Money, Power and Lunch with Fran Lebowitz

by Natasha Wolff | September 9, 2015 12:00 pm

In Can I Go Now?[1], biographer Brain Kellow tells the story of Sue Mengers, the Hollywood agent who made stars out of clients including Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand, and who, over more than three decades, almost single-handedly changed the movie business. The book will be released September 8, read an excerpt from its pages below.

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent

It was inconceivable to Sue that some people might not actually care about money. When they told her they didn’t, she simply refused to believe them. As if to ward off any possible lingering doubts that she might have taken another path in life, she armed herself with the position that everyone dreamed of fame, glamour, wealth; she often proclaimed that on Oscar night there wasn’t a person on earth who didn’t fantasize about winning an Academy Award. And occasionally, when she did encounter someone who didn’t conform to her ideas, she was baffled.

In March 1978, Fran Lebowitz, the dazzlingly funny essayist for Mademoiselle and Interview, published her first book, Metropolitan Life, which received excellent reviews and quickly landed on the bestseller lists. Lebowitz’s grumpy, self-mocking, urban couch potato literary persona matched up beautifully with Sue’s. The book became a favorite of Sue’s, which was hardly surprising, given that it included such Mengers-like observations as, “Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky. One can only assume that this has something to do with not smoking enough,” and “… the outdoors is what you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab.”

After the book’s publication, Lebowitz’s literary agent at ICM was besieged with requests for interviews. “But,” Lebowitz recalled, “I never heard the note of hysteria in my agent’s voice as when she called me to say, ‘Sue Mengers called.’ Lebowitz was about to leave on a tour to promote the book, and Sue invited her to lunch during the Los Angeles stop. “There were no cell phones and no modern communications system,” said Lebowitz, “and there was a constant stream of calls about the meeting with Sue, where I was supposed to be, where I was supposed to be standing. She had two secretaries who kept calling, and I nicknamed them January and February.

“So the day arrived when I was going to have lunch with Sue. And at a quarter to one, I called my agent and said, ‘No one, including January and February, after all these phone calls saying to be out front, has asked me where I am!’ And my agent said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Sue just assumed that. There’s only one place that she would come to pick someone up from New York. So just be outside.’”

Lebowitz did as she was instructed, and at the appointed hour Sue pulled up in front of the hotel in her silver Mercedes. As they drove to Ma Maison for lunch, Sue told Lebowitz that she had received an offer from David Begelman for $250,000 for the film rights to Metropolitan Life. “That was a huge sum at the time,” said Lebowitz, “but I said, ‘Sue, I do not want to sell this book to the movies.’”

Sue was stunned that Lebowitz would decline so large an amount, and protested, “This could be your ‘Fuck you’ money!” Lebowitz, who had never heard the term, asked what it meant. “That’s when you have enough money that you can say ‘Fuck you’ to people,” explained Sue, as she pulled up at a traffic light. “How much money is that?” asked Lebowitz. Sue looked blankly at her. “Because I am telling you right now, ‘Fuck you. I am not selling that book to the movies.’ And she never believed me. She didn’t believe me decades later.”

They proceeded to Ma Maison, where an endless line of celebrities stopped at Sue’s table to pay court. “It was like being in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra,” said Lebowitz. “They would all stand there, and she never asked anyone to sit down. Ursula Andress was in the restaurant, and she was incredibly beautiful, and Sue starts talking about how stupid Ursula Andress is because she has affairs with all these movie stars and she doesn’t get any of them to marry her—she doesn’t close the deal. She acts like a man. She thinks she can do whatever she wants. She has affairs with men like they have affairs with women. That was a central thing to Sue with women: they had to get married. Sue was extremely conscious of the brief life span of a movie star.”

At the end of the lunch they passed a table where several actors’ managers were sitting. “Sue, we just wanted to tell you how fantastic it was, what you did, and how much we respected you for what you did,” they told her, and Lebowitz recalled that the men went on talking about respect for several minutes. “I was thinking to myself, ‘What did she do? Did she save a child from a burning building?’ So I said to Sue afterward, ‘What did you do?’ And she said, ‘I signed my new contract at ICM.’ I said, ‘That’s what they respect you for? You mean, they’re afraid of you?’ Of course in Hollywood, that means the same thing. I found that very funny.”

From Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent[2] by Brian Kellow. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Brian Kellow.

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