On December 30, 1993, Irving Lazar, undoubtedly the most famous talent agent of all time, who was universally known as “Swifty,” but woe to you if he ever heard you call him that, died, at age 86. Lazar straddled the North American continent, connecting the worlds of New York and Hollywood: he had access that enabled him to reach anyone at anytime, and the audacity to request -- and receive -- sums of money for clients that would have been unimaginable for most any other agent.
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Irving Paul Lazar was born on March 28, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the borough’s Brownsville district. His mother was the former Stari DeLongpre, and his father Samuel Mortimer Lazar, who owned a wholesale butter-and-egg business.
The family was comfortably middle-class, and by all accounts, Irving, the oldest of four sons, had a happy childhood. But he was short of stature and the neighborhood was a tough one, so he learned to defend himself growing up. Later, when representing musicians who appeared in clubs often owned by mobsters, he had to contend with physical threats that were sometimes realized, and again he proved his fearlessness.
Briefly, man of law
Lazar attended college at Fordham University, and then Brooklyn Law School, from which he graduated in 1931. He worked briefly in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, and then for a short while as a bankruptcy attorney, until a law-school classmate who was doing entertainment law for the Music Corporation of America threw some work his way, and he began working as a lawyer for the vaudeville star Ted Lewis.
Quickly, Lazar observed that the agency paid lawyers 1 percent commission on deals, while agents were remunerated at a rate of 10 percent. Naturally, he switched to agency.
During World War II, he enlisted in the army and was asked to produce an extravaganza to raise money for the air-force emergency relief fund. Lazar approached his idol, playwright Moss Hart, who said he would write a script if he received a direct request from Army Air Force commander Henry “Hap” Arnold. Lazar forged the telegram and the rest is history: “Winged Victory” toured the country and raised the vast sum of $5 million (about $67 million in today's terms) for the fund.
After the war, Lazar moved permanently to Los Angeles, going into business for himself and earning a reputation for doing the impossible. As Michael Korda wrote about him in The New Yorker in 1993, “In New York, Lazar became known as the man who could get you bagfuls of money from Hollywood; in Hollywood, he was known as the man who could bring you the hottest properties before anybody else on the Coast had heard of them.”
The epithet “Swifty” was bestowed on Lazar by Humphrey Bogart, who had bet that the agent couldn’t nail down three contracts on his behalf in a single day. To his good fortune, Bogart lost the bet, and Lazar picked up a nickname he never really cared for.
Sometimes, Lazar couldn’t resist cooking up deals for people who weren’t his clients, just because he could. The star’s actual agent still got his or her commission, but Lazar would present a bill for his own 10 percent on top – and the studio always paid up.
Over the years, Lazar, who described himself as a “literary agent” – though he never pretended to read any of the manuscripts he hawked – had a client list that included, among countless others, Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Vladimir Nabokov, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Neil Simon, Madonna, Michael Caine – and Richard Nixon, whom he represented for both his memoir and the exclusive set of interviews he granted to David Frost, in a $4.25 million deal, in 1975.
Lazar kept doing business – and throwing his legendary Oscar night dinner at Spago restaurant in Hollywood -- until the end of his life, but after the death of his wife of 30 years, Mary Van Nuys, in early 1993, the joy disappeared. That December, he decided to discontinue the dialysis he was undergoing for kidney disease. He died soon after, on December 30.