No Swifty, no party: This Oscar night, a strange absence. The master of the revels staged his last ever event in January. Phil Reeves reports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
ON MONDAY night, Los Angeles time, Hollywood's chosen few will button themselves into their tuxedos and thousand-dollar ball gowns for the 66th Academy Awards, their annual parade on the world's stage. But it won't be the same.

For the first time in decades Irving 'Swifty' Lazar, international literary agent and deal maker extraordinaire, will not be around to host his customary Oscar night party.

In December, broken by the unexpected death of his wife at the start of the year, Lazar decided to discontinue dialysis treatment for a failing kidney. Three days later, he died at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 86. On Monday evening, Spago restaurant, the traditional venue for Swifty's thrash, will be closed in tribute. The wealthy and famous will have to celebrate elsewhere.

Although there were other awards parties, Swifty Lazar's was the only one that ever really mattered to Hollywood. Established names would beg for invitations, often to be turned down by Lazar. When Sophia Loren asked to bring her children, he refused her permission. Sylvester Stallone once brought several bodyguards, only to find them banished them to the bar.

While his several hundred guests nibbled Alaskan salmon and watched the Oscars ceremony on the many television sets, Lazar, a tiny, bald man with black-rimmed Mr Magoo spectacles, would patrol the premises, ejecting gate-crashers. If any of the few journalists whom he allowed in was found asking intrusive questions, they were shown the door.

Even towards the end, when he was growing vague and forgetful, he knew who was up and who was down - whom to drop, and whom to woo with gifts and invitations. Three years ago, he managed to lure Madonna and Michael Jackson. But what else would you expect from a man who befriended, and did business with, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Walter Matthau, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, and even Richard Nixon?

Irving Paul Lazar always loathed the nickname Swifty. According to Hollywood legend, it was bestowed upon him by Humphrey Bogart after he nailed down three deals for him in one day to win a bet. Although it was a tribute to his extraordinary brow-beating skills, he far preferred to be called Irving and was liable to make his irritation clear to anyone who slipped up.

Whether Bogart really was the source of the name is uncertain, not least because Lazar was not his agent, although the two were close friends and used to go on holiday together to Palm Springs in the southern Californian desert. But such trifling details rarely deterred Swifty.

Over the years, leading publishers grew accustomed to Lazar's fast-talking telephone calls in which he tried to bamboozle them into multi-million dollar deals for stars whom he did not represent. 'You want Cary Grant, kiddo?' he would shout. Often he was speaking from the poolside at his Beverly Hills home, but sometimes he was at Claridges in London, or on the French Riviera, or skiing in Switzerland.

He called many of his friends 'kiddo', however elderly they were. 'Give me a million and Cary Grant's yours. No, better make it a million and a half, kiddo.' Any suggestion that his pitch was getting a less than enthusiastic reception would produce the dialing tone, as he flitted off in search of another buyer. He hated indecision.

Not only did Lazar often not bother to contact those celebrities whose reputations he was hawking around the world, they were also usually unaware that they had any property to sell. As one Hollywood wag put it: 'Everybody who matters has two agents - his own and Swifty Lazar'.

Wolfgang Puck, the proprietor of Spago, had first-hand experience of this. He was surprised to be informed by Lazar, over cocktails at a Manhattan apartment one evening, that he had secured a dollars 200,000 bid from Simon & Schuster for his latest cook book. As Puck had already sold the book to a different publisher two weeks earlier, this announcement caused some embarrassment, and Swifty's offer was quickly dropped.

Although Lazar landed some of his juiciest deals by muscling in on the clients of others (whom he usually ensured were paid their share), his wheeler-dealing sometimes caused havoc and resentment. When Madonna reached mega-stardom, publishers were tripping over one another in the hope of luring her into print, knowing that almost anything bearing her name would be worth a fortune. According to the writer-publisher Michael Korda, Lazar - whose hawk-like eye rarely missed a money-making opportunity - decided to enter the fray.

Korda says Lazar told the print-hungry executives that Madonna wanted to produce an illustrated book of her own erotic poetry, although he refused to supply any samples or to produce her in person. It was only after the bidding had reached fever-pitch, and was nudging dollars 5m, that the catch emerged: Madonna was not represented by Lazar, but by the Creative Artists Agency which was in the throes of negotiating a complex deal with Warner Brothers for a package of movies, records and books. Michael Ovitz, head of the agency, was not at all happy.

Occasionally, Lazar would try to steal other people's prize clients merely as a means of avenging himself on a publishing executive who had offended him in some way. But he was mostly motivated by nothing more complicated than a love of deal-making, a sport at which he was an expert. He was a compelling combination of a street hustler and a charming, conspiratorial, very refined, friend.

Above all, he possessed the knack of pulling down huge sums of money by giving a potential buyer the impression the two of them were working together, united against a mutual enemy: 'You felt like a double agent,' said David Brown, the veteran Hollywood producer (The Player, Jaws, The Sting), 'It was as if you and he were partners, in cahoots, but without any dirty money passing hands. Irving would never pay or cut anyone in on a deal. That was below him.'

