The men who run Mendelson Management wanted the women to just shut up and do their jobs. 4,267 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
A handful of women managers working at the same management firm controlled a growing group of hot young talent that Hollywood was just beginning to beg for. The women had signed these actors and actresses at the beginning of their careers and choreographed their every move up the ladder until huge salaries and successful features were just within their grasps. That was the Mendelson Management way: to nurture talent. Unfortunately, what was not the Mendelson way was to nurture women managers.
The transformation of these female millennials from salaried employees to star managers occurred so subtly that it escaped the notice of the firm’s middle-aged partners who instead kept their eyes more firmly affixed on the bottom line as well as on their own fat asses. The result was that Mendelson was the worst by far of the major management companies which indulged in that gambit played by male-dominated Hollywood to subordinate women: institutionalized sexism.
Mendelson had never had a female partner. There had never even been a woman in its training program. Instead, almost every woman manager had started at the company as a secretary and risen in spite of the prevailing system. That created a kind of girl posse. Instead of the female frenemies common to Hollywood studios or networks or agencies, the Mendelson women were BFFs and truly liked one another. They even worked as a team, sharing and pairing on certain clients to the extent that it became hard for Hollywood to tell exactly whose client was whose. But as their clients became celebs, so, too, did these female managers.
At one time they’d had a “mother” figure. Whether teetering on stilletos to visit an action thriller director on a location only accessible by a rope ladder, or screaming down the hallways to someone eight offices away, she’d been a character to some, but also a mentor to the Mendelson women. She was not afraid to bitch-slap the Mendelson males on behalf of the females. Her corner of the headquarters even looked like a sorority house as, at the end of the day, she and her pledges would gather in her office, sprawl on the couches and chillax together.
The women had personality traits in common. They were relentless and obnoxious, to the point that Hollywood complained they were bitches on platform heels. But those same qualities also made them great managers. None of them had grown up with money or connections. Nor could they rely on their looks. They were mostly short and rather plain. Indeed their mentor once ordered the only near-beauty among them to cut her long wavy auburn hair. (“Because if you’re dealing with a man, he’s not going to know whether to fuck you or sign you as his manager. And if it’s a woman, she’s not going to want you near her husband or boyfriend. So cut your hair.”)
The Mendelson women made up for in swagger what they lacked in looks or stature. None of them had children and only a few bothered with a lover or spouse. They also shrugged off all those rumors, like they had secured their clients by giving toe-curling blow jobs or expertly eating pussy. (Actually, that was true of only two of them.) No, what really made the females fume was seeing their male counterparts who had started at the firm at the same time — punks or putzes all — rise faster and get paid more.
Those few times when the female managers complained about their inferior treatment by The Prick Club as the women called it, the Mendelson Powers That Be would throw shade. "She’s on the rag." "She’s a ballbuster." "She’s a cunt.” And so on.
The partners decided that the women’s mentor was the problem. How convenient for them that it was becoming increasingly obvious that she was stoned all the time. There was nothing new about that, of course. Hell, the men smoked weed in the office regularly. But her pot use was legendary. The running joke was that to work on her desk assistants had to roll a tight joint. But now the mother figure was popping pills – not just Xanax but Percocet and Oxycontin – as well as procuring them for others. Late on Fridays, the trainees making the daily runs on dispatch, fetching and delivering rush correspondence for the management company, would get pissed when one more run was usually added to their already long list. It called for a pickup of a small package at a private residence that was to be delivered to the mentor at her home. The trainees who looked inside only saw a rolled-up newspaper. But further inspection revealed plastic baggies containing pills of every color, shape and size. And, as one trainee confided to another, the truth began to make the rounds.
It finally reached the ears of the Mendelson partners who immediately investigated. All the logs detailing the pickups on Fridays were seized. Pressure was put on the trainees to tell what they had seen. One shakily left the partners’ meeting room murmuring, “I think my whole career in Hollywood may be over.” Later, the partners insisted that the pills and pot had nothing to do with the mentor’s departure. “It was obviously a reason to dismiss her or anybody else that does something like that. But we all have our problems,” one partner told the trades off the record.
