Paleo Retiree writes:
Yesterday I raved about Brian Kellow’s new book about the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. It’s a smart and fun biography, an informative joyride through the life of a colorful and fascinating character who peaked during the 1970s, one of Hollywood’s mythical eras. Today Uncouth Reflections is pleased to present a special treat to our visitors: part one of a two-part interview with Brian.
Brian joined Blowhard, Esq. and me for lunch at Greenwich Village’s superfine Cornelia Street Cafe, and the three of us gabbed happily for a couple of hours about Sue Mengers, Hollywood, the ’70s, Pauline Kael, divas and the art of biography. Brian’s a big, good-humored, ebullient man with a sly sense of humor, and our conversation was punctuated with regular bursts of laughter.
Paleo Retiree: The thing that struck me the most about your new book was the similarity between Sue Mengers and Pauline Kael, the subject of your last biography. Did you go into the project knowing in advance that there’d be similarities between them?
Brian Kellow: Not at all. I didn’t know anything about Sue. I really didn’t. Just what I’d read in newspapers and magazines ‘way back. I knew about her husband directing “All Night Long,” and that marking the end of her relationship with Barbra Streisand. But I didn’t know anything of a personal nature, or what the profile of her personality was like at all. Except that she was tough. She was a tough dame. So I thought, Maybe this is the latest in my cycle of tough dames. “The Broad’s Biographer.” (Laughs.)
Blowhard, Esq: What were the similarities between Pauline and Sue that struck you most?
Brian Kellow: Coming to their fields with the feeling of being an outsider, definitely. That’s a big one. Thinking that by telling the unvarnished truth to everyone around them they were doing them all a world of good, and not understanding when people got upset by it — that was a strong point of similarity between them too. And a certain lack of introspection. As brilliant as they both were, they were not inner-directed people to any great degree at all. In fact, I think Sue was a little more introspective than Pauline, because she was in analysis. I don’t think it did her much good, though.
PR: What were some of their more striking differences?
Brian Kellow: I think Pauline had an unlimited appetite for anything artistic or intellectual. Well, not completely unlimited but definitely broad and wide-ranging. And Sue did not. Sue thought a lot of what was being offered up was bullshit, and she had no interest in it. I only learned late in the game that her friend Gore Vidal got her reading the great books of the world and broadening her horizons. And she did read like a fiend, but she tended to do professionally-directed reading. She would read the hot novel that might make a good movie. She would read the newspapers forward and backwards because she wanted to be informed at her next dinner party.
BE: How long did it take before you felt you’d really gotten Sue as a character?
Brian Kellow: It was the longest arc of any of the books I’ve worked on. In fact, before I started it, I had to be talked into it. I thought, “I don’t want to write about her. After I’ve written about Pauline Kael?”
PR: What was your resistance to the idea?
Brian Kellow: I didn’t think there was much to Sue. And there was so much to Pauline. I thought, “Sue was an agent. She sold other people. How much will there be to say about her?” My agent, Edward Hibbert, hammered away at me to do it and I’m glad he did.
BE: What made you turn the corner?
Brian Kellow: I started doing the research. I started talking to some of her friends. I talked to Sherry Lansing and Billy Friedkin. And based on what they said at the outset of the process, I knew this was going to be really interesting. And they started opening doors to a lot of other people, and it just got progressively fascinating.
BE: How complicated did you think Sue was finally?
Brian Kellow: I think she was hugely complex. Hugely.
PR: So many of your sources are so smart about Sue.
Brian Kellow: I thought so. The impression I had was that these people, or many of them, had been waiting a long time to talk about her on this level. That it had been brewing and building and they were happy to have the opportunity to do it.
BE: That comes through.
Brian Kellow: I certainly didn’t have any trouble getting the ball rolling. And not many people turned me down, Gene Hackman and Ann-Margret being the two main ones.
BE: Did they offer reasons why?
