voice.

She answered, “He cares for me so much. He’s always there when I need him. I can’t ever imagine myself being with any other man but Paul,” the publication reported.

They were married June 1, 1979, in Las Vegas, Nevada, only 16 months before Snider would kill her in a murder suicide. Playboy wanted to keep the marriage a secret.

Stratten and Snider were separated less than one year after their marriage, according to the 1980 article from the Los Angeles Times. Their marriage had become strained as Stratten gained success in the film industry. She began filming They All Laughed around the time of their separation. The couple had also been going to marriage counseling, the article said.

Snider hired a private investigator, Marc Goldstein, to follow Stratten. The Los Angeles Times quotes Goldstein as a “friend of the couple.” He claimed he was the last person who spoke to Stratten in a phone call. He said he then called her repeatedly on the day of her death, and went over to the apartment with several other people when he could not reach her.

“I was totally shocked and stunned,” Goldstein told the Los Angeles Times. “They were both wonderful people. All I could figure is it had to be an act of passion.”

The Times’ article two days after the murder-suicide questioned Goldstein about his work as a private investigator. He told the newspaper he was “friendly with both” and said he had been hired by Snider to investigate Stratten, her personal life and “possible relationships.”

“He would not elaborate,” the article said.

Hefner had concerns about Snider, telling Stratten he had a “pimp-like quality,” according to The Village Voice. He had background checks run on Snider in Canada, where he spent most of his life, to find out if he had a criminal record.

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