Sue Mengers: The Agent Who Roared : She’s on Sabbatical From Stars, Power and Hollywood . . . Can It Last?
Some junior and senior editors were sitting around an apostrophe-shaped table at a major publishing house, picking brains. The idea was to find the quintessential Hollywood book of the ‘70s, combining business and glamour and stardom. A coffee-table book, maybe, with photos from private lives. Or perhaps an oral history? Or simply a guide to power? Inevitably a bright young editor said the name “Sue Mengers.” And the room stopped cold.
“Sue Mengers!” shrieked one of the others. “Oh--but of course. She’s the best Hollywood story of the last 20 years!”
For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 13, 1987 Imperfection
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 13, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 123 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Contrary to what it said in a photo caption in last Sunday’s article on former agent Sue Mengers, Jack Nicholson was not a client of Mengers’. Sandy Bresler has been his agent since 1961 and continues as such.
One of the people in the room didn’t know the name. (Only one, though--and he’s no longer in publishing.) To fill him in, his colleagues began tripping over each other with all the name-dropping. And the stories.
“Sue Mengers is pure Hollywood,” said the Wunderkind who thought of the idea. “She was the highest-profile agent in the business, man or woman. Streisand. Ryan and Tatum and then Ryan and Farrah. Peter and Cybill. Candy and Ali. Cimino and De Palma and Nichols and Lumet. . . .”
“I know her a little,” said one of the senior editors. “I met her in Italy. She stays with Gore. So bright. And she’s kind of . . . Bohemian. Has a bite on life. You know, adventurous. And funny--terribly, terribly funny. . . .”
“She left the agency business last year,” said one of the office gossips. ‘Saved her money. Sold her house at the right time. Never has to work again.”
“Great house, top of Bel-Air. She gave the best parties since the days of Frances Goldwyn. And she was funny like Sam Goldwyn. Maybe less printable, but. . . .”
“Steve Sondheim and Tony Perkins based the Dyan Cannon role in ‘The Last of Sheila’ on her.”
“My favorite story is after the Sharon Tate murders, her reassuring a nervous client. ‘Don’t worry, honey, stars aren’t being murdered. Only featured players.’ ”
“This sounds like the sequel to ‘The Best of Everything’!”
“No,” said the man who met Mengers in Italy. “She’s more complex than that.”
“But who is she really?”
Behind the Armor
There is a moment in any conversation with Sue Mengers when she reveals who she is really . Or almost. It’s when she removes her glasses. What you see is someone who has a completely developed fantasy life--and a total sense of reality. The fantasies are now changing. Pure ambition being replaced by a need for an inner life. Whatever the price, she will pay it, but the price won’t be humor. Sitting in a garden at the Bel Air Hotel, posing for a photographer, Mengers will play any role you want.
“Is the long blonde hair flowing freely like waves around my shoulders?” she asks spontaneously, spewing the words like dialogue. “Do you want me to play Anita Ekberg in the fountain?” she wonders, referring to “La Dolce Vita.” “I could be lured into a room for a cheeseburger. ‘C’mon little girl . . . here’s a cheeseburger.’ I don’t know how models do it. That’s why I turned down the contract with Estee Lauder. . . . This is the true sign of a person who’s not narcissistic. I didn’t bring a mirror.”
“Sue opened doors,” says Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management and the colleague who’s worked the longest with Mengers (17 years). Berg, the youngest long-distance runner in the agency business, says that “Sue knows that at some point the carrier pilot must decide about making more night landings. She’s tactical enough, and brave enough, to walk away from the day-to-day shorthand.” Fox Chairman Barry Diller last week called Mengers “a beacon to all--to all obsessive-compulsives who make up a large part of this industry--that a decision can be made to seek an alternative.”
And the next alternative? There are those who will tell you that maybe Mengers burned too many bridges, honey . That the new players don’t have relationships with her. But the other day producer Ray Stark went right on the line: “She’s finding out exactly what she’s capable of. And I’ll tell you: She’s capable of being a head of production, and she’s capable of being the head of a company. There are a lot of people eager to fill her shoes, but they can’t. She has the two prerequisites of every great agent: Vitality and humor--especially about herself.”
Yet there is still about her what Ali MacGraw calls “armor. With Sue there are layers to be peeled away before there’s trust. It’s like when you meet Mike Nichols and the intelligence is so threatening. Then you see what’s underneath. With Sue the armor is in direct proportion to the vulnerability.” Then there’s the wit--"I was so driven I would have signed Martin Bormann"--that makes her what friends of Billy Wilder call “the female Billy Wilder.”
When Mengers calls herself “an aggressive smart piece of manpower,” she means both right and left brain are working; nothing is wasted. Not the elocution lessons in Utica, not the Saturday movies in the Bronx, not the years of being a secretary. Of being so ambitious that it hurt. Of renting a mink coat and walking into Sardi’s and offering David Merrick casting tips. (“Put Ginger Rogers into ‘Hello, Dolly!’ ”) Of calling Sidney Lumet at midnight to sell him a client and being told, “If you’re this pushy, I want you to be my agent.”
“All of us who made it were outsiders who wanted to belong,” Mengers says now , and you can just hear the outsider in 1963 making that first “You-don’t-know-me-but-I’m-Sue Mengers” call. To would-be client Julie Harris. (The next day Mengers made the same call, to the producer of “Bonanza”: “Miss Julie Harris would like to guest on ‘Bonanza.’ ”) To make those calls--to sell past the resistance--took something less than identity and more than need. It took pure I-would-have-done-anything obsession.