Brian Kellow: Hackman doesn’t really talk to anybody. And she is extremely private, and her husband is ill. But I didn’t have much trouble with anybody else. I didn’t think I’d get David Geffen, for example, but I did.
PR: Of your sources, who gave you the most guidance?
Brian Kellow: At the beginning, Billy Friedkin, absolutely. He really told me a lot to watch out for and gave me some hints on how to get what I was after. He said, “You’re going to find that a lot of the Dykettes” — that’s what Sue called her close women friends — “are going to be reluctant to get into some of the nitty-gritty.” As I show in the book, Sue didn’t always treat her friends terribly well even though she loved them. But they actually were, for the most part, quite forthcoming. And very understanding about what moved Sue to do what she did. They had a lot of room for her craziness.
BE: How many interviews did you do for the book?
Brian Kellow: 210.
PR: Did the process confirm your initial impression of her character?
Brian Kellow: There was definitely a large broad pattern. I thought it was so clear that … Well, I’m going to say this, I don’t care. Somebody’s going to take me to task for it. I thought the pattern was so clear that I didn’t think there was a lot of point in me swooping in and explaining to the reader what this behavior represented. Sue was raised by a critical, scrutinizing mother and she employed the same exact same tactics on her friends, clients and colleagues. And she never understood why maybe that was not always the nicest thing to do. And I think in a place like Hollywood, where scrutiny is everything — “Oh my god, you gained five pounds”; “Oh my god, you have crow’s feet, you’ll never get another movie job” — I think she was able to use that very effectively.
BE: You don’t intersperse analyses of Sue throughout. So you’re assuming a reader who gets the signals.
Brian Kellow: I like the reader to meet me part of the way. That’s just what I prefer. And every time I zoomed in and started to elaborate on what I think the psychological portrait was, it sounded preachy. And although there are certainly sad parts to it, I kind of conceived of the book as a comedy. I think it’s kind of a comic biography.
Brian Kellow: Yeah!
PR: Your pacing is a big part of the package.
Brian Kellow: Very much so. I kept thinking of Sue herself. When she was in meetings, and somebody was going on and on and on, she would make these jerking-off gestures with her hands. And I kept that image in mind. But I also wanted the right amount of context, about the changes in Hollywood. I think it’s very important to anchor it, which I did in the Kael book too.
BE: Your Sue biography should be on the shelf of tiptop ‘70s-movies books. It’s a great companion piece to Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
Brian Kellow: That’s very kind. I’m really flattered. “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is a wonderful book.
BE: What was it about the ‘70s that made it possible for someone like Sue to come into her own?
Brian Kellow: I think it was a wild time. It was an age of big personalities, and of experimentation in the workplace, before the corporate mentality took over everything. And I think Sue flourished right at that moment. It was possible for her to go in to the office without wearing underwear, put her feet up on the desk, smoke pot all day and still get the job done. As long as she delivered, which she certainly did, nobody had a problem with it. I mean, some of the stuffy older men at the agency did have a problem. Interestingly, very few of them would talk to me.
BE: Are some of them still around?
Brian Kellow: A few of that old guard still are, yes. One of them turned me down, saying, “Oh, I didn’t really know her that well.” He was somebody she had no regard for at all. Another one of them called her a “pisher.”
PR: “Pisher” means someone of no consequence, is that right?
Brian Kellow: That’s right.
BE: Could Sue have gotten away with her behavior, and her career, now?
Brian Kellow: There’s no way she could do it now. You have to remember, she had no education beyond high school. And now they’d demand to see the Ivy League degree. She’d have to have an MBA too.
PR: What would become of someone like Sue today if she were to show up and throw herself into the entertainment business?
Brian Kellow: I think she’d shoot herself. I do. I don’t think she could work within the studio system at all. I don’t think she could even work as an agent, given how incredibly complicated things are now.
BE: You mean, complicated where the deal-making end of it goes? Percentages and contracts, all that?
Brian Kellow: Yes. The things that Sue thought were important are the last things anybody worries about now.
PR: She was all about personalities and chemistry.
