During her too-brief reign as Hollywood's first female super-agent, Sue Mengers liked to flash colleagues and clients alike — sometimes wearing panties, sometimes not — smoke pot all day and refer to herself as Baby Sue while dishing out brilliant advice and caustic criticism in her signature baby-talk voice.
She was a proud woman who called other women cunts and coozes, and an indifferent Jew who called Jews kikes. But she got away with all this because she used those offensive terms to describe herself; because she was a brilliant, street-smart agent who made her clients piles of money; because she always had the latest gossip in a gossip-oiled industry; and because she had a raunchy, life-of-the-party sense of humor that thrived in many quarters in Hollywood despite the politically correct dawn of the 1970s.
Those are a few of the insights in the entertaining, well-researched and ultimately sympathetic Mengers biography Can I Go Now? by Brian Kellow, which appropriates her let's-end-this-phone-conversation catchphrase for its title. In a city of angels with plenty of stars, only a few in modern Los Angeles can be classified as no-dispute legends: Otis Chandler, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wooden, Vin Scully, Tom Bradley and Steven Spielberg are on that short list.
Kellow makes his bid to add Mengers, the little girl from Utica, New York. She made it big during Hollywood's golden period of the 1970s, flamed out in the mid-1980s, attempted a comeback in the late '80s and spent her last decades as a virtual recluse before dying of smoking-related causes at age 79 in 2011.
Mengers was the first agent to publicly outshine her clients, who included Ryan O'Neal, Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen and Michael Caine. When 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace produced a flattering profile of her in 1975 — check it out on YouTube — Mengers' 20-year journey from wanna-be actress to agent's secretary to Queen of Hollywood was complete.
She was a starburst of charisma and personality-based dealmaking, who reigned after Lew Wasserman's army of deliberately anonymous MCA agents in their look-alike black suits, white shirts and dark ties; they had dominated the 1950s and '60s.
After Mengers fell, a corporate, Ivy League–educated throng of heavily male agents took control — and still runs things, to the detriment of movies and the movie industry.
In a nod to Mengers' influence, two years ago Broadway and later the Geffen Playhouse had a huge hit with I'll Eat You Last, a solo show starring Bette Midler as the agent.
Kellow, who scored wide-ranging interviews with dozens of Mengers' friends and colleagues, reveals that she received several offers to write her memoirs but made unreasonable financial demands. Perhaps she couldn't face the hard truths she would have had to confront.
So Kellow does it for her. He brings her rollicking personality to life with outrageous anecdotes while pointing out the behaviors that doomed her: Mengers' obsession with established stars prevented her from developing young talent, and her kiss-up, kick-down office style brutalized her own support staff. Both behaviors fueled her downfall. Kellow mercilessly details her sad final years, when she smoked weed morning to night, grew morbidly obese, stayed in bed for days and rarely left her house.
“It's astonishing to me that someone as smart and clever as Sue couldn't plug herself into a different kind of life after she was done with Hollywood,” Kellow tells L.A. Weekly. “I think all her pot smoking contributed enormously to her withdrawal into herself.”
He spends just enough time on Mengers' birth in Germany, and her family's move to Utica when she was 5, to sketch her awful childhood: Her traveling-salesman father killed himself in a Times Square hotel, and her mother was such a nightmare that, at the height of her success, Mengers still couldn't stand to be in the same room with her.
Yet Mengers adopted her mother's worst attribute — relentless criticism of others — as her own. When she lost her golden touch in the industry, clients as well as friends refused to tolerate her and left in droves. Her single-mindedness in wooing A-list stars and relegating all others to lesser status gave rise to one of her most famous quips. In the 1990s, she walked into a party, looked around and muttered to her companions, “Schindler's B-list.”
Her biography, however, is A-list all the way.