10.17.11

Death of a Hollywood Superagent

Sue Mengers became a powerful agent in 1970s Hollywood, representing stars like Barbra Streisand and Michael Caine at a time when the movie business was a boy’s club.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ali MacGraw’s last name.

Her final moments were uncharacteristically quiet and serene. Sue Mengers, who flirted, plotted, and elbowed her way through the Hollywood boy’s club in the 1970s to rise as one of the industry’s most powerful agents, had suffered several strokes and was confined to her bed with round-the-clock care on Saturday, when she died.

But she was able to hear her friends, Joanna Poitier, International Creative Management agent Boaty Boatwright, and actress Ali MacGraw until her final breath, they said. Only former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, the trustee of her estate who is in Italy with her husband, William Friedkin, was missing. It was a surreal moment, Mengers’s friends say, to see the vibrant woman who had lived her life so passionately and with such abandon come to that final quiet end.

“If there is a God, Sue is going to be in trouble,” said Poitier, who met Mengers when the future agent was visiting London as an assistant to another agent in 1966. “She was a handful.”

A handful, indeed.

Mengers, who reigned over Hollywood during the heady, druggy days of the disco era, was known for her wit, intelligence, and a virtuouso ability to hurl X-rated language at anyone who crossed her. Blond, chain-smoking, and as utterly charming as she could be terrifying, Mengers was a veritable Rosalind Russell-type of broad in the cutthroat world of agenting. She allegedly was 79 when she died, but no one knows for sure, her friends said.

“She was fiercely loyal and could turn on a dime and say terrible things,” said Boatwright, who met Mengers more than 50 years ago. “But she was unconditional in her love of her friends.”

Mengers was known for her wit, intelligence, and ability to hurl X-rated language at anyone who crossed her.

Lansing, who met Mengers more than 20 years ago, said she could always rely on her friend to tell her the truth and to root for her—two rare qualities in Hollywood.

“She was totally authentic and had a great bullshit detector,” said Lansing.

Lansing was devastated not to be at her friend’s bedside. Two weeks earlier when she called, Mengers had already suffered a serious enough stroke that she didn’t recognize Lansing’s voice. But before Lansing left for Italy, Mengers bid her bon voyage, saying, “What could be more wonderful than six weeks in Florence with the man you love?” Added Lansing, “Underneath that caustic exterior she was mush, mush. I am going to miss her every single day of my life.”

She was especially protective of her clients—who included Barbra Streisand, Michael Caine, and Faye Dunaway—and knew how to extract a tough deal from studio heads and producers. Alan Ladd, Jr. was the head of 20th Century Fox when the studio was already in production on a Liza Minnelli-Burt Reynolds picture, Lucky Lady, and the leading man dropped out, leaving the production in the lurch. Ladd asked for Gene Hackman and Mengers, who represented the actor at the time, extracted blood.

“She had me by the throat and choked me to death,” he said. “She asked me an outrageous price and I paid it.”

Although the movie “went nowhere,” as Minnelli said, it did not cost Ladd his job. But Ladd is sure that if he had told Mengers that the asking price for Hackman was so high it could cost him his head, she would have said “don’t do it.”

“She had a big heart,” he said.

Dyan Cannon, whom Mengers represented for many years, remembered her as “tough—ruthless while fearless, however, with a bigger heart than I’ve ever known.” Cannon played Sue in the 1973 film The Last of Sheila, and gained 30 pounds for the role under the direction of Herb Ross. “We had a rollicking time in the south of France for several months,” Cannon said, noting Sue visited the set several times.

“I once received a hearty reprimand from her for wearing sweats while running on the beach,” Cannon continued. “I lived in the Malibu Colony at the time, and my neighbors on all sides were top writers, directors, and producers, and she wanted me looking my best at all times.”

She held sway before agencies became such button-down and corporate enterprises.  She was flirtatious and tough, but most of all, savvy to the business, said Jeff Berg, chief executive of ICM, who met Mengers in the 1960s when she was at Creative Management Associates.

“She used gender in a very effective way,” he said.  “She understood the politics of the business but most of all she understood artists and buyers extremely well.”

Universal Studios President Ron Meyer knew Mengers for 30 years, and even when he was an agent at rival Creative Artists Agency, he says, they got along.  "We were very, very friendly competitors," he said, adding that he spoke to Mengers every day over the past few months. "We would steal each other’s clients but we understood the business we were in."

Her personal life was happily fulfilled by her marriage to artist and filmmaker Jean-Claude Tramont—his tall to her short, his cool to her hot, his calm to her disquiet.

“He was the complete opposite of her,” said Poitier, the wife of actor Sidney Poitier. “But they were the perfect imperfect couple.”

Tramont's death in 1996 was a big blow for Mengers, who by then had abandoned the industry, and it prompted her to become a little more reclusive in her home. While she received guests and hosted dinner parties, they were not as elaborate or influential as those at the height of her power.

“She was very shrewd about the guests she put together to make a deal,” said Ladd, who went to many of those dinner parties and ended up making deals. “There was always an ulterior motive there. She didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna invite Laddie because he is a nice guy.’”

Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS Corp., got to know Mengers only a decade ago, but for him, her dinner parties were still a coveted invite.  Moonves said he would relish those nights where artists, actors, directors, producers, and writers would sit around the table and talk. Though the gatherings were less deal-oriented than in her heyday, they still had an undercurrent of business, with Mengers always trying to make introductions.

“She was the modern-day Gertrude Stein,” said Moonves. “People would gather and exchange ideas and talk about things that were not talked about anywhere else in town.”

Mengers was made godmother to several offspring of celebrities, but was not particularly fond of children. When actor Anthony Perkins asked her to be the godmother to his child, she warned him, “sure. As long as I don’t have to touch it,” recalled Boatwright. But once the children turned 16, she would break them in by telling them tales of Hollywood glamour and of course, smoking pot.

“My son was saying that he smoked his first joint with Sue when he was 16,” said Boatwright, who met Mengers at the famous New York haunt Sardi’s. “There is a whole generation who didn’t have the chance to know her—except for the children of the stars and people she knew.”

Mengers held court every Thanksgiving at the Poitiers’ house, smoking her pot, with an audience of young people in awe of her, said Poitier.

“She would bask in their admiration and worship,” she said.

Up until her final months, she was relishing life as much as she could, said Ladd, who had dinner with her a month ago at her home. Over a healthful meal of chicken and vegetables, the pair sat and gossiped about the latest goings-on.  Mengers, he recalled, only picked at her food, but she chain-smoked those doobies.

“She always lived to the fullest,” he said.

For Boatwright and Poitier, who spoke with Mengers nearly every day, the loss will be profound. Boatwright, who spent the night at Mengers’ house on Sunday, said it was eerie to awaken to a place devoid of the agent’s energy.

“In this world, where everybody seems to be a reproduction of somebody, she really broke the mold,” she said.

Added Poitier, “She was a tough cookie with a heart of gold.”