Hollywood’s first female super-agent Sue Mengers, who died Saturday in Beverly Hills, was a trailblazer in the business, said her close associates.
Mengers, who was 79 and had recently suffered a series of small strokes, reigned over Hollywood during “a unique moment” in the 1970s, said ICM chairman and CEO Jeff Berg. Among her clients were the mainstays of the New Hollywood of the period: Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma and Mike Nichols as well as Michael Caine, Cher, Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand.
“When Sue was an agent with us in the late ’60s at CMA, there were very few who were women, and no senior execs at networks or studios,” said Berg. Remembering her as “a great signer,” Berg said Mengers had “gumption and great wit and was talented at putting people together and finding solutions.”
The L.A. Times wrote about Mengers in 1987, “Even her detractors admit she was the first female to play hardball in the boys club. And not only with movie-star careers: Apart from actors, Mengers was negotiating with the careers and the lives of directors like Lumet and Nichols and Brian De Palma, talents who know what they want — and are used to getting it.”
Mengers’ friend and longtime associate, ICM agent Boaty Boatwright, said, “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 in stories throughout our community for years to come.”
In a 1973 profile, Time magazine said, “As a vice president of mighty Creative Management Associates, Sue Mengers is, in the rueful words of one of her ex-clients, ‘more powerful than the stars she handles.’ ”
Her parties were considered key networking opportunities, and even after she retired, her home was a center of the Hollywood social scene. She brought out the town’s top talent (“single-name stars” like “Warren, Jack, Barbra, Elton, Ali, Anjelica, Bette, Sting and Trudy, along with friends with last names like Geffen, Diller, Poitier, Lansing, Friedkin, Semel, Lourd and Zanuck”), as her friend Graydon Carter recalled in a remembrance on Vanityfair.com.
Mengers was born in Hamburg to parents who fled Germany as the Holocaust got started. She was 8 when the family arrived in the U.S., and her father committed suicide a few years later.
She began in showbiz as a secretary at MCA in 1955, then worked in a similar job at the William Morris Agency, where she remained until a former co-worker, Tom Korman, hired her as a talent agent when he started his own agency. Her first success was landing Broadway star Julie Harris.
“I was a little pisher, a little nothing making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris Agency in New York,” Mengers told Mike Wallace in 1975. “Well, I looked around and I admired the Morris office and their executives, and I thought, gee, what they do isn’t that hard, you know. And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars. And I used to stay late at the office, just like ‘All About Eve,’ and I suddenly thought, ‘That beats typing.’?”
As the rep for Anthony Perkins, she secured him a role in Rene Clement’s 1966 film “Is Paris Burning?”
Her next step up came when she was hired by Freddie Fields’ agency Creative Management Associates. The agency, which repped Paul Newman, Robert Redford and McQueen, was purchased by Marvin Josephson’s Intl. Famous Agency to create Intl. Creative Management in 1974.
She left ICM in 1986 and returned to William Morris briefly two years later before permanently retiring.
Known for a sharp tongue and a penchant for poaching from other agencies, Mengers nevertheless admitted to being starstruck herself in a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair. “Stars are rare creatures, and not everyone can be one,” she said. “But there isn’t anyone on earth — not you, not me, not the girl next door — who wouldn’t like to be a movie star holding up that gold statuette on Academy Award night.”
Mengers was an icon within Hollywood, though not well known to the general public: Dyan Cannon’s character in Herbert Ross’ 1973 film “The Last of Sheila,” penned by Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, was based on her.
Mengers was married to Belgian writer-director Jean-Pierre Tramont from 1973 until his death in 1996.
She leaves no survivors.