Remembering Sue Mengers: Lonesome legend

The superwoman, superagent Sue Mengers, a Hollywood legend not just in her own time but for all time, died last weekend at around age 80. As Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who broke the news of Mengers’s death, noted: no one knew how old she really was.

“Wikipedia has her age at 81. She claimed 78—and to the end she was sticking by her story. (In an email after Sue’s death, one friend imagined Sue coming back; just to correct the record of her age.),” Carter wrote. “She was a girlish 70-plus, who never looked her age—and with an ever-present joint in her hand, she didn’t act it either.”

Evinced by the obituaries that recalled her life, Mengers was that storied female trailblazer in a male-dominated industry. She was a bonafide female icon; but not because she exemplified the possibilities for female success—because she was so good at what she did, she blazed past men who weren’t half as ingenious or driven. In her heyday, Mengers not only inhabited a room of her own, she was queen of the castle.

But of the many glamorous obituaries that marked her death, few were honest enough to admit the extraordinary sacrifices she made for her throne. Most depicted her unparalleled career, her singular-style, her superstar friends. As Hollywood is known to do, substance is traded for sheen. And some of her staunchest fans – Carter and Nikki Finke among them—may have falsely glorified a life that was grand, yes, but also gloomy.

Mengers had scores of famous clients, but no kids. She was a showstopper in the 1970s but became reclusive and ill by the mid-90s. The final days of her career, which played out at the former William Morris Agency, were marred by failed attempts and excessive pot-smoking. She died not at all disgraced, but diminished.

Writing on the New Yorker blog, Richard Brody drew attention to a darker, more lonesome side to Mengers’s life. Susan Orlean, another New Yorker writer, wrote on her blog that, “interviewing Sue Mengers was one of the saddest experiences of my professional life.” Brody unearthed Orlean’s 1994 profile of Mengers and agreed that it was indeed, heartbreaking.

Back then, Mengers told Orlean: “I couldn’t imagine more to life than getting a good part for Nick Nolte…. I never had children…. I didn’t think I could be both a great agent to Barbra Streisand and be a mother to a kid. I chose Streisand. I wouldn’t choose Streisand if I could do it again.”

Brody also clipped her remarks (or rather, qualms) about signing a then-unknown client named Dustin Hoffman, describing “the cynical way she went about the work for which she sacrificed too much”:

“I had no interest in unknowns,” Mengers told Orlean in the 94 profile. “Anyone can sign an unknown. Only a big agent can sign a big star. I was sent Dustin Hoffman when he was starting out. My attitude was: What do I want with this short, inarticulate, mumbling actor? I sent a sarcastic note to that effect. I was only interested in superstars.”

Mengers had come a long way for the holy dreamdust of Hollywood. Born in Hamburg, Germany at the dawn of World War II, Mengers was, in the words of Graydon Carter, “a Holocaust baby.” She and her family fled to the United States, settling in New York. “Nobody in her family spoke English, and like so many immigrants, she set her sights on a career in show business,” Carter wrote. “By the early 70s, she was not only the most powerful female agent in Hollywood; she was the town’s most powerful agent, period.”

Over the course of her nearly 40-year career, she represented the creme de la creme of the entertainment industry. Her client list included Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Cher, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte and superstar directors like Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse, and Sidney Lumet. She liked to call movie stars “sparklies”.

Joan Hyler, a talent manager and former agent, counts herself among Mengers’s proteges. The two women met in New York in the 1970s when Hyler was working as an agent’s assistant at ICM, and Mengers was the agency’s crown jewel. “She was a great influence on me,” Hyler said. “She was probably the most powerful agent in the business when I first began, a kind of queen-of-the-west. She was like a character out of a Western: head of the ranch.”

Hyler said she and Mengers would dine together when Mengers was visiting New York. Two years Hyler’s senior, Mengers introduced her “to some important people.” Though she could be fierce when she needed to be, Hyler remembers her fondly: “She had humor and she had a dirty mouth,” Hyler said. Professionally, she was “unstoppable”; personally, “romantic”; she could “play like the boys”, act like a “trickster” and “would do anything to get her clients a job.”