Though her contract technically was not up for another year, the mentor bowed out quietly and without explanation. But a week later, an anonymous email was sent to top entertainment journalists detailing a carjacking incident and naming a senior Mendelson exec. He’d arrived late to the firm one day claiming his BMW 7 series had been stolen while sitting at a stoplight near Century City. The gunman, he said, had accosted him and made him drive to a sleazy motel, where the manager had been stripped naked and bound and gagged. At the time, everyone believed his story. But he never reported it to the police. Later, his partners figured out it was both a heroin buy and a homosexual hook-up gone bad. Yet he was still at Mendelson, not just working but thriving there.
After their mentor’s untimely departure, the women’s situation at Mendelson deteriorated even more. A partner asked one of the women to go over to a major actor’s house she didn’t even rep and help him get ready for a location shoot. “Pack for him,” the boss suggested. “Help him relax. Let him fuck you in the ass.” Another female manager who asked to move into the office being vacated by a male exec was told, “We’re saving that office for somebody more important. Besides, it’s not like you need a casting couch.” When a straight female manager took out a mortgage on her first home, a partner stopped her in the hallway to ask, “A woman living alone in a house? What happens if the toilet overflows? Your lesbian lover fixes it?” To which she shot back, “Probably the same thing that happens when a man lives there: sell the shithouse.”
There was the time a female manager was considering a role as a hooker for a young actress when a deal sticking point became the nudity clause.
“She doesn’t want to do any nudity,” the manager told a partner, her client at her side listening to the conversation.
“But it’s a hooker,” he pointed out.
“I don’t care if it’s a hooker,” she replied. “She won’t do nudity.”
“Baby, let me tell you,” the partner said in his best pimp voice, turning to address the teenager. “If my wife had your body, she’d be shopping nude in Gelson’s. What’s a little beaver now and then?”
And a female manager never forgot taking a meeting in a partner’s office which had just been completely redecorated in all beige. When the confab broke up, the female manager’s face looked pained.
“Is there something wrong with you?” the partner snapped.
“No,” the woman said weakly. “I just want to sit on this couch a little longer.”
“You can’t. I have a confidential conference call,” he replied.
When she still didn’t move, he grew suspicious and then noticed a spreading red stain on the sofa beneath her skirt. The woman had started her period. “Oh my god,” the partner screamed. “That’s DISGUSTING! And all over my new couch!” To further mortify the woman, he promptly told what had happened to his partners and everyone else within earshot.
Incident after incident, ad nauseam.
Fed up with the bitches bitching, the Mendelson Powers That Be decided that the only way to deal with it was to pit woman against woman. Or as they described it to one another, cow against cow. So they decided what was needed was a little culling of the herd.
Livvy Grunwald was raised in a blue collar household outside Houston. Her preoccupation as a child was boys, whom as a fourth-grader she used to terrify by chasing and kissing around the schoolyard. By high school, she fell in love with an aspiring actor whom her first year away at college she wrote to constantly. His responses were always, “Send cash.”
That summer, he told her he needed a manager. “No problem,” she assured him. Of course she didn’t have a clue what a manager was.
She called the Screen Actors Guild and asked for a list of talent managers. She closed her eyes and put her index finger on one of the names. She drove to Los Angeles and found the management firm’s Beverly Hills office. “My name is Olivia Grunwald and I have an appointment with Mr. Mendelson,” she announced to the receptionist.
“Try Forest Lawn,” the woman responded, amused.
“Listen, I forgot the guy’s name,” Livvy bluffed. “I just need to get upstairs.”
Livvy didn’t get upstairs, but she did make friends with the receptionist. She called the woman every week for the entire summer, working her way up from the receptionist to the secretaries. With each call, she would learn something new about the entertainment business. Eventually, because of her incessant nagging, a Mendelson manager signed her boyfriend before that fall. Then he promptly dumped her.
Livvy dropped out of college and took a job as a secretary at Mendelson. In two years she worked her way up to a partner’s desk alongside another secretary Serena Harriman. Livvy and Serena became a team, helping and supporting one another while they serviced the partner’s clients and slowly they began to sign young talent themselves.
It was commonplace for Serena to introduce Livvy to her latest finds: this one, a 17-year-old whom Serena had signed based on a single Hollywood acting showcase. Livvy, too, was struck by the actress’s magnetism, so much so that the two became inseparable despite a 10-year age difference.
The teen would come into Livvy’s office on the weekends and the pair would read scripts together. As the actress snagged bigger and showier roles, they’d go through her fan mail together. Livvy’s dedication to the actress started to attract attention from the Mendelson partners who frowned on such slavish devotion. When the teen was on location, Livvy drove to the girl’s condo twice daily and walked her pocket pig. To which a partner complained, "We hired a manager. We got a maid."
It also didn’t sit well with the Mendelson Powers That Be when Livvy turned down a major studio, a famous director, and a power producer who were throwing money at the young actress to appear in a refugee camp drama because it meant the actress would have to shave her head.
Instead, Livvy was pursuing a low-paying but breakout part in a Gen-Y rom-com for the girl. She sent the executive in charge clippings day after day, took him out to lunch ridiculously often and even began calling his boss. It took a Labor Day weekend trip to the Four Seasons on the Big Island for Livvy to trap the production president in the hot tub and convince him how great the client could be. The studio finally gave her a test. In the meantime, everyone was passing on the older male lead. But Livvy found an actor acceptable to all the filmmakers. #BOOM
Both Livvy and her client seemed poised for a major career leap. The only person forgotten in all the hoopla was Serena. Clearly, Livvy had supplanted her as the actress’s manager. And though Serena never complained, there was little doubt Livvy had stolen her biggest client.
It was just the chink in the women’s armored corsets that the Mendelson partners had been looking to exploit.
Livvy might have been rising in status at the management firm but she wasn’t making a whole lot of friends as a result. For one thing, she had a habit of bending the truth to the point of out-and-out lying. First, about her background. She told some people her mother was an alcoholic waitress, and others an artisanal caterer. No one knew the truth. She claimed she graduated from Dartmouth but in reality she’d never finished TCU. She would tell her bosses she just had a meeting with a famous actor or producer but it would later turn out she had never talked to either.
The lying particularly bothered the women she worked with. In a meeting with a casting director one day, Serena was discussing an Oscar winning director’s commitment to a film when Livvy interrupted and said she had just discussed the pic with the helmer over dinner the night before. The next day, Serena saw him and decided to mention it.
“I hear you had dinner with Livvy the other night.”
“Who’s that?” the director replied. "My meth dealer?"
The partners were hardly naïve; after all, showbiz attracts more than its fair share of pathological liars and most of them do extremely well. But the Mendelson men held secret meetings about Livvy’s too blatant shortcoming, though it was never anything they could catch her on. She was that good at it. Then there were their concerns about her drastic weight loss. The Prick Club offered to send Livvy to a psychiatrist.
“Something is wrong. You’re almost anorexic,” they said to her. "We’re doing it because we love you." In reality, they made the offer hoping to dig up even more dirt and then fire her. As it became harder to tell where the truth ended and the lies began, and while watching her waste away in front of them, the partners worried how long until her situation blew up in their faces in the form of a scandalous lawsuit.
To them, Livvy was a ticking timebomb they had to defuse.
In the meantime Livvy was getting better at being a manager. She kept tabs on every film budget that had a woman in it and set new salary and back-end benchmarks for actresses she represented. But as her clients grew in clout, she panicked that someone would steal them from her. It wasn’t all paranoia. Managers at rival firms took every opportunity to badmouth her. One even put a $1 million bounty on the head of every actor lured away. Soon Mendelson was trying to introduce their male managers into her client’s lives. That’s when Livvy finally realized they were trying to squeeze her out.
Late one night, Serena was startled to find Livvy at her front door. A rival management company had asked for a clandestine meeting and offered her a job. Not a partnership. But a better-paying lateral move.
“I’ll come if Serena will come,” Livvy told the competitor.
Leaving Mendelson wasn’t part of Serena’s agenda, but she agreed to take a meeting ("just to get you off my ass,” she laughed). They heard the 12 partners, all men (again) talk about their commitment to bringing in one or two women as co-owners. The minute it was over, Serena fumed, “We’re not doing this, Livvy. It’s hardly the golden opportunity of a lifetime. I’m out!”
That made Livvy suddenly unsure. “I don’t know,” she agonized. “I’m having cold feet and second thoughts and…”
“Don’t do it, Livvy!” Serena insisted.
For the next few weeks, the two women went round and round debating the pros and cons of jumping ship. Then, out of the blue, Livvy walked into Serena’s office with an announcement. “This is what I decided,” she said. “You and I are going to go together to the top talent agency in town. We can’t stay at Mendelson. It’s like dying on a bed of nails.”
Serena was horrified. “You don’t understand, Livvy. I would never be an agent. You work with a hundred clients, you can’t get a producer credit on anything, and the agencies have even less female partners than the management firms.” But Livvy wanted to pursue it. Finally, because of Livvy’s nagging, again, Serena decided to help Livvy get a meeting. But she needed an intermediary who wouldn’t rat them out.
Through a recent movie deal for one of her star clients, Serena had come to know a boutique studio’s chairman quite well. (OK, they were having a torrid affair and keeping it secret from their spouses. So what else is new?) The film mogul was close to the head of the agency where Livvy was hoping to land. Serena picked up the phone.
“Can Livvy and I come and talk to you now? It’s personal,” Serena said cryptically. Sitting in his office, Serena told him what Livvy wanted.
"I’ll make it happen," the mogul boasted for Serena’s benefit.
But what followed was a fiasco. The two women sat there listening while the studio chief got the agency’s chairman on the speakerphone and began to pitch Livvy as a great hire. Immediately, the women could see that the conversation wasn’t going the way any of them had planned. At one point, obviously embarrassed, he motioned to Livvy to leave the room. But she had no intention of not being present for such an important call and stayed put. So the film chief was in the awkward position of having to “confidentially” discuss the manager in front of her.
“We’re going to get her star clients without her,” the agency chairman said with confidence. "Besides, she’s an anorexic liar who walks her client’s barnyard animals. Who the fuck needs that nutcase?"
“But you don’t want to overlook that this is a great piece of manpower," the mogul tried again. "You should meet her.”
"The only Mendelson manager I’d hire is Serena Harriman," the agency chairman said. "You must be fucking her. Is she any good?"
With that, the conversation abruptly ended. No one in the room could look at one another. A long awkward silence ensued.
As it turned out, the bomb finally went off that December. But it wasn’t Livvy who lit the fuse.
The Mendelson system of paying year-end bonuses, which accounts for up to 75 percent of a manager’s compensation, was not a good system because it was not necessarily a fair system. It did not take into account intangibles which managers might possess, like a winning personality, growing status in the community, far-reaching connections at studios and networks, an ability to spot talent where others might see only inexperience. Given the sexism inside Mendelson, the men managers walked the halls happy that December while the women whispered to one another, “Was it bad enough to make you quit?”
Serena was hopeful. In fact, more hopeful than she had ever been. After all, by anyone’s standards, she’d had a terrific year. Her clients had started snagging film award nominations. Her own relationships with them were more solid than ever. And frankly, she needed the money just in case she decided to get a divorce. So when Serena was handed her bonus, she was shocked to see the same amount she had received the year before. A pathetic 25 percent.
And when Serena was shocked, she was not speechless. Indeed, her first reaction was to demand a meeting with the partners. "I have never come to you before about money,” she implored. “I’ve never complained. But I’m really unhappy about my bonus. And other places are pursuing me."
