Sue Mengers, a veteran talent agent who blazed a path for women in Hollywood and represented some of its biggest stars, died Saturday night at her Beverly Hills home after a long illness. She was 79.
At the time of her death, Mengers was surrounded by several friends, including talent agent Boaty Boatwright, actress Ali MacGraw and Joanna Poitier, wife of actor Sidney Poitier.
For two decades, Mengers was one of the entertainment industry's most powerful agents, rising fast in a business dominated by men. She earned a reputation as a skilled negotiator and tough adversary. And she had a knack for putting together packages of talent -- including authors, directors and stars -- that produced box office blockbusters.
"Sue was a valued colleague and friend for many years," said International Creative Management Chairman Jeff Berg, who worked with Mengers for 16 years and was her former boss at ICM. "She had an incisive wit, sharp tongue and great creative instincts."
Among the Hollywood luminaries Mengers represented over the span of her career were Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Steve McQueen, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, directors Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma, and writer Gore Vidal.
"I worked with her when she was at ICM in her absolute heyday. She gave meaning to the word woman power," said longtime Hollywood agent and manager Joan Hyler. "She was arguably the most famous agent of her time. And the fact that she was a woman and fearless was quite extraordinary."
Born in 1932 in Hamburg, Germany, Mengers didn't learn English until she was 6 years old, when her family immigrated to New York to escape the Holocaust. Her family settled in upstate New York, in Utica, where her father worked as a traveling salesman.
At the age of 11, her father committed suicide, and she and her mother relocated to the Bronx, where her mother took a job as a bookkeeper.
Mengers started her career in 1955, working as a receptionist at MCA Inc. talent agency, which at the time had a roster of clients that included Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. She was hired as a secretary at the theatrical agency Baum & Newborn, until finally landing a position as a secretary with the Willam Morris Agency.
Mengers left William Morris in 1963 when Tom Korman, a former Baum & Newborn colleague, invited her to become a partner in his agency. Her first client was actress Julie Harris, an accomplished Broadway star who was interested in appearing in the TV western "Bonanza." Mengers contacted the producer, who commissioned a specially written episode for Harris.
In 1967, Mengers began working as a theater agent for Creative Management Associates, which later became ICM. A year later, she moved from New York to Los Angeles, where she became known for star-studded parties that were among the most coveted invitations in Hollywood.
"I never invited anyone who wasn't successful," Mengers told the New Yorker in an interview published in 1994. "I was ruthless about it. It was all stars. I would look around my living room at all of them and even I'd be impressed with myself."
Mengers quit ICM in 1986 and went on a two-year hiatus before joining the William Morris Agency for a three-year stint. None of her old clients followed her, so she retired in 1991. In her later years, Mengers' pink home in Beverly Hills became a salon for agents, movie stars, authors and filmmakers to talk shop over meals.
She married Belgian writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont on May 5, 1973, and Streisand was her maid of honor. He died on Dec. 27, 1996. She leaves no survivors.
"It's the end of an era," said "Twilight" producer Karen Rosenfelt, who was Mengers' secretary at ICM in the early 1980s. "She was a fiercely loyal friend and agent to her clients. She broke the glass ceiling for many women in the industry. She was a guiding light in my career."
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Photo of Sue Mengers, courtesy of ICM.