Leading Ladies: The diverse legacies of Edie Wasserman and Sue Mengers

Since August, Hollywood has lost two of its leading ladies.

One was the wife of a mogul, a family matriarch, major philanthropist and influential political donor, who even after her death, managed to get both Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend her memorial. The other was a so-called “superagent,” an industry pioneer and Hollywood socialite who, earlier this year, hosted the latest Oscar-winning director for dinner at her home the night before he won the Oscar. 

Separated by just over 15 years, Edie Wasserman, who was 95 when she died, and Sue Mengers, who was 79, were close enough in age to both have adult memories of the Cold War but far enough apart to have realized their potential on different sides of a generational divide.

Wasserman was a wife. And although her position was akin to American royalty, she realized her power through her marriage. As partner to Lew, the industry mogul who transformed the Music Corp. of America (MCA) from the largest talent agency in the world to what would eventually become Universal Studios Inc., Edie was the consummate collaborator. Beyond serving supper to her husband, she created an entire society around them, which mainly reflected her interests — parties, politics, fundraisers — and embodied her values — relationships, democracy, philanthropy. So prized by her husband were her insights and ideas that, behind the scenes, family and friends referred to her as “The General.” Lew had the job title; Edie decided how to spend their money. 

Mengers, on the other hand, was a career woman. As a pioneering female in the male-dominated entertainment agency business of the ’70s, she didn’t so much channel male power as co-opt it. Rather than share dominion with men, she ruled single-handedly, representing some of the most iconic names in entertainment at the height of their careers: Barbra Streisand, Cher, Faye Dunaway, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte and directors Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse and Sidney Lumet. She was unabashed, ingenious and uninhibited, especially when it came to building her career. According to Nikki Finke, Mengers once rented a mink coat just to approach a producer at dinner. Later, she wouldn’t have to — she became one of the most powerful agents in the biz.

Both women had a penchant for parties — glitz and glamour being a girl thing. But judging by temperament, the two women could hardly be more different: Wasserman, who nurtured strong ties between Washington and Hollywood through elaborately detailed affairs and her impeccable manner, epitomized elegance, sophistication and propriety. Mengers, who nurtured strong ties among the creative and media industries by hosting intimate Hollywood salons, epitomized glamour, prestige and rebellion. Wasserman wore pins; Mengers, caftans. Wasserman liked politics; Mengers smoked pot.

But they both commanded attention and respect. Both were known for being strong, not sentimental, forceful, but not fearsome. They knew that as women, the best way to lose power is to act powerful, so instead they settled for witty and wise. Both women were Jewish; Mengers was born in Germany and narrowly escaped the Holocaust; Wasserman was born Beckerman in Cleveland and moved from the Great Depression to the American Dream.

Both inhabited a world of lights, legend and seemingly ludicrous wealth. Even after their deaths — Wasserman in August and Mengers in October — myriad obituaries glorified the grandeur of their lives. But to celebrate only their sparkle belies the many sacrifices they made along the way.

Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote on her blog that “interviewing Sue Mengers was one of the saddest experiences of my professional life.” In a 1994 profile, she quotes Mengers as saying:  “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.”

Mengers probably looked at Wasserman and thought, “She has it all.”

Wasserman had the big family — a daughter, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. But as a woman, her achievements will probably never be seen as distinct from her husband’s — or even possible without him. No matter how many leaders she ushered into office or how many ideas she contributed to the success of MCA, or how many students she enabled to study at UCLA or how many elderly she saved through the $100 million she raised for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, she never got singular credit for her contributions. Some probably snickered, “Easy if you’re married to a mogul.”

Wasserman probably looked at Mengers and thought, “She did it all herself.”

In an industry perennially preoccupied with numbers, how do you measure a life? Number on tax return? Number of dollars raised? Children reared? Number of movie stars at your dining room table? Wasserman and Mengers were disparate emblems of success, working their way through life according to a self-styled system of metrics.

Who was the more successful woman? To answer the question is to miss the point.