Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Irving Lazar

In Memoriam. Inarguably the most flamboyantly famous talent agent of his time, he was born into poverty as Samuel Lazar, morphed into Irving Paul Lazar and through the wit of his occasional client Humphrey Bogart, became known as “Swifty.” He was a tiny man, remembered visually for his entire bald head and enormous black-rimmed glasses. He was a tremendous snob who prided himself on his ability to get huge commissions for his literary (or acting) clients without having seen or read their work. The clients stretched from Noel Coward and Cole Porter to Joan Collins and Madonna and Truman Capote.

In his early days, when he acquired the name Swifty, he was something of a joke amongst the set he palled around with, including Frank Sinatra and Bogart. In his later days, he acquired a beautiful and elegant wife named Mary (who read the books he made the big movie sales with) and every Oscar night gave a big party (for stars only – his definition of course) at Spago when it was located on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Lazar liked stars and was unabashedly (a gentle word for his brand of chutzpah) a snob. He kept a house in Beverly Hills and an apartment in New York where he liked socializing with names — movie stars in Hollywood and celebrities and society names in New York. And royalty of course any old time they happened along.

He was reptilian in countenance, immaculate in grooming (he took a nap every afternoon and had his sheets changed everytime his body touched them; he also washed his hands after everytime he touched a doorknob that had been touched by another’s hand), his suits were bespoke. He likened his style to Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. He had an elegant inflection to his speech, belying any roots in the lower East Side of New York when it was the Jewish ghetto.

The first time I met him was at a Thanksgiving dinner in the mid 1980s in Beverly Hills at the home of David and Gladyce Begelman (Mrs. B was the mother of Beth Rudin DeWoody).

There were about thirty dinner guests and the opportunity for introduction came only at the very end of the evening when I happened to be standing behind him and his wife as we waited at the front door of the Begelman house for the valet to bring the cars. Janet (Mrs. Freddie de Cordova) was standing next to Mr. Lazar and seeing me, said to him: “Irving, I want you to meet David Patrick Columbia.”

Without turning his head so much as a half inch to see my face, looking straight ahead toward the street, he extended his right arm behind himself so that I, sight unseen, could shake his hand. It was a remarkable display of what I call the I-Am-And-You’re-Not attitude that permeates the spheres of the arrivistes, and so rude that it was actually funny.

Not surprisingly the next few times I saw him, he didn’t recognize me although I came to know his wife Mary fairly well. She went out and did a lot of the legwork looking for talent for her husband. So it did not come as a surprise one Saturday afternoon when I got a phone call and the voice on the other end of the line said: “Mr. Columbia, this is Irving Lazar. I want to introduce you to Mrs. Barbara Sinatra because I’m going to make a book deal for her and I think perhaps you should write the book.”

Okay. I followed instructions and went the next morning, Sunday, to meet Mrs. S. Nothing came of the matter except that Irving called the next morning to find out what I thought and how I liked her. After reporting, he thanked me and that was that. He couldn’t have been nicer.

Now largely forgotten, although he’s only been dead for twelve years this December, his legacy lives on in the name of the restaurant — Swifty’s, in New York — named after a pug owned by the late Glenn Birnbaum, who owned a restaurant called Mortimers that Irving Lazar frequented (because of its chic clientele). The dog had been a gift to Birnbaum and he named it after the tiny mega-agent because it was small and ugly, just like Irving. But cute too.