One evening in 2007, John Logan, the screenwriter of blockbusters like Gladiator and Skyfall, found himself at a star-studded dinner party in L.A. seated next to Sue Mengers. Logan was familiar with the lore surrounding the brash onetime superagent who reigned in the freewheeling Hollywood of the 1970s — and in person, she didn’t disappoint. ”She had a joint in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” Logan recalls. ”She was incredibly funny, viciously wicked, coy, seductive. But the thing that struck me was this sense of melancholy. She knew her time had passed but this world of movies and movie stars was the only world she’d ever loved, so she wanted to keep a finger on the pulse.” By the time he left that night, Logan knew he’d found his next great subject.
Mengers, who died of pneumonia in 2011 at 79, may not have been a household name, but she became an icon in the industry by steering the careers of Barbra Streisand, Burt Reynolds, Cher, Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine, and Faye Dunaway, to name just a few. Now Logan has written a one-woman play about Mengers, I’ll Eat You Last, starring Bette Midler in her first Broadway appearance in 30 years. (It starts previews on April 5 before an April 24 opening.)
Born in Hamburg, Germany, Mengers emigrated with her family to upstate New York to escape the Holocaust and soon fell under the spell of Hollywood glamour. In 1955, she took a job as a receptionist at the giant talent agency MCA. With her acid wit, fearlessness, and deal-making zeal, she rose through the ranks of the business at a time when women rarely ascended beyond the secretarial pool. By the mid-’70s, she’d amassed the town’s most impressive client list, though not without leaving some bruises. ”Emulating the people I knew in the field — entirely male — I was tactless, contemptuous, and made enemies needlessly,” she said later. ”I rolled in there like a tank…but in any revolution you have to do something to get their attention.”
Mengers got plenty of attention by hosting legendary parties at her Beverly Hills home, exclusive affairs packed wall to wall with celebrities. (”If my mother had been outside in the rain, she wouldn’t have been able to get in,” she once quipped.) ”Sue was unequaled in being able to gather interesting people around her, and her friends happened to be the upper crust of Hollywood,” says Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, a longtime Mengers confidant and producer of I’ll Eat You Last. Cybill Shepherd, a former client, vividly remembers attending her first Mengers party as a shy young starlet: ”I got to the door of Sue’s house — I was with [then boyfriend] Peter Bogdanovich — and I turned around and started to run down the street. I’d done The Last Picture Show, but I’d never hung out with Gregory Peck, Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson. But I recovered and had a wonderful time. The room was full of such amazing people — it was the crème de la crème — and Sue would waft through in her caftan, smoking pot and saying something funny.”
By the ’80s, Mengers became increasingly out of step with the more corporate business culture. She gradually lost most of her clients and retired from ICM in 1986; an attempted comeback a few years later fizzled. Even in exile, Mengers kept close tabs on Hollywood and hosted frequent parties. As she told The New Yorker in 1994, ”I feel like the Queen Mother because I have this connection to Hollywood but no function there anymore.”
Until the end, there was nothing Mengers loved more than dishing about celebrities. So what would she think about being the subject of a Broadway play, one stuffed with the sort of insider dirt that sustained her for so many years? ”She would think she’d died and gone to heaven,” says Carter. He pauses, then adds drily, ”She’d prefer Angelina Jolie [play her], but Bette will more than do.”