The beautiful lady and the reporter sit facing each other on wicker sofas in the lady’s small but elegant Los Angeles office. They are silent, sheepish, like schoolgirls who have been collared in the hall by a teacher and sent to the principal’s office with no idea of the offense they have committed. The two of them were chatting for ten or fifteen minutes about movies, screenplays, stars, options, and the lady, who runs her own independent production company, was gracious, animated, opinionated, down-to-earth. Then the phone rang. It was the beautiful lady’s husband, and so she left the room to take the call in another office. When she returned, she looked confused. “Irving said the strangest thing just now,” she said. “He said. ‘Don’t talk to that girl! Don’t tell her anything!’ Isn’t that strange?”
So the beautiful lady and the reporter stare at each other for a while. Finally, the beautiful lady speaks. “I think,” she says, “he must be crazy.”
The beautiful lady’s husband is Irving Lazar, at 76 still the most renowned literary agent in the world—the tiny, manic, lone-wolf deal-maker, self-styled dandy, bi-coastal commuter, globe-trotter, connoisseur, agent and friend to Irwin Shaw and Truman Capote and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Teddy White and Ira Gershwin and Comden and Green and Neil Simon and Josh Logan and Betty Bao Lord and Lauren Bacall and Herman Wouk and Richard Nixon and, formerly, Noël Coward and Moss Hart and George Kaufman and Cole Porter, among others.
What is peculiar is not only that Irving lazar knows that the reporter has come to California on a story about him but that he has met with her twice, has been speaking to her on the phone for weeks, calling her—sounding cheerful, excited—when he thinks of a “distinguished” or “amusing” person for her to talk to about him, giving her scores of celebrities’ home phone numbers and beach-house numbers and hotel phone numbers, reminding her of the many books in which he is mentioned—Olivier’s book, Niven’s book—calling her again to find out if she has called his famous clients (“Did you talk to Henry Kissinger? Did you talk to David Brinkley?”).
After some weeks of this, it has begun to seem that Lazar will not rest until the reporter has spoken to every distinguished and amusing person who has ever crossed his path. So it would be foolish not to interview his wife of 21 years. Mary Lazar has also assumed that an article would be incomplete without her. With this in mind, it did not occur to the beautiful lady to tell her husband about this interview. Now the two women look at each other, and there is nothing to do but end the meeting with abashed apologies on both sides.
Irving Lazar is as sane as any five-foot-three-inch, septuagenarian literary agent who thinks of himself as a perpetually young man; stays up until two or three every morning going to parties and restaurants and bars; has his socks and suspenders monogrammed; talks naughty with women vastly younger and taller than he with the cocky confidence of a hulking six-footer; is contemplating going back to school—he has already sent away for the University of Southern California catalogue—to take language or literature courses; is allergic to delegating authority (he works alone, except for several devoted secretaries, women whose names he has trouble remembering and is forced to address as “darling” or “Miss” or sometimes, “lady”); cannot sleep at night when he thinks of the famous writers alive in the world whom he has not netted; and believes himself more godlike than human.
Which is why Lazar sees nothing odd in forbidding his wife to talk to the reporter. What would his wife tell her? Domestic things, wifey things? How it is she who shaves the sprouts of hair on his head? How Mary has done much of his manuscript reading for him? Mary is not what anyone would call a loose-lipped woman, but Lazar just doesn’t trust women: He did not marry until he was 55 (Mary was in her mid-thirties) and says he does not confide in his wife. Also, elegance and grace aside, Mary is a plain talker. She has learned over the two decades of her marriage to speak her mind, and it is possible that Lazar feels she might unwittingly shrink him in the reporter’s eyes to life-size, might allow that Irving sometimes has a way of exaggerating a story, or that Irving has made some mistakes here and there.
“l don’t care if you talk to Mary about her work,” he says the next day, sitting by the pool at his hilltop Trousdale Estates home, which commands a view of all of Los Angeles. “I don’t want my private life discussed.” With a wave of his hand he has dismissed this unpleasantness, brushed it aside, the way he flicks a fleck of dirt off his pants.
The prospect of appearing in print tends to draw out all that is stiff and self-conscious about Irving Paul Lazar—so much so that he is apt to misplace his gay and garrulous sense of humor, an impish mien that, his friends say, has gotten better and funnier over the years. If only he could write the article. If you want to get anything done, you have to do It yourself—he is fond of saying this, and believes it absolutely; it is why he has always been an independent operator, why he still trusts no one but himself to make and close the deals for the twenty or so clients who earned him, by one report, $10 million last year.