Sue Mengers is now somebody in transition. She’s reinventing mid-life--kind of like a business version of Richard Dreyfuss or Bette Midler. One recent morning playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Mengers was observed by Katharine Hepburn (“Backhand’s not bad--serve’s terrible!”). On that day Sue Mengers was probably the happiest person in Hollywood. To hear Hepburn critiquing her tennis was worth all the years of schlepping and dreaming and entertaining. Sue Mengers belonged now, if ever she was going to.
And last year when the announcement came that Mengers was leaving International Creative Management (ICM) when her contract expired Aug. 1, nobody much flinched. If she wanted time off, fine; from the very beginning, whether she knew it or not, the boys club that controls show business wanted Sue Mengers to win--mostly because she wanted it so much. Her friends--Barry Diller, producer Robert Evans, Geffen Records chairman David Geffen, Helen Gurley Brown, Ali MacGraw, Barbara Walters, Ray Stark, the Billy Wilders, the Leonard Goldbergs--are people who are too smart to be fooled by guile; Mengers goes beyond guile, and thus has their loyalty. And her enemies? “I don’t know who they are,” she said one afternoon during a series of interviews in New York and Los Angeles. “Because in our business your enemies don’t reveal themselves.”
Coming off the Roar
“If she’s hated and feared,” says Gore Vidal, “it’s because she has a sharp tongue. And a gift for self-mockery. In this great land of the free, we are all supposed to be creatures of compassion and caring--and Sue is that-- but let’s face it, she has a sharp tongue.” Vidal remembers “in the late ‘50s she was in the outer office of my drama agent Charlie Baker. She was this pretty, mildly zoftig blonde, and she twinkled. She has this great smile. . . . Once I was visiting Charlie, and I heard this laugh. . . . I looked at the door, and there she was at the keyhole, eyes and ears both. . . . Frankly I think she just wanted to have an adventurous life, and in the sense of having a complete life she’s now getting it all done.” Or as producer Freddie Fields, Mengers’ ICM boss, put it the other day, “She was the first female heavyweight champion of the world. And that’s exhausting. All your energy goes into somebody else’s Oscar. What Sue needs now is a new view from the top.”
At the moment the view is social. In the last six months Mengers--who shares apartments in Manhattan and L.A. with her writer husband of 14 years, Jean-Claude Tramont (“All Night Long,” “Ash Wednesday”)--has been everywhere: She guested in the South of France on the yacht chartered by the Goldbergs and the Sidney Poitiers; she house-guested in Ravello, as she does every summer, with Gore Vidal; she livened up the Norman Mailer Halloween party in Manhattan and the Jerry Weintraub 50th birthday party in Malibu; she trekked to Israel. She taught a course on Hollywood at NYU, and she’s turned down all kinds of job offers--simply to do nothing.
With the sale of her showplace house in Bel-Air came the luxury of never needing to work again--not that she’s rich-rich. (“If the fantasy was about money, I’d still be working. Cause I ain’t wealthy.”) At 50, it’s a sensible if surprising sabbatical. “After all, she’s been on a roar for the last 15 years,” is how best friend Bob Evans puts it. Mengers also has not stopped working since 1955 when, at 17, she answered an MCA ad for “receptionist, theatrical agency.”
What made her leave the business now? She sat quietly in the Bel-Air garden, thinking about it. “Hackman,” she said abruptly, in the trademark throaty-baby girl voice. “I represented Gene Hackman. At one point he said to me, ‘I don’t want to work for a while.’ And I said, ‘Great, Gene, what’s a while? Three months? Six months?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, and if I give you a date then it’s not open-ended. Then it’s just a holiday.’ I admired that. Gene had been doing pictures back-to-back, and he hadn’t been happy with them, and he wanted a chance to renew himself, and just get away from the movie business. I said, ‘Gene, I totally understand.’ ”
Six months later the understanding was harder to get. “Two scripts came up that they wanted Gene for. ‘True Confessions’ and ‘The Great Santini.’ Gene was tempted, especially by ‘Santini.’ I said, ‘Gene, they’ll wait for you. What do you want? Another three months? They’ll wait three months. Maybe they’ll even wait four months. . . .’ And Gene said--I’ll never forget it--'If I give a date now--even if I do a picture in six months--every day when I wake up, I’ll say to myself, “OK, only X number of days until I have to think about working.” ’ He was not ready at that moment to commit.”
Mengers means that “completely unstructured time is the only real freedom,” and she feels she can afford it. “That’s why I didn’t say to ICM, ‘This is a leave of absence.’ Because I don’t know how long it’s going to take. The only way to prove it is that I’ve done it.” But Mengers wasn’t finished: “I still have drive,” she stressed. “I just don’t know when I want to start using it.”
