Mister D: For those of you interested in learning more about Sue Mengers…this is for you! Thanks to Mark Motyka for sending this my way!
Out To Lunch
With clients such as Barbra Streisand and Mike Nichols, Sue Mengers was the first female superagent. She serves up lobster rolls and moxie at her Beverly Hills home.
by John Heilpern
Award-winning British journalist John Heilpern’s “Out to Lunch” column was a staple of Vanity Fair in the 1980s–a feature that had Heilpern lunching with and then writing about a diverse range of people, from best-selling author Jackie Collins to the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Back “by popular demand,” Heilpern says, “Lunch” picks up right where it left off–with a delectable interview with famed Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers.
Sue Mengers’s idea of going out to lunch is to stay in. And so I met the now reclusive, still legendary Hollywood superagent at her pink and beautiful Beverly Hills home, where she greeted me looking slightly wary in a caftan.
“Have you been slaving over a hot stove, cooking up a storm for us?” I asked.
“I?” she replied in horror. “I? Are you kidding? I don’t even know where the fucking kitchen is.”
Ms. Mengers, as is well known, possesses the beguiling face of a sweet, innocent child and, upon occasion, the mouth of a truckdriver. Until her retirement in the late 80s, she was–for a golden era–the most powerful agent in Hollywood, and no one better understands how the system works. She represented the kind of A-list stars and directors known by a single name (Streisand, Hackman, Bergen, MacGraw; and Lumet, Nichols, Fosse).
“What’s the difference between a movie star and a celebrity?” I asked her over lunch.
“A star earns more money,” she replied without blinking.
Lunch was served in her elegant sitting room, which opens onto an inviting pool. There was prosciutto and melon, lobster rolls, a fruit tart, a beer or two for me, a joint or two for her.
“This isn’t a party house,” she volunteered. “This is more of an intimate-dinner-and-lunch house. It’s a question of size. Eat.”
Among her usual guests are pals from both coasts such as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Elton John, Fran Lebowitz, Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, and, to drop another name, Jennifer Aniston. “I asked Jen to adopt me,” she confided enigmatically.
Her renowned parties in her agenting days were held at her previous house, a Bel Air mansion designed as a French chÃ¢teau and formerly owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Those parties were all about business and networking. “My talent is casting–knowing who to ask and where to sit them,” she explained. Lauren Hutton met the writer-director Paul Schrader at one of the dinners and got American Gigolo. Mike Nichols met Ann-Margret at another, and he cast her in Carnal Knowledge.
A glamorous dinner party she gave in honor of Princess Margaret was a rare personal disaster. “Every time she looked my way I curtsied. I was curtsying all night! She thought I was an idiot.”
“I take it I wouldn’t have got into one of your parties?” I suggested.
“You wouldn’t have got into the grounds,” she replied amiably. I was in good company. “My own mother wouldn’t have got in if she was standing outside in the rain.”
The stars themselves are star-struck. Stars–including directors and studio heads–relax more in one another’s exclusive company, she made clear. But why, I wondered, do celebrity worshippers look on movie stars as their intimate friends? “They’re gaga. When I was a kid, I pinned a picture of Joan Crawford on my wall, but I never thought I knew her.”
“Do you attend the Oscars?”
“I went as Streisand’s maid one time. I loved the scene backstage, seeing all the stars waiting nervously to go on.”
“You’re star-struck, too?”
“Of course. Everyone is. Stars are rare creatures, and not everyone can be one. But there isn’t anyone on earth–not you, not me, not the girl next door–who wouldn’t like to be a movie star holding up that gold statuette on Academy Award night.”
Who did she think might win this year? “Sean Penn for best actor, Kate Winslet for best actress. And now,” she announced unexpectedly, “we’re going to my bedroom, baby.”
Ms. Mengers likes to talk while in bed, and her guests sit in the chair by its side.
What was her first memory of Los Angeles? “Paradise. It was October 1968, and I’d been living in a dump in New York that was so dark you needed a fucking flashlight. And my new place in L.A. had windows and the air was balmy, and the second day after I arrived I saw Fred Astaire walking along a street in Beverly Hills. It was heaven. Someone today might pass out if they saw Justin Timberlake, I guess.”
In what ways has the movie industry changed? “You mean apart from the global financial crisis?” she replied. “Well, today, an agent’s client has a personal manager too. They don’t negotiate. What the fuck do they do? It isn’t so long ago, but when I was an agent there weren’t cell phones, either. Imagine that! Someone can call you to make a deal from a steam bath in Beijing and you think they’re in the fucking office.”
What did she think of Ari Gold, the somewhat fictional agent portrayed by Jeremy Piven on Entourage? “I’ve never seen him reading a script! Which is what agents do. I don’t mind his crudeness. It’s the stereotypical image of him as an ethnic-Jewish hustler that I don’t care for.”
“With all respect, wasn’t that your image, too?”
“Yeah,” she replied breezily. “But it was different. I was a woman behaving like a man!”
She was the first successful female agent in the Hollywood boys’ club. “As an agent, I functioned like a guy,” she explained. “But the fact that I was a woman affected everything. A powerful studio boss doesn’t want to be bested by a woman, even in chess. And a successful agent steps on a lot of toes. You lose actors jobs so you can get them for your own clients. And you’re a fucking girl! They’d never done business with one before.”
“You enjoyed it?”
“I loved it,” Sue Mengers concluded. “They were great times, they were fun times.”
Award-winning journalist John Heilpern is the author of Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa.