On a bright morning last August, Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar, the literary agent, was having breakfast beside the pool at his Beverly Hills home when the telephone interrupted. It was Ron Ziegler, ex-President Nixon’s ex-press secretary, calling from San Clemente. Mr. Nixon, Ziegler said, was eager to see Lazar to discuss “some business.” Lazar, who had a pretty good idea what the business was, crisply replied that he was leaving for Europe shortly, but he would be happy to see Mr. Nixon upon his return.
On August 31 the dapper, billiard-bald Lazar and Nixon met over a three-hour lunch at San Clemente. Afterward, agent Lazar returned home in his black limousine with the exclusive rights to sell the former President’s memoirs in his attaché case. No matter that Swifty, a lifelong Democrat, had been an indefatigable fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy. Or that his Washington representative, Ann Buchwald, the wife of political satirist Art Buchwald, quit as a result of the Nixon deal. There was a buck to be made, in fact millions of bucks and, true to the 10-percenters’ code, Lazar had a flexible philosophy to suit the occasion: “In a deal you give and take. You compromise. Then you grab the cash and catch the next train out of town.”
Not many literary agents can afford to be so candid about their modus operandi. But then not many of them can afford a California mansion with genuine Picassos, Roualts, Chagalls and Dalis on the walls, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes in the garage, an elegant pied-a-terre in New York, offices in Beverly Hills, New York, London, Paris and Rome, $40,000-a-year phone bills and a custom-made wardrobe. There is only one “Swifty”—a soubriquet Humphrey Bogart laid on him after Lazar acquired three hot screen properties for him in the space of 24 hours—and indeed there is hardly room for more than one Swifty in the agents’ trade.
With characteristic speed, Lazar put together a package for Nixon: he sold the paperback rights to the book, which will probably appear in three volumes, to Warner Paperback Library for $2.5 million, the television rights for a Nixon interview to David Frost for another $750,000 and is asking for a hard-cover advance in the neighborhood of $1 million. (Although Lazar says Nixon was persuaded to accept Frost’s proposition because of the “interesting approach,” the word around Hollywood is that the interesting approach was simply the highest bid.) Still to be negotiated are foreign rights, book clubs, a possible movie and other spin-offs that will propel the former President back into millionaire status and guarantee Swifty Lazar fees well in the area of half a million. Even so, Lazar went through considerable soul-searching before he decided to represent Nixon. “He asked the advice of everyone he knows,” says Art Buchwald. “But it’s probably for the best. When a politician gets in trouble he deserves the best lawyer and the best literary agent around. You use the agent to pay the lawyer—that’s the way it goes.”
Nixon represents only the latest in Lazar’s ledger of famous, infamous, literary, political and showbiz clients. Over the years, he has represented Hemingway, Ira Gershwin, Truman Capote, Clifford Odets, Vladimir Nabokov, Neil Simon, Herman Wouk, Lerner and Lowe, John Huston, Edna Ferber, Buchwald, Noël Coward and Richard Rodgers, among others. In the past 15 years he has negotiated over $100 million in contracts. His income from the books, plays, short stories and films he pitches, often without bothering to tell the author beforehand, approaches $1 million a year.
Driven by an ego as big as the Ritz, an unabashed fancy for celebrities, a subtly masked short-man complex and a worshipful affection for his clients, Lazar lives a moveable feast. He spends money with both hands, entertaining the accomplished, rich and famous. “Of course I adore Irving,” says Kitty Carlisle, widow of playwright Moss Hart. “He is a life enhancer who makes charming things happen wherever he is.”
Lazar is apt to be wherever the action is chic and the life enhanceable. It might be schlossing through the Swiss Alps with client-pal Irwin Shaw, or pool-hopping in Hollywood, where he sold the film rights to Shaw’s latest novel, Night work, for $350,000 this month. It could be at a dinner party in Manhattan with journalist Shana Alexander, actor Martin Gabel and photographer-adventurer Peter Beard. (Swifty recently negotiated the sale of Alexander’s new book, an account of the Patty Hearst case, to Viking Press for $100,000.) “New York is a wonderful city,” Lazar said at the dinner, lapsing into first person plural, “but it seems we always need to be someplace other than where we are. So we travel a lot, looking for fun and trying to create fun where it doesn’t exist.”
Always eager to throw a party, Lazar organized and financed a sumptuous seated dinner for 125 at Claridge’s in London to celebrate Noel Coward’s 73rd and, as it turned out, his last, birthday, in 1972. During the summer of 1951 Lazar crisscrossed Spain with Ernest Hemingway in a chartered plane. They were following the celebrated “Dangerous Summer” of mano a mano contests between the rival matadors, Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordonez, and Swifty was pleased when each torero dedicated a bull to him. To show his appreciation, he entered the ring himself to cape a couple of ranch toros between the corridas. “Actually, they were cows,” he admits, “but, but, they can pierce the body.”