Where did the drive come from? Gore Vidal says there’s a “lot of Hamburg in that girl. Sometimes she just lapses into German. It’s no accident that Germany is the most advanced country in Europe.” In 1938, Mengers and her parents arrived from Germany, escaping the Nazis and speaking no English. What Mengers remembers most is a sense of exclusion, of being left out--and wanting to belong. “It’s a wanting to experience in reality . . . the beautiful home, celebrated people, all the superficial accouterments that you fantasize about.” Could the fantasy have been about acting? Yes, until she went to acting class. “I looked around and saw everyone was more talented, more beautiful. And I thought, ‘There goes that dream.’ ”
Was the dream to be part of a family? Mengers nodded. “I think my father’s suicide probably, you know, made me feel guilty--made me want to be better,” she said calmly one afternoon in New York. “I was 14 when my father died, and because it was a small town, Utica, N.Y., everyone was aware. It’s Stella Dallas, you know?” Mengers means that just like in the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck movie, it was mother and daughter against the world. Mengers’ mother, then a bookkeeper, moved with her daughter to the Bronx. (Even now her mother is the one person who has total access to Mengers, wherever she’s traveling.)
The daughter of Stella Dallas didn’t tackle the blue-tailed piranhas who inhabit agency board rooms, however--nor did virtually any other women pre-Mengers. Even her detractors admit she was the first female to play hardball in the boys club. And not only with movie star careers: Apart from actors, Mengers was negotiating with the careers and the lives of directors like Lumet and Nichols and Brian De Palma, talents who know what they want--and are used to getting it. A ribald comic strip blonde would only satisfy those men in certain amusing ways. But handle their salaries? “She’s much more than a cartoon,” explained Vidal. “To people who have a false view of themselves, the wit and irony are off-putting. But reality was her only way of coping.”
And for years clients gave Mengers her only sense of extended family. Representing Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, Jacqueline Bisset and Michael Sarrazin, Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett--teams that were pieces of Hollywood mythology--gave Mengers security. Perhaps false security. “I thought no one would grow old,” Mengers says now, analytically. “I thought everything would stay the same. So I said no to a lot of new people, because I thought it would always be like that. And of course it isn’t, for anyone. Don’t forget, I had no brothers or sisters, no cousins, for a long time no boyfriend, no husband. This was family.”
Playing at Agent
Mike Wallace stood in his CBS office rifling through a 12-year-old transcript of his “60 Minutes” segment on Mengers. “Listen to this,” said Wallace as he began reading aloud:
I was a little pisher, a little nothing making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris Agency in New York. Well, I looked around and I admired the Morris office and their executives, and I thought: “Gee, what they do isn’t that hard, you know.” And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars. And I used to stay late at the office, just like “All About Eve,” and I suddenly thought: “That beats typing.”
Wallace paused. “I mean c’mon, have you ever heard a better paragraph than that? It’s perfect.”
Because she played the secretary role for almost a decade--at MCA, at Baum-Neuborn, at William Morris--Mengers-as-typist has taken on something of mythic stature. To say you knew her then is like saying you knew Meryl Streep at Yale. David Geffen remembers being in the mail room at William Morris in 1964, “and I already knew the legend. It was bigger than life. I remember I wanted to get to know her, and then it was instant friendship.” Producer Marvin Worth (“Lenny”) remembers taking Mengers “to the Paramount Theater in 1958 to see Joni James. She says now it was her first date. She was blonde and round and fun.” Agent Tom Korman, who gave Mengers her first job as an agent, remembers her tenacity.
“Marty Baum (then partner at Baum-Neuborn, now senior agent at Creative Artists), must have fired her 50 times. 52 times. One day Sarah Marshall, an actress who was our client, was supposed to audition for ‘The World of Suzie Wong,’ and nobody could find Sarah. Sue, only Sue, knew Sarah was having an affair with a married musician. Sue was in sheer panic from Marty Baum screaming at her every three minutes. She even called the rest home where Edna Best (Marshall’s mother) lived. Then finally she called the musician at home, and a woman answered. Sue said, ‘Sarah, you old sneak! I found you.’ Well, of course, it was the musician’s wife. And Marty Baum fired Sue.”
Another time, MCA agent Maynard Morris punished Mengers after ordering her to sit by the phone all day and wait for a call from Tyrone Power. At 5 p.m. Power called hastily on his way to the airport, but Morris (who’s remembered as impatient and fussy) was in the men’s room. Mengers couldn’t get the two of them together on the phone--and again Mengers got fired.
But how does a secretary finally play agent herself? At what point can you really do the job you dreamed about? In 1963, Mengers remembers “Tom Korman saying, ‘I can’t pay you more than a secretary, but at least you’ll have a secretary.’ And I became obsessed.” The two of them set up shop, with two clients (Joan Bennett--"easy sale, huh?"--and Claudia McNeill). Korman (now with Agency for the Performing Arts) says Mengers “was the guts of the office. We were known as the Relative Wrong agency. In other words, if there was Marge and Gower Champion, we’d have Marge. If there was Jocelyn and Marlon Brando, we’d have Jocelyn.”
And while Mengers was “relentless from the start,” Korman also remembers “this whole other vulnerable side that nobody can break. The vulnerability is very real.” Korman gave an example: “One night in 1983 she asked me to have dinner, just the two of us. At dinner she handed me a Tiffany box. It was a framed silver photo of us in the ‘60s walking into Danny’s Hideaway with Tony Newley, a client of ours. There was a bubble over Sue’s head that said, ‘I WANT TO BE A STAR.’ At dinner Sue looked at me and said, ‘It’s 20 years, Tom.’ ”
Freddie Fields, who with David Begelman is often credited with moving Mengers to Hollywood, added: “Oh, the vulnerability cries its eyes out. It’s a bashfulness, really, that Sue protects pretty fiercely.” As Korman put it, “It’s what gave her a rapport with the gay community. And what also let her go out with ladies’ men like Billy Rose, whom she actually dated. I remember her saying to me, ‘If I could be reincarnated, I would come back as Marilyn Monroe.’ Of course Marilyn Monroe was still alive then. But Sue’s fantasy was always to be a movie star. And in a way she did become one.”