But rather than compete with other women, Hyler said Mengers was confident enough and successful enough to played the role of mentor. “In an age when women were supposed to be ladylike, she came screaming out of the ‘Mad Men’ era,” Hyler said. “She made it permissible for a woman to be not just successful, but aggressive and smart. She was very generous to other women. Except there was only one Queen Bee and that was her.”

Stories of Mengers’ tough wit and ballsy brazenness are legion.

In her obituary of Mengers, Nikki Finke recalled some of the leading lore:

There was the story about the time Mengers dropped her card in a star’s soup at Sardis. Or pulled up at a stoplight next to Burt Lancaster, rolled down her window, and offered to represent him. And then there was the day Mengers dropped by director Otto Preminger’s New York office and declared, “I’m the only agent who actually gives head if you hire the client.”

As a woman in a man’s world, Mengers had to be creative, edgy and unabashed to get attention. In 1963, after she left her job as a fledgling agent at William Morris Agency, deciding to strike out on her own, she employed some pretty wild gestures to get noticed, according to Nikki Finke: Once, she rented a mink coat in order to approach a producer at dinner; another time, she called Sidney Lumet – at midnight—to pitch him a client (“If you’re this pushy,” Lumet reportedly told her. “I want you to be my agent.”); if people wouldn’t return her calls, she’d send “funny telegrams.”

She told Finke: “No one knew who I was, and nobody cared. And, in order to make an impact, I guess I became outrageous.”

“There are really two kinds of agents in this business,” Hyler said. “Those that love power and those that love their clients—and she was both.” 

Finke observed, “Her enemies dismissed her as loud, overbearing and vulgar. But to the stellar list of above-the-title clients in her heyday, Mengers was therapist, confessor, Jewish mother, best friend and unflagging chief advocate.” Even Finke appears to have felt something of a kinship with Mengers, having traded in her signature snark to write a lengthy and heartfelt obituary that revealed just as much about the writer as about her subject. Finke, like Mengers, is famously reclusive and reportedly suffers from seemingly chronic ailments. But she took a rare break from her self-imposed isolation to visit with Mengers at her home. Did she see some of herself in the beleaguered star? “It didn’t take pop psychology to see how much of Mengers’ ballsiness was simply a cover for the scared and insecure little girl inside,” Finke wrote.

As Mengers succumbed to illness and isolation, her star shone less and less. If you wanted to see her, Graydon Carter remarked, “You had to go to her.” From the 80s on, Mengers hosted star-studded and super-exclusive Hollywood salons that brought together actors, directors, writers, journalists and intellectuals. “Dinner at Sue’s was like stepping into a Hollywood you imagined, but almost never experienced,” Carter wrote. “Her house was a John Woolf jewel, with great California Regency doors, and a living room that looked over a largely unused, egg-shaped pool. Everyone came to Sue’s.

“For visiting friends from the East, like Fran Lebowitz, Frank Rich, Alex Witchel, Lorne Michaels, Maureen Dowd, and Alessandra Stanley, she rolled out the single-name stars: Warren, Jack, Barbra, Elton, Ali, Anjelica, Bette, Sting, and Trudy, along with friends with last names like Geffen, Diller, Poitier, Lansing, Friedkin, Semel, Lourd, and Zanuck,” Carter wrote.

Mengers was an illustrious industry figure who fit—and helped define—Hollywood mythos about glamour, power and character. But the portraits of exaltation mask the fact that Mengers, like everyone else, had deep, unrealized yearnings. And even though she was widely respected and praised, Hyler said her peers never adequately recognized her.

“She gave a big legacy to other women, and yet she never got her due,” Hyler said with a touch of melancholy. “When I ran Women in Film in the 80s, I wanted to give her an award and she refused; she was very rueful about it. She said, ‘It’s too little, too late.’”

Although Mengers legend endured within the industry, she never achieved the kind of status that might have made her a household name. She shattered the glass ceiling, but some part of her got lost in its refracted light.