Brian Kellow: And now they’re all about how many Tweets come in before the end of the movie.
Brian Kellow: Really. The kids are watching a screening of a new movie and the executives are monitoring Twitter. Can you imagine what Sue would have to say about that? This stuff is taken very seriously by the marketing gurus. And I think the takeover by the marketing end of things, and the back end of the deal, she had no interest in.
PR: Is there a niche in the business where someone like Sue — with all her guts and brains and chutzpah — could flourish today?
Brian Kellow: I think she probably could represent some of these women in comedy now, like Amy Schumer or Tina Fey. That might be where she’d land now, if she were here: live performance, comedy. That would be where she’d find herself, not in the mainstream movie industry at all.
PR: It’s fun to think about these speculative questions.
Brian Kellow: After I published the Pauline Kael book, so many people would ask me, What would Pauline think of this or that new movie? And I didn’t really like to answer that question. But I would sometimes see a movie and I would wonder about it myself. The one that sticks in my mind was “The Tree of Life.” Pauline would have been rolling in the aisles.
BE: She’d have been sharpening her blades.
Brian Kellow: I was laughing in the movie theater thinking about it. I saw “The Tree of Life” in the middle of the day, and it was that weird New York thing where you see a movie and there are six people in the theater, and you wonder how anything can make any money. And when the movie was over I went “Boooo!” and the man next to me started laughing. So we talked about it on the way out.
BE: You don’t try to make a feminist case for Sue. Why not?
Brian Kellow: I don’t think there’s one to be made. She had no interest in feminism.
PR: She was like Pauline in that too, then.
Brian Kellow: In the case of Pauline, I think it was because she had no interest in dogma of any kind. In Sue’s case, I think she loved manipulating men, and she loved the whole idea of snaring a powerful, wealthy man, and getting her friends to do the same. She would have been drummed out of a meeting with Gloria Steinem in five minutes.
PR: Sue was such an opportunist.
Brian Kellow: She was a sexual politician. Use your womanhood, your femininity, and come out on top that way. And this is anathema to many hardline feminists. Sue was complicated in that way. On the one hand, she was very happy for the success of her women friends. On the other hand, she wasn’t a mentor. Not at all. Just wasn’t interested. She played the game for the boys. She loved being, like Pauline, the only woman in the boys’ club. And then her friends, away from work, were women.
BE: Where do you think she got this attitude towards men?
Brian Kellow: Because her father was a loser. It’s absolutely the source of it. She never got over being angry with him for leaving her with “the Gorgon,” as she called her mother. That’s the root of it, which I get into at the beginning of the book. I think it’s the classic refugee mentality: Security at any cost.
PR: The Jewish-girl thing is striking too. Sue and Pauline had to have been some of the ballsiest women who ever lived. What was that all about?
Brian Kellow: In Sue’s case, I think a lot of it, especially with German Jews, was: If you don’t have a son, you’re nobody. It’s all about the son, it’s all about the boy. And I think Sue rebelled against that. She was determined to show what she was made of. It’s funny that neither Pauline nor Sue had a mother that encouraged them. A lot of women I know from that era did. It was really the mother that said, “Educate yourself, learn, grow, advance yourself. I couldn’t do it, it’s too late for me, but you can do it.” But Ruth just wanted Sue to be a secretary and get married and have children.
PR: Pauline too didn’t have the happiest relationship with her mother.
Brian Kellow: Not at all. And again, I think it’s the refugee mentality. It’s fear. I’m sure Ruth was frightened of her daughter striving for major success in show business. She was just plain frightened of it. I think Ruth was the epitome of that idea: “If I just sit here quietly in my apartment and don’t strive for anything, and don’t reach for anything, everything will be fine. And if I do, I’m asking for trouble.” It’s a feeling of “They’re going to come and take me away.”
BE: Monster though Sue was, many of her friends were touched by her and cared about her. How do you explain that?
Brian Kellow: I think that at the beginning she was able to persuade some of them that all this criticism really was for their good and no one else was going to tell them the truth.