He is invariably disappointed by what it written about him—the tone is always off, or the facts are wrong, or the story doesn’t mention that he won the Willie Shoemaker Invitational golf tournament at Palm Springs in 1972, or something. And now he feels he it going to be disappointed again, a suspicion that is confirmed a few minutes later as he sits by the pool chewing on a piece of gum in his spanking-white jeans, small-checked shirt with gold cuff links the size of gumdrops, grosgrain belt with little anchors embroidered on it, aviator sunglasses that seem to shield half his face.
The reporter has asked for a story about Lazar’s pal Bogart, knowing that the actor was famous for teasing his friends mercilessly. Lazar, who at the moment cannot think of a story about Bogart getting the better of him, instead tells her about one time he got the better of Bogie. Before the shooting of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, Bogart, whom Lazar had encouraged to take the role in the movie, complained to Lazar that he didn’t like playing what Lazar calls a “gent.” “So I said to him, ‘Bogie, you’re nothing but an Aquascutum actor,’ ” says Lazar. He glances at the reporter. “You do know what ‘Aquascutum’ means, don’t you?” he says, and stares at her at if she had just belched, loudly. And when it is clear that she does not he adds with dismay, as If he were doomed forever. “You’re terribly unsophisticated.”
It is too bad that all this effort, all these phone calls, must be made, ironic that he has to go through all this fuss, because he is not really like this.
How can a story have any style or distinction if this is the kind of person who does not know what Aquascutum means? How will she understand his life? What it means to have had George Axelrod and Irwin Shaw dedicate books to him? To have paintings by Chagall, Utrillo, Picasso, and Degas on the walls in his Manhattan apartment and here in Beverly Hills? To have real Rothschilds and princes as your personal friends and be able to summon Marietta Tree and Evangeline Bruce to your dinner parties? What it means, exactly, to command a suite at the Georges V anytime he wants? To be the kind of man who buys $1,500 safari boots at Foster’s?
Lazar also fears he will be made to look foolish. He cannot help boasting, but he is acutely afraid that he will sound boastful instead of distinguished. “Don’t say I told you that,” he is always saying to the reporter after recounting one of his triumphs. “Make it sound researched. State it as fact!” He tells her so again today; then he looks at her, shakes his head. “Oh,” he says, weary, “you’ll fuck it up.”
He will not look like some sweaty agent, some vulgar wheeler-dealer. Irving Paul Lazar will not be thought of in this fashion. Which is why, some days later, he is in a dither.
Damn Billy Wilder! Why did he ever allow the reporter to speak to him? He should have known better. Wilder is a former client and a friend, but he is saturnine, cynical by nature; now the director has gone and done it—said what he knows will hurt Lazar like a sock in the stomach.
The reporter had called Wilder in California and asked to talk about Lazar. Wilder told her he didn’t want to talk about Lazar, because “I’m writing a book about him and other agents called Les Miserables II.” If there is one thing Irving Lazar cannot abide and never has, it is agent jokes. He has never been fond of his nickname. “Swifty,” a name Bogart coined for him the day Lazar, on a dare, made five deals in five hours for the star. He didn’t care for it when his friend and client George Axelrod wrote Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, did not find the portrait of the rapacious agent Irving “Sneaky” LaSalle, the devil In disguise, particularly amusing—not until the play was a hit.
So, a man possessed, he calls the reporter several times in the days that follow Wilder’s remark, tells her not to print the crack but to print another story, a better story, instead. The story, which Wilder denies, goes like this: Some twenty years ago, before Wilder was a Lazar client but after Lazar had represented Wilder for Some Like It Hot, Wilder griped to Lazar and several of Lazar’s clients that he didn’t think the agent could properly represent his clients when he was running all over the planet. One day, after Wilder had made another crack about it, Lazar decided not to speak to Wilder again, even though the two of them were neighbors. A year later, Lazar came home to find Wilder sitting on Lazar’s front step. Wilder apologized to him for what he had said. “Why do you say those things, Billy?” asked Lazar. “I’m just jealous.” said Wilder. “I’m envious. You have a wonderful time and I don’t.”
The point of the story, says Lazar, is that Wilder was forced, “when the chips were down, to apologize to Lazar.” The other point is that Wilder did not understand that Lazar is “not a Hollywood agent. I am a literary agent,” he says, giving “literary” an English accent so that it comes out as “lit’ry.” “A national lit’ry agent. Time magazine said I was the biggest lit’ry agent in the world. You can’t be a Hollywood agent and handle Moss Hart, Teddy White. Arthur Schlesinger, Roald Dahl, Noël Coward, Françoise Sagan. Georges Clouzot.” What Wilder did not understand, he says, is that his work as a famous literary agent took him around the globe—to Shaw and novelist Peter Viertel in Klosters, Switzerland, to James Jones in Paris—and he could hardly be expected to hang around Hollywood all the time. Put that in your article, Lazar tells the reporter. “Write that this misnomer,” he says, “always annoyed Lazar.”