A Star Is Born
Mengers got to the big-time by understanding the strength of stardom: Unlike many agents, who prefer to nurture newcomers, Mengers right away sought out star-power. On a recent afternoon, Gore Vidal stood on the patio of his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with his friend Howard Austen and mused about Mengers, circa 1965: “She was dying to meet Paul (Newman) and Joanne (Woodward),” said Vidal. “So we arranged an evening at Sardis, just us, that special table,” added Austen. “And David Begelman walked in. He was then head of CMA with Freddie Fields. Well, there were his two top clients sitting with this young blonde agent he’d been hearing about.”
Mengers, too, remembers the Newmans as being pivotal early on: “Through Gore, I’d met them. And being an aggressive little girl I used to constantly make them crazy by telling them about all the wonderful theater they should be doing. And they’d call John Foreman, who was their movie agent at CMA, and say, ‘This kid Sue Mengers is telling us about all these great plays.’ And John said to Freddie and David, ‘This girl is on the right track. She’s making me crazy with Paul and Joanne. Hire her.’ I’m not saying Paul and Joanne would have left their own agent for this little agent . . . but I was able to make them question things. So Freddie and David thought, ‘Let’s hire this kid. She’s got a big mouth. She’s cute. We’ll use her in New York. She’ll be our theater department.’ ”
And so a Manhattan star was born, at $375 a week. But how? As Fields says, “There’s no book on how to become an agent.” What was Mengers’ strong suit? “Holding,” answered Fields. “Selling is not important if you give a client sound career advice. Holding a client, keeping a client from the wrong move, is a real strength. Careers curve, and Sue knew the curves as well as anyone I ever met. In small critical moments she made great moves.”
But who was Mengers’ mentor? It’s not a comfortable question. Because there were no female high-stakes agents, there were no role models. Somebody had to catapult Mengers, that’s the common thinking. And the common answer is that Fields and Begelman took Sue from the chorus (or the secretarial pool) and made her a star. In truth, she was pretty much a self-creation.
“She’s responsible for herself,” says Fields now. “It was what she wanted to be--and what David (Begelman) saw in her.” Though Mengers discounts “ambition” (“I always thought I’d stay a secretary”), publicist Lee Solters remembers her in the late ‘50s calling him “every day at 5 or 6 p.m. ‘Lee, any screenings tonight? Any openings?’ For her it was like attending class. And she learned. And quick. I remember her telling me, ‘I’m going to be the most important agent in the business.’ And I believed her.”
Next stop--where else?--Hollywood. On a recent afternoon Robert Evans stood in the garden of his house that Mengers likens to “Gatsby’s house in West Egg” and recalled when he first met Mengers. “A night in 1969. Mike Nichols said to me, ‘There’s this funny blonde agent I want you to meet. Come up to her house with me for dinner.’ I had so much fun I had tears in my eyes. It was the beginning of an infatuation. And it was just at the time of her legend beginning out here.”
How Mengers got to Hollywood is a question with more facets than the Krupp diamond. One notion is that bringing Mengers west was a Freddie-and-David brainstorm. Unleash Mengers on Hollywood. “Go--go off to the Garden of Eden,” Fields is supposed to have told Mengers, and the myth of David-and-Freddie “creating” Sue began. “Freddie and David were stimulating guys to work for, when they were running,” Mengers says now. “But they hired me because I was bright, and what did they have to lose? Really, I came to Los Angeles because CMA merged with GAC, and GAC had a more established man running the theater department. So there was no place for me in New York. And Dick Shepherd, who was running CMA’s movie department, said, ‘We’ll take a shot with her out here.’ I had never been to California. They leased me a little apartment on Fountain Avenue. What an adventure!”
Unlike gray-suited William Morris and MCA, CMA in the late ‘60s was a stable of rising stars--young agents included Mike Medavoy and Alan Ladd, Jr., and Guy McElwaine, each with his own style and stable. Mengers merged and meshed with the freewheeling CMA ways: “We felt agents could be stars, too, stars in a different galaxy,” says Fields now. “People liked responding to a visible agent who connected emotionally with a client, with a cause. That was the social mix--and Sue became the focal point.” Mengers found her place, fast, but she’s careful to say, “No one gets credit for my career but Tom Korman and, to a degree, Barbra Streisand.”
The Streisand Job
The Mengers-Streisand friendship has a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn quality about it--it’s a myth that seems deeper with time, and more logical the closer you look at their careers. It isn’t just the similarities--both women had fathers who died young, both lived in outer boroughs of New York, living fantasy lives, touching big-time very early, almost prematurely. It’s that they had such rapport.
(In 1981, there was the professional split, after Streisand starred in “All Night Long,” directed by Mengers’ husband--but the friendship has endured it. The other day Streisand, through a spokesman, said of Mengers: “She’s an original, there’s no one quite like her, she’s funny, she’s honest, and she’s been a good friend for many years.”)
