Irving Lazar, the literary and talent agent dubbed “Swifty” by Humphrey Bogart for his speed at putting together deals, died at his Beverly Hills home Thursday night of kidney failure. He was 86.
The super agent, known in recent years for his star-studded Oscar-night parties at Spago, counted Bogart, Ernest Hemingway and Richard Nixon among his clients.
Lazar’s talent was engineering the super deal, which he accomplished for decades. In the 1960s, Lazar sold Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” for $ 500,000 and “Camelot” for $ 1.4 million. He earned his nickname “Swifty” by making five movie deals for Bogart in one day.
Another one of Lazar’s specialties was selling properties before they were in finished form. He sold Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” when it was only a five-sentence summary dictated by Simon, a 1966 Newsweek article said.
Lazar was known as an above-board dealmaker even when the stakes were high. For example, Lazar was quoted in a 1961 issue of Daily Variety denying that the asking price for the film rights to “My Fair Lady” had escalated to an astronomical $ 7 mil. “That’s more likely what it’s figured it would cost to make the film,” he said.
In an era dominated by such huge agencies as Creative Artists Agency and International Creative Management, Lazar continued to work by himself with few assistants. At various times, his client list included Cole Porter, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Vladimir Nabokov, Franco Zeffirelli, Clifford Odets, John Cheever , Lillian Hellman, Larry McMurtry and Art Buchwald.
The 5-foot-3-inch Lazar was a dapper agent whose Coke bottle eyeglasses and bald dome were a caricaturist’s dream. His suits were always finely pressed and his socks and underwear initialed.
Lazar said he didn’t like the nickname “Swifty” and only a few friends, such as Lauren Bacall and Arthur Schlesinger, were allowed to call him that.
Lazar got his start in the 1930s as an attorney for the MCA talent agency, but became an agent when he learned the cut was 10% to his 1% cut as an attorney.
Despite his whirlwind activity, enjoyment and freedom were always paramount for him. “I never thought about becoming a conglomerate or becoming a big chief of a big organization,” he said in a recent interview. “I was more interested in enjoying myself than in that sort of thing.”
Fred De Cordova, former producer of “The Tonight Show,” knew Lazar for 55 years. “He was a special person and the longer you knew him, the more you loved him,” De Cordova said.
Dancer Gene Kelly, who has known Lazar for 50 years, said, “The town will be much poorer without him. A lot of towns, including London, New York and Paris,” Kelly said. “We will miss him and the town will miss him.”
“The literary world has lost one of its most dynamic and brilliant agents,” said actress Joan Collins. “Not only was he a giant in his field but he will be terribly missed by his legions of friends and admirers. I shall miss him.”
A private memorial service has been tentatively scheduled for Thursday. Lazar will be buried at Westwood Cemetery, alongside his wife, Mary, who died last January.