It is too bad that all this effort, all these phone calls, must be made, ironic that he has to go through all this fuss, put his foot down, seem like a sourpuss, because he is not really like this. He knows everyone tells outrageous stories about him, does not really mind most of the anecdotes—“just get the joke right,” he says—but he will not be talked about as a toady, a vantz, a hustler, which is what Wilder’s remark suggested. It is out of sheer instinct that he defends himself, the dog snapping at his attacker. He is Irving Paul Lazar—“I’m not an agent,” he says later, then cannot find enough words to describe himself: “I’m something other than an agent.”
But he cannot stay mad at Wilder—Wilder is a friend of Lazar’s, and Lazar is nothing if not loyal. So many of his dearest friends are gone. It “devastates” him to lose them. Their deaths are like a stake in his heart. Bogie is gone—Bogie, whose watch he once threw in a roaring fire “to dry,” Bogie, who would say anything to anyone, tell men that their wives were too dull to sit next to at dinner. Noël is gone, Cole is gone, mild Moss is gone, the glum, brilliantly funny Harry Kurnitz is gone, and, recently, to his shock and sorrow. Françoise de la Renta—he cannot believe he won’t see her radiant presence again. Most of the Rat Pack are still alive, but those times are gone, too: no more crazy, cozy dinners upstairs as Romanoff’s with Sinatra and Niven and the others, no more musical soirées at the Gershwins’.
His friends are the people he lives for. These are the people who took him into their homes when he was just a young agent, with whom he worked so hard to ingratiate himself, who embraced him. People whom he has since repaid a hundredfold, a thousandfold: He has made millions of dollars for them, entertained them, regaled them with his funny stories—Irving in the army, Irving getting beat up by mobsters in smoky New York nightclubs—always listened to their problems, been, at he puts it, “dependable, predictable.” He has attended all their funerals, arranged some of them.
They have been family to him. He has never had enough friends, has been as voracious about collecting and caring for them as he is about making deals. Work and friends—they have always been mixed up together in his life, happily scrambled: The purpose of having money, after all, is to be able to make friends, have a ball with them; the purpose of making many of his friends is to net them as clients in order to make money in order to make more friends. In order to be able to be grand, larger than life. He is not an agent—he is… something else! A player on his global stage! So when friends die, it is profoundly depressing to him—like being at a wonderful giddy party and having the music suddenly stop and the lights shut off.
He will not be crushed; he will go on, stay young forever. He knows 35-year-old people “who are dead already and don’t know it.” He will not talk about age: it is meaningless. Of course, he admits, he is nostalgic, but “tomorrow is the best time”—you can print that, he says, but he truly means it. Tomorrow he might go to Wimbledon or Cairo, or fly to Southampton in a helicopter, or learn German, or a new dirty joke, or cinch a mini-series deal for Irwin Shaw’s Bread Upon the Waters and make him and Irwee, as he calls him, richer than they already are.
His friends are growing old watching Lazar stay young, and they get enormous pleasure out of thinking and talking about their funny pal. They praise him as a gracious host, of course, rhapsodize over the small dinners in his New York apartment with Ahmet and Mica and the Arledges and Michelle Phillips, and the big dinners at La Bistro and Tavern on the Green, the way he fusses over every place setting and place card and flower arrangement.
But their Lazar is more outré than distinguished. Their Lazar is the barking voice on the phone, calling them in the middle of lunch at Ma Maison or just as they are sitting down to dinner, in order to discuss a deal. They cannot imagine him without a telephone receiver attached to his ear—“Someday he’ll have to have an operation and get it removed,” says friend and client Garson Kanin. Their Lazar wears what Slim Keith describes as “darling little outfits, always slightly off,” and has a closet stocked with what actor Martin Gabel calls “hundreds of little toy suits and little toy shoes.”
Their Lazar has a nutty thing about germs—Lazar prefers to call it a distaste for “proximity to dirt.” All have stories about his obsession with cleanliness: how when he washes his hands he is as thorough as any doctor scrubbing for surgery; how he puts towels on the floors of hotel rooms so as not to have to walk on carpets strangers have trod on; how he has been known to stop at hospitals when traveling by car because hospital restrooms are cleaner than those at gas stations; how he visibly squirmed while watching the play The Elephant Man because disease and illness are things he does not like to see on the stage or anywhere else.
“Like all godlike creatures, Irving was probably born in the bulrushes.”