In 1963, Mengers and Korman were handling (among very few others) Elliott Gould and Kay Medford. Gould was Streisand’s husband; Medford was playing Streisand’s mother on Broadway in “Funny Girl.” When Mengers went backstage to see Medford, she also looked in on Streisand. The two of them came to Hollywood almost simultaneously, and they soared.
Streisand’s first films were agented by Begelman and Fields, but Mengers remembers “Barbra being separated from Elliott. Whenever she was invited anywhere, she would say ‘I want you to invite my friend Sue Mengers.’ And so I got to know people here it would have otherwise taken me years to meet. Barbra made it clear to people that my opinion was of interest to her. I began to be recognized.”
And responsible. David Geffen remembers Mengers putting him together with Streisand when it became clear that Streisand should be recording more contemporary music, circa “Stoney End” in 1969. Mengers wasn’t acting as an agent, but she was looking out for Streisand. When Begelman and Fields left the agency business (to eventually become producers), Mengers officially became Streisand’s agent. The package that put Mengers on the map was “What’s Up Doc?” Mengers had signed Peter Bogdanovich at the time of “The Last Picture Show,” then she persuaded Streisand and Ryan O’Neal (whom Mengers signed just before the release of “Love Story”) to take a look. Mengers became known for putting elements together.
“Barbra’s great charm is that she always lets you take credit too,” Mengers says carefully. “She didn’t agree with you all the time, but she was never offended by hearing an opinion. She never got angry or hurt or insulted. And that was a great aphrodisiac to be able to talk to someone with that kind of talent and know that they’re listening.”
Streisand gave Mengers confidence, then? She nodded, and then seemed to go inside herself. “Maybe too much confidence, because not everybody’s like Barbra. With other people I think I became too argumentative at times. Too outspoken with talent. It’s a danger most agents fall into, because clients can be very seductive. ‘Tell me the truth,’ they say--but you have to be careful who means it and who doesn’t. Barbra meant it.”
The Stakes Go Higher
Mengers’ aggression was her strength at the start, but it became a weakness as she began playing for bigger rewards. She was the first major player who wasn’t a man. And she could be so blunt as to wound egos. Former client Dyan Cannon remembers the agent telling her “to wash your face before you come to my dinner party. I want people to see what you look like.” Cannon was offended, but “then I just didn’t let her be my mother.”
Does candor work in negotiating rooms? “That’s very tough,” replied Mengers evenly. “You have to sometimes hide your light under a bushel, especially if you are a woman. I think I fell short in that area. I have been accused of becoming rough, and I never wanted to be. But I guess I did stop being a woman a lot of times when I negotiated. Or when I fought for someone to get a role. And it’s difficult in a negotiation because very seldom do both buyer and seller say, ‘Boy, I got what I wanted!’ And it’s hard for a man to lose to a woman. And I empathized with that.”
Does she still? “Sure. As a woman you suddenly become all the bad things they didn’t like about their mother. Or they don’t like about their wife. And you suddenly are there in their sacrosanct world of business. There is the disapproving mother, the negative mother, the seductive mother. . . . And the son reacts.”
But on the other hand, “Most of my success was because I was a woman,” insisted Mengers. “If a woman becomes emotional, which I did very often, it was excused. And in the beginning men were very kind to me; I was this amusing, aggressive blonde. As I started to play for higher stakes, I think it became less amusing and a little more threatening.”
Because men aren’t allowed displays of emotion? “That’s right. And men can call each other names, across a table, and that’s OK. If a woman calls a guy a name, it’s not OK. But there’s another misperception here . . . most of my negotiating was done on the phone. I didn’t usually walk into rooms and face groups of people. If you are dealing with someone smart, and most studio executives are smart, I don’t see the need to schlep to Burbank, or them schlepping to your office. And negotiations are one-on-one. If I negotiated with Orion, it would be with (executives) Eric Pleskow and Mike Medavoy, and it would be a conference call.”
If it was producer Bob Evans, probably her closest Hollywood ally, it was no different. Legendary is their bickering and Mengers’ pushing her clients on Evans. “I was casting ‘Chinatown,’ and she was pressing for Faye Dunaway,” Evans recalled recently. “We were talking $250,000 and Sue said, ‘I need an answer by the end of the business day Friday. Because Faye is considering a picture with (director) Arthur Penn.’ So I thought, ‘I’ll offer ‘Chinatown’ to Jane Fonda.’ Jane met with (director) Roman Polanski. So I said to Sue, ‘I’ll give Faye $75,000.’ There were screams. . . . Then: ‘I’m going with Arthur Penn.’ So I said, ‘I’m going with Jane Fonda,’ and hung up.”
One hour later Mengers called Evans. “Honey, I spoke to Faye and we’ll take the $75,000.”
That night, Mengers again called Evans: “There was this glee in her voice . . . tee-hee-hee . . . . ‘Honey, guess what? There was no picture with Arthur Penn! I made it up!’ So I said, ‘Guess what? Jane Fonda turned us down!’ All this game-playing, and Sue was my best friend!”
