Sue Mengers once called herself an “aggressive, smart piece of manpower.” Smart and flamboyant, charming and abrasive, she was “one of the boys” in the freewheeling Hollywood of the ‘70s.
She was a star in her own right: probably the only agent profiled on “60 Minutes,” and the inspiration for the acid-tongued blonde portrayed by Dyan Cannon in the 1973 whodunit “The Last of Sheila.” With a client list that included directors Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma, actors Faye Dunaway and Michael Caine, Mengers became the industry’s first female superagent.
Still, 2 1/2 years after abandoning the agency business for civilian life, Mengers is less of a power than a legend--a woman whose story is as dramatic as her one-time clientele.
Fleeing from Nazi Germany, she and her parents arrived in the U.S. in 1938 with no command of English. Elocution lessons helped get rid of her accent. Saturday matinees eased the pain of her father’s suicide. It was, Mengers once noted, a real-life “Stella Dallas"--the teen-age Sue and her bookkeeper mom against the world.
Straight out of high school, Mengers became a secretary for New York talent agents, pulling in between $100 and $150 a week at firms ranging from William Morris to Creative Management Associates. Her first break came in 1963 when a young agent named Tom Korman asked her to set up shop. “I can’t pay you any more than you were making as a secretary,” he is reported to have said. “But at least you won’t have to bring anyone coffee.”
Mengers jumped at the chance. “I never thought in my life I’d get a shot at being a talent agent--or even get out of the secretarial mold,” she recalls during a trans-Atlantic phone conversation from her apartment in Paris. “We’re talking 30 years ago. The only female role models around were literary agents wearing hats.”
In 1967, Mengers was spotted by Freddie Fields and David Begelman, co-heads of the high-powered CMA, who asked her to head the company’s theater department. When that job was phased out the following year, she was shipped out to Los Angeles. Two other women were also central to the mix: Stephanie (Stevie) Phillips represented Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford in the New York office while Maggie Abbott attended to the likes of Peter Sellers and Jacqueline Bisset in London.
“I set them up to give us another dimension of talent contact,” says Fields. “They added a different flavor and reduced the hard-edged business tone. Of the three, Sue was the most visible. She said what she felt . . . and said it strongly. Just as important, she learned to entertain.”
Actress Polly Bergen, Fields’ wife at the time, believes Mengers was born for the part. “Sue had the ability to put together all the wrong people--folks you’d never think of--and make it exciting,” she recalls. “In an insular town in which everything is connected to the ‘business,’ she’d have Tatum O’Neal, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese at a table for 12.”
Mengers’ relationship with Barbra Streisand helped establish her profile. Until the early ‘80s, she was not only the preeminent agent at ICM, which emerged from CMA, but the paramount agent in town.
Not that she identified as a “feminist.” Declaring that distinctions on the basis of sex were vacuous, Mengers--the first major player who (publicly, at least) wore skirts--passed on a request to help organize Women in Film. “How can women say that there’s no difference between the sexes and, in the next breath, praise a member of our sex for an accomplishment that would be taken for granted if she were a man?” she asks. “The time they spent on self-laudatory functions I spent getting clients.”
Nevertheless, Mengers acknowledges, she made some mistakes. “Emulating the people I knew in the field--entirely male--I was tactless, contemptuous and made enemies needlessly,” she says now. “If I had to do it over again, I’d take on a bit more of the personality of (Paramount motion picture 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.’
When it came to money, Mengers attests, she was a step behind. “At the height of my career, I brought in a great deal of business to ICM, putting together pictures such as ‘Paper Moon’ and ‘What’s Up Doc?,’ ” she says. “But it never occurred to me to ask for the money that a man would automatically receive. I felt it was an honor and a thrill, as a woman, to do what I was doing--talking to movie stars. That was my fault . . . not theirs.”
In 1986, a burned-out Mengers left the industry, only to be lured back as worldwide head of the motion picture Department at William Morris two years later. It was an unhappy experience for all concerned. The company’s old-fashioned management style was foreign to her. She had no authority to set salaries and bonuses or to hire and fire. Not only was she unable to stem the tide of actors deserting the agency after mega-agent Stan Kamen’s death in 1986 (Ed Limato left with Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Gere and Mel Gibson the day after her appointment was announced), but she had trouble lining up any of her own.
“Sue was the highest-ranking woman in the agency business, but unable to attract clients,” recalls Jerry Katzman, president of William Morris. “You would have thought that at least people such as Farrah Fawcett, whose careers she had literally made, would have felt a sense of loyalty.”
Why did Mengers’ return fizzle? Theories abound. Some call Mengers a brilliant agent but a lackluster executive. Others believe the stars she had represented had been jolted by her departure. “Her clients thought her life was dedicated to them,” recalls one of her colleagues. “They felt betrayed.”
Most of all, say the pundits, Mengers’ crass, freewheeling style, rapid-fire wit and famed get-togethers were a vestige of the past. “When the business turned serious, Mengers’ act faltered,” notes one. “Agencies are no longer a sporting enterprise but real competition.” With the rise of Creative Artists Agency in the mid-'80s, the “star system,” too, is on the wane. Team representation and button-down dress are now the order of the day.
Mengers says that snagging clients wasn’t part of the package. “I thought I’d be running a mini-company: building a motion picture department . . . not signing stars,” she explains. Allegations that her style is outmoded, she contends, are also off the mark.
“The agency business hasn’t changed since talkies came in,” she asserts. “For all the talk of the Japanese and the new technology, this is still a business of personalities. People don’t go to the movies on the basis of who financed a film--Credit Lyonnais or Sony. And the social end, if done right, can still have impact. It’s a lot harder for people to refuse your call if they’ve been a guest your home.”
Mengers’ already tenuous power at William Morris was further diluted by the appointment of Mike Simpson and John Burnham as co-heads of the West Coast motion picture department in 1989. When management told her they were counting on “younger people” to pull the operation together, she says, she grit her teeth, gave them a piece of her mind--and hung in there for the remaining 18 months of her contract. Mengers left the company in January, 1991. Six motion picture agents followed in her wake.
Mengers and her husband of 20 years--director Jean-Claude Tramont (“All Night Long”)--now divide their time between Beverly Hills and Paris. Though lucrative offers to write a book haven’t intrigued her in the past, she says, she’s considering the possibility--on her own timetable.
“I’m not Colette, pouring out pages,” Mengers says. “I’m just walking in the Palais Royale every day--doing some serious thinking and note taking.”