Their Lazar is the puckish ladies’ man who while a bachelor was caught by a starlet’s boyfriend emerging from the starlet’s hotel room. He introduced himself as “Mr. C. McConnell, the godfather of ——’s children.” Their Lazar is a tough little bantam, the man who bopped Otto Preminger on the head with a water goblet in “21” seventeen years ago and gave the director a gash that sent him to the hospital for 50 stitches, and who with one punch once sent a disagreeable, and large, press agent flying across the floor of Ciro’s.
Their Lazar is always, always making deals. Garson Kanin (whose wife, Ruth Gordon, is also a client) tells a story about the time Lazar was in a car accident on Sunset Boulevard. Lazar broke his clavicle and several ribs and was bleeding heavily: An ambulance arrived with two paramedics, and Lazar managed to make a deal with them—he’d give them 50 bucks, he told them, if they handled him extra carefully. As the paramedics loaded his limp form, on a stretcher, into the ambulance, he raised himself up again and added, “That’s 50 bucks for the two of you.”
Most of them assume that he tells tales—Shaw once called him a “genial fabulist”—and not many of them think that he actually reads. “The only thing be doesn’t do is read,” says George Plimpton. But they are loyal to him. None of them embarrasses him by bringing up the talk that clients who have not had a hit with their last book may have a hard time getting him to return their phone calls, or that because of his inability to delegate responsibility his records aren’t always up-to-date. None of them mentions his relentless social climbing.
It’s much more delicious to see him larger than life. Very few of his friends know for certain how old Lazar is: He has kept from all of them this mark of his mortality. George Axelrod says that just as Lazar is “afraid to go to bed, because he’ll miss something” (he begins swallowing sleeping pills at dinnertime so that he will be groggy enough to fall asleep at two or three in the morning), he cannot conceive of death, a state in which it is impossible to go to parties and openings and casinos. “He’s terrified of dying,” says Axelrod. “His theory is that he can’t possibly die if he has tickets to the ball game.”
Hardly any of his friends have anything but the haziest notion of his early years. He never discusses his childhood, they say, nor have most of them thought to ask him about it. “Irving wasn’t born until he became an agent,” says a client, director Richard Brooks, who has known him for 35 years. “I don’t think he was ever born. He was probably quarried. It occurs to me,” he says, “that I’ve never known anything about his family.” “Like all godlike creatures,” says another friend, “Irving was probably born in the bulrushes.”
Lazar is uncomfortable when asked about his childhood—clipped, impatient, as if he were being invaded. When he does talk about it, he is curiously impersonal, as though sketching a story outline about someone else. His more thoughtful friends know that there must be secrets locked inside his head, reasons he is so driven; they guess at traumas, problems with having been a small boy growing up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn. But the ones who have asked him about his childhood have not been answered, have gotten only vague replies or had the subject changed.
But even if they were to prod, they would not be much rewarded. Lazar would tell them that he was often in Stamford, Connecticut, then a small village, with an aunt whom he “adored,” that he spent summers there hiking, fishing, swimming, watching the boats and yachts in the harbor, picking apples in his aunt’s orchard. It is Stamford, not Brooklyn, that he mentions first, as if to suggest that his Brooklyn boyhood was an accident, that his rightful home was more serene, genteel.
But he is proud in a different way—and here it is the agent talking—of growing up in Brooklyn. “You had to be street-smart to survive,” he says. “These things are learned early in life. I was born in a jungle, and I’m still in a jungle—it’s a little classier, but it’s still a jungle.” There were “vicious” street gangs, he remembers, and many fights. “It was a two-way street—you beat them up, and they beat you up.” What his friends would not be surprised to learn is that Lazar first became aware of clothes from the local Jewish gangsters, “sharpies” who were not so much well dressed as flashily dressed, and that much of the money he made washing out Coke bottles and doing other odd jobs went to pay for the clothes he began buying when he was ten years old. They would also not be surprised to learn that his other expenditure was for the theater and vaudeville, that he traveled by himself as often as he could into Manhattan to sit in the third balcony and watch Helen Hayes in Coquette, or Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker, the same vaudeville acts over and over until he knew them by heart, and that he was convinced from boyhood on, long before he knew what an agent was, that he would be in show business.
Those friends who speak jokingly of Lazar as a foundling, as a baby from the bulrushes, would have their judgment confirmed should they listen to his recollections. What they would notice right away is that in his talk of the past, unless he is specifically asked about it, family members do not come up. And Lazar did have a family: four younger brothers (only one of whom is still living); a father, a modestly successful butter-and-egg wholesale broker, a housewife mother. His father was “very fair, very decent, dynamic, very energetic, very tough, very enterprising,” a man who emigrated from Hamburg only a few years before Lazar was born. It is to his father—“a great friend”—that Lazar gives credit for his own drive. He is less forthcoming about his mother or brothers. His mother was “not an exceptional person.” Was he close to his brothers? “Not particularly.” What about his brother Murray, who worked in Lazar’s Los Angeles office, the one who countersigned clients’ checks for years? Was he close to him? No, says Lazar. And what was Murray’s job exactly? “Ha was,” says Lazar, “just a business manager.”
