Sue Mengers was a trailblazer as the first female superagent. She was powerful, revengeful, and witheringly sarcastic, but to those she loved, and vice versa, she was a mensch. Ms. Mengers passed away in 2011 at the age of 79 after a series of chronic illnesses and tiny strokes. In John Logan's play I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, she is channeled brilliantly by Bette Midler.
Midler knew Ms. Mengers. "Sue was not a star in the conventional sense," she said, "but in her world she was a star. [In her early life] she was kicked to the curb. But she did not compromise. She did what the f*ck she wanted. And that's all she wrote. I wish I had those balls."
Logan, a Tony and Drama Desk winner for Red, a producer of the Drama Desk-nominated Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and screenwriter of the recent Bond blockbuster film Skyfall, recalled in a recent interview meeting Ms. Mengers in 2008 at the home of producers Richard and Lili Zanuck.
"She'd been a queen," he said, "regally reigning over Hollywood. I found her captivating as she held a cigarette in one hand, a joint in the other. She was astoundingly complicated — expert at playing the part of Sue Mengers: the glasses, the hair, the cigarette, the joint, the rough language, the diamond-edge timing — just killingly acidic. But what fascinated me was a sort of vulnerability and a poignance."
The woman New York, and not long after, Hollywood, knew as Sue was described as "a chubby Jewish girl" who escaped Nazi Germany. Arriving in the U.S., she lived in Utica, having learned English by watching movies. She once said, "All those films about New York City had me in a constant dreamscape." In 1955, she escaped and her plan was to take NYC by storm. It took a while, but she achieved her goal.
Ms. Mengers worked as a receptionist at powerful agency MCA (Music Corporation of America) and later at agency Baum-Newborn. It's where Lionel Larner got to know her upon his arrival from the U.K. For over 50 years, he's been a respected agent [among those he represented was Dorothy Loudon, whose charitable foundation he heads]. "After we became GAC (General Artists Corporation), top agent Tom Korman left and eventually formed his own agency. He hired Sue."
Ms. Mengers told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, "I was a little fish — a little nothing making a hundred and thirty-five dollars a week. I liked the way the agents lived: the expense accounts, the cars. I thought, 'What they do isn't that hard.' I said, 'That beats typing.'" Korman made her an agent, then she lifted his Rolodex and left to go to Creative Artists Management (CAM).
Rex Reed, who knew "sassy, splashy, tart-tongued Sue Mengers as a close friend for forty years," says that act "moved her career up a notch from secretary to agent. She was always trying to steal stars from other agencies."
Mr. Larner says, "Though Sue was ballsy and could be brutal, there was something very appealing about her. However, when she found an enemy's Achilles' heel, she could make it uncomfortable."
He recalls how Ms. Mengers met Barbra Streisand: "Sue was responsible for getting Kay Medford the role of Mrs. Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway, which led to her friendship with Streisand. When Streisand went to Hollywood, Sue followed. As I understand, she contacted Paul Newman and said, 'I'm having a party for Barbra Streisand and the only person she wants to meet is you.' He accepted, then she called Streisand and told her, 'I'm having a party for Paul Newman and the only person he wants to meet is you.'" Soon, she became a mover and shaker.
Streisand's been quoted: "Sue was one of a kind, acerbically funny, witty, brash, tough but cuddly — a powerful woman in a man's world."
At her peak, Freddy Fields, cofounder of CAM, called Ms. Mengers "the most powerful female agent in the world." When she heard, she quipped, "Why did he have to say female?"
For various agencies, which included two stints at William Morris, her stable of stars included Michael Caine, Cher, Faye Dunaway, Bob Fosse, Gene Hackman, Mick Jagger, Ali McGraw, Mike Nichols, Robert Redford, and Streisand, who became such an intimate friend that she was the maid of honor in 1973 when Ms. Mengers married Belgian writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont.
Rex Reed had a "loving friendship" with Ms. Mengers. "What fun we had together! Sue'd rent a limo, charge it to the office, and we'd drive wherever the spirit moved her to see shows. We went to Massachusetts to see Julie Harris in tryouts that never made it to Broadway."