Brown, a friend of Lazar's for more than 40 years, remembers when the agent inadvertently sold the same script to two studios. 'When confronted with this, his suggestion was that the studio heads, Dore Schary of MGM and Darryl Zanuck of Fox, should toss a coin for it. He didn't regard himself as a perpetrator of something wrong. Irving was outrageous in an endearing way. He moved among the moguls because they liked him. They found his company acceptable and entertaining. And he was smart.'

Sometimes, almost indecently smart. When Truman Capote failed to produce a book which Lazar had already sold on his behalf to Twentieth Century Fox, the agent dipped into the honey pot twice: he collected a 10 per cent commission for selling the book, and a further 10 per cent from Capote when the author agreed to repay the studio his six-figure advance.

Such hard-nosed acumen may be the result of Lazar's upbringing in Brooklyn, New York, although - always keen to pitch - he was suspected of embellishing accounts of his early years. As he told it, he was a tough little street kid, the son of a Russian-Jewish grocery wholesaler, who quickly learnt that the only way to survive in the ghetto was to fight back. When other boys set on him because of his size, he would land one good punch and flee. And when his taste for fancy clothing developed -as an adult he was a fastidious dresser with hundreds of suits and a penchant for monogrammed socks and alligator skin boots - he said he modelled himself on the local Jewish gangsters.

On leaving high school, Lazar trained as a lawyer and, after a brief stint as a bankruptcy specialist, acquired the vaudeville star Ted Lewis as a client. Noting that Lewis's agents, MCA, were paid ten times more than he, Lazar concluded he was in the wrong business and began doing a little agenting of his own. Before long, he was taken on by MCA and was tramping round New York's mob-controlled jazz clubs in search of talent. Walter Winchell is said to have called him The Rabbit, because he flitted from club to club.

It may not have been quite as perilous as Lazar later claimed, but nor was it danger-free: he was beaten up several times and once he was stabbed in the stomach, and needed 50 stitches. (Lazar evidently could give as good as he got: on one occasion, much later, police had to be called to New York's trendy '21' club after Lazar smashed a water glass over the head of the director Otto Preminger.)

The passport to Hollywood came down to those elements that make a successful agent: a mixture of luck, guile, and opportunism. After going into the US army in 1942, he was ordered to produce a show for a forces emergency relief fund. By forging a telegram from his commanding general, he persuaded the playwright Moss Hart to write and direct it, while he produced. 'Winged Victory' went on to become a Broadway hit and a movie, and Hart set about introducing Lazar to everyone who mattered in show business. 'Moss was my mentor,' Lazar told his official biographer, Annette Tapert. By 1950, he was well on the way to becoming an international celebrity in his own right.

To talk to David Brown about Swifty Lazar, is to travel back in time to Hollywood's myth-making age, to scenes populated by larger-than-life personalities who knew the true meaning of grace and glamour. Here, there is no nit-picking by accountants, nor decisions by committee. Books and movies were bought and sold on impulse, over Lazar's vintage champagne and caviar.

'Irving Lazar represented classic Hollywood,' the 77-year-old Brown recalls, 'He made no effort to handle anyone or anything that would offend his taste. He was never in it just for the money. He could have made a lot more. But if people were to his judgment unattractive, ignorant or boring, they were banished from his personal and professional lives. But when he wanted you as a client, he zeroed in relentlessly. It was a seduction.

'It is a curious thing, but Lazar could have been many times richer had he only been interested in money. He was interested in quality and style. His nose was never pressed to the glass. He just liked entertaining wonderful people. And he was afraid of nothing'.

With one irrational, but fascinating, exception. Swifty Lazar was absolutely terrified of germs. He was once stranded in a gentleman's lavatory in Las Vegas with Howard Hughes, who had a similar phobia. Both men were waiting for someone else to come in, so that they could leave. Neither would touch the door handle.

Whenever Lazar stayed in a hotel, however grand, he laid down a path of towels from the bathroom to his bedside. Although he was not renowned for his capacity for guilt, he had Lady Macbeth's hand-washing habits. It is even said that on one occasion when he was taken on a weekend car journey, he handed his hostess a type-written list of hospitals en route: they were the only places where he felt sure of finding clean bathrooms.

On 6 January, some 150 of Lazar's closest friends and business associates gathered at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Lazar had carefully planned his funeral, down to the flowers (tuberoses and casablanca lilies) A throng of reporters covering the event was kept well away from the stars they had come to see, who included Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bette Midler. Irving Lazar was calling the shots, even after his death.

It was not the only example of his attempts to exert his control from the grave. This week, one of his former employees told Lazar's closest friends and business associates gathered at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Lazar had carefully planned his funeral, down to the flowers (tuberoses and casablanca lilies) A throng of reporters covering the event was kept well away. This was Swifty Lazar's last party. And it was private.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments