Hollywood agent who nurtured the careers of A-list stars or 'sparklies' through her ruthless negotiating skills
Published 06/11/2011 | 05:00
Sue Mengers, who has died aged 79, became the most powerful agent in Hollywood in the early Seventies, promoting the film careers of A-list stars like Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds and Michael Caine.
She also represented some of the greatest auteurs of the age: directors such as Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet. "You couldn't do a movie without Sue," remarked one studio head. "When you'd have a problem, you'd go to her, and she would make it go away. She was the Man." As the Man, Sue Mengers was the first to breach the boys' club that once ran Hollywood, breaking the ground for other women to follow her.
Small in stature but the larger-than-life child of Jewish immigrants, she could have stepped straight out of central casting with her formidable girth (later shed), vicious tongue, toxic one-liners and ruthless skills as a negotiator.
She had a talent for creating box office gold by putting together winning combinations of authors, directors and stars. In one remarkable coup, she signed three of her clients -- Streisand, Ryan O'Neal and Bogdanovich --with Warner Bros to make the 1972 comedy What's Up, Doc?
Famous for the star-studded parties that she threw at her Bel Air mansion, she carefully arranged guests to secure parts for her "sparklies", as she called her roster of stars. "My talent is casting -- knowing who to ask and where to sit them," she explained.
But a dinner she gave in honour of Britain's Princess Margaret turned into a rare disaster. "Every time she looked my way I curtsied," Sue Mengers recalled. "I was curtsying all night! She thought I was an idiot."
She could claim to have made Michael Caine a household name. The star of British Sixties' films such as The Ipcress File and Alfie, Caine had started to break into Hollywood with a starring role in Neil Simon's California Suite (1978). "She was trying to get me accepted in America as a Brit," Caine recalled. "Now I am kind of accepted as an American who talks funny, and that's based on Sue. She was a bulldog with charm."
Her shortcomings -- not that she admitted to any -- included the occasional inability to schmooze her own clients. Gore Vidal related how "this Jew" (she invariably referred to herself as "this Jew") upset Joan Collins as she tried to deal with the onset of middle age, children, and a broken marriage.
"Sue said to Joan: 'Give it up. You've got enough money to live on, you've got children to raise, just settle down, forget the business'," Vidal recalled. "With that, Joan left Sue and got [the starring role of Alexis Carrington in the super-soap] Dynasty, I think just to show her up."
Blonde and abrasive, and invariably a source of good copy and an even better quote, Sue Mengers became almost as famous as her "sparklies". When the "Manson family" murdered Sharon Tate in 1969, Sue Mengers reportedly reassured Streisand: "Don't worry, honey, stars aren't being murdered. Only featured players."
A decade later, in 1979, Sue Mengers was a passenger on board an aircraft from Los Angeles which was hijacked when it landed at JFK airport, New York, by a woman wired with explosives. "People were on their knees, praying," said one witness, "we thought a big ball of fire could come roaring down that aisle. Except Sue. She kept saying: 'I'm keeping Candy waiting at Elaine's'. The rest of us are thinking: 'We're gonna die any minute!"
Sue Mengers was born on September 2, 1932, in Hamburg, Germany, to well-heeled Jewish parents. When they fled the Nazis, they lost everything and in 1938 sailed to America, where her father became a door-to-door salesman. After he committed suicide in a hotel in Times Square, Sue's domineering mother, a book-keeper, took her to live in the Bronx.
She took several secretarial jobs at talent agencies, but her break allegedly came after she stole a Rolodex card file with stars' telephone numbers and joined a new firm where she was able to work as an agent in her own right. There she turned her attention to Barbra Streisand, whose then husband, Elliott Gould, was a client.
In 1966 she joined the CMA agency and two years later was appointed to its Los Angeles office. "It was October 1968, and I'd been living in a dump in New York that was so dark you needed a f***ing flashlight. And my new place in LA had windows and the second day after I arrived I saw Fred Astaire walking along a street in Beverly Hills. It was heaven."
When Mengers met Streisand, they compared their backgrounds as bright, ambitious Jewish girls from the Bronx whose fathers had died young. Streisand, by then a huge Broadway and recording star who had also made a mark in Hollywood with Funny Girl (1968), for which she won an Oscar, started taking Sue Mengers along to showbusiness parties. These gave the budding agent the opportunity to meet people, which, as she pointed out, is half the battle: "You can't sign them until you meet them."
By 1970 Sue Mengers was agent to Ryan O'Neal and his girlfriend Ali McGraw, two of Hollywood's hottest properties as stars of Love Story. In the same year she landed Gene Hackman the starring role of "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection. The film won an Oscar, as did Hackman, who became a huge star thanks to Sue Mengers, who later negotiated for him the then enormous fee of $1m to appear in the ill-fated Lucky Lady (1975).
After What's Up, Doc? Sue Mengers seemed unstoppable. Paper Moon (1973) became Bogdanovich's third consecutive success, while her client Robert Redford pipped Jack Nicholson for the lead role in The Great Gatsby (1974) after she convinced the studio that a dark-haired couple in the leading parts would be boring.
But in the late Seventies some of her most prominent clients began to drift away: Candice Bergen, Ali McGraw and, in 1981, Streisand herself.
It was a bitter blow. "While I was working with her it was the joy of my life," said Sue Mengers, "even though she never expressed gratitude or even acknowledgement." The pair later patched things up.
Blaming executive burn-out, Sue Mengers left ICM talent agency in 1986. Although the William Morris Agency coaxed her out of retirement two years later to run the agency's global operations, she failed to stem the defections of leading talent and left in 1991.
Sue Mengers, who died on October 15, married the Belgian writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont in 1973. Her husband died in 1996.