Evans’ assessment a decade later: “It was good agenting and bad agenting, but mostly good agenting. Because Faye next did ‘Network’ for $500,000, and took the Oscar. But the thing is how much Sue enjoyed the game. She couldn’t wait to tell me! She doesn’t know that much about numbers, but she was paid more than any agent in town. What she has is a specific singular charm, and it operates at the highest level of human relations. Sue is somebody people enjoy. You don’t enjoy somebody because of his money or power . . . in fact you enjoy very few people in life. A lot of guys resented her, but when she’s good, there’s nobody better.”
The Names Change
With time away from the business, Mengers can look back in both anger and relief. She’s not shy about admitting mistakes, and some of them are true object lessons in how to play Hollywood.
“I would have to say I began my career out here when I started representing Rod Steiger,” she reflected. “One of my greatest failures was not getting ‘Hospital’ for Rod. I thought it would be a Renaissance role, and I learned a valuable lesson. (Writer) Paddy Chayefsky and Rod had a stormy history from ‘Marty’ and Paddy absolutely vetoed Rod. And I didn’t let up. There wasn’t a day I didn’t call Paddy, (director) Arthur Hiller, the executives at United Artists. I knew George C. Scott had turned it down, and I went in hard for Rod. Telling Paddy not to be unfair . . . being cocky because George C. Scott said no.
“They were starting the picture in like two weeks, and we were in negotiations for Rod. And we were apart let’s say $50,000, and I knew they were desperate. The UA executive said, ‘Sue, close the deal.’ One day I decided to hold firm for the extra $50,000 because Rod got it on his last picture. That day Paddy Chayefsky got on a plane to Spain, where George C. Scott was making a picture; Scott agreed to do ‘Hospital’ and I blew the deal. If I had closed it that day, Rod would have had the picture. Rod was a gentleman, but I learned the lesson. Never ever blow a deal on money.”
The power ascribed to agents, to Mengers and a handful of others, has limits. To not know those limits as an agent, is not to know one’s strengths. In the end, the talent is the true power, and the top agents know that.
Example: Tuesday Weld, a Mengers client, was 10 years ago “the first person offered ‘Norma Rae.’ For whatever reason Tuesday turned it down, whether she simply didn’t want to work at that time or whatever. Had Tuesday done ‘Norma Rae,’ it would have made her totally mainstream. But some actors aren’t calculating. Tuesday would work when the day would come where she’d wake up and say, ‘OK, I want to go to work.’ If something came around that she liked, fine. But she wouldn’t calculate, ‘Oh, it’s not a good career move.’ I’m not saying she’s right, by the way. But her private life was always very important to her.”
Mengers feels that, like soap operas and trade papers, “there will never be anything new in the agency business. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy it again. But I don’t feel something is happening I haven’t done before. You do the same thing for the new crop of stars you did for the other crop. You try to get them the best roles with the best directors for the best money. Only the names change. Suddenly you know who Charlie Sheen is. So he’s where Ryan (O’Neal) was 17 years ago.”
So is it simply evolution? “That’s right. If Myron Selznick were alive today, he wouldn’t have any big adjustment. If Irving Thalberg were alive, he would have a big adjustment. Because he’d no longer be able to tell the creative people what to do. If you want to keep Steven Spielberg happy, you don’t have him tied up for the next five years. You give him autonomy.”
Would Mengers like to have been Selznick--or Charles Feldman, the stylish powerful agent she’s most often compared to? She doesn’t think so. “Feldman did nothing (CAA boss) Mike Ovitz isn’t doing today, that (ICM boss) Jeff Berg isn’t doing, that I didn’t do. The names are different, that’s all. If Charlie Feldman and Myron Selznick came back to Earth today, all they’d need is a telephone.”
Mengers is still by her telephone, still swapping trade lines with David Geffen early in the morning. (In Hollywood, exchanged compliments are known as “TLs,” or trade lines.) But the difference now is that friendship can be nurtured in those calls. The calls can last 20 minutes, not two minutes. “I had reached a point where I knew who my friends were,” said Mengers, “and I had enough of them that I wasn’t worried about finding myself friendless. Before maybe it was Helen (Gurley Brown) every three weeks on the phone; now I can spend more time with her. But you see the same people you used to do business with. I used to worry about going to theater in New York, about missing the L.A. calls. Even in Europe, I’d always be on call.” Even at her own dinner parties the memory of Mengers being called away--by only the uppermost handful of clients, mind you, but still--to be called from your own dinners is another reason why agents leave the business.
“But great business was also done at those dinners,” remembered Ali MacGraw, who’s been both client and friend to Mengers since 1969. “Burt Reynolds met (director) Alan Pakula at Sue’s dinner table, and got ‘Starting Over.’ Ann-Margret met Mike Nichols and got ‘Carnal Knowledge.’ (Wags say Karen Black had the role--if she was willing to wear strap-on breasts.) Lauren Hutton met (writer-director) Paul Schrader and got ‘American Gigolo.’ It was the closest thing to a salon I’ve ever seen in this country or Europe.”
MacGraw went on: “The parties were impeccably cast, and fun, and if you were an actress it was the one moment you wanted to walk in knowing your hair was right, your weight was right. That you had on the right dress. You wanted to be what Sue wanted you to be. When I was on the cover of Time magazine, it made Sue happier than it made me. Candy (Bergen) and I were her pain-free WASP princesses--that’s how she saw us for a long time. . . . But it was fun to be a movie star in Sue’s time, because Sue was a star too. I think now, through 18 years of ups and downs, if I thought anyone was going to hurt Sue on any level, in any way, I would personally break their legs. She inspires more loyalty than anyone I’ve ever met.”
