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Remembering Swifty

NEW YORK -- An international cast of over 200 celebrities has been invited to a private memorial service on Thursday for Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar.<BR><BR>Lazar, a Hollywood and literary agent who became as much of a celebrity as many of his biggest...

NEW YORK — An international cast of over 200 celebrities has been invited to a private memorial service on Thursday for Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar.

Lazar, a Hollywood and literary agent who became as much of a celebrity as many of his biggest clients, died last Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. The cause of death was kidney failure, according to Teresa Sohn, his social secretary. Lazar, who was 86, was cremated over the weekend.

The service, to be held at an undisclosed location, begins at 1 p.m. A reception is being planned at Spago Restaurant in Los Angeles following the services.

“He choreographed his life, and he choreographed his death,” said Barbara Davis, a long-time friend. “He was so in control all the way until the end. He was such a wonderful man and led such a wonderful life.”

Lazar was a diminutive man whose bald head and owlish horn-rim glasses were as much a trademark as his ability to strike superb deals for a client roster that ranged from Cole Porter to Jesse Jackson and Richard M. Nixon to Madonna.

He got his nickname from Humphrey Bogart after managing to put together a couple of deals for the actor in extremely rapid fashion. It was not a name he relished. He preferred being called Irving, but that desire generally went unfulfilled.

When Lazar began his career roughly half a century ago, agents were held in low regard.

“In the Forties, agents were totally unacceptable socially,” he once recalled. “Flesh-peddlers, they were called. They were kept hidden in closets and garages.”

It is ironic, then, that he and his wife, Mary, became the hosts of one of Hollywood’s glitziest social perennials, the annual Oscar-night extravaganza. For many people in the movie industry, not being invited to that party would have been even more crushing than failing to win an Oscar.

“It began as a small gathering of friends, and it’s always been a success because the guests always had a stake in the winners and losers,” he said. “The stars like to come because we give them a good dinner, some caviar, champagne — and no checks.”

According to Sohn, Lazar was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on March 28, 1907, and graduated from Fordham University. He received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School, she said.

After practicing law in New York for several years, he went to work for Music Corporation of America in 1936, working as a band-booker and getting gigs for such musicians as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

His career rounded a corner a few years later, thanks to an unlikely source: the U.S. Army Air Force.

Lazar enlisted in 1942, exchanging his apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York for a metal cot in a wooden barracks building.

“I was 35 — no chicken,” he told WWD in an interview last year.

One of Lazar’s military assignments was to produce a show for the Air Force — one that had to top the success of “This Is the Army,” the hugely popular musical by Irving Berlin. He went to the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to think about it, and spotted the writer and director Moss Hart. What followed was “Winged Victory” — which just celebrated its 50th birthday — and Lazar and Hart were on their way to a lifelong relationship.

In the years after the war, Lazar, who rose to the rank of captain, came to represent some of Broadway’s most legendary writing teams: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

About a year ago, he recalled the deal he made for Lindsay and Crouse, authors of the book for “The Sound of Music,” when the musical became a movie.

“It’s still the biggest deal I ever made,” he said. “I got them 10 percent of the gross from the first dollar — nobody’s ever gotten a deal like that.”

In 1963, when he was almost 56, Lazar gave up bachelor life, marrying the former Mary Van Nuys. She died last year.

Lazar had a special affinity for writers — especially songwriters.

“There is no greater pleasure than listening to a songwriter sing,” he once said. “When someone like Harold Arlen sat down at the piano, he sang better than anyone. I’ve seen people swoon. When he sang ‘Stormy Weather,’ which he wrote, in front of Dietrich, she just fell apart.”

Although Lazar’s rise to prominence placed him at the highest levels of Hollywood’s hierarchy, he lamented the changing values brought on by modern times.

“In the old days,” he said in an interview last year, “humor and eccentricity were appreciated. It was fun. Lots of agents had color, a variety of interests. You had your Ben Hechts running around. Most people who run the studios today are just interested in the bottom line. You have MBAs who might as well be making manure. Their point of view is only money. Now nothing’s wrong with making money. But I deplore the lack of dedication to making good movies.”

In the last few years, the fast-paced hiring and firing of key studio executives was a little too swift for Swifty.

“In the old days, you were dealing with someone you knew was going to be there for 30 years,” he said. “Not like the six weeks today. So you dealt with them on a different level. Now things change every week, every month.

“Now, of course, it’s youth be served. Most of the movers and shakers — Ovitz, Diller, Geffen, Gallin, Jeff Berg — are under 50. In the Forties and Fifties, older producers were most popular. Now they’re looked upon as fogies.”

Lazar found the behavior of some of today’s movie stars repugnant.

“You see them out at openings wearing some greasy, ragged outfit — torn pants and a T-shirt — and they think they’re dressed up,” he said. “In the old days, the stars had pride in their appearances — Gary Cooper wouldn’t have walked out the door without being dressed to the nines.”

A couple of years ago, when he turned 85, he was asked the inevitable question about retirement.

“Retire!” he hooted. “How can I retire? I have 14 books being published this year and 20 more being written. Let those authors retire.”