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Sue Mengers: The Agent Who Roared : She's on Sabbatical From Stars, Power and Hollywood . . . Can It Last?

December 06, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

NEW YORK — Some junior and senior editors were sitting around an apostrophe-shaped table at a major publishing house, picking brains. The idea was to find the quintessential Hollywood book of the '70s, combining business and glamour and stardom. A coffee-table book, maybe, with photos from private lives. Or perhaps an oral history? Or simply a guide to power? Inevitably a bright young editor said the name "Sue Mengers." And the room stopped cold.

"Sue Mengers!" shrieked one of the others. "Oh--but of course. She's the best Hollywood story of the last 20 years!"

One of the people in the room didn't know the name. (Only one, though--and he's no longer in publishing.) To fill him in, his colleagues began tripping over each other with all the name-dropping. And the stories.

"Sue Mengers is pure Hollywood," said the Wunderkind who thought of the idea. "She was the highest-profile agent in the business, man or woman. Streisand. Ryan and Tatum and then Ryan and Farrah. Peter and Cybill. Candy and Ali. Cimino and De Palma and Nichols and Lumet. . . ."

"I know her a little," said one of the senior editors. "I met her in Italy. She stays with Gore. So bright. And she's kind of . . . Bohemian. Has a bite on life. You know, adventurous. And funny--terribly, terribly funny. . . ."

FOR THE RECORD - Imperfection
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 13, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 123 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Contrary to what it said in a photo caption in last Sunday's article on former agent Sue Mengers, Jack Nicholson was not a client of Mengers'. Sandy Bresler has been his agent since 1961 and continues as such.

"She left the agency business last year," said one of the office gossips. 'Saved her money. Sold her house at the right time. Never has to work again."

"Great house, top of Bel-Air. She gave the best parties since the days of Frances Goldwyn. And she was funny like Sam Goldwyn. Maybe less printable, but. . . ."

"Steve Sondheim and Tony Perkins based the Dyan Cannon role in 'The Last of Sheila' on her."

"My favorite story is after the Sharon Tate murders, her reassuring a nervous client. 'Don't worry, honey, stars aren't being murdered. Only featured players.' "

"This sounds like the sequel to 'The Best of Everything'!"

"No," said the man who met Mengers in Italy. "She's more complex than that."

"But who is she really?"

Behind the Armor

There is a moment in any conversation with Sue Mengers when she reveals who she is really . Or almost. It's when she removes her glasses. What you see is someone who has a completely developed fantasy life--and a total sense of reality. The fantasies are now changing. Pure ambition being replaced by a need for an inner life. Whatever the price, she will pay it, but the price won't be humor. Sitting in a garden at the Bel Air Hotel, posing for a photographer, Mengers will play any role you want.

"Is the long blonde hair flowing freely like waves around my shoulders?" she asks spontaneously, spewing the words like dialogue. "Do you want me to play Anita Ekberg in the fountain?" she wonders, referring to "La Dolce Vita." "I could be lured into a room for a cheeseburger. 'C'mon little girl . . . here's a cheeseburger.' I don't know how models do it. That's why I turned down the contract with Estee Lauder. . . . This is the true sign of a person who's not narcissistic. I didn't bring a mirror."

"Sue opened doors," says Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management and the colleague who's worked the longest with Mengers (17 years). Berg, the youngest long-distance runner in the agency business, says that "Sue knows that at some point the carrier pilot must decide about making more night landings. She's tactical enough, and brave enough, to walk away from the day-to-day shorthand." Fox Chairman Barry Diller last week called Mengers "a beacon to all--to all obsessive-compulsives who make up a large part of this industry--that a decision can be made to seek an alternative."

And the next alternative? There are those who will tell you that maybe Mengers burned too many bridges, honey . That the new players don't have relationships with her. But the other day producer Ray Stark went right on the line: "She's finding out exactly what she's capable of. And I'll tell you: She's capable of being a head of production, and she's capable of being the head of a company. There are a lot of people eager to fill her shoes, but they can't. She has the two prerequisites of every great agent: Vitality and humor--especially about herself."

Yet there is still about her what Ali MacGraw calls "armor. With Sue there are layers to be peeled away before there's trust. It's like when you meet Mike Nichols and the intelligence is so threatening. Then you see what's underneath. With Sue the armor is in direct proportion to the vulnerability." Then there's the wit--"I was so driven I would have signed Martin Bormann"--that makes her what friends of Billy Wilder call "the female Billy Wilder."

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