Sue Mengers’ epitaph: ‘Dirty, flirty’

In Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Sense of an Ending” he speaks often of memory and nostalgia. Implicit in his tale is how much perspective on history shifts when recollected over time.

Of an aging, good-looking woman, he writes: “The best way I can put it is this: she sees only what’s gone, I see only what’s stayed the same.”

I thought of that line reading Maureen Dowd’s postmortem homage to Sue Mengers, the renowned talent agent who died some months ago and was remembered in The New York Times Magazine’s annual ‘Lives They Lived’ segment. The issue purports to honor “ordinary people” but there was nothing much ordinary about Mengers. Accounts from those who knew her describe her personality as explosive, edgy, and my favorite, “full of exhilarating vulgarity,” as Dowd puts it. She was a groundbreaking female in a male-dominated industry and her private world was the stuff of Hollywood legend. And by that strange, specific code, you knew you were somebody if Mengers had you to her home.

Barnes’s line resonated because Dowd’s piece makes clear that she is remembering a woman whose best gifts endured despite aging and ill health. Naturally some of her professional powers diminished (an agent who doesn’t leave the house can hardly remain at the heights of a socially-driven industry). But Dowd focuses not on what Mengers lost, or how she declined, but on the essential qualities that remained the same—her charm, her sense of humor, her passion for fun.

And at least from this telling, we can know that a woman who narrowly escaped Nazi Germany at age 6, remained, until her dying day, so very Jewish:

When she started a sentence “Tip from Sue” or “Notes,” you wanted to run for the Hollywood Hills.

But she had a soft, warm side; she was a yenta who loved fixing people up, in work and in love. If a match struck, she would urge the woman, “We have to close the deal.” After Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie, Mengers told me that she advised her beloved Jen to ask Brad for some of his sperm.

She borrowed some bon mots from her late husband, the director Jean-Claude Tramont. When a party was dull, she would murmur, “Schindler’s B-list,” and when a Tinseltown suit made a dumb move, she’d sigh, “God didn’t send his best Jews to Hollywood.”