Sue Mengers, the first female agent to penetrate the Hollywood boy’s club, died Saturday at her Beverly Hills home. Flamboyant, charming, witty, and abrasive, she was the most powerful woman on the agency scene in the 1970’s and 1980s–arguably the most famous agent of her time.
Mengers was profiled on 60 Minutes and served as the inspiration for the acid-tongued blonde portrayed by Dyan Cannon in the 1973 whodunit The Last of Sheila. Her client list included Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand, Gore Vidal–all of them in their prime. Describing herself as a an “aggressive, smart, piece of manpower,” Mengers became a trailblazer for women.
Ali MacGraw and former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing were at her side when she died from pneumonia and a series of small strokes. Mengers claimed to be 79 at the time of her death. Wikipedia added three years.
Her story is a Hollywood tale, the stuff of which movies are made. Fleeing from Nazi Germany, Mengers and her family spoke no English when they arrived in the U.S. in 1938. Elocution lessons helped her get rid of her accent. Saturday matinees eased the pain of her father’s suicide. Mengers called it a real-life Stella Dallas–the teenage Sue and her housekeeper mom against the world.
Straight out of school, Mengers became a secretary at talent agencies ranging from William Morris to Creative Management Associates–which later became ICM. In 1967, CMA chiefs Freddie Fields and David Begelman asked her to head up the company’s theater department. The following year, she was shipped out to Los Angeles. The city, she has said, was “paradise”–a far cry from her dark New York apartment, where a flashlight was mandatory equipment. She quickly became a tough negotiator and, just as important, learned to entertain.
Her talent, she said, was “casting.” Lauren Hutton ran into writer-director Paul Schrader at one of her dinners and lined up a role in American Gigolo. Mike Nichols met Ann Margaret at another and cast her in Carnal Knowledge.
“I never invited anyone who wasn’t successful,” Mengers told the New Yorker in 1994. “I was ruthless about it. It was all stars. I would look around my living room and even I’d be impressed with myself.”
Still, she acknowledges some mistakes. Emulating her male cohorts, she was “tactless, contemptuous and made enemies needlessly,” Mengers told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “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.”
Breaking the glass ceiling felt good, Mengers concedes–but she never identified as a “feminist.” The time women spent on self-congratulation, she explained, she spent getting clients. And when it came to money, she came up short. It never occurred to her to ask for the money a man would receive for her job.
In 1986, a burned-out Mengers left the industry–only to return, two years later, as worldwide head of the motion picture department at William Morris. It was the wrong fit, from the start. Morris’ management style was alien to Mengers. She couldn’t attract A-list clients. And she was a vestige of times past. With the rise of the Creative Artists Agency in the mid-1980s, the “star system” gave way to team representation and button-down dress. Mengers’ crass, free-wheeling style was out of sync, no longer in demand.
Mengers refuted such allegations. “For all the talk of the Japanese and technology,” she said, “this is still a business of personalities. It’s a lot harder for people to refuse your call if they’ve been a guest in your home.” When Mengers left William Morris in 1989, six agents followed her out.
Mengers was hermetic in her later years, comparing herself to “Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond. Instead of venturing out, she’d bring folks into her home–Annette Bening, Fran Lebowitz, Elton John, Diane Von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. She also entertained New York glitterati such as Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, New York Magazine’s Frank Rich, The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley.
Mengers and her husband director Jean-Claude Tramont (All Night Long) divided their time between Beverly Hills and Paris. When he died in 1996, said agent Boaty Boatrwight, her friends–legions of them–effectively became her “family.”
Here are three Mengers posts from Vanity Fair: