The tarantula lay dead in its cage for weeks in her apartment. Her wardrobe was becoming haphazard, careless.
Mary Meagher with Douglas Carter Beane in 1994.
The Agent of Her Own Unraveling
The e-mail messages and phone calls began circulating around the theater world two weeks ago. The news was not unexpected — just about everyone had seen it coming — but it was still shocking in its finality: Mary Meagher, once one of the brightest literary agents in theater and independent film, and a glamorous, gorgeous, fiery presence on the scene, had died. She was 47.
She died on Dec. 9, her family said, of a heart attack, in her Manhattan apartment.
Most had not heard from her in years, since her descent into drug and alcohol addiction had accelerated.
But in an industry full of neon personalities, Ms. Meagher (pronounced MAH-her) stood out. Little was known about her past, because she rarely talked about it; she seemed to have sprung fully formed from the streets of Manhattan, wearing a miniskirt and white heels and clutching a shopping bag full of scripts.
There was above all her voice: the accent, peculiar, old-fashioned, imprecisely British; and the tendency to punctuate her sentences with dahhh-ling and to use adverbs liberally, as in: Oh dahhh-ling, what a mah-velously splendid play.
“I assume she was born in the same country as Kathleen Turner,” said the playwright Nicky Silver, a former client. People who first encountered her by phone, expecting an aging British grande dame, were surprised to find that she was a knockout, an “exotic, mysterious dame in a short skirt,” as the director Mark Brokaw described her. Her whole persona, from the paper bag purses to the pet tarantula, was a work of performance art, a modern-day Holly Golightly.
But what was indisputably real was her eye for talent. Her clients, mostly lesser-known playwrights and directors when she first began working with them, included Douglas Carter Beane, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, Matthew Penn, Brad Anderson, Alison Maclean, Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Silver, a group of artists she promoted with religious fervor.
“She was sort of the picker of hothouse orchids,” said the writer Jon Robin Baitz, who knew her but was not represented by her.
It was not her negotiating that set her apart; it was her conviction that her writers and directors, these artists on the periphery, deserved a place in the marketplace. She persuaded them of their as-yet-unrecognized gifts, and then made sure the recognition came. She was, as Mr. Beane, put it, “an enthusiast.” (Characters in several of Mr. Beane’s plays, including the agent in “The Little Dog Laughed,” now on Broadway, were partly inspired by Ms. Meagher.)
But as tireless as Ms. Meagher was in convincing her artists of their worth, her friends said, she could never do so for herself. She drank with abandon. Her personal life, her health and her finances she treated with a reckless neglect, all along maintaining a wit and charisma that enthralled almost anyone who came in contact with her.
Few people knew of Ms. Meagher’s past, which she never talked about. She was born in England, where her father was studying literature; after a few years hopping from college to college in America and Europe, the family settled in Toronto.
In her youth she was precocious and impatient, said Ms. Meagher’s brother Sean, who lives in Toronto. But her sadness was also visible early on, noticeable in grade school pictures, the effect of experiences in her early childhood which would permanently mark her. “There was a legitimate cause to her sadness,” he said, declining to elaborate further.
She left home and school at 17 to live with a group of literary bohemians in downtown Toronto, her brother said. Soon after, she met an up-and-coming actor, married and moved to New York. Her husband was determined to break into the theater scene but moved back to Toronto within a year.
Ms. Meagher stayed, though it would be years before they actually divorced. She worked alongside aspiring actors and writers in a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, learning about the life of the undiscovered artist and, until the other waiters found out, sleeping in the kitchen at night.
When a few of the actors began working at a downtown theater, Ms. Meagher signed on to be a house manager. One night in 1982 she met David Guç, a vice president at Don Buchwald & Associates, the talent agency. She told him she wanted to be an agent; he hired her as a receptionist.
Two years later, having worked her way up to the position of literary agent, Ms. Meagher helped Mr. Guç establish the Gersh Agency, and she began to build a reputation as a spirited advocate of budding talent.
The William Morris Agency hired her in 1993, and most of her loyal clients followed. From her summers, which she spent at the New York Stage and Film workshops at Vassar College, she developed an even longer client list and moved on to independent film projects, taking on more clients like Mr. Anderson, the director of “Next Stop Wonderland,” and Ms. Maclean, the director of “Jesus’ Son.”
Work was her entire life, friends said, morning to night at the theater and in the show business hot spots. Every conversation was about this marvelously gifted playwright whose work one simply must see or this sadly awful play from last night.
Her friends and lovers were some of the theater and independent film industry’s most prominent names — actors, writers, producers — though her energies were not focused on domestic stability. The owner of the Jujamcyn theaters, Rocco Landesman, whom she dated, remembered taking her to an opening-night party. She left with someone else, but had the wit to send Mr. Landesman flowers the next day.
“She lived her clients’ lives,” Mr. Landesman said. “She was totally dedicated to them, and she really didn’t have a life beyond that.”
It was not a secret, those who knew her said, that by the mid-90s, the rest of her life was falling into disrepair. The tarantula lay dead in its cage for weeks in her apartment. Her wardrobe was becoming haphazard, careless.
“People around her recognized that she was doomed if nothing happened,” the writer John Patrick Shanley said.
Still, partly through sheer charisma, she was able to set up her budding New York playwrights with television and film projects, get Mr. Shanley’s screenplays published almost on a whim, negotiate a three-picture deal with Miramax for Mr. Anderson, sell Mr. Beane’s scripts to Hollywood and bring Hollywood money to the Drama Dept., an Off Broadway theater company. The whispering was growing, though, about her behavior at parties, the unpaid loans from friends, her tardiness or even absence from important meetings. William Morris quietly sponsored a stint in out-patient rehab, but she did not finish it, and she left the agency in 1998.
Many of her clients were not ready to give up on her. Mr. Beane, newly well-off from the movie deals she had brokered, said he paid for her to stay at the Betty Ford Center. When she returned, Mr. Beane and Mr. Anderson created a management firm for her, Independent Artists.
“As agents,” Ms. Meagher said in a 1998 article in Daily Variety about the firm, “we become so focused on the future, the things artists could attain but don’t yet have, that we often overlook servicing the present.”
The firm did not last a year. She fell back into drinking; a boyfriend pulled her into hard drugs. The writers who had been as loyal to Ms. Meagher as they had been to anyone in the business had to tell her they were moving on.
“My friends were doing interventions with me, saying, ‘You have to let go, this is not healthy,’ ” said Mr. Beane, who worked with her longer than almost anyone.
About six years ago Ms. Meagher disappeared from most people’s lives for good. Her brother Sean, who stayed in contact with her, said that when she had lost hope of recovery she did not want to be around the people she knew.
“If she couldn’t be that vibrant, vivacious asset that she’d always been to them,” he said, “she just wanted to step away.”
She married a building superintendent, her brother said, who took care of her as her health deteriorated. Their last address was at Ninth Avenue and 50th Street, on the edge of the theater district.
“As a representative,” said Raelle Koota, who worked with Ms. Meagher at Gersh, “you devote your life and energy to other people, giving esteem to other people, boosting other people. I think Mary was sort of someone who gave esteem to everybody else but didn’t want to accept any herself.”