Last night Bette Midler made a triumphant return to Broadway for the first time in 30 years, playing the brash superagent Sue Mengers in John Logan’s one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last. The minute the curtain rose, there was Midler as Sue lounging on a couch, swathed in an aqua silk caftan. The audience went wild. When the applause died down, Midler gave everybody a baleful look and announced, “I AM NOT GETTING UP.”
And she doesn’t. Director Joe Mantello keeps her seated during the entire 80 minutes of the show smoking, (cigarettes and pot – sometimes simultaneously), telling wild name-dropping stories about her clients, and making brutal wisecracks, often focused on herself. It is a bravura performance.
The moment I heard Bette Midler was portraying Sue Mengers I thought, This is a match made in heaven. Both women have a lot in common. Both had miserable childhoods; both were insecure – had an insatiable ambition to succeed at something – both created extravagant personas to hide behind.
I knew Sue Mengers (who died in 2011) when I was a young journalist. Whenever we’d have dinner – often at Sardi’s – Sue would start to overwhelm me with outrageous gossip about the movie stars she knew, but often in the middle of a sentence or between mouthfuls of food she would jump to her feet and start working the room.
I watched her claw her way up the ladder to become the first female power player in a male-dominated film industry. I’d never seen anyone push so hard to get attention. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, says, “Sue was one of a kind, an original. She symbolizes the end of personalized courageous agenting before the industry went corporate.”
At her height in the 1970s Mengers handled the likes of Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman, Mike Nichols, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, Sidney Lumet, and Michael Caine. After she retired in 1988 she became even more famous as a hostess, giving intimate little dinners for her stars – “twinklies,” as she called them – in her Beverly Hills home.
The entire play takes place in Sue’s pink-walled living room one afternoon in 1981 as she prepares herself for another of her dinners. At the start she announces she’s just been fired by Streisand, her most treasured client and dearest friend.
Sue is waiting for Barbra’s call, but the story of why Barbra fired her isn’t revealed until she’s gossiped about many of her glittering clients in hilarious fashion. Along the way we learn about Sue’s refugee background – how she escaped from Hitler’s Germany and emigrated to Utica, New York. She learned English by going to countless films. In those dark little theatres she fell in love with movies and stars. This is one of the most poignant incidents in the play and Midler is heartbreaking when recounting that story.
At the end of the show we are still waiting for Barbra’s call but it never comes, and by then Sue is stoned and depressed and she has to rise to prepare for her dinner. Midler takes her time struggling off the couch, but she manages to get to her feet and turns to the audience, crying out “TA-DA!”
Afterward the producers of I’ll Eat You Last – a powerhouse group including Graydon Carter, Arielle Tepper Madover, James L. Nederlander Jr., and the Shubert Organization – gave a gigantic party at the Russian Tea Room. 700 people had been asked and were packing in on the three floors of the Tea Room, noshing on the buffet and crowding the various bars.
Just like a Mengers party, there were plenty of “twinklies” in attendance: Barbara Walters, Ralph Lauren, Gay Talese, Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, Ellen Barkin, and on and on.
I moved about the rooms with my friend, actor Michael Murphy. We had all been given Zippo lighters as a memento, but I didn’t read the inscription on the lighter until I came home. It read, “Honey – work the room. You ain’t here to eat.” It was signed, “Sue Mengers.”