By Benjamin Svetkey
November 17, 2010 at 09:57 PM EST

It has all the elements of a classic Hollywood thriller. A black Mercedes Benz with a broken driver’s side window is found late at night crashed into a lamp post on Sunset Blvd in Beverly Hills. Behind the wheel, police discover a 64-year-old female with five gunshots to the chest. Her purse on the passenger seat is untouched. Nothing appears to be stolen from the vehicle. Nobody, at least at this writing, has a clue what happened.

Of course, it also has all the elements of a really heartbreaking tragedy, especially to those who knew the woman in that car — veteran publicist Ronni Chasen — which turns out to be pretty much everybody in this town. Chasen was an institution in Hollywood, a fixture since the 1970s, when she moved to LA from her native New York to head publicity for American International Pictures. Over the years, she had many titles — serving as executive vp at Rogers & Cowan and a senior VP at MGM — but for the last 20, she ran her own agency, Chasen & Company, which, among other things, specialized in extremely effective Academy Award strategizing. Although her name was seldom evoked at the podium, her PR campaigns contributed to at least 150 Oscar nominations and wins for films like The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, Shakespeare in Love, and Driving Miss Daisy.

But beyond her professional credentials, Chasen was something of a personality, even for Hollywood. Her voice, for instance, was as unmistakable as it was endearing (sort of a cross between Fran Drescher and Mrs. Howell). She could be so charming — and persistent — it was nearly impossible for journalists to say no to her. And she clearly adored the film business. At an age when many of her contemporaries start retiring, she was still putting in appearances on red carpet lines (and always looking like a million bucks; she had to be the most perfectly coiffed publicist in town). In fact, late Monday night, when she was murdered, she was on her way home from the Burlesque premiere party at the W Hotel in Hollywood. According to ABC News, she called her office from her cell phone at 12:21 am, six minutes before she was shot, leaving a to-do list for herself for the following day on an answering machine.

For now, Chasen’s many friends and colleagues are left with lots of unanswered questions — and a shocking sense of loss. “I had the extreme pleasure of working with Ronni on ‘Driving Miss Daisy,'” said actor Morgan Freeman in a statement. “We’ve been friends ever since.  She is someone I greatly admired and she will be remembered.”