PR: Pauline would call me up sometimes about something I’d written and say, “It’s shit, honey.” Which was brutal … But I also knew she loved me.
Brian Kellow: I think Sue was trying to get clients to put their best foot forward and think of themselves in the strongest possible terms. And that’s how she did it. And then I think it became her schtick, and people understood it on that level. She was performing. She was like a wisecracking comedian in an old movie.
BE: The battleaxe you can’t help loving.
Brian Kellow: Right, like a late 20th-century version of that. She’s a monster, but she loves us, and we know she does, and besides nobody else in Hollywood will tell us the truth, everyone else is kissing our ass.
PR: I did some Hollywood reporting and often, in basic journalistic ways, I found it impossible to find out the truth of stories I was assigned to cover. Everyone’s so p-r conscious that all I could turn up was various varieties of spin. You work partly as a reporter when you research and write these books. What’s the secret to getting at the real truth?
Brian Kellow: It helps to wait until 20 or 30 years have passed. I find my subjects much easier to handle after they’re no longer living. (Laughs) I do think people are freer to talk when time has passed. And that was absolutely true in this case. But, yeah, I think that time passing, and then the whole era passing, and being able to look back on it and judge it, instead of being in the middle of it watching your words, thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t say this …” That makes a big difference.
PR: It just doesn’t matter any longer after a certain point.
Brian Kellow: Exactly. Now, having said that, certain of those women, two in particular, found that they couldn’t take it from Sue any more. One was Candice Bergen and one was Lili Zanuck. Even though she was fading out, I think it was very difficult for them to close that door on Sue. But I think there is a limit. I used to have a friend who was critical not unlike Sue, but I couldn’t respect it because I never learned anything from him.
BE: Sue was often really insightful, and she often said really shrewd things.
Brian Kellow: Oh yeah. She was shortsighted about a lot of things too, though, including a lot of business things. The whole issue of not developing young talent was incredibly short-sighted of her. Somebody was going to have to come along and replace the salmon that were moving upstream. As smart as she was, she didn’t get that.
BE: What was your feeling about Sue’s life generally? Was it a sad one?
Brian Kellow: I think she was incredibly depressed for a lot of it. But I think the depression didn’t set in until later, after she left the merry-go-round. And then she didn’t have anything. I think that initial retirement from ICM was a mistake. I think she should have done things differently and stayed in the game. The huge thing of course, was that bizarre connection to Barbra Streisand. When she lost Streisand as a client, she thought her own life was over. She had all these other people, who by that time were fading anyway — Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw, Sidney Lumet. But when Streisand left her, she felt it was all over.
PR: Did the demons that initially drove her now turn on her?
Brian Kellow: Yeah, I think so. I do. I think it’s hard. The film industry and music industry cast such a shadow over everything else in L.A. I’ve heard other people in L.A. complain about how difficult that can be — unless you’re in the film or music industries in L.A. you’re regarded as a second-rate citizen. Having been such a vital player within it, and then basically sitting at home and just being a hostess, being called upon to consult privately by people, but not being involved in it … And not leaving it behind … If Sue had moved on and said, “I want to go into politics,” or “I want to become a writer,” or if she’d wanted to do something else entirely, which she certainly should have with her brains and talent. But to just sit there, and be angry and resentful and sad, and not move on to something else, was really odd.
PR: Pauline was a happy retiree. Why was she able to do that where Sue couldn’t?
Brian Kellow: Pauline couldn’t keep the job up physically. She just couldn’t do it, and she knew that.
PR: And yet she was able to make an adjustment psychologically too.
Brian Kellow: She had her life up there in Great Barrington. And Pauline was someone who took a lot of pleasure in a lot of different things.
PR: Everyday life was magical to her.
Brian Kellow: She loved animals and friends, and reading and keeping up with everything and everyone.
PR: I never saw her depressed. But maybe she was also able to fulfill herself professionally more than Sue had been.
