Paleo Retiree writes:
Like Robert Evans (who produced “The Godfather” and ran Paramount), Sue Mengers was one of the great behind-the-scenes figures of ’70s Hollywood. The agent (first at Creative Management Associates, then at ICM) for many of the era’s biggest stars — at various points she represented Barbra Streisand, Peter Bogdanovich, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Faye Dunaway — she was a larger-than-life character herself, known for her profane wisecracks, her parties and dinners, her battles with her weight, her giant rose-tinted eyeglasses and her chutzpah. She had an instinct for the kinds of talent and chemistry that resonated during those tumultuous years, a near-pathological lust for the bigtime, and a wayward personality that combined bullying rudeness with a lot of babygirl charm. She was one of the first agents to become a media star in her own right; 60 Minutes did a profile of her, and a character in the 1973 film “The Last of Sheila” was based on her.
And then, in the ’80s, as the sci-fi / blockbuster / high-concept era triumphed, her moment was over. Knowing that the culture had passed her by, Mengers retired. But even then she remained a presence in the movie business. For a couple of decades longer, right up until her death in 2011, executives, stars and directors regularly rang her up to solicit her insights and opinions. And she remained a hostess of importance. Being invited to a Sue Mengers party was a key (and coveted) Hollywood rite of passage for many up-and-comers.
Brian Kellow — an editor at Opera News as well as the author of four previous biographies of bigger-than-life arts women, including the acclaimed “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” — has produced a very zesty biography. Deeply researched yet fleet of foot, it’s shrewd about Sue as well as the movie business. For one thing, Kellow seems to have had the good luck of benefiting from the eagerness of many usually-hard-to-get-to figures (including Streisand, Tuesday Weld and David Geffen) to talk about Sue. Perhaps enough time has passed since her heyday to enable people to speak frankly about those years.
As cultural history, the book is hard to beat — a quick and easy introduction to the eras and locales it touches on, from the ’50s theater world in NYC to the sleek corporatization of ’80s and ’90s Hollywood. It’s also a sensationally colorful and entertaining performance in its own right. The book may be factual and true — arts journalism of a high order — but as a reading experience it has the accessibility and confidence of one of my favorite kinds of American popular fiction, the gossipy, snappy, smart-but-informal blockbuster. It’s racy, colorful, extroverted and down-to-earth, something like a cross between “Sweet Smell of Success” and a Rona Jaffe novel. In its completely unpretentious way, it’s a masterly example of the art of popular biography.
Sue Mengers was nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. Via talent, brains, drive and luck, she rose to become the best-known agent of a now-mythical era, but she came from nowheresville. The daughter of German-Jewish parents who immigrated with her to the U.S. — her depressive father committed suicide, and her mother (whom Sue thought of and talked about as “the Gorgon”) was relentlessly disparaging and critical — she grew up first in Utica, N.Y. and then in the Bronx. As a kid she wanted to be a movie star — she was never not desperate to be a big deal. She left home (and her mother) as soon as she could and took secretarial jobs with Manhattan theatrical talent agencies. Brassy, brilliant and pushy, she acquired a lot of experience in show business, absorbed it all, and quickly got an offer to work as an agent herself. Soon she was in L.A., introducing some people, contacting others, and always, always setting up deals (while leaving the details to assistants). “Sue became known as the most successful packager of the 1970s,” writes Kellow. Seldom seen without a joint in her hand, fond of fame, money, and going commando while wearing miniskirts, Sue loved the action, the glamor, and the hands-on part of deal-making.
She was as caustic with friends, colleagues and clients as her mother had been with her, and she was dismissive of anything that might not yield money or stardom. Yet she was also somehow vulnerable and lovable, and sympathetic to the creative life. She had a rather strange identification with her client Barbra Streisand as well as a longterm friendship with the novelist Gore Vidal. Some friends (Candice Bergen) finally couldn’t take her bluntness and left her orbit; others (Jack Nicholson) were loyal to her for life. She had a strong, though not infallible, instinct for the hip and daring cinema of the ’70s, but she also had a weakness for old-style movie glamor. She was a trailblazer for women but had no time for feminism, and was more than a little free with the word “cunt.” She knew enough to be wary of thinking of her clients as close friends, yet she also couldn’t help taking their successes and rejections personally. When Streisand dumped her as her agent, Sue took it as a sign that her own time was over.
