No star burned more ferociously than Judy Garland. And nobody witnessed Garland's fierce talent at closer range than Stevie Phillips. During the Mad Men era, Stevie Philips was a young woman muscling her way into the manscape of Manhattan's glittering office towers. After a stint as a secretary, she began working for Freddie Fields and David Begelman at Music Corporation of America (MCA) under the glare of legendary über-agent Lew Wasserman.
When MCA blew apart, Fields and Begelman created Creative Management Associates (CMA), and Stevie went along. Fields convinced Garland to come on board, and Stevie became, as she puts it, "Garland's shadow," putting out fires-figurative and literal-in order to get her to the next concert in the next down-and-out town. Philips paints a portrait of Garland at the bitter end and although it was at times a nightmare, Philips says, "She became my teacher," showing her "how to" and "how not to" live.
Stevie also represented Garland's fiercely talented daughter, Liza Minnelli, as well as Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, George Roy Hill, Bob Fosse, Cat Stevens, and David Bowie. She produced both films and Broadway shows and counted her colleague, the legendary agent Sue Mengers, among her closest confidantes. Now Stevie Phillips reveals all in Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me..., a tough-talking memoir by a woman who worked with some of the biggest names in show business. It's a helluva ride.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me
By Stevie Phillips
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Stevie Phillips
All rights reserved.
Who the Hell Is Stevie Phillips?
Okay, here's the obligatory where-I-was-born segment. It might give you an idea about how a person could ever grow up to become a talent agent who deals with megalomaniacs and addicts.
Was my showbiz career preordained? Here are some freaky facts. I was born on August 9, 1936, in a hospital in the middle of the Broadway theater district. Even though my parents lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, where there were plenty of hospitals. But they picked this inconvenient place on West Fiftieth Street because it was cheap and they could afford having me if I made my debut there. Alas, the broken-down Polyclinic outlived its usefulness, and the eyesore met the wrecking ball decades ago. But while it existed it was the go-to place for ailing show folk. My birthing doctor, whose name was Phillips — same as mine — was simultaneously in the room next door, giving life support to a comedian named Joe Howard who'd had a heart attack. It's a comedy sketch: Dr. Phillips running between rooms yelling "Push!" in one room and "Don't push!" in the other. All he needed was a red fright wig. Joe Howard must have been one helluva guy. I discovered he was not only a comedian but also a Broadway producer — which I now know (having been one) is ridiculously hard — and yet Howard additionally managed to be a director, writer, composer, and lyricist. He wrote a famous song, "Goodbye, My Lady Love." The title of Howard's famous song also strikes me as a little scary. I think it all means something — maybe.
My very first childhood memory comes from the summer of 1939 when I was taken to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. I am sitting on Edgar Bergen's knee talking to Charlie McCarthy. I can see myself there; I remember what I was wearing and what Charlie wore.
A year later we moved into an apartment on the top floor of a small building in Washington Heights a few blocks from the George Washington Bridge. Our apartment had bare wood floors that announced my father, whose footfalls I came to dread. He was a vain, vile-tempered man who once, in a rage, threw all my clothes out our sixth-floor window onto the street below because I hadn't hung them up. Somehow that translated into not respecting him or the money he made selling children's wear. What my father called "a good spanking" would now be called something else entirely. He is also the reason there are no pictures from my childhood, no picture of Charlie and me.
Selling children's wear was hardly comparable to designing strategies for world peace, but it took all my parents' time and energy. They were never home. I was alone and lonely except when I was in my friends' happier homes. I saw their parents much more than I did my own.
At seven thirty every weekday morning a housekeeper named Evelyn arrived. Do not think "warm family retainer." Evelyn never came close. She was black in mood as well as in color, and always gave the impression that she was not happy being there. She put the same cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwich with a banana into my lunch box every day for years. In all the time she was with us, I don't recall so much as a hug from her. Evelyn didn't know or care what I did or where I went as long as I showed up on time for dinner. She was discharging her obligation. That's all I ever was to her, an obligation. Salvation for me lay in escape from home.
