Sue Mengers, an unapologetically brash talent agent who blazed a path for women in Hollywood and represented some of its biggest stars, died Saturday night at her Beverly Hills home after a long illness. She was 79.
For two decades, Mengers was one of the entertainment industry's most powerful agents, rising fast in a business dominated by men. She earned a reputation as a skilled negotiator who was both tough and uncensored in her style. She had a knack for putting together packages of talent, including authors, directors and stars, that produced box office blockbusters. In one coup, she landed three of her clients — Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal and director Peter Bogdanovich — in the 1972 Warner Bros. comedy "What's Up, Doc?"
"Sue was a valued colleague and friend for many years," said International Creative Management Chairman Jeff Berg, who worked with Mengers for 16 years and was her boss at the talent agency. "She had an incisive wit, sharp tongue and great creative instincts."
Among the Hollywood luminaries Mengers also represented over her career were actors Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Steve McQueen, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd, directors Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma, and writer Gore Vidal.
"I worked with her when she was at ICM in her absolute heyday. She gave meaning to the word 'woman power,' " said longtime Hollywood agent and manager Joan Hyler. "She was arguably the most famous agent of her time. And the fact that she was a woman and fearless was quite extraordinary."
Born in 1932 in Hamburg, Germany, Mengers didn't learn English until she was 6, when her family immigrated to New York to escape the Holocaust. Her family settled in upstate New York, in Utica, where her father worked as a traveling salesman.
Mengers' father committed suicide when she was 11. She and her mother relocated to the Bronx, where her mother took a job as a bookkeeper. Mengers would attend Saturday matinees to escape the pain of losing her father and dreamed of one day becoming a star.
Ultimately, Mengers achieved celebrity in her own right. She was profiled on CBS' "60 Minutes," and served as the inspiration for the acid-tongued blond portrayed by Dyan Cannon in the 1973 whodunit "The Last of Sheila."
Mengers started her career in 1955, working as a receptionist at MCA Inc. talent agency, whose roster of clients included Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. She was later hired as a secretary at the theatrical agency Baum & Newborn, before landing a position with the William Morris Agency as a $135-a-week secretary.
Mengers left William Morris in 1963 when Tom Korman, a former Baum & Newborn colleague, invited her to become a partner in his agency, Korman & Associates.
"I never thought in my life I'd get a shot at being a talent agent — or even get out of the secretarial mold," Mengers told the Los Angeles Times in a 1993 interview by phone from her apartment in Paris. "We're talking 30 years ago. The only female role models around were literary agents wearing hats."
Her first client was actress Julie Harris, an accomplished Broadway star who was interested in appearing in the TV western series "Bonanza." Mengers contacted the producer, who commissioned a specially written episode for Harris.
In 1967, Mengers was spotted by Freddie Fields and David Begelman, co-heads of the then high-powered Creative Management Associates, which later became ICM. They asked her to head the company's legitimate theater department. A year later, she moved from New York to Los Angeles, where she became known for star-studded parties that were among the most coveted invitations in Hollywood.
"I never invited anyone who wasn't successful," Mengers told the New Yorker in an 1994 interview. "I was ruthless about it. It was all stars. I would look around my living room at all of them and even I'd be impressed with myself."
A 1973 Time magazine profile of Mengers, during the apex of her time as a Hollywood power broker, described the 5-foot, 2 1/2 –inch, 160-pound agent her as "a cross between Mama Cass and Mack the Knife. She has the soft, breathy voice of a little-bitty girl, the vocabulary of a mule skinner and the subtle approach of a Sherman tank."
Mengers was well aware of her brazen, direct style.
"I was tactless, contemptuous and made enemies needlessly," she said in the Los Angeles Times interview. "If I had to do it over again, I'd take on a bit more of the personality of (former Paramount Pictures chief) Sherry Lansing, who has the ability to make people feel good. I rolled in there like a tank … but in any revolution you have to do something to get their attention. Women don't have to act like that these days."
Mengers quit ICM in 1986, claiming she had burned out. Two years later, the William Morris Agency lured her out of retirement with a lucrative three-year contract to run the agency's worldwide operations. But she was unable to stop the defections of top talent that plagued the agency during that period, or sign new clients of her own. She left the agency in January 1991.
In her later years, even though she was out of the business, Mengers' pink home in Beverly Hills continued to be a salon for agents, movie stars, authors and filmmakers to talk shop over meals.
"At dinner she was a great raconteur. There was probably nobody funnier," said ICM agent John Burnham, who worked with Mengers at William Morris. "Woody Allen just marveled at her rapier wit and storytelling."
Mengers was married to Belgian writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont from 1973 (Streisand was her maid of honor) until his death in 1996. She leaves no survivors.
When she died Saturday, Mengers was surrounded by friends, including talent agent Boaty Boatwright, actress Ali MacGraw and Joanna Poitier, wife of actor Sidney Poitier.
"It's the end of an era," said "Twilight" producer Karen Rosenfelt, who was Mengers' secretary at ICM in the early 1980s. "She was a fiercely loyal friend and agent to her clients. She broke the glass ceiling for many women in the industry. She was a guiding light in my career."