Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent
By Brian Kellow
New York: Viking, 2015
A biography of the greatest agent of one of the greatest periods of American cinema is a book to read; especially if that agent is a woman; and even more so, if she zings one-liners like Sue Mengers.
Brian Kellow’s book is admirably researched and a great read. We learn that Mengers was Jewish, born in Hanover, and that her family only emigrated to the US in 1935. Kellow depicts Menger’s struggles with her mother as the driving force in her life: ‘My mother, the Gorgon’ says Mengers in the very first sentence of Chapter One. But surely hazard, chance, the luck to have ended up in New York whilst many of her relatives in Germany ended up in ovens must also have informed her very particular way of being in the world and helped shape her actions?
In the first few chapters, Kellow depicts Mengers as a character out of Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything: a combination of Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen from Mad Men in the process of becoming like a character in a Jacqueline Sussann novel. She begins intelligent, hard-working, and with incredible drive and proceeds to shed her inhibitions in order to get what she wants, all the while scheming to get more power, and more permanent sources of it, than transient desirability could be cashed for. That’s how Mengers worked her way from acting school (she was pretty enough to think of becoming a star), to working as a general receptionist at MCA, then run by Lew Wasserman, to working as Jay Kanter’s secretary. Kanter was the agent for Brando, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe amongst others; and Mengers took and made the calls. If the boys of her stature, the Geffens and the Ovitzes, made it up through the mailroom, Mengers – and she had no peer amongst women – made it through the secretarial pool.
In 1957 Mengers left MCA, landed at the Baum and Newborn Agency — smaller but offering more room to rise — and by ‘59, Sue was secretary to Charles Baker, head of the theatre department at the William Morris Agency, one of the biggest, oldest and most respected in the business and still run by the legendary Abe Lastfogel, who had joined in 1912. Whilst there, Mengers met Alice Lee “Boaty” Boatwright, a young casting director who was to become a great aid, resource and life-long friend. One of the interesting things about the book is that it demonstrates that whilst Mengers could play with the boys, and on their own terms, she earned and enjoyed the trust and confidence of the girls.
In 1963 Mengers went to work for Korman Associates, another small firm whose list was mainly B, and whose most famous client was probably Joan Bennett. By then, Bennett’s star had plummeted to such depths that a leading role in the ABC-TV hit daytime soap, Dark Shadows, was considered a career boost (Interestingly, it was produced by Lela Swift, who also directed 588 episodes). Mengers was relentless in pursuing new talent, always already stars — she didn’t have the patience to develop unknowns — and made such a name for herself that people, famous people, were already talking about her.
Menbgers was friends with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, then at the peak of their stardom; Nicky Haslam, already the jet setting society designer, and Gore Vidal and his partner Howard Austen — whom Mengers would become deeply devoted to — and many others. According to Haslam, Vidal and Mengers made ‘topping jokes, topping remarks. They wouldn’t exactly put people down; they would just to react to what people said with much funnier lines.’
Mengers had a talent for friendship. She had the wit and the chutzpah to be what was then called a ‘fag hag’ — she was at ease with gay men and their culture and shared in the outsider’s ironic stance; she could be a man’s woman – she certainly loved the boys; and, most importantly, she was a girly girl who helped many of what would become the most powerful women in Hollywood in the Blockbuster Era (Sherry Lansing and Elaine Goldsmith) get a leg-up in the business. Many of her friendships would be lifelong ones and she inspired rare devotion in her friends if not always in her clients.
Part of Mengers’ attraction was her smarts, her flouting of social conventions and her wit. She’d been Constance Bennett’s agent in the 60s when the 30s Diva was finding it hard to get a job and, after much hard work, landed her a choice part as Lana Turner’s mother in Madame X, only to have Bennett hound her for star billing or at least her name in a box. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage shortly after making the film and Mengers couldn’t resist quipping, ‘Well, at least she’s got her box now’. After the Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate in her home, she soothed an anxious Barbra Streisand by telling her, ‘Don’t worry honey. Stars aren’t being murdered. Only featured players’. And famously, ‘if you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me.’
Mengers relished having so many of the top stars and directors of a defining epoch in American cinema on her roster, amongst them: Gene Hackman, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols and even Brian de Palma. But she saw Barbra Streisand, then the biggest star not only in the movies but in the whole of the world of entertainment, as the lynchpin to her roster. She considered her a ‘soul’ sister, managed her career throughout the 70s and would be devastated when Streisand left her in ’81.
Nonetheless, throughout the 70s, Mengers personified the figure of ‘The Hollywood Agent’ in American Culture, the only woman ever to do so. CBS 60 Minutes, then a top-ten network show and one of the most respected news programs on American television, did a profile of her in her trademark pink shades, speaking in her baby girl voice: ‘I was a little pisher, a little nothing, making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris agency in New York,’ she tells Mike Wallace,’…and I thought, Gee, what they do isn’t that hard, you know. And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars…And I suddenly thought: that beats typing.
Sue Mengers has been a legend for a long time. In 1973’s The Last of Sheila, Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, a client, based the character of the bulldozing agent played by Dyan Cannon on Mengers. And everyone in the know, and even some who weren’t quite, knew who was being referred to. As recently as 2013, Bette Midler played her in the hit Broadway play, I’ll Eat You Last. Mengers is a myth and a legend.
What Kellow does in Can I Go Now? that’s so great is that he a brings the person to life ; we get to know the funniness, the love of pot, the talent for bringing people together at dinner parties, the good times and the good business. Kellow also does an excellent job of charting the development of the agency business in the US – the book is a great, more personal companion to Frank Rose’s excellent The Agency: William Morris and the Secret History of Showbusiness and to Connie Bruck’s equally good When Hollywood had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. The book is also a marvellously entertaining recounting of some of the biggest deals in the business, featuring some of the most important stars and movies of that great decade of American Cinema, the 70s. It’s a book to read.