Brian Kellow: I think it affects a lot of the women in a very specific way. I honestly think that kind of displacement, that early in life, is often some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, undiagnosed. And then unexamined.
BE: So you’re saying that Sue was kind of shell-shocked from her upbringing?
Brian Kellow: Yes. In a way she was almost like Joan Crawford — this obsession with perfection all around her. Everything had to look perfect. That was her fear: that everything wouldn’t look perfect, and people would judge her.
BE: So there’s some huge underlying insecurity. And maybe some need to impress.
Brian Kellow: Oh, absolutely. One of Sue’s secretaries told me that when Sue gave that party for Princess Margaret, literally, that’s all they did for months, was plan for that one party. Sue was so concerned that it had to be perfect. And let’s face it, Princess Margaret probably would have been so toasted she wouldn’t have noticed it anyway if something had gone wrong.
PR: If you and your editor had decided to run the book at 400 instead of 300 pages, what would you have included?
Brian Kellow: I probably would have talked about Hollywood as a place more than I did. The issue of being under such scrutiny all the time, and the other one of what you do when you are no longer working … The business is sitting right out there — you can look out your window and see the Hollywood sign. I had a stretch that’s no longer in the book where I talked about the classic diva, and what they so often seem to do once they’re no longer doing whatever it was they did professionally. They often disappear into a large city somewhere, the way Callas did in Paris, the way Garbo did in New York.
BE: What’s that about?
Brian Kellow: I think it’s about not being able to remain in their environment as they were. What they represented was so huge not only to them but to other people that they have to sort of go disappear behind the curtain. I remember seeing Greta Garbo walking in my old neighborhood, the East 50s, and you knew not to say anything to her. I think in a funny way Sue had some of that in her, except she didn’t pack up and go anywhere, she stayed right there.
BE: With Jean-Claude Tramont as her husband, she could have gone to Paris any time.
Brian Kellow: That’s right, yet she never even learned to speak French! There was a real mental laziness about her in one respect. She had an incredible brain but there were certain things she simply didn’t think were worth it. It all came back to the same dilemma: “The only thing that matters to me is the movie industry and the people in it. I don’t really care about anything else.” And I think that was her undoing.
PR: The diva thing is so interesting. By this point, after five books, you have to be one of America’s premier specialists in divas.
Brian Kellow: Apparently so. (laughs)
PR: What do you know about divas now that you didn’t know before writing so much about them?
Brian Kellow: I know that I would absolutely not want to be one of the people in their orbit. I would guess that I would have most enjoyed being in Pauline’s orbit, because I think she was a little different than the others.
BE: Aren’t you sort of entering their orbits when you write about them?
Brian Kellow: I’m passing through their orbits, but I’m not actually having to live in it and deal with them day to day in life. I think that one of the interesting things that I found is that when you get down to the circle of people immediately around these women, almost inevitably most of them have immense trouble with each other. And I wouldn’t wanted to have been anywhere near them.
PR: Since Pauline’s death, many of the Paulettes haven’t been in much touch with each other.
Brian Kellow: I love divas. I love that magnetism. I love the humor and strength and power of all those women, and I love writing about how they use that. But I’m very glad that I didn’t have any of them for a mother. Apart from Joan Bennett, there isn’t one of those women I’ve written about who I can conceive of as a decent parent. Not one.
BE: What are your theories about where these overscale personalities come from?
Brian Kellow: I think they’re born with it. I interviewed many people from Utica, New York, where Sue was a child. And they all said she saw herself as a star when she was in grammar school. She thought she was the next Ingrid Bergman. I think you’re born with it.
PR: Certainly Pauline was a brainy, wise-cracking brat right from the outset.
Brian Kellow: Look at Ethel Merman. Ethel was an only child. She had unconditional love and support from her parents, and unquestioning belief in herself. The most regular person of all the women I’ve written about would be Joan Bennett. She was the youngest member of this very dynamic theatrical family, and she was dominated by her father and older sister, so she took longer to blossom, and I think she was healthier and saner because of it. So many of the others were the center of the world from day one on some level. I think you’re born with that charisma and that belief in yourself, I really do.