That gesture endeared Ms. Mengers to Ms. Harris, who agreed to be represented by her. Ms. Harris loved TV's Bonanza. To the surprise of Ms. Mengers, she wanted to appear on the series. Ms. Mengers did what she was famous for and creator/executive producer David Dortort wrote a 1968 episode for Harris.
"Another time," recalls Reed, "I tagged along with her to see Carroll Baker — yes, that Carroll Baker, Baby Doll — in Anna Christie at the Tappan Zee Playhouse. 'Nothing there,' was her verdict at intermission. 'Can't jump-start her career. Let's smoke a joint and get out of here.'"
Sam Haskell, former worldwide head of television at Morris, recalls, "Sue was a force of nature, both a drama queen and a compassionate friend. By force of nature, I mean that she wouldn't take no for an answer. Her clients were like her children. She was a lioness when it came to her cubs! Bottom line: Her clients loved and trusted her and that's all that really matters in the end!"
Reed recalls, "Sue was tough, but her loyalty was sincere. Sue was unique, but never practical." Ms. Mengers, who could be quite soft-spoken when she wasn't berating producers for not jumping at her casting suggestions, said, "In the beginning, I got clients through aggression; later it was through reputation — and a little aggression." Many others claimed she landed clients, as one has said, "by threats, deception, cajoling, promises, guilt, and doggedness." Descriptions ranged from "the modern-day Gertrude Stein" to "a bulldog with charm."
"Sue lived in a house once owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor," states Reed. "She gave dinners for her 'twinklies' in a room christened the Moulin Rouge [Gabor appeared in the 1952 film of that title]. If I had a dollar for every night I spent there with Hollywood royalty, I'd be a rich man today. This is the place where sneezing on the cocaine bowl gave Woody Allen one of his funniest scenes ever."
Reed says, "Sue wasn't afraid of anyone! Once she was having a row with Steve McQueen, whom she hated for insisting her friend and favorite client Ali MacGraw [on divorcing then Paramount head Robert Evans] give up the business when they married. It got quite heated. I could hear him yelling, 'I'm an Irish mick and I don't forget!' Sue gave as good as she got: 'I'm a Jewish princess, and I don't give a sh*t!' and slammed down the receiver."
Among regulars at the A-list dinners, he notes, were the pre-marital Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson "with then-roommate Anjelica Huston," Roman Polanski "and his latest squeeze," along with assorted moguls, directors, producers, clients, and "movers and shakers from MGM to San Quentin. Every guest had to be famous." In Logan's play, Midler, channeling Ms. Mengers, says "Honey, my own mother couldn't get in here if she was standing outside in the rain!"
I'll Eat You Last, currently playing the Booth Theatre, revolves around Midler as Ms. Mengers sitting forlorn in her living room waiting for a call from Streisand, who's just fired Ms. Mengers.
In 1973, Universal Pictures was developing All Night Long, a film by Ms. Mengers' husband. Set to costar was Gene Hackman, whom Ms. Mengers had piloted over every obstacle imaginable into the lead of The French Connection [the ultimate irony was that he won the Oscar for his "Popeye" Doyle]. Remarkably, she negotiated a four-million-dollar salary for Streisand, a figure doubling the budget and breaking the glass ceiling for actresses. Filming shut down. The script was rewritten. That didn't help. It bombed despite desperate marketing efforts that touted Streisand's performance as a comic tour de force. Roger Ebert described the comedy lackluster and the story too dark. The movie was pulled almost as quickly as it opened.
That ended one of Hollywood's most enduring friendships. It didn't help that Ms. Mengers was dead set against Streisand and her dream project, Yentl. Friends said that what made it worse was that Streisand never called. Lawyers told Mengers. "She was crushed," says Reed. It's said that time heals all wounds, and Ms. Mengers and Streisand did eventually mend fences.
Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, a producer of I'll Eat You Last, noted that even after her 1988 retirement, she again became formidable as a hostess, "a remarkable achievement in that she didn't write movies, act, or direct." On her death, he memorialized her as "a lioness when it came to her friends."
Reed says, "Sue's life revolved more around herself than anything else. Ultimately, at the end of her career, she felt betrayed by her clients when they began leaving her. She'd lament, 'If they loved me so much, why did they fire me?'"
It's been said that Ms. Mengers didn't want a memorial because she was afraid no one would attend. She was cremated and her ashes were spread by close friends throughout Paris.
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