Moss Hart, it is often said, created Irving Lazar—and even Irving Lazar, often loath to give credit where credit is due, does not deny it.
Strange, then, that Milton Pickman, a Los Angeles agent who met Lazar in law school and is his oldest friend, says that Lazar was fond of all of his brothers, after his fashion, and that Murray’s death several years ago was “one of the great upsets of Irving’s life.” His friends might be interested to learn that Lazar’s mother was a diabetic and Lazar had to inject her with insulin three times a day. They would be intrigued to know that the memoirs he has been working on intermittently for years—taping, and sometimes writing down, his reminiscences—include mention of his mother. He is secretive about his memoirs, but a friend who is constantly urging him to finish them has looked at them. Writing about his mother, says the friend, was “very hard for him to do. He has horrifying memories of being a young boy.”
Knowing all this, his friends might try to read some hint of melancholy into Lazar’s concession, which he states almost cheerfully, that “I never had any real friends in the sense of confidants. I never had any great personal chums.” But they wouldn’t be able to find any yielding to sadness; instead, they would find him nimbly skipping over the subject, a trick at which he is gifted.
’’Did you ever confide in anybody?”
“No. Did you see my golf trophies?”
He is happier talking about school. His studies came easily to him—law school was a “cinch”—and he throve on extracurriculars. One of his brothers once said that Lazar was president of every class he was in. Lazar thinks this may actually be true, remembers for certain that he was president of many classes, was treasurer of his class at Fordham, where he was an undergraduate, and president of his class at Brooklyn Law School for three years. He made his first real friends in college and law school—not confidants, to be sure, but friends—“schoolmates,” he calls them. “I liked the camaraderie,” he says.
In law school, Professor Jay Leo Rothschild employed Lazar to solicit students for his bar-preparation class, and gave him a percentage for each student who signed up and paid for the course. In this way, Lazar earned enough money to see himself through school, keep himself in natty suits, and pick up the check whenever he went out with friends.
After graduating in 1930, Lazar went to work in a Manhattan law office, representing show-business clients, but soon became an agent at the Musk Corporation of America because he preferred a 10 percent commission to an attorney’s 1 percent. For ten years, he booked bands and acts in New York and around the country. Bandleader Ted Lewis was a client. Lewis’s wife had show-biz salons that attracted old-time vaudevillians, many of whom were now stars and became young Lazar’s clients: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fred Allen, Joe E. Lewis, Harry Richman. Lazar says he also booked 80 percent of the 52nd Street clubs—the Famous Door, Jack White’s 18 Club, the Onyx.
As Lazar tells it, those days were wild and dangerous and fun. He lived, or slept, in a small suite at the Gotham and, later, the Essex House; the rest of his time was spent working “like a dog.” After a day at the office he would use the evening to make the rounds of the clubs, checking on his acts. Starting at 7 or 7:30, he would hit ten or twelve clubs each night—sometimes accompanied by his friend Sonny Werblin (now chairman of the Madison Square Garden Corporation), who had hired him at MCA, often, he says, with Walter Winchell and Winchell’s pal Damon Runyon. Winchell called Lazar “the rabbit” because he was always darting in and out of clubs.
Competition among agents was fierce, so much so that Lazar was forced to scale memorable heights of deviousness. One spot he regularly booked talent into was a resort hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey. Lazar lost the resort’s business when another agent offered it the Nicholas Brothers, two black tap dancers who were very hot at the time. When the resort’s owner told Lazar he had signed the brothers instead of whatever act Lazar was offering, Lazar said. “Didn’t you know there are three Nicholas brothers? The best one never shows up.” Furious at the rival agent, the owner canceled the act and never spoke to the agent again.
Too old to be drafted into service, Lazar enlisted in the army in 1942. “My father thought that any of his sons who wasn’t in the army was a coward,” says Lazar with a little laugh. “He drove us crazy. Also, I thought it would be a great adventure.”
As all of Lazar’s friends know, his most notorious feat as a soldier had nothing to do with soldiering. His real triumph was, of course, as an agent. The story has become perhaps the most famous bit of Lazar lore: While stationed at Mitchel Field, on Long Island, Lazar heard that the air force was planning a revue that it hoped would rival This It the Army. Lazar wrote to General Flap Arnold, listing the luminaries he could get to participate—Rodgers and Hammerstein for music, Kaufman and Hart for sketches, Clark Gable and James Stewart—none of whom he had ever met. Impressed, Arnold told him to proceed with the project. Lazar approached Hart, who told him he would consider the project if he got an invitation from Arnold. Lazar got the invitation to Hart, and the rest is show-biz history: Winged Victory, featuring the talents of Hart, Red Buttons, Gary Merrill, Mario Lanza, and others, ran for a year on Broadway, toured for a year, was made into a movie, and earned the Air Force Relief Fund $5 million.
On the strength of Winged Victory, Lazar, once discharged, went to California and worked for Eagle Lion Productions, a small company that made mostly forgettable low-budget films. He left the company several years later, and went out on his own, in California. But Winged Victory did something far more significant for Lazar than take him to California. It brought him to the attention of Moss Hart. Hart was bashful, compulsively well mannered, kind; Lazar was gabby and brash. But both of them had humble beginnings, both were fastidious dandies. Straightaway, Hart liked Lazar immensely. During Winged Victory’s run, the two were often together at Hart’s East Side town house or at his Bucks County estate.
Moss Hart, it is often said, created Irving Lazar—and even Irving Lazar, often loath to give credit where credit is due, does not deny it. “Moss anointed me. He said. ‘You are a literary agent now.’ ” Did he have any ambition to become a literary agent before Hart? “I’d had no idea—not until I met Moss. I was just learning how to read.” Hart persuaded him to go into business for himself. Hart was his first client.
Hart made Lazar believe he could be a different kind of agent, could hobnob with writers, educated people, witty people, people who dressed for dinner. Hart’s greatest good turn was to introduce Lazar to Ira and Leonore Gershwin. The Gershwins held almost nightly soirées in their home in Los Angeles. Hart once said that the Gershwins’ house was “like the Lincoln Tunnel,” and that he took Lazar to “meet all the vehicles.” Judy Garland would come and sing. Ira Gershwin would wave his cigar in the air and sing. Oscar Levant and Noël Coward and Harold Arlen would sing and play. William Wyler would play pool. Screenwriter Harry Kurnitz, who would become perhaps Lazar’s closest friend, came; Richard Brooks came; Betty and Bogie came; Comden and Green came when they were in town; Groucho Marx came.
And Lazar came, too, every night that the light over the front door of the Gershwins’ house was lit, the signal that they were receiving. The regulars delighted in the dapper little man who, as Richard Brooks puts it, “was always talking about ‘my friend Moss Hart, Moss Hart, Moss Hart.’ ” They were charmed by his funny stories about his army days, his early days as an agent.
Lazar has always behaved in New York publishing circles exactly as he has in Hollywood, with the same hungry style, making deals lickety-split, moving on to a fresh kill without, as he puts it, “giving the other guy a chance to think.”
Perhaps, too, they were amused to watch Lazar transform himself. He dropped his Brooklyn accent and began adding little Britishisms to his speech—he picked up on Noël Coward’s “dear boy,” began pronouncing “bath” as “bahth” and “better” as “bettah,” sprinkling sentences with French phrases, and using three-syllable words when shorter ones would do, a habit he hasn’t shaken yet. He describes the importance of having a “fiduciary relationship” with his clients, a relationship that he says his legal training taught him to honor, and uses the word “ethicality.” Then he pauses. “Is there such a word?” he says, and adds almost irritably. “Well, don’t print that if there isn’t.”
He strove, in all ways, to separate himself from the Sammy Glicks, from the stereotype of the cigar-chomping Hollywood agent, the flesh peddler. He idolized Leland Hayward, the only gentleman agent in Hollywood. “He was the quintessential agent,” says Lazar, “because he was atypical. Most of the others were lowlifes, with no education. Most of them were sleazy people. Hayward was Ivy League, from a fine family; he’d spent time in Europe. That,” says Lazar, “was the tone of what I was looking for.” Lazar, says his friend actor Martin Gabel, “had a careful eye about what was classy about Leland. He tried to get emanations from Hayward as to how a gent conducted himself.”
And so Lazar added impeccable manners to his other winsome trails, and was a hit in Hollywood. When Ira Gershwin wasn’t feeling well, Lazar took Mrs. Gershwin to the movies. He gave dinner parties at Ciro’s, Chasen’s, Romanoff’s, and never let anyone pick up a check. He organized outings—to the racetrack, to ball games, to nightclubs—with his friends, many of them bachelors; Kurnitz, Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart. He played croquet with Moss Hart. He swam on Sundays at Irwin Shaw’s beach house. He lived in a luxurious condominium complex designed, decorated, and stocked with antiques by Loretta Young’s mother. Frank Sinatra, his friend, lived next door; Peter Ustinov and Audrey Hepburn were in the same complex.
