With a roster of clients that included Barbra Streisand, Bob Fosse, Michael Caine, Peter Bogdanovich, Ryan O’Neal, Anthony Perkins and Faye Dunaway, Mengers had serious clout. Because of her brash and bossy attitude, she also had lots of enemies but it’s doubtful anyone did more to further the concept of female agents as viable.
I became aware of Sue Mengers through a Vanity Fair article some years ago that vividly detailed her caustic manner with studios and directors and maternal nature with her clients.
She just sounded so cool, so fierce and so powerful and at the very heart of Hollywood when Hollywood was where truly amazing films were being made (see: The Godfather, Chinatown, French Connection, Shampoo, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, The Exorcist, Jaws, Taxi Driver et al).
The 70s also gave us director Bogdanovich’s killer screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc? starring…. wait for it…. Streisand and a post-Love Story O’Neal in top form and perhaps surprisingly, boasting real chemistry with each other. If you haven’t seen this small hilarious masterpiece (and YouTube won’t let me show you a clip) you must rent it.
Added to that: the idea that Mengers was commanding the best parts and best salaries on behalf of artists – and breaking through the so-called glass ceiling – seemed like the noblest thing any woman could do and still get paid. For a brief moment I even thought that maybe I could be an agent, advocating on behalf of those I believed in, but the reality seemed pretty far-fetched for a Toronto-based girl...
So I was sad to hear of her passing. But even happier to read, via the Hollywood Reporter, a confession Mengers had made to the Los Angeles Times in a profile back in 1993.
Looking back on her career Mengers said, "Emulating the people I knew in the field - entirely male - I was tactless, contemptuous and made enemies needlessly. If I had to do it over again, I'd take on a bit more of the personality of (Paramount motion picture chief) Sherry Lansing, who has the ability to make people feel good. I rolled in there like a tank . . . but in any revolution you have to do something to get their attention. Women don't have to act like that these days.”
Not only was Mengers one of a kind, but she was savvy and introspective enough to know that her methods left something to be desired, and that being kind and fair actually counts for something, especially in the gauzy haze of retrospect. That just made me like her even more.
As noted in the Reporter, Mengers - the child of German refugees - began her career as a receptionist at the MCA talent agency before being hired as a secretary at the William Morris Agency. She would go on to become an agent in 1967 at Creative Management Agency, which merged with International Famous Agency in 1975 to become ICM. Mengers stepped down from ICM in 1986, returned two years later for a brief stint at WMA, before permanently retiring.
As famous for her star-studded dinner parties as her sharp tongue, Mengers was the real-life inspiration for the character played by Dyan Cannon in the 1973 comedy mystery The Last of Sheila, co-written by Anthony Perkins.
“When she wound her career down in the ‘80s, Agent Sue became Hostess Sue—and she was even more successful in her new vocation. Dinner at Sue’s was like stepping into a Hollywood you imagined, but almost never experienced,”longtime friemd and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter recalled.