Picks and Pans Review: Swifty: My Life and Good Times

updated 03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/1995 01:00AM

by Irving Lazar

When superagent Irving "Swifty" Lazar was alive, he was notorious for never reading the works of famous writers that he hawked. His memoir, however, surely would have held his attention. Written in collaboration with Annette Tapert, it is literate, entertaining and touching.

Many Hollywood legends were Lazar clients—Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Humphrey Bogart. Other notables of the time, such as producer David Selznick and studio heads Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner, were regularly buttonholed by Lazar. (He kept pitching even if they didn't happen to have a buttonhole at the moment: When Jack Warner balked at making Joshua Logan the director of the film version of Camelot, the agent cornered him as he emerged from the shower at a Palm Springs spa. The naked Warner relented.)

Lazar had two rules of dealmaking: Always ask for the moon and know when to compromise. Producer David Wolper once called to ask what he wanted for the rights to a book. Lazar told him $200,000. Wolper declared the price too high—he only had $20,000. Lazar announced that they had a deal.

More than a mere agent, Lazar was a friend to the stars. Bogart had nicknamed him Swifty for making several deals for him in a single day. After Bogie's death, Lazar hung out with his widow, "Betty" Bacall. But that friendship nearly ended after Lazar told a gossip columnist that Bacall and Frank Sinatra were engaged. Sinatra was so embarrassed by the newspaper account that he broke off the engagement. "But I couldn't feel bad," Lazar writes, "because she and Frank were so ill-suited for each other."

Although he was out of Hollywood's inner circle in his later years, the consummate host and social climber found his greatest personal happiness after marrying, at 56, the willowy former model Mary Van Nuys. Together they launched an annual Oscar party at Spago that quickly had all of Hollywood clawing for invitations.

In 1993, Mary, then 61, died of cancer and the grieving Lazar welcomed his guests alone. By year's end, the 86-year-old legend had died of kidney failure. Asked in his last days whom he'd choose to play him in a movie, he rejected Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise and Robin Williams before settling on Jack Nicholson. (Simon & Schuster, $24)

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