SARAH JANE EDEN LEIGH
March 21, 1962 – August 30, 2015
Sarah Jane Eden Leigh, a theatrical agent whose stable of talent included Pulitzer and Tony-Award winning theatre artists as well as international thoroughbred racehorses, died Sunday at her home in Manhattan. The cause was cancer, said Brad Kalos, a close friend and family confidante. She was 53 years old.
In an era dominated by corporate talent agencies, Leigh was one of the few remaining agents to successfully hang out her own shingle, Sterling Standard LLC. After receiving a BA from Bennington College in English literature and an MFA from Columbia University in theatre criticism and dramaturgy, she began her career in 1988, working for Howard Stein, editor of "The Best Short Plays" series published by Applause Books. In 1989, she became the assistant to legendary literary agent Helen Merrill and, by 1990 she was ensconced at International Creative Management, where she remained for an impressive 15 years.
Occasionally, the fine points of office politics and celebrity eluded her. “Once she met Dustin Hoffman in an elevator at ICM,” said longtime client Elizabeth Egloff, “and mistook him for an office manager.” Leigh went on to helm the agency’s prestigious theatre division and forged a close personal and collegial relationship with one of its chief founders, Sam Cohn. In 2004, she established Sterling Standard, working out of the London Terrace Apartments, where she once assisted Ms. Merrill. Leigh passionately devoted herself to the lives of the artists she represented, with an unyielding aesthetic sensibility and keen business acumen. She advised her clients on everything from Broadway contracts and real-estate purchases to pet adoptions at local shelters; she was cherished by her clients, who rewarded her with fierce loyalty and affection. At the time of her death, she actively represented playwrights Steven Dietz (Lonely Planet), Elizabeth Egloff (Ether Dome), Joanna Murray-Smith (The Female of the Species), Diana Son (Stop Kiss) and Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), as well as Atlantic Theater Company’s artistic director Neil Pepe. Earlier in her career, Leigh championed directors Mark Brokaw (Cinderella) and David Warren (Summer and Smoke) as well as dramatist Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics).
“I trusted her judgment more than I did my own,” said Brokaw. “And while her bluntness could take my breath away, it was one of the reasons I loved her.”
Among producers, she was known to be ferociously protective but never unreasonable. “She had great taste in material combined with excellent judgments about people: two intangible, unteachable and immensely valuable virtues,” recalled David Richenthal, the Tony-Award winning producer of The Crucible (2002) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003.)
Though she nurtured shows on Broadway and scripts in Hollywood, Leigh was equally fastidious in overseeing small productions. “There was a group of nuns who did a bunch of my plays at a small abbey in Iowa,” said Steven Dietz. “In the midst of some negotiations with Steppenwolf or the Roundabout, she’d call and leave me a message saying, ‘Steven, we have to talk about the nuns!’”
No royalty fee was too modest to waive, if it could provide a new ink cartridge or a bag of groceries for a struggling writer. “She would hound a theatre for $100, if it was owed me,” remembered Diana Son.
Leigh evinced staunch British reserve and refused to divulge much about her life outside of the office. “Sarah Jane was extremely private,” said Neil Pepe, “yet you always had a sense that she had three or four extraordinary lives happening at once.”
In spite of her reticence, Leigh couldn’t hide her affection for animals, a trait cemented in her childhood at Eydon Hall, the 650-acre horse farm in Northamptonshire, England where she grew up. Her father, Gerald Walter Leigh, bred thoroughbred racehorses, and after his death, Ms. Leigh continued to own and manage his bloodstock. She successfully bred 21 individual winners and 44 foals of racing age.
“I sometimes feared she’d mix up the files in her office,” confessed Doug Wright, “and her filly Summer Sonnet would book a musical at the Walter Kerr Theater, and I’d have to compete in the Belmont Stakes. Happily, that never occurred.”
Leigh was equally enthusiastic about dogs; she routinely supported Canine Companions for Independence, a charity that places assistance dogs to people with disabilities. Often, she supported specific puppies from their initial selection for the program through their subsequent training and graduation. A black Labrador she funded named Georgia graduated last year, and in her own words, “transformed a young autistic boy’s life by teaching him to play and further develop his social interaction with others.”
During difficult times, Leigh often sought solace in the company of the wildlife she so adored. In the days following 9/11, she went on a pilgrimage to visit polar bears in Newfoundland. The theatre was also a constant source of inspiration and renewal for her. “She told me one of her favorite things as a child was sitting in the theatre stalls, the very moment when the lights went down and just before the curtain went up,” said Murray-Smith. “That moment always thrilled her.”
Leigh is survived by her mother, Paula Evelyn Rose Leigh, her stepmother Anna Moray Crichton Leigh, her brother, Robin Simon Jonathan Kennedy Leigh, and many beloved cousins including Lindy Goldkorn. Her funeral will be held in London.