Sue Mengers one of the first star agents died this past weekend. I have always been interested in her story. I first came across her when reading one of the various books about Barbra Streisand. She was a super agent before Mike Ovitz and Ari Emmanuel. In the 1970s, she represented everyone who was hot from Ryan O’Neal to Faye Dunaway to Sidney Lumet to Candice Bergen to Brian DePalma to Barbra Streisand. In a business where people represent actors and other represent directors, she represented both. She was packaging talent and movies together way before it became the standard of business.
And she was a star herself. She was profiled on 60 Minutes and it has been said that the Dyan Cannon role in The Last of Sheila is based on her.
She was born in Germany and her family came to the US to escape the Nazis in the late 1930s. She started in the business when she answered an ad for a receptionist in 1955 in NYC.
She worked her way up in NY and then made it out to LA where she was a powerful woman when there were no (or very few) other powerful women. She was short, not skinny and known for wearing mumus and getting high.
And she did not have a light personality. She did not always make friends and was brash. Here’s a quote about her from a 1973 Time Magazine piece (via Washington Post) : “a cross between Mama Cass and Mack the Knife. She has the soft, breathy voice of a little-bitty girl, the vocabulary of a mule skinner and the subtle approach of a Sherman tank.” She was a woman who had to be better than the boys. I think about the women who were in power in Hollywood with hardly any other women around them like Sue and like Dawn Steel and you have to remember how hard it was for them. They had to fight twice as hard to get taken half as serious.
But Mengers was taken seriously because she had the roster of talent. She burned out in the late 80s and made a disastrous comeback a few years later and then disappeared from the business (but not from Hollywood- her parties and lunches were legendary.)
One lesson that I can glean from reading about her is that she became entwined with her clients and when Barbra Streisand left her it was devastating both professionally and personally. That is a lesson about boundaries — can your clients really be your friends?
Sue Mengers is a woman who many people may not have heard of because she was a part of Hollywood before it became the corporate machine it is today. She might not have called herself a feminist but she was a trailblazer and forged the path that all women agents follow today.
R.I.P. Sue Mengers (Deadline)
Sue Mengers, Hollywood talent agent, dies (Washington Post)
Sue Mengers: The Agent Who Roared : She’s on Sabbatical From Stars, Power and Hollywood . . . Can It Last? (piece form 1987- LA Times)