An Elegy for Ronni Chasen: Gelson's 60-Item Salad Bar
By now you have no doubt heard about Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen's death early Tuesday morning. If you only knew her from reading the news coverage, you'd think of her as a 64-year-old woman who was shot in the chest five times just before 12:30 a.m. at the intersection of Sunset Blvd and Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills while driving home from the premiere of "Burlesque."
If you kept reading the updated reports, you'd know she was single, once married and divorced, childless and an old-school professional, the kind of publicist who'd call and call and call until you'd cave or maybe say "NO!" to her in a way that made you feel a guilty twinge later on.
But one of the ways that I will always think of her involves Gelson's supermarket in Century City and its $6.99 per pound, sixty item salad bar. It was late one evening and my husband and I, having just seen a movie at the adjacent multiplex, wandered in to the deserted market to buy a quart of 2% milk before heading home. There, standing at the metal, rectangular salad bar cherry-picking herself a low-cal, lettuce-y dinner was Ronni, dressed in an open-collared blouse and business pantsuit. She was looking slightly deflated.
I didn't feel like I knew her well enough to ask what was wrong. Maybe she'd just hung up from a disappointing phone call or maybe as all total pros do - and she was the most energetic, most undaunted publicist I'd ever met -- she'd simply been ground down by the day. But she looked tinier than usual, more vulnerable. And when my husband and I walked over to say hi, she looked up and seemed to sag even more, as if we'd caught her in a private moment.
It was too late to walk away, though, so we attempted some small talk. Just as we finished our feeble "just saw a movie/have to buy some milk" chit-chat, Ronni started pitching us. I can't remember who the clients were - film composers, perhaps, or a costume designer, who were the types of people she loved to represent. And as she pressed us, her posture changed. She seemed to grow taller as she talked so that by the time we said our goodbyes and Ronni had promised to call us the following day to pick up the conversation where we left off (she did), her personality - smiling, indestructible, upbeat - had been fully reconstituted.
In most of the accounts I've read, Ronni was characterized as someone who lived for her work. But what if a late night dinner at a $6.99 per pound supermarket salad bar feeds your body but it is your work that nourishes your soul? What happens if you love what you do so much that your employees become your children and, as Ronni did with so many of the really top publicists in Los Angeles, you drive them so sweetly that while they may arrive peeping voiced newbies they leave savvy practitioners of their trade and invite you to their weddings and baby showers and holiday meals, and reflexively think of you as a close friend and mother figure? If given the choice, I'd rather be like Ronni -- for whom the idea of pitching brought a happiness that had no bottom -- than be one of those drones who shuffles off to a job they hate.
So now, like everyone else who knew her, I keep typing her name into Google news, hoping to find some key bit of information - who pulled the trigger? was it her black Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupe they were after? - that makes her murder less mysterious, less freakishly random. As for the salad bar at Gelson's supermarket, it will never look the same to me.
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