Obituary: Irving Lazar
Monday 17 January 1994
IRVING LAZAR hated his nickname. 'People have to know me very well to call me 'Swifty',' he used to say.
The world's most fabled agent, Lazar was just over five feet tall. Humphrey Bogart (who dubbed him 'Swifty', after Lazar made five movie deals for him in as many hours), once said his agent was the only man alive who cheated at croquet by walking through the hoop after the ball. Bogart was one of the few actors Lazar represented; he preferred writers, who liked working in solitude, whereas actors needed constant, time-consuming reassurance. He conducted most of his business over the telephone. 'Some day he'll have to have an operation to have the phone removed from his ear,' his client Garson Kanin said. The dapper agent's clientele also included Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Billy Wilder, Neil Simon, Richard Rodgers, Lerner and Loewe, Lillian Hellman and Ernest Hemingway.
Irving Lazar grew up in Brownsville, the toughest section of Brooklyn. He shone at school, and breezed through Brooklyn Law School, graduating in 1936. After a brief stay with a New York law firm, he became an agent, booking performers for the Music Corporation of America. He left in 1942 to join the army and, within months, Second Lieutenant Lazar sought out Moss Hart, who had been turned down by all the services and was desperate to help the war effort. He suggested Hart write a play to raise money for the US Air Force Benevolent Fund using actors who were in the service. Winged Victory was a huge success and was sold to Hollywood, earning the Air Force millions and Swifty a promotion.
After the war, Lazar set up on his own as an agent at the urging of Hart, who became his first client. Hart's friends George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber followed. One year, when Hart asked him what he wanted for Christmas, Swifty answered: 'Cole Porter]' A word from Hart, and Porter too became a client.
Irwin Shaw dedicated his novel Bread Upon the Waters to Lazar, who first impressed the novelist by selling his The Young Lions to 20th Century-Fox for a record sum. Their long relationship cooled when Shaw, a passionate Democrat, learnt his agent had taken on ex-President Nixon as a client.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green were also clients, and in their show Bells are Ringing used Lazar's name in a lyric. That the song was called 'Drop That Name' was not inappropriate; Swifty didn't just drop names, he scattered them like confetti. Interviewed by Jennifer Allen for New York Magazine, he told her how much he hated being called a Hollywood agent; he was a literary agent. 'You can't be a Hollywood agent,' he insisted, 'and handle Moss Hart, Theodore White, Arthur Schlesinger, Roald Dahl, Noel Coward, Francoise Sagan, Georges Clouzot . . .'
Lazar, a confirmed bachelor, was in his mid-fifties when he met Mary Van Nuys, a beautiful model, 20 years his junior. True to his nickname, he lost no time in proposing. For three decades Mary Lazar read her husband's manuscripts, shaved his head (he preferred being totally bald to having just a little hair) and played hostess at his annual Oscar Night parties, which tended to outshine the actual ceremonies. George Axelrod, whose play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? included an agent character called 'Irving 'Sneaky' LaSalle', once said: 'Swifty's terried of dying. His theory is that he can't possibly die if he has tickets to the ball game.'
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