The most wonderful escape was going to the movies. On Saturdays twenty-five cents gave me a wonderland to live in for an entire day. Loew's 175th Street with its starlit Casbah etched in bas-relief on the walls and ceilings was where I looked up, closed my eyes, and entered a different future. I yearned for a Technicolor world replete with riches, song, dance, and excitement of all kinds. I would be at the box office, my quarter in hand, as soon as the doors opened, and there I would remain until dinnertime. I loved the serials and the newsreels, but most of all I loved the musicals. Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis was the girl I longed to be, with long straight hair and soft curls and a house next door to the handsomest boy on the block.
Nothing at home was anything like Judy's house in St. Louis. Apartment 6H was filled with drama and dysfunction and lots of the ugly behavior that characterized my parents' marriage. Nowadays I assume my parents' screaming matches were part of a dynamic they depended upon because they both participated so enthusiastically. The screaming was about money, about the retail business, about family — my mother's, mostly — but it really wasn't about any of those things.
Finally I understand that arguing is never what the anger is about. My father was carrying baggage that came from another place: the loveless home of his own childhood. My grandfather, I discovered, was a world-class philanderer, a stage-door Johnny who lusted after Ziegfeld chorines and bedded more than a few. When I was the tender age of ten, my father took me to a memorabilia-packed walk-up in Hell's Kitchen to visit my grandfather for the very first time as he lay dying in the arms of a former Follies star whose faded beauty was a reminder of the knockout she must have been when she was young. I thought it strange, even at ten, that my father had brought me along to witness his father's death, but it turned out to be the most intimate moment I ever shared with my dad. My grandfather had been the role model for my father, an excellent student.
* * *
There you have it. I'm part of a family in which not one single member had any interest or practical involvement in showbiz, and yet my early life was coincidentally touched by it time and again. As I grew older, the coincidences became a mainstream of events, until it was clear to me that showbiz was indeed where I belonged. A cliché I know, but here goes: It was all in the stars.CHAPTER 2
What Do You Do with a Jewish Princess?
I knew that after college I'd try making a career in entertainment, so I replaced education studies (my mother thought I should be prepared to teach in case I "had to" go to work) with comparative literature: "From all your great literature will come nothing but starvation!" There were plenty of women who worked — my mother was one of them, and a role model for me — but most of them held jobs out of their need for a paycheck, and many of them were looking for husbands so that they could stop working. They were not, in the main, remotely interested in career building. They wanted out. I wanted in. My enormous ambition has been one of the few personality disorders I haven't wanted to change. My mother was aware of this, and she decided she'd better find me a husband and put all my nonsense to rest.
She and her best friend, her older sister, Julie, convened to figure out my future in a very organized fashion, and husband hunting morphed from merely an idea into an intense pursuit. The starting point of this organized search was the synagogue. Who in the congregation did they know had a son the right age, preferably a doctor or a lawyer? My mother remembered a German family living in the Fourth Reich, so called because of the many German-Jewish refugees who settled there. They had a son who would be just about the right age and she phoned them. Chutzpah? (Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines the word as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts'; presumption plus arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to.")
I told my mother what she was doing was embarrassing, but she was determined to find out the son's marital status, and there was no other way but head-on. In the conversation with this family of German refugees, she hit pay dirt. "He's an attorney from a good family. Now I remember the parents," she said. "We used to say hello in the shul." (At that point she had not attended services for more than a dozen years.) "You'll be a mother with a baby in a carriage. You won't need to work hard all your life like me."
So off we went to observe the Sabbath (which I never did, nor did she really) in a temple where we were no longer part of the congregation. I sat on a bench five rows ahead of my mother's pick, turning every now and then in order to steal a glance without being seen. Caught in the act. He smiled at me.
