BootLeg Betty

’70s superagent Sue Mengers lives again in Bette Midler

New York Daily News
’70s superagent Sue Mengers lives again in a new one-woman play starring Bette Midler
The abrasive but brilliant Mengers’ clients included top stars like Barbra Streisand, Cher and Faye Dunaway


UPDATED: SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2013, 2:00 AM


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John Logan’s one-woman Broadway comedy “I’ll Eat You Last” features two famous Miss M’s.

Bette Midler is the Divine Miss M and the show’s star. Everybody’s favorite Grammy, Emmy and special Tony winner and New York parks lover is back on the Great White Way after more than 30 years.

Sue Mengers is the Razor-Tongued Miss M and the play’s subject. In the ’70s and ’80s she was the most powerful and abrasive female Hollywood talent agent. Her A-list clients included Barbra Streisand, Cher, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

“She was a fascinating real character I wanted to explore,” says Logan, whose credits include the James Bond movie “Skyfall” and the Tony-winning Mark Rothko drama “Red.”

His play is subtitled “A Chat With Sue Mengers” for a reason. The woman had a mouth; she was fast and funny, blunt and blistering, ever quotable. Some of her famous lines have made it into Logan’s script, which, he says, mashes fact, fiction and verbatim transcripts.

He ultimately cut one of his favorite Sue-isms from 1979. Mengers was stuck at JFK Airport on an L.A.-bound plane taken over by a female hijacker demanding that Charlton Heston read her manifesto. “Charlton Heston?” moaned Mengers. “What the f—, he’s second-rate, I can get her Barbra Streisand to read it!”

The play is set a few years after that. Streisand and other stars figure prominently as Mengers faces a personal and professional dilemma.

Logan met Mengers once. It was in 2008 at a dinner party celebrating the film “Sweeney Todd,” for which he’d written the screenplay. Two things struck him about Mengers (the “g” in the middle is hard, “as in ‘Mengele,” he says). At the end of the meal she had a glowing cigarette in one hand and a lit joint in the other. “I thought, ‘There’s an inescapable image,’ ” he says.

Also unforgettable were her contradictions. “On one hand, she was ebullient and feisty and ferocious,” he says, “just like you’d imagine from a quote, unquote superagent. But there was also a poignancy to her. The Hollywood that exists now isn’t her Hollywood.” She’d become defunct.

But what a trip to get there. Mengers was born in Germany, lived in the Bronx and worked as a talent-agency receptionist in the 1950s and ’60s and then reinvented herself as the agent, if not den mother, to the New Hollywood talent. Along the way she made friends and enemies — often blurring the lines between each camp.

In 1973 Time magazine noted: “Even some friends regard her with the affectionate respect that they might accord a pet barracuda.”

Actress Dyan Cannon knew Mengers as friend and as her agent. The hard-edged character, a talent agent, she played in the 1973 whodunit “The Last of Sheila” was based on Mengers. “She was tough, soft, determined, capable, victorious, vulnerable, strong, resourceful,” Cannon recently said about Mengers, “and a bit of a bully.”

No argument on that score from Peter Biskind, who wrote the book on ’70s cinema “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and now contributes features for Vanity Fair. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, a devoted friend of Mengers who was at her deathbed in 2001, is a producer of the play.

In 2000, Biskind spent two afternoons with Mengers, who smoked dope and drank tea, at her Hollywood Hills home for a VF profile. “She was somebody who spoke her mind,” he says. “She was unafraid to shock and say and do the unthinkable.”

He learned that when he arrived at her home. “Initially she was very dismissive. She said, ‘How come you’re doing this piece? How come so-and-so didn’t get the assignment?’ But I persisted and hung in despite the abuse and the harassment diminished. Later she sent me a generous gift basket from Zabar’s.”

Mengers left a greater legacy. Today’s power publicists owe something of a debt to Mengers and what she accomplished. That includes Leslie Sloane, who handles Katie Holmes, Liz Rosenberg, who’s been Madonna’s confidante and mouthpiece for decades, and Jill Fritzo, who juggles all the various Kardashians.

Logan says that VF’s Carter gave him access to interview transcripts to use for research. “I had a cornucopia of her own brilliance,” he says. “I used as much as could.” Midler was his muse as he wrote. “Like Sue, to me, Bette is a delicious combo of ballsy and smart and incredibly poignant.”

In other words, all too human. What he hopes comes through in the play is Mengers’ “complexity and her courage. Even if the ice was cracking under her feet,” he says, “she was going to go down with panache.”

“I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” is now in previews and opens April 24 at the Booth Theatre.

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