Kellow has a wizardly knack for knowing how much background information the reader needs at any given moment, a showman’s instinct for how to keep the energy level up, a critic’s ability to sort out the results of a project, and a producer’s sense of perspective. (The book is only 300 pages long — just the right length.) He keeps his prose breezy, transparent and fast-moving, though a sly and zingy sense of humor emerges regularly: once settled in her lavish Brentwood home, Sue, one of the world’s least domestic people, “seemed only vaguely aware of where the kitchen was.” He’s also generous in recognizing the range of people who contribute to a big collaborative art form like feature films: not just the often-acknowledged writers, performers and directors, but also spouses, lovers, teachers, friends, performers, agents, and executives. In this, the book is a helpful companion piece to Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
But the book’s main virtue may be in its portrait of a diva. Sue wasn’t on stage or before the cameas herself, but there’s no question that she was a diva, and Kellow may well be our sharpest and most experienced chronicler of the type. These are remarkable and hard-to-account-for people, and Kellow doesn’t make the mistake of indulging in paragraphs of close psychoanalytic analysis. He isn’t out to nail his diva down or sum her up. He knows that these women don’t often make much coherent sense — that they have more in common with forces of nature than they do with everyday people. Instead, he sketches in what you need to know about what Sue’s basic emotional / psychological makeup was and where her drives came from, then concentrates on bringing her to life at the scale she was determined to live at. One suspects that those years he has put in at Opera News have paid off.
I was pleased that my esteemed co-blogger Blowhard, Esq. liked “Can I Go Now?” as much as I did, so, starting tomorrow, the two of us are sharing a special treat with visitors to Uncouth Reflections: an interview with Brian Kellow. Blowhard, Esq. and I met with Brian over lunch in Greenwich Village and yakked with him about Sue, divas, the art and craft of writing biographies, and more. Brian was in ebullient form. Please come back tomorrow and Wednesday to enjoy the fun.
Current blog-ethics apparently require full disclosure, so: Not only was I given a free advance copy of “Can I Go Now?,” my wife and I know Brian Kellow. We met him when he interviewed us for his Pauline Kael biography (my wife and I were members of Pauline’s circle), and we’ve since become friendly with Brian and his partner Scott Barnes, a theater director and performance coach. We see them regularly; Brian has hired me a few times to write articles for Opera News; he was even sweet enough to include my wife and me in the acknowledgments of the Sue Mengers book, god only knows why. As it happens, my wife and I were also friendly — for a couple of years in the ’90s — with Sue Mengers’ husband, Jean-Claude Tramont, who would have lunch with us when he passed through New York City. Back in her L.A. days, my wife even attended one of Sue and Jean-Claude’s parties. Such is a life in the arts and the media, eh? Well, it is if you’re lucky and you stick around long enough. Fun to brag about too. In any case, I suspect that the sophisticated folks who visit this slick ‘n’ sexy corner of the web are more than able to deal with all these factors. After all, you don’t surf to a site like UR with some silly expectation of “objectivity,” do you?
- A bizarrely tone-deaf pan of Brian’s book by the NYTimes’ Janet Maslin. God only knows what her real beef with the book was.
- By contrast, Maslin loved Kellow’s Pauline Kael bio.
- The L.A. Times chatted with Brian about Sue.
- An excerpt of Brian’s book ran in Vanity Fair.
- The book at Amazon. But if you can, buy your copy at your local independent bookstore. As I’ve been known to say to certain friends, in my most annoyingly scoldy voice: If you want to live in the kind of town that has a good independent bookstore, then you have to shop at that bookstore regularly yourself.
- A “60 Minutes” profile of Sue from 1975.