I agreed to go out with him. He was considerate and attentive, and best of all he owned an old Pontiac convertible. We drove to City Island for lobsters, to Brooklyn for dinner with his friends, to the beach for the day. We shared our love of movies and theater. No bells rang, but being with him felt good. I never for a moment thought I was in love, and no — just in case you're wondering — we never slept together before we married. In 1957 "nice" Jewish girls didn't do that. I expected him to ask me to marry him, and he did it charmingly on bended knee while putting a perfect two-carat diamond ring on my finger.
Finally, one sunny April afternoon, on the day Greeks celebrate their independence, we got married at the Plaza Hotel in the "Gold and White Suite" on the second floor, overlooking the very corner where the Greek marching bands turned from Fifth Avenue into Central Park South. Given that I was also celebrating my independence, marching bands seemed entirely appropriate, even though the martial music of the parade drowned out the entire ceremony. I couldn't hear a word the rabbi said.
The irony in all this is that my mother pushed me into marriage with a man who was even more starstruck than I. It was an accident to be sure, but then again, maybe no accident at all. Had it not been written somewhere in the stars that I should be in show business, my new husband might have discouraged me from a theatrical pursuit; but this kind and honest man adored every aspect of entertainment. All he ever wanted in life was to be an actor, but instead he passed the bar to satisfy his parents — just as I was trying to satisfy mine by marrying.
He quickly decided he was going to live his dream vicariously through me. I had his full support to delve into the world of showbiz, and that was all I needed. I felt capable of finding my own way, starting at the bottom of the ladder. The rest was determination, something I owned in abundance. I would make it. I just had to. I would finally realize the dream I had dreamed all those Saturdays in the uptown movie palace.CHAPTER 3
Girl on the Bottom
In 1958 the only start-up jobs available, besides retail, were for women with decent secretarial skills. It was a time when, after you got your college degree, graduate work generally meant that you took a course in either the Pitman or Gregg method of stenography, and only then did you have a skill worth selling, one that put you on a collision course with a low glass ceiling. Of course if you graduated from Vassar, Smith, Holyoke, or any of the other Seven Sister schools, and you had good social connections, you might acquire an entry-level position as an editorial assistant at a top publishing house or classy magazine like Harper's Bazaar — that is, until you married and moved to a start-up mansion in Greenwich. Inasmuch as I wasn't one of those Muffy, Buffy, Duffy, or Libby socialites about to enjoy my coming-out, I went straight to the Kelly Girl secretarial school for my continuing education, recognizing that my bachelor of arts degree in literature might occasionally help me in cocktail conversation.
From the moment I started working, I knew it was the right choice for me. Not all the shit jobs were, but then I was 100 percent prepared to pay my dues. My mom was wrong about working. I didn't find it hard at all; of course, unlike her, I was not standing on a retail sales floor twelve hours a day. I was sitting in bright airy spaces, reading most of the time, and best of all, at the end of the week I had a paycheck in my hand that gave me the first real power I thought I'd ever had: buying power. But it wasn't only about the money. Working reinforced my thinking that I could have it all: fame, money, and power. And there was at least a tiny bit of genuine altruism. I also wanted to make a contribution to society. I thought from the beginning that entertaining people was a great way to do that.
With my skill set in place, such as it was (no hundred-words-a-minute me), I launched my attack on "the industry" by going to a temp employment agency, where I asked to be sent out for entertainment work. There were lots of jobs available, and I was regularly employed at a network (both CBS and NBC) or at advertising desks (McCann Erickson stands out because some jerk hit on me until I finally quit), where I read through whatever files were available to me, an eager participant in my own little master plan to figure out how people functioned in the industry. I thought I could learn by reading contracts and memos.
I was placed in some jobs for a few days, some for more. Sometimes I would just up and quit after I'd sucked out of a particular office as much worthwhile background as I could. And I had plenty of time to do it. My boss of the moment, always a man, made up his mind before I got there that there was no point in my doing anything other than answering the phone until his regular girl got back. When asked why I was reading a file (and that wasn't often) I simply said I needed something to read. The boss smiled. I was a girl, after all. How could I know what I was reading? But I thought I had a good plan because I was actually interested in everything I read. I might have forgotten my Shakespeare, but I could indeed remember contractual terms and conditions. I could remember who got paid what for every show on the air. I counted on the fact that this was not useless information, that one day I could get to a place where I could actually use the info I was stockpiling.