MacGraw and Mengers are also a good example of the peaks and valleys of a client-agent relationship. They met on the Gulf & Western plane to New York for the premiere of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” Mengers was there for Streisand; MacGraw was there for her new husband, Paramount’s then-production chief, Bob Evans. “Sue had on a brown T-shirt and pants, this is many pounds ago, and I fell instantly into her spell,” recalled MacGraw. “More than anyone else, Sue believed in the myth of Ali MacGraw as movie star. And she believed in the myth of Bob-and-Ali. And when it was over, she took it very hard. So when people say Sue can be negative, I say it’s not negativity. It’s disenchantment. Because Sue Mengers is about enchantment.”
And when Bob-and-Ali came apart--and when Ali wanted not to work during her marriage to Steve McQueen--Mengers did take it personally. “There were times in my marriage to Steve (McQueen) that I was so angry at Sue . . . angry really at myself . . . but the anger was because she was right. For example, I didn’t want to do (director Sidney Lumet’s) ‘Just Tell Me What You Want.’ Sue said to me on the phone, ‘This call isn’t even a question, or a conversation. This call is to say, “You are getting on the plane to New York--the ticket is paid--and you are going to see Sidney Lumet.” ’ She didn’t know it would be the best work I ever did. But she knew I had to get on the plane. She says things to you like, ‘Don’t spend money on such-and-such. I don’t want you worrying about money in your 60s and 70s.’ Who thinks about those things for other people?”
Dreams and Realities
One day Mengers decided to deal with the issue of being the hostess, the proprietess of the salon on Bel-Air Road. Social cachet in the ‘70s was critical in a way that no longer exists; Mike Ovitz and Jeff Berg, the agents who work with the biggest players, can almost certainly be dubbed anti-social, especially in contrast to Mengers.
“If I’m remembered for anything,” Mengers said one afternoon in New York, “it will probably be the parties.” She didn’t seem ecstatic about that legacy. “If I had to give a dinner, it was never about the people I loved, and whom I wanted to see. It was always ‘Who can help in business?’ It was totally calculated. As a woman, when I went out there, I felt I needed something to put me on the map.”
The two Mengers houses on the map were very different, and offer perfect Hollywood metaphors for levels of success. “The little house on Dawnridge was where we had the most fun,” remembers MacGraw, of the modern unpretentious view house near Pickfair where Julie Christie met Princess Margaret, where John Travolta met Laurence Olivier. Then in 1977, Mengers and Tramont bought the seven-bathroom French Normandy house owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor atop Bel-Air, and the Mengers salon had an extravagant home base.
“Our house became like a restaurant,” she mused one day. “At first I’d be grateful to look around the living room and see these glorified people. I mean I was chasing after Rita Hayworth, just to meet her, and I was already in my 30s, folks! But the celebrities hadn’t come because they wanted to see me or my husband; they wanted to see each other. I was never the star at my own parties. I was the catalyst to bring creative people together. I was the concierge. No one said, ‘Let’s listen to Sue’s bon mots. ' I was tolerated. I don’t know any agents who entertain that way today. Or any that need to.”
Was there ever one moment where the dream matched reality? A moment of realizing I made it! She thought less than a minute, and then took off the tinted, wire-rimmed glasses--a pose that had to once have frightened executives. Then she nodded and seemed almost to coo:
“The day we moved into the house in Bel-Air. That was the moment. The first night we slept there, that was it. I grew up sharing a bathroom with three other people. So that house symbolized having made it. And the fact that I was able to shuck it showed, I think, that my values had become more down-to-earth. It’s like, ‘OK, that was one period of my life. Now let’s get on to growing up a little.’ I don’t need a huge house any more to proclaim what I am. Does that make sense?”
“In 1963, I was sitting on a set at Columbia Pictures with Hank Fonda,” remembered Gore Vidal, “and I got this call from a Miss Mengers. I honestly didn’t remember the name. Then I remembered she was the blonde we’d had up to the house on the Hudson. So I’d known her socially--I mean she’s the best company in the world, riotously funny, and yet I didn’t remember the name . . . and suddenly on the phone she said, ‘I want you to send a telegram saying you want Jack Klugman to play so-and-so in the movie of ‘The Best Man.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t want to!’ and Sue said, ‘I don’t care if you want him or not, I just want you to send the telegram. I want to sign him as a client.’ ”
Upshot? “I sent the telegram. Klugman didn’t get the part. But Sue got the client.”
“I don’t remember that story,” said Mengers, “but there are so many stories, some of them must be true. I do remember we put Klugman in ‘Gypsy’ with Ethel Merman.”
In terms of a Jack Klugman, the transition for an actor from smaller parts to bigger is usually achieved only with several agents, from small-time to big-time.
“That is my one talent,” she admitted one day. “It’s an instinct, really, something you can’t define. I think what’s very hard for an agent to do is to know that moment when you go for the bigger money. For Timothy Hutton, for example, there was no money before ‘Ordinary People.’ It was whatever the part was, what do you want to pay? I didn’t start representing Timothy until after ‘Taps.’ But whoever got him from ‘Ordinary People’ to ‘Taps’ had to know how to take him to the next level. . . . I could always smell when the moment of heat was.”
