--Valentino, via Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style
"Once she called: Come for dinner tonight ... Jackie will be there ... who else would you like to meet?"
--Valentino, via Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style
Image Credit: Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style
“Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.”
Image Credit: Double Exposure: Take Three
"To call Sue Mengers a “character” is an understatement, unless the word is written in all caps, followed by an exclamation point and modified by an expletive."
--Jen Chaney, The Washington Post
The 1970s-era agent Sue Mengers referred to her A-list clients and the international celebrities in her glittering circle as "twinklies." For a time, there was only thing more star-studded than her client roster: one of her parties. The pinnacle of which was a celebrity-filled dinner she gave in honor of Princess Margaret; it attracted every twinkly in Hollywood. At one of her soirees, Johnny Carson complained, "God, there are too many stars here, not enough sycophants!"
Sue's myopic interest in only the most celebrated cursed her with one of the stereotypical qualities for which Southern California is continually maligned. Yet her devilish sense of humor and refreshing candor shined so brightly that her interest only in celebrities fit Sue like a glove. It was an essential part of her charm. A more open-minded Sue Mengers simply would have not been Sue Mengers.
Brian Kellow attempts to make sense of Sue and her extraordinary personality in his 2015 biography, Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent. He had little paper trail from Mengers with which to achieve his task. Fortunately, many of those who knew and worked with Sue Mengers agreed to go on record (the author conducted over two hundred interviews--impressive!). They serve this book well and will undoubtedly be of great benefit to future works about her or that era.
The reviews for Can I Go Now? were moderately positive, but some critics suggested that Kellow failed to capture just how unique a character Sue Mengers was. Might we suggest the audio version of the book featuring Suzanne Toren's delightful narration? When the book quotes Mengers, which is frequently, Toren gets into character, capturing Menger's distinctive manner of speaking, including the baby-doll affectation that Sue so cleverly used to lighten the mood or lessen the sting of one of her barbs.
Much like that of her friend Robert Evans, Sue's career did not survive the more conformist 1980s. Top stars such as Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal were Sue's raison d'etre, and when they signed elsewhere, she lost a bit of her spark. But who says Hollywood only loves you when you are on top? Sue continued to be relevant until her death three decades later. Though above-the-title actors no longer wished to be represented by her, they happily accepted her dinner party invitations. Moreover, even in retirement, Sue was interested only in top talent. As such, her dinners were as exclusive as they were intimate. It was if Vanity Fair hosted an Oscar party for just eight or twelve people.
One of the films Mengers arranged for her favorite client Barbra Streisand was the 1976 version of A Star Is Born. There is a reason this film is continually rebooted. It is based upon a truism. The rise of one star is generally accompanied by the fall of another. Such was the case with Sue Mengers. The 1980s proved to be as cruel to her as they were kind to her International Creative Management colleague Ed Limato.
Yet, in the early years of that decade, Sue was still the powerhouse agent and Ed Limato the tyro. One day she strolled into the office at full throttle, commanding her underlings, “Get me Barbra [Streisand]! Then get me Ryan [O'Neal]!” Limato's assistant proved Mengers was not the only one at the agency with a sense of humor. He countered, just as loudly, “Ed! Exciting news! Patrice Munsel on line three! She’s calling from that dinner theater in Maine. Call Me Madam has been extended!” According to Brian Kellow, "Sue thought this was hilarious. As she passed by Limato, she purred, 'Don’t keep Patrice waiting, Ed.'”
CHARLES MANSON MURDERS
Sue Mengers was known for her acerbic wit. Her most famous quip was made to Barbra Streisand. Streisand telephoned Sue in a panic after learning of the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and four others at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Crest. Mengers caustically reassured her, “Don’t worry, honey, they’re not killing stars, only featured players."
There is much more to that story, however. But for a roll of the dice, Sue's client Candice Bergen could easily have been the victim (though at this point in her career, she too was no more than a featured player). Bergen had previously lived at 10050 Cielo Drive with her then-boyfriend Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son). In fact, it was through Melcher that Manson first came to know the house, when Beach Boy Dennis Wilson introduced them. Manson hoped would Melcher land him a music contract, but their relationship soured. Manson knew Melcher no longer lived there, but he sent his murderous gang to the home anyway to send Melcher a terrifying message.
Vanity Fair gave Sue Mengers the full-blown celebrity profile she deserved (and surely relished) in the April 2000 issue. It is available in its entirety at the Vanity Fair website.
If any public figure was more influenced by the cult of celebrity than Sue Mengers, it was Andy Warhol. It is no surprise that their worlds frequently collided, and Sue makes appearances in The Andy Warhol Diaries. In April 1977, he recounted a dinner party for Jean Stein held at Stein's sister's apartment in the Dakota. It was just Sue's kind of party, with everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Norman Mailer in attendance. At the event, Warhol one-upped Mengers in a most amusing and Warholian way (not mentioned in Kellow's Sue Mengers biography). From Warhol's Diaries:
I had the first really nice talk with Jackie O. but I don’t remember too much about what it was about. The Magic of People in the Movies, or something. Sue Mengers was running around this party bragging the same thing she always brags—that she could offer [then] President Carter a three-picture deal at $3 million a picture and that he’d take it, because everybody wants to be in the movies. So I pointed at Jackie [Onassis] and told Sue to go prove it, but she was afraid, she wouldn’t go over to her and make the offer.
Mengers also appeared in Andy Warhol's Exposures:
Sue's the funniest person in the world. When I first met her a couple of years ago, she wanted to get to know high society and I wanted to get to know Hollywood stars, so we made a deal. I introduced Sue to C.Z. Guest and Maxime de la Falaise. She introduced me to Paul Newman, but I wanted Clint Eastwood. She really wanted Babe Paley.
SUNSET BOULEVARD, SUE MENGERS-STYLE
When Sue Mengers relocated from New York to Los Angeles, she initially rented a guest cottage at Dawnridge, Tony Duquette's Beverly Hills estate. In her heyday, she owned a grand home on Bel Air Road where she entertained lavishly. Her later years were spent at more modest estate one block north of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills (check out the listing photos at LA Curbed).
EATEN LAST: BARBRA STREISAND AND BETTE MIDLER
I'll Eat You Last, John Logan's one-woman show about the life of Sue Mengers, opened on Broadway in 2013 starring Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M followed the show to the West Coast for a limited run at the Geffen Playhouse. Its $400 ticket price broke Geffen box office records. Sue Mengers's favorite client Barbra Streisand attended and enjoyed Midler's interpretation of her friend. "It was a wonderful performance. Bette made me laugh in the same way that Sue did and she touched my heart as Sue did. It isn't the whole story of course. Some of the facts are not true, but it was a very enjoyable evening." No one understood the contradictions of Sue Mengers better than Sue's all-time favorite client. As such, kudos from notorious perfectionist Barbra Streisand is high praise indeed.
DAVID GEFFEN, HUMANITARIAN
It is fitting that the one-woman show on Mengers ran at the Geffen Playhouse. David Geffen was a longtime friend of Sue Mengers, and he remained steadfast, even though she could be abusive towards him. He went above and beyond. Not only did he give her his heart, he granted her use of his private jet, and this was long after her heyday when she was able to grant favors in return.
IMAGE CREDITS: The photograph of Mengers with Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen is from the Estate of Sue Mengers. The photograph of Mengers and Ryan O'Neal is from the collection of Ryan O'Neal. Sue Mengers selected the photograph of herself attending the Cannes Film Festival for Greybull Press's divine book Height of Fashion, edited by Lisa Eisner and Román Alonso.