Not all the early jobs were terrible. I stayed at ABC Television for a few months and had a wonderful time, though certainly not at the start in the typing pool, which was a drag and hard, boring work, typing columns of numbers that, without context, made no sense.
Luckily I was rescued from the pool after only a week and a half, told I would now be a "production assistant," and sent to the stage floor of a little game show called Who Do You Trust?, starring Johnny Carson. Though happy to be plucked out of the pool, I'm sorry to say I believe the only reason I was chosen over the other more efficient women who had longer tenure was my appearance. I was tall and slim; I had a good figure, and, although no great beauty, I was nice looking. I knew I attracted men's attention, and I liked it. I was a flirt. So sue me.
My new job definition was "Help anyone who needs help." Typing was the least of it. What I remember most is running off copies on the mimeograph machine and chatting a lot. You couldn't just deliver a copy without having a little chat. For five minutes I thought this was the beginning of the rest of my life. Not so. But it's worth two minutes of recollection.
I was awkward as a young woman (not so terribly different now): a tangle of long arms and legs that found their way into a space slightly ahead of the rest of me, mixing it up with whatever was in their path. There were always offending inanimate objects, taking on lives of their own against my daily progress. One day in my second week as production assistant I was running across the stage on some momentous mission when the camera cable reached out and brought me down.
Now I am lying spread-eagle in front of the entire TV audience while Johnny Carson is doing the warm-up. "There she is, ladies and gentlemen — I give you the Jewish Elizabeth Taylor!" Oh no, Johnny's not talking about me?! "Smile, Stevie, you're on camera." On big monitors no less, placed strategically around the audience of 499 giddy spectators laughing at my expense. Elizabeth Taylor had nothing to worry about, but then the audience could see that for themselves. I was still a natural brunette, and my green eyes — all that remains of that naive, young woman of twenty-three — were then, and still are, my best feature. Johnny could see they were not violet like her beautiful eyes. In fact he could see they weren't violet even after he'd had a number of strong belts. I was always generously invited along for pre-warm-up drinks at Sardi's bar next door.
The way that guy knocked back two double shots showed me he'd had a lot of practice. Still, Johnny had no trouble standing up or doing stand-up, whereas I, on one simple, well-nursed glass of wine, would fall down. Sadly, when the show was canceled at the end of the season, so was I.
This experience reinforced something I already knew, something that has been true since the beginning of time: Being attractive helps. I wasn't totally dim. I always knew I could count on my appearance to some extent. But I also understood from the get-go that competence and intelligence matter more.
Excerpted from Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me by Stevie Phillips. Copyright © 2015 Stevie Phillips. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Beginnings
1 Who the Hell Is Stevie Phillips? 9
2 What Do You Do with a Jewish Princess? 13
3 Girl on the Bottom 16
4 Can I Tell You About "Menial"? 20
5 The New Kids on the Block 25
6 How Good Is Real? 30
7 Have You Heard of Haddonfield? 39
8 Boston 47
9 Reality Checks 53
10 Love-or Something Like It 61
11 Vegas 70
12 Back in New York 83
13 A Vacation 89
14 One Kind of Husband 111
15 Endings, Beginnings, and Endings 118
16 A Very Sad Day 126
17 Sometimes 131
Part 2 Success
18 The Liza Start-up 137
19 Flying Solo 147
20 Starring Liza 151
21 What Is an Agent? 158
22 Moving On 170
23 Crazy 183
24 Fun in the Sun 192
25 The Success Effect 204
26 Betrayal 213
Part 3 Maturity
27 A Different Kind of Whorehouse 229
28 Broadway Gets a Whorehouse 241
29 Hollywood Gets Another Whorehouse 247
30 My Last Marriage 255
31 The Pieces 260
32 TGIF (Thank God It's Finished)! 271
33 Climbing the Mountain 274