Lazar, Irving Paul (“Swifty”)

views updated

Lazar, Irving Paul (“Swifty”)

(b. 28 March 1907 in New York City; d. 30 December 1993 in Beverly Hills, California), talent agent and host of famous post-Academy Awards parties.

Lazar was the oldest of four brothers. His parents, Samuel Mortimer and Stari DeLongpre were Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was a “butter and egg man.” Born Samuel Lazar on New York City’s Lower East Side, he changed his name to Irving Paul when he was thirteen years old because he thought it sounded more theatrical. When he was eight, his family moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In this tough neighborhood, Lazar, who at his tallest was about five feet, four inches tall, learned to punch first and run fast.

Lazar attended Commercial High School in New York City. After graduating from Fordham University in the Bronx in 1926, he earned a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1931. While in law school, he made his first deal: He convinced a professor to teach a cram course, hired representatives at all the local schools to recruit students, and took a commission for every student they brought in.

Lazar worked briefly for a private law firm and as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. In 1932 he set up a private practice and specialized in foreclosures, a lucrative business during the Great Depression. Through a friend who worked as a booking agent for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), Lazar met Ted Lewis, the vaudeville star, who introduced him to many great performers of the day, including Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Sophie Tucker. In 1936 Lazar was hired as an attorney for MCA. He occasionally acted as an agent on the side. His first client was a little-known comedian named Henny Youngman. Enjoying both the game of making deals and hobnobbing with celebrities, Lazar gave up legal practice and was hired by MCA to book bands into nightclubs. MCA represented many of the great musicians of the day, including Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Gene Krupa, and Benny Goodman.

In March 1942, at the age of thirty-five, Lazar enlisted in the U.S. Army. By his own account, he was not suited to military life. A fanatically fastidious man, his germ phobia made shared quarters and latrines unbearable. In July he entered Officer Candidate School in Miami, and on completion of training, reported to the Special Services Division at Mitchell Field on Long Island, New York. There, he learned that the commander of the Army Air Force (AAF) in Washington, D.C., General Hap Arnold, was looking for a Special Services Officer to produce a benefit show for the AAF Emergency Relief. Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army had been a huge success for the ground forces; the AAF wanted a similar production. Lazar convinced Moss Hart, the renowned playwright and director, to develop the show. Winged Victory opened on 20 November 1943. The stage and subsequent film versions earned $4 million for the Emergency Fund.

In 1945 Lazar returned to MCA, and he moved to Hollywood, California in 1946. He worked for a year for Eagle Lion film studios. In 1947 he opened the Irving Paul Lazar Agency in Beverly Hills. Until the 1970s, he represented directors, writers, choreographers, composers, and lyricists: everyone but actors, whom he considered too demanding. He specialized in bringing East Coast talent into the film industry. Through Moss Hart, Lazar met, and eventually represented, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter, among others. Through Ira Gershwin, he gained Harold Arlen, Comden and Green, Lerner and Loewe, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, to name a few.

Lazar was aggressive and persuasive in negotiating high-priced deals for his clients. He sold movie rights for Broadway shows before they opened. If the play flopped, the studio would still have to pay. He frequently represented multiple clients in a single deal. For The Seven-Year Itch (1955), he represented George Axelrod, the author; Charles Feldman, the producer; and Billy Wilder, the director. He collected his 10 percent from each of them. In the 1980s this became a standard practice called “packaging.” He also often interjected himself into deals where he had no clients. Other agents considered it poaching, but he claimed everyone was paid. As legend and Lazar tell it, his good friend Humphrey Bogart bet him that he couldn’t make three deals for him by dinner. When he did, Bogart dubbed him “Swifty,” a nickname that stuck, despite Lazar’s dislike of it.

In 1962 Lazar, fifty-six years old and never married, met a thirty-one-year-old model, Mary Van Nuys, on a plane to Paris. They were married in January 1963. In 1967 the Lazars hosted their first post—Academy Award party. Originally consisting of a group of friends at their home in Beverly Hills, the party moved to successively larger venues, eventually winding up at the celebrity haunt Spago in 1985. An invitation-only affair, it became the Hollywood event of the year.

By the 1970s the movie business had changed. The studio moguls were gone, and lawyers and businessmen ran the studios. This was not Lazar’s world. Rather than retire, he switched gears and became a literary agent. He had sold books to publishers in the past; Vladimir Nabokov, for example, was one of his clients. Now, it became his main business. Among others, he represented Larry McMurtry and Bette Bao Lord. The celebrity memoir became his specialty. He convinced actors, including Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Michael Caine, and Cher that they had stories to tell, and then he sold the stories to the publishers.

Lazar continued to work well into his eighties. In 1992 Mary Lazar was diagnosed with bone cancer and died a few months later. Lazar, eighty-six years old with failing health, went ahead with his post-Academy Award party, but afterward his condition declined rapidly. With his kidneys failing, Lazar discontinued dialysis treatment and died on 30 December 1993. He and his wife are buried in West-wood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Lazar believed in the American dream: A child of the ghetto can rise to fame and fortune if he works hard. Lazar, the Brooklyn street kid, cultivated an image of the wealthy sophisticate with his impeccable, tailor-made wardrobe and art-filled homes. He defined himself by the important people he knew. His friends were his clients, and his clients friends. In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) George Axelrod immortalized him in the character of Irving “Squeaky” LaSalle, and he is mentioned in the Comden and Green Song “Drop That Line” in Bells Are Ringing (1960). For better or worse, he was a Hollywood icon.

In the last year of his life, Lazar wrote his autobiography, Swifty: My Life and Good Times (1995), in collaboration with Annette Tapert. Although it is wise to question Lazar’s version of events, the book is an entertaining chronicle of the life of a true old Hollywood character. An article about Lazar’s life, written by Annette Tapert, is in Vanity Fair (Apr. 1994). A tribute by Larry McMurtry is in the Los Angeles Times (7 Jan. 1994). Other articles are in the New York Times (2 Nov. 1980) and the London Independent (19 Mar. 1994). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Long Island Newsday (both 1 Jan. 1994).

Sara Steen