Lookiloos partnered with Scene Magazine to profile high-powered literary agent and philanthropist Jillian Manus, who raises money for cancer research, speaks to women at shelters and has a ghost in her garden. Read her fascinating story and get a glimpse of her gorgeous conservatory and the gardens of her Atherton estate.
By Julia Prodis Sulek
For Scene Magazine
As the electronic gate slowly opens, the grand estate built nearly a century ago reveals itself. A curving driveway takes you to the edge of the gray stone mansion that is in the heart of Atherton, but looks transplanted from the French countryside. Broad front steps lead you to the leaded glass front doors, where the staff invites you into the library and out back to the tennis court and pool, putting green and redwood grove. The grounds are so vast that you hear Jillian Manus’ voice, with its hint of a British accent, before you see her.
Then there she is, the high-powered literary agent with bestsellers and Oprah picks, gliding down the conservatory steps into the garden, her long camel jacket floating behind her. Like Grace Kelly in “High Society,” you half-expect her to toss back her blond hair and ask, “Are you having a wonderful time?”
She and her husband, venture capitalist Alan Salzman, have indeed thrown their share of fabulous parties here. At one of their legendary Valentine’s Day galas that raise $300,000 a year for the Stanford Cancer Center, a live elephant greeted guests at the door.
So it seems all the more unimaginable when you learn that as vivacious and strong-minded as Manus is now in her late 40s, two decades ago she experienced harrowing, life-threatening abuse. As Manus puts it, “I’ve had everything in my life, and I”ve had nothing in my life.”
And it was when she was left with nothing, “no pride, no hope, no integrity and no possessions,” that she rebuilt herself into the woman she has become.
She speaks at women’s shelters and raises money for women’s causes. She throws swanky fundraisers and wishes on stars. She has a ghost in her garden.
Along the way, she has earned the respect of everyone from domestic violence survivors living in shelters (whom she has invited home for lunch), a close-knit group of friends she calls her “broad squad” and California first lady Maria Shriver, who recruited Manus to chair her annual women’s conference and has attended her Valentine’s Ball with her grown daughter.
“Jillian is incredibly smart. She’s late for every meeting – she flies in because she’s so busy. In 30 seconds or less, and 25 words or less, she gets to the core of the issue, and she’s always right,” says Barbara Ralston, vice president of international patient services at Stanford Hospital. “I wish