“This is the first moment we hear you’re unhappy,” the CFO said. “I hope you know how we feel about you. But we’re still in the middle of a recession.” The CFO pulled out a computer spreadsheet as a justification. It was the same old story: another bad year. Serena knew Mendelson counted on its managers, and especially its female managers, not having the balls to walk away.
“There’s always this feeling that you give me just enough to make me unhappy but not enough to make me quit,” she told them. "And meanwhile, two men received promotions and huge raises."
Serena was ready to call their bluff. “You know what?” she said angrily, “Forget the spreadsheet. Forget how you feel about me. You have no idea who I am or what I represent in this Industry. Go fuck yourselves."
"We hear you’re already getting that done outside your marriage," one of the partners sneered back. Added another, "Bros before hos."
Most management firms find it’s too hard to steal clients and much easier to steal the managers with the clients. By poaching Serena and Livvy, a management company could acquire a new stable of young stars. There was only one problem: Serena for the longest time didn’t want to leave Mendelson. As angry as she was that day, she also was loyal to her core. But she’d become less loyal after the untimely departure of the mentor.
At one o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday of Martin Luther King’s birthday, a holiday for most workers but not for the Mendelson firm, Serena began drawing up a business plan. For her own management company. Made up of women managers. Hos before bros.
There remained just one stumbling block: she could not leave without her clients. After working hard for seven years to build up her list, she was not about to abandon her clients at Mendelson. At 4 PM Serena had commitments from every actor and actress she repped. She also could count on every female manager at Mendelson joining her. She would liquidate assets and secure a six-figure line of credit to finance the new firm. "Okay,” she phoned Livvy. “Let’s do it.”
In the meantime, Mendelson was hearing rumors that Livvy was going to leave, too. Having just lost Serena, the partners were in no mood to lose another female manager, not to mention more clients, no matter how big a pain in the ass Livvy was. She was summoned to the CFO’s office. There, the nervous manager was met by every partner. They were determined not to make the same mistake twice. After kvetching about her for years, Mendelson suddenly offered Livvy a huge raise on top of her bonus.
“This is not guilt money,” the men insisted. “It’s so you won’t be tempted when the other firms offer you money.”
Livvy was surprised. And confused. “I can’t take your money,” she said reluctantly.
“What do you mean? You aren’t staying here?” the CFO asked aghast.
“Not unless I like dying on a bed of nails," she replied. "And I don’t."
The meeting ended with a salary offer that would have more than doubled what Livvy made the last three years. The confab was like an out-of-body experience for her. Then each of the Mendelson partners asked to sked a lunch or dinner with her, something they had never done before. The next morning she went to work only to find her iPhone lit up with a text message from her assistant on the other side of the door: “The partners are outside your office.”
“I hear you’re leaving,” one of them said.
“I never wanted to hurt this company, ever. But I just closed.”
Livvy told them she was going with Serena’s new company, and so were all the Mendelson women managers, even the mentor who’d been forced out by the men. She stared anxiously at the partners whose faces all registered a combination of shock and anger.
“You’ll regret this. I promise you,” one of the partners said. Threatened another, "If I had a knife, I would personally give you a hysterectomy."
She was happy just to get out of the room alive. It was already past six o’clock. She stopped by the offices of a few dumbfounded colleagues to say goodbye until security asked her to leave the premises. Meanwhile, the partners called an emergency meeting to try to save clients. By the time she arrived for a celebratory dinner at Mr. Chow’s, the Mendelson men had already called every one of the women managers’ clients.
Not that it did Mendelson any good. The women had a clean sweep, taking every name with them. One of the partners tried to give his colleagues a pep talk that night. "We got calls from people at the studios saying, ‘Hey congratulations, you’re lucky to get rid of those vicious bitches.’ When you have lesbians like these working with you, it’s like, ‘What’s worse? Losing a few clients or keeping these cunts?’ They were a cancer — cut it out now or it will just get worse later.”
But even the Mendelson partners were shocked when the final damage was tallied. The trades wrote that Mendelson had lost 90 percent of its top feature business under the headline, “Attack Of The 5-Foot Women.”
This short story first posted here on August 3, 2015.