Sue Mengers: 1932-2011

6:00 AM PST 10/18/2011 by Gregg Kilday
Borsari

Hollywood's first female superagent was tough, ballsy and nearly as colorful as her A-list clients like Streisand and McQueen.

During her heyday in the 1970s, Sue Mengers, brassy, dynamic, always quick with a wisecrack, was at the red-hot center of the Hollywood action. The daughter of German immigrants, she had worked her way up from receptionist to secretary until, first at Creative Management Associates then at ICM, she became one of the first talent agents of either gender to earn the moniker superagent. And rightly so because she represented some of the era's biggest stars -- Streisand, MacGraw, McQueen, Reynolds -- as well as its top directors. Her dinner parties were hot tickets; they were exclusive affairs, with usually no more than 12 guests so she could effect introductions that would lead to future projects. Mengers, who died Oct. 15 at her Beverly Hills home of pneumonia after a series of small strokes, retired from the scene in the early '90s, spending time with her husband, Belgium-born director Jean-Claude Tramont, who died in 1996. But the scene still came to her as filmmakers, executives and a new generation of stars visited Mengers to be regaled with tales of the old days and hear her shrewd assessments of the current business. Her friend Joanna Poitier recalls: "Even new people, Jennifer Aniston and people like that, would want to be invited to her dinner parties. She was part of another era, but she had a following, like an icon."

Joanna Poitier
Former actress and wife of Sidney Poitier

"I met Sue in London in 1965. Freddie Fields was my agent, and she was his assistant. Sidney and I would travel with her to Europe and on boat trips a lot. In the past three weeks she had multiple strokes, but she had a living will that said she did not want to be in a hospital or on any machine. Last Monday, she smoked a regular cigarette and was eating, then the next day she was not well. She was cremated in her wedding dress. The ashes are going to be mingled with her husband, Jean-Claude. She wanted to be with Jean-Claude; she missed him a lot. If there's a God up there, he's in for a real treat. The angels are going to be washing her mouth out with soap."

Sherry Lansing
Philanthropist and former chairman of Paramount Pictures

"Our friendship started 20 years ago. She was the most original, unique person and just the most fiercely loyal friend anyone could have. She was insightful and honest and authentic and, of course, brilliantly funny. She was kind of your bullshit detector -- she would tell you if you were bad or looked like shit. Most of the time, I just loved it. She had this tough exterior, but she was a mush-face underneath it all. I really think her last chapter was quite wonderful and unique. Everyone came to see her. Really, she was the star."

Ali MacGraw
Actress

"I loved Sue Mengers unequivocally, and her passing marks the end of a most glorious era. There will never be another Sue Mengers."

Peter Bogdanovich
Director

"Sue became my agent just when we were finishing The Last Picture Show in 1971. It hadn't come out yet. She'd read an article in The New York Times about me writing Targets and clipped it. When she moved to California, she looked me up. I wasn't happy with my representation, so I signed with her. At the time, she had two clients: Tony Newley and Tony Perkins. I think I signed because she had the clipping and she was funny.

That was the thing with Sue -- she was just very funny, coquettish, slightly cynical and at the same time very enthusiastic. I wouldn't say she was a great movie buff, but I think she loved the business. She was a girl who dreamed about the movies. She was a secretary for a number of people and a real hustler. She moved very quickly into a position of power.

With me, what happened is she got Jeff Berg, who was then an agent at CMA, to have Steve McQueen see The Last Picture Show, and Steve hired me to direct The Getaway, which I ultimately didn't do. Sue got Barbra Streisand to see Picture Show. Sue wasn't her agent at the time -- David Begelman was -- and he did the deal for me to direct What's Up, Doc? And when Picture Show and What's Up? were very successful, I was suddenly hot. She had me as a client; a lot of directors went over to her, and pretty soon she had everybody as a client. She was a superagent for a while. She talked me into using Burt Reynolds in At Long Last Love, a musical. It turned out to be not very good. But she'd call and start by singing, "But in the Morning, No," which was a song in the movie, then she'd say, "Hey, we got an offer here."

Sue and Jean-Claude were a real love story. He was a nice guy but very straight and quiet. He let her dominate, but he had a witty kind of attitude, very French. She was crazy about Jean-Claude, and she just wasn't the same after he died. I remember her most as being funny and candid. She was just very Hollywood, but in a good way."

Boaty Boatwright
Talent agent, ICM

"Her name became synonymous with women and what she helped us all to accomplish, but her legend is really the vitality with which she lived life and her wit, which will be celebrated throughout our community for years to come."

Neil Diamond
Musician

"Whenever I spent time with Sue and Jean-Claude, I learned something about someone that I had never known before. Usually it was something outrageous.

I remember being at a small gathering at Sue's house and dining with the critically acclaimed director of some of the greatest American films of all time. He was by then a feeble 85 years old and was apologizing to his younger, beautiful wife for his inability to satisfy her sexually. His wife was very understanding. After the couple had left, I commented about this vignette to Sue and how tender a moment it was. Sue casually dropped that the reason he was unable to perform for his wife was that he also had a mistress. She knew everything about everybody who was anyone in Hollywood.

She was my first real Hollywood friend and the funniest woman I ever met. Her dinner parties of the '70s and '80s were legendary. She loved "stars." Even up until recently, her dinner parties drew wall-to-wall A-listers. And she was unique and outrageous. She was a one-of-a-kind personality and one of the most perceptive people I've ever met. Sue herself ended up being a star amongst the stars. Her candor, irreverence and friendship will be greatly missed."

Leonard Goldberg
Producer and former president of 20th Century Fox

"The first time I met Sue was in the early '70s. I was dating an actress who had some heat on her. We were at a friend's house at what was then called a private screening because he had a projector and a screen in his living room. In the dark, I heard this voice saying, "Excuse me, excuse me," and pushing people out of the way, then suddenly this beaming face and blond hair appeared and said: "Hello, I'm Sue Mengers, Contemporary Korman. I'd like to talk to you about representation." As an agent, she would have succeeded in any age. She was that good. She was the kind of agent who would tell her clients the truth. She wasn't fearful of losing them. She wasn't one, who if a star says, "I'd like to do poetry readings," they go: "Absolutely. What a great idea." Sue would say, "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of." Once, David Wolper and I were having lunch when he was going to make Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. He had cast Gene Wilder. Sue came by and launched into a pitch for Anthony Newley. No matter how many times David would say, "I already cast it," Sue would say, "But let me ask you this." She just went right on. When I heard she passed, I thought of how many times you would call Sue and invite her to something, like a LACMA opening, and she'd say in that Sue Mengers cigarette voice, "I'd rather die." It was one of her favorite expressions."

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