Example: “Ryan (O’Neal) made barely above scale for ‘Love Story,’ and just after that was the moment to go for bigger money, and I wasn’t afraid to.”
It’s a marketplace savvy that can’t be based on imagination but on actual figures. Though Mengers-watchers will say figures weren’t her strong suit, she might not agree.
“I remember calling Goldie Hawn after ‘Private Benjamin’ opened, to congratulate her. She was represented by another agency and she was as hot as anyone in the business as a result of that picture. And she said to me, ‘Listen, what do you think I can get now? My current agent feels I should get X-point-X million. And I said, ‘Why should you get less than an actor who is getting X-point-XX million?’ And Goldie said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t get that!’ I said, ‘Tell your agent you won’t work for less.’ And that’s what she did. . . .
“See, I know what heat is. It’s a killer instinct, to know that. Jeff Berg has it, Ovitz has it, (CAA agent) Ron Meyer has it. Only a handful. It’s knowing the right price. And the right price is never an unfair price.”
Mengers’ client Streisand got $4.5 million, plus percentages, for 27 days work on “All Night Long,” directed by Mengers’ husband, Tramont, and co-starring Hackman. Mengers, before unfolding the details, marveled a moment: “This was eight years ago! I don’t think there’s a richer deal for that time period. I especially needed to make a strong deal because it was my husband’s picture,” Mengers began, not ducking. She knows the talk--the notion that Streisand left Mengers because of the movie’s failure, and that somehow like Topsy the disenchantment grew--leading Mengers to ultimately leave the business. In fact, if it was a movie that caused the split, it was “Yentl” and not “All Night Long.”
“I had never been the biggest believer in ‘Yentl,’ ” Mengers acknowledged, “although I beg you to put this in because I mean it from my heart--I thought the picture was brilliant. But I think it caused a problem then between Barbra and me. She always wanted to do the picture, and I was always negative about it and after a while I became a little too dogmatic, and then. . . .”
And then there was Jon Peters, Streisand’s companion and adviser until five years ago. “Jon and I had trouble communicating, and Jon was very much in her professional life then. But mostly I think it had just run its course by then, with Barbra. Barbra was like my little sister and how in the world was she going to direct this difficult picture and play a boy? To my chagrin, I was wrong. I never had enough belief. I remember going to see it--at the time we weren’t speaking--and crying and saying, ‘Thank God she didn’t listen to me!’ Right after that I called her, and we are friends again.”
But did the loss of Streisand cost Mengers clients? The answer is shaded. “What was costly was my reaction,” answered Mengers. “The industry is used to people losing clients. Steve McQueen left (agent) Stan Kamen, who’d nurtured his career from the beginning--and I can take much less credit for Barbra Streisand’s career than Stan could take for Steve’s. But I overreacted. I felt my whole identity was tied up in being Barbra Streisand’s agent. It took me years to realize it wasn’t, and this was totally my problem.”
The question is, did the problem affect other working relationships? “It didn’t affect my work, it affected my trust factor. Nobody said, ‘I’m leaving because of Barbra Streisand.’ Clients leave, that’s a part of the game. Good agents accept that, but I was like a walking wound. In my mind, I no longer had this shield. So I lost some of this joie d’vivre. I became even more Jewish-mother negative, as in ‘You should lose some weight,’ or ‘You’re doing too many pictures.’ I guess I never believed in myself, only in myself as the agent to these important people. I realize now the strength was in me. It was me.”
Clients (or artists) are insecure enough without having a negative agent. And Mengers knows this. “They need an agent who’s always ‘Up.’ And this was a time when I started seriously thinking, ‘Maybe I’ve had the best of it for a while. Maybe I should start looking down the road. . . . I think I became defensive to my clients if I couldn’t get them a role. I’d tell them why. And they didn’t always want to hear it.”
Taking the Veil
After 18 months of traveling, and just thinking , Mengers has come to some conclusions. “I realized something about people in the community,” she said. “I’m not saying they liked me. But they took me seriously. People who didn’t like my style, I don’t think they’d like me more today. But I really would like to believe I was respected. Nobody said, ‘She didn’t work hard.’ I was tough, I was inflexible, I was fair. I was rough on lawyers . . . because there’s competitiveness. Who do you love more, honey, me or the lawyer ? I got maternal, I got possessive, and in looking over my career, I see negativity as probably my major fault.”
Will Sue Mengers be an agent again? “If I ever went back, I have to know nothing has changed. I would have to work as compulsively. Maybe one day I’ll wake up, and say, ‘I want to go back.’ But this is what’s true about being an agent: You get second-guessed all the time. It’s also the most stimulating non-talent branch of show business. But being an agent is taking the veil. And I’m not ready yet.”
When Gore Vidal was asked what he thought of Mengers’ sabbatical, he offered a novel thought: “She discovered the Great Books of the world. Howard (Austen) said, ‘It’s too bad she didn’t do that 30 years ago.’ And I said, ‘Oh no. Thank God! She would have been the head of Hunter College English Department, and the world would have lost Sue Mengers.’ ”
Sue Mengers’ Client List, 1963 to 1986
(Some of these people were clients for a dozen years, some were only with Mengers for a matter of months--so the agency business goes:) Ann-Margret
Jamie Lee Curtis