Swifty’s machismo has never been doubted among his friends, despite his size (5’2″, 130 lbs.). He accepts such descriptions as “a condensed giant” good-naturedly, but will take no serious criticism from any man, regardless of size. At his Hotel George V suite in Paris shortly after his 1963 marriage to ex-model Mary Van Nuys, Swifty had words with producer Raoul Levy. Suddenly, Levy knocked off Lazar’s trademark glasses. Lazar countered with a small but solid right, and Levy thereupon knocked him down. At that point, Mary emerged from her bath and in turn decked Levy with a bottle of Perrier. “Mary is beautiful and bright and very protective of Irving,” explains Kitty Carlisle. “And he of her.” On another occasion, during a heated argument at New York’s “21,” the pugnacious Swifty smashed a water goblet on the hairless head of six-foot producer Otto Preminger. In court, Preminger claimed fifty stitches, Lazar argued that Preminger had tried to hit Mary, and both collected reams of publicity. In the settlement, Swifty donated $5,000, in Preminger’s name, to the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
The eldest of four sons of a German-Jewish immigrant family who ran a butter-and-egg business, Lazar worked his way through night school, getting his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1930. According to a friend, he was over 30 before he realized there was such a thing as day school. Already starstruck when he graduated, and a pragmatist as well, Swifty realized that there was bigger money in show business than in private practice during the Depression. He joined MCA, then a fledgling, five-man talent agency, as legal counsel. After Jack Benny and George Burns pointed out to him that the agents were making 10 percent of their clients’ earnings, while a lawyer’s cut was a mere one percent, Lazar became an agent. Starting out as the booker of talent for mob-operated nightclubs, he learned with customary speed how to sell a client with maximum superlatives and minimum research. Once, when a nightclub owner needed a Hawaiian musician in a hurry, Lazar had just the man. But he had forgotten his name. With his usual aplomb, Lazar vowed to produce “Jonny Pineapple.” Client David Kaonohi obligingly changed his name and landed the job. By the time Lazar was 28, he was making $1,000 a week and sharing a Manhattan hotel suite with a chorus line of statuesque showgirls.
During the war Swifty stood on tiptoes to make the minimum height limit and joined the Army Air Corps. One night in the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room, Pfc. Lazar cornered Moss Hart and told him that he should write a play for the Air Corps, adding that General Hap Arnold, commander of the flying service, liked the idea. Hart wanted proof, so Lazar adroitly crisscrossed bogus telegrams between the playwright and the general, brought the two together and, with himself as producer, put on Winged Victory. The play and the film earned $5 million for Hart and the Army, and a captain’s commission for Swifty. It was Hart who persuaded Lazar to go into business for himself.
As his clientele and his legend grew, Lazar rang up some magnificent deals in his own special way. He sold the movie rights for My Fair Lady for an unheard-of $5,500,000—plus $350,000 for director George Cukor. Playwright Neil Simon recalls the time when “Lazar brought me up before a group of Paramount executives and told them I had a ‘great play in the works.’ I had not yet written a word, and spoke only one sentence: ‘It is about two divorced fellows who move in together and have the same arguments they had had with their wives.’ Swifty sold them The Odd Couple on the strength of that.”
On a recent visit to New York, Lazar paced out memories across the carpet of his Carlton House apartment. A gum-popper and a compulsive straightener of bric-a-brac, he was a study in sartorial elegance—immaculate white silk shirt, gray slacks with a knife-edged crease and size 5½ rust suede lifts. “Nice place, huh?” he said, adjusting a photograph of Truman Capote on a glass shelf. “This is all our stuff. Doesn’t belong to the hotel.” The phone rang. “Who’s that?” he asked, but before his secretary, across the room, could reply, he sat on the edge of a towel-draped couch and picked up the extension. “Hello, pal,” he said. “Terrifico! Listen…”
After a few moments he hung up and wiped his hands on the towel, a talisman of his morbid fear of germs. Half an hour later, having moved a Chinese screen, greeted his wife, taken another telephone call and philosophized about his trade, he set out for dinner at Quo Vadis, resplendent in a double-breasted blazer by Hawes & Curtis of Savile Row and socks from the boys department of Bloomingdale’s. Pausing at the door, he delivered a final line. “Ah, yes, the reading public is vitally interested in the personalities of public figures. They want details, personal habits. There are at least three more great books coming in this decade. Howard Hughes’ story. Mrs. Onassis. And then Henry Kissinger’s book will be an enormous bestseller. And of course, there are Mr. Nixon’s memoirs…”