If you’re an aspiring woman comic in a 1950s landscape essentially free of women comics, then you need booking agent Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) on your side. This is something Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) realizes soon into season 1 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She demands Susie take her, a housewife from the Upper West Side, on as a client.
Susie is the gruff booker of the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village, where Midge's career begins. Like Midge, who rants about taboo topics like sex and women’s bodies in her comedy sets, Susie flouts societal expectations. She wears pants, remains unmarried, and suffers no fools. To create the role, Borstein told The L.A. Times she looked toward another famous Sue: trailblazing talent agent Sue Mengers.
For those in the inner circle of Hollywood in the ‘70s and ‘80s, talent agent Sue Mengers was an absolute legend. She represented top-tier talent — actors like Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Cher, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds, and Nick Nolte, as well as directors like Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet. As her friend David Geffen told Vanity Fair, “She had the greatest client list of any agent in Hollywood.” Later on, in the ‘80s, she hosted lavish dinner parties where this set of “everyone who was anyone” could meet each other.
Mengers was the first woman to amass the kind of agenting power she did. “She gave meaning to the word 'woman power,'” Hollywood agent and manager Joan Hyler said to the L.A. Times for Mengers’ obituary. "She was arguably the most famous agent of her time. And the fact that she was a woman and fearless was quite extraordinary."
Mengers was born in Hamburg, Germany, and immigrated to Utica, NY in 1938 with her Jewish parents to escape the Holocaust. When she was 11, her father took his own life in a New York hotel. Her rise to becoming the vice president of Creative Management Associates began in 1955, when she got a job as a receptionist. Looking around at the agents at the office, Mengers began to reconsider her own options.
“I was a little pisher, a little nothing making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris Agency in New York. Well, I looked around and I admired the Morris office and their executives, and I thought: "Gee, what they do isn't that hard, you know.' And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars. And I used to stay late at the office, just like "All About Eve," and I suddenly thought: "That beats typing,’” Mengers wrote.
In 1963, Mengers was hired to be an agent for CMA. When she moved to L.A. five years later, her persona as a whip-smart negotiator – and an essential person to have on your side — cemented.
"There was a long period when so many stars wanted to be represented by Sue Mengers; they believed that great things would happen if only they could sign with her," Mengers' biographer, Brian Kallow, told Signature Reads. "She was a major personality who fascinated people, and she didn't have trouble getting face-to-face time. That alone made her a desirable commodity among Hollywood actors."
Mengers was a character. Unsurprisingly, she became a character in fictional works, too. Dyan Cannon’s agent character in The Last of Sheila (1973) was allegedly based on Mengers. In 2013, Bette Midler starred as Mengers in a a one-woman show called I’ll Eat You Last. We may get a Mengers movie, too — in 2016, Morgan Spurlock announced he was writing and directing a movie based on Mengers' 2015 biography. Susie Myerson in Mrs. Maisel is just the latest character inspired by this singular woman, who died in 2011 at the age of 78.
Aside from being the children of immigrants, Susie and Sue’s life stories don’t have much overlap. But who knows? While viewers of Mrs. Maisel could probably write a chapter of Midge’s biography by this point, the show doesn’t go into equal detail for Susie’s life.
Where Susie and Mengers overlap is in the realm of attitude (and initials). Brian Kellow, who wrote the Mengers biography Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent, explained what gave Mengers credibility.
“Everyone prized her honesty,” Kellow told Variety. “In a town like Hollywood, that’s hard to come by. Instead of yes-yesing or kissing up, she would say, ‘You’re too fat’ or ‘Your hair looks terrible,’ but it was all in service of getting them work. She was a scrutinizing, tough Jewish mama.”
Like Mengers, Susie Myerson is honest – and Midge will only benefit from that trait as her career takes off.
Catch season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime on December 5.