PR: The world is full of ego monsters but only a handful of them turn it into something the rest of us can enjoy.
Brian Kellow: Absolutely.
PR: Why and how?
Brian Kellow: Belief. Look at Pauline. Look how long it took her to become a success. And she was trying the entire time, well into her 40s. Most women would have given up and said, OK, I’m going to run a dry-cleaning business and raise my daughter. But Pauline was possessed by a huge belief in herself. These women don’t need a lot of encouragement.
BE: What would have become of Sue had things not clicked for her?
Brian Kellow: I think she would have married the chairman of the board at ICM instead of being a major player herself at ICM.
BE: When she was young she was darned good-looking.
Brian Kellow: She was very cute and sexy. But by the ‘70s she was definitely battling a weight problem, and instead she married a guy that she loved. But he was not in any way the guy she was encouraging her friends to go marry.
PR: Jean-Claude was no alpha male.
Brian Kellow: Not at all. But he was a provider in a sense because he was a good investor, and she didn’t know anything about that kind of thing.
BE: Jean-Claude comes off as a very interesting guy. How did you decide to give him the kind of space you did?
Brian Kellow: He became progressively more interesting. At the beginning, I would ask about him, and a lot of the close friends would say, He was a wonderful man, he was terribly attractive man, he was fantastic, she was crazy about him, her life would not have been the same without him … It was this incredibly defensive tone. So I thought, What is this all about? The first person who opened my eyes was Jacqueline Bisset. There’s a wonderful quote in the book from her about watching Jean-Claude at the dinner table, and how he would sit back and gauge the whole show around him. You could feel the tension in him, wanting to participate but knowing he shouldn’t because he wasn’t on the same level.
PR: He was someone who’d be more at home sitting with us right now, gossiping and talking about books, than he ever was taking meetings in L.A.
Brian Kellow: Talking about Flaubert, right, exactly. (Laughs) I think he was a really brainy guy with an interest in a lot of things.
BE: He was a man of taste who liked the arts and who liked living well. He might have been a good film critic.
Brian Kellow: Yeah, probably.
PR: What did he represent to Sue? A handsome guy with class?
Brian Kellow: Yes, absolutely. Ali MacGraw says she couldn’t believe it when she met him, he was so different than Sue, yet it worked. And I don’t think Sue had ever had any sustained relationship with a man before him.
Brian Kellow: She had a lot of one-night stands. And maybe some two- and three-night stands.
PR: Who with?
Brian Kellow: Nobody would talk about who she hooked-up with, but they all agreed she had a lot of sex. They just wouldn’t talk about whether she had sex with her clients. Somebody told me she had sex with Ryan O’Neal, but Ryan O’Neal told me that she wasn’t the kind of woman he’d have slept with, and I sort of believed him.
PR: What kind of sex was she partial to?
Brian Kellow: Jacqueline Susann sex. Hard and thrusting. No sensuality.
BE: You write in the book that she hated foreplay.
Brian Kellow: That’s right. She couldn’t see the point of foreplay. She was very sexually driven, but in a way that would strike a lot of people as base. Now, I don’t feel that way about her. I totally understand. (Laughs) But I think she didn’t need all the sensuality and the delicacy. It was a very rough physical act for her.
PR: No six hours of Tantric loving for Sue.
Brian Kellow: She couldn’t have cared less.
Many thanks to Brian Kellow. Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part Two of our interview with him.
- Brian’s book with Eileen Farrell.
- His biography of the theatrical Bennett family.
- His biography of Ethel Merman.
- His biography of Pauline Kael.
- The Jewish Forward shares some memorable moments from Brian’s current book.
- Tatum O’Neal recalls being a small kid who was part of Sue’s ’70s circle.
- Some great quotes by and about Sue.
- The Los Angeles Times talks to Brian about Sue Mengers.