He gave parties and went to parties. Along with the David Nivens, the Bogarts, and Gloria and Mike Romanoff, Lazar became an official Rat Pack member. When Shaw moved to Klosters, Switzerland, Lazar went to visit, and skied—not well, but bravely. When Peter Viertel went to the bullfights in Spain, Lazar went, too, and even stepped into the ring on several occasions (though he was apt afterward to exaggerate the ferocity of the animals).
Lazar couldn’t be real, his friends told one another. He was fiction, he was better than fiction. No writer could have dreamed him up. In time, everyone in Hollywood, it seemed, had a Lazar story. How when Peter Viertel took Lazar to a dinner party honoring King Juan Carlos, of Spain, he lost his friend in the crowd and later found him snuggled on a sofa chatting with His Majesty, making friends. How Lazar would leave Los Angeles for New York if he didn’t get invited to a party, so that he could say he was invited but was in New York at the time. How Lazar and Howard Hughes, equally terrified of germs, once found themselves trapped together in a men’s room in a Las Vegas nightclub: There were no paper towels left, and neither of them wanted to touch the door handle without first putting a paper towel on it, so they stood for several minutes, helpless, until someone arrived and opened the door for them. How Lazar always had at least one willowy show girl-actress on his arm.
His genius for deal-making endeared him to his friends and clients even more. In 1954, when Moss Hart asked Lazar what he wanted for Christmas, Lazar said he wanted Cole Porter, and Hart got him. Lazar got Porter a million-dollar deal at M-G-M for the rights to Can-Can and Porter’s promise to write music for two movies. He sold Moss Hart’s screenplay for Gentlemen’s Agreement—the first deal he ever made for Hart—for $150,000, the highest sum paid for a screenplay at the time. He represented the author, producer, and director of The Seven Year Itch, and made, jokes Axelrod, who wrote it, “more money than any of us” on the deal.
Some producers disliked him, but many enjoyed doing business with the bossy little man. He was one of the few agents to whom Darryl Zanuck would speak directly: The two became friends, and Lazar would play croquet with him on Zanuck’s Palm Springs course. To convince Jack Warner that Josh Logan, a Lazar client, should direct Camelot, he accosted the nude Warner at a Palm Springs spa, and the modest man was so flustered that he agreed. Samuel Goldwyn gave him a Rolls-Royce. “I was even offered a job by L.B. Mayer,” Lazar says.
For all Lazar’s importance and self-importance, however, his friends could never resist teasing him; he was small and a little silly, and a sucker for a joke. Once, Bogart and Sinatra hid his private phone book, which drove him crazy for days. One friend says that Shaw used to hold Lazar upside down by the shoes at parties; Shaw says this isn’t so, but admits that “I may have swung him around by the arms once or twice.” Another friend says that Bogart used to take off Lazar’s shoes and socks and rub his bare feet in the carpet to torment Lazar, who can’t bear naked contact with any floor.
But he was a real friend to them; he became more than a play thing. He was godfather to several of their children, including Gregory Peck’s daughter, Cecelia. When Bogart was in the hospital dying of cancer, Lazar overcame his rabid fear of illness and one night picked up Bacall after Bogart was asleep—a “superhuman” effort for him, as Bacall wrote in her memoirs. He went almost nightly to the Bogarts’ house during the last months of the actor’s life. After Bogart died, Lazar faithfully kept Bacall company every day. He visited Leland Hayward in the hospital, too, when he lay dying. He looked, remembers Slim Keith, “sicker than Leland.”
At 53, Lazar took his own wife—“Guess I hadn’t met the right girl” before Mary, he says. Like all of his lady friends, Mary Van Nuys, a former model, was tall, striking. They met on a flight to Paris; Mary, says Lazar, was on her way to model the fall collections. They dated two or three times; Lazar decided that he wanted to marry Mary, and acted speedily, just as he has always done on his deals. “I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry,” he told her one afternoon. Oh, said Mary, is that so? “Yes.” said Lazar. “It’s you.”
“So we went to Switzerland, came back, got married,” says Lazar. The ceremony was in Las Vegas, with the Gershwins as the witnesses and only guests. “I’m a fairly private person.” says Lazar.
Getting married lent Lazar a certain stature, a dignity that he had not always possessed; friends speculated that he had tired of being what one calls “the court jester,” that he had finally “come into his own.” His social cachet improved. He and Mary built their Trousdale home—one story, not a mansion by any means, but gracious, with blood-red seventeenth-century Chinese lacquer screens, parquet floors, a handsome bar area with a backgammon table, exotic rugs—and entertained often there. They were, and are, photographed often for W.W.D., in New York and Los Angeles. Lazar in his big black Mr. Magoo glasses, his head bobbing along at Mary’s elbow.
They gave their annual Oscar party (an event that has always made the academy unhappy, since it tends to keep the stars away from the televised proceedings; this year the Lazars passed up the party but gave a Porgy and Bess gala instead, at Mortimer’s) and began to be seen increasingly with the hard-core social set—the Buckleys, the Erteguns, the Kissingers. But even Mary didn’t have Lazar’s social stamina, and decided not to try to keep up. Lazar, unable to pass up a night of going out and having fun, goes without her, to Elaine’s, to Egypt, on a safari in Africa with Tonight Show executive producer Freddie de Cordova. “Why stay home,” he says, “when you can go out?”
By all accounts, Mary and Irving are very fond of each other. Lazar is proud of his wife, and competitive with her. Mary started Juno Productions two and a half years ago, after working for David Susskind at Time-Life Films, and Lazar has a habit of interrupting her business calls. But he also acts as her adviser. A recent phone call from New York, where he works in their apartment, to her office in Hollywood went like this: “Hello, this is Lazar. Is the boss lady there? Hello, boss? … Either you want the book or you don’t want the book! If you don’t want to pay it, don’t pay it! … There’s one thing you can do when someone’s asking for something unconscionable: ‘Take it and shove it,’ you can say!”
In the past fifteen years, his presence has been felt less in Hollywood than in New York. The old moguls have died—Lazar calls their replacements “nervous executives”—the number of movies made has dwindled, and Lazar has added more eastern writers (Theodore White, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Art Buchwald) to his stable. Nevertheless, he did make history of a kind in putting together the wildly successful Rich Man, Poor Man, spawning the TV mini-series as a form (and earning Shaw some $2 million). He represented authors Herman Wouk on The Winds of War and Colleen McCullough on The Thorn Birds, for which he also got billing as executive producer.
Lazar has always behaved in New York publishing circles exactly as he has in Hollywood, with the same staccato, hungry style, making deals lickety-split—often before a book exists at all—moving on to a fresh kill without, as he puts it, “giving the other guy a chance to think.” It is a style that has not always worked, not in the more sedate publishing world. Writers tell of being approached by Lazar, being told that he should represent them, and they do not like the bluster. But most editors and publishers like him, enjoy doing business with him, appreciate him as a character. “I’ve been dining out on Irving stories for years,” says Simon and Schuster’s Michael Korda. John Dodds, at New American Library, says Lazar has “gained more and more credibility over the past fifteen years. Coming from the Hollywood scene, he was operating a little like a wild man.”
It has been a good afternoon for Irving Lazar, the kind of afternoon he likes best, here on the breezy hilltop in Trousdale. Lazar, who spends more of his days at home in Los Angeles and in New York than in his offices, has had a session with his tailor during which his voice boomed from his bedroom. “You want me to look like Sammy Davis all the time!” A little later the chastened tailor left, loaded down with several garment bags. He has had his lunch—borscht, a hamburger, iced coffee—at the pool, served by a uniformed maid, and has interrupted the meal with several phone calls. He dictates a précis of the business calls directly afterword into a tiny tape recorder. He calls Peter Viertel in Málaga. “I’ll call Hohenlohe and he’ll put me up … He promised me a villa, to I’ll make him do it!” he shouts. “Also, I can always call Regine, who has a place! I’ll surely come—I’ll give up going to Turkey! I’ll bring my clubs. And we can have a ball!” Lazar loves it that his clients know that he will spend the time and money just to see them, loves knowing that he coddles them with his attention and affection. He is incapable of separating business from pleasure, professional from personal. Every once in a while, says Richard Brooks, he and Lazar have a fight and he tells Lazar they had better separate. “What!” Lazar always says. “Do you want to kill me? Do you want me to die?”
After lunch, after endless phone calls, he takes the reporter through the house. He shows off his photograph collection—a shelf in the sitting room stocked with pictures of Swifty and Niven, Swifty and Jack Nicholson, Swifty and Mary and the Reagans. He shows off his collection of golf trophies, on a shelf in a closet, and has the reporter take them down so that he can read the inscription on each of them. Then he has her put them all back on the shelf, and waits until she has them perfectly lined up. “That one there—move it to the right. It offends my aesthetics,” he tells her. He shows off his Air-Dyne exercise bike. He shows off his paintings. It is time for her to go.
He gives her one tidbit to take away, a touch of Swifty that cuts through the pomp. “You know,” he says as he sees her to the door. “I see these women, these very attractive elderly ladies, and they say to me, ‘Remember when we were together?’ And I can’t remember whether I’ve fucked them or not!” Then he beams. “Did you see my Chagall?” No, says the reporter, and looks into the living room, at the wrong painting.
“Oh,” says Lazar, all disdain. “You’re so unsophisticated.”
[Featured Image of Lana Turner by Ruth Orkin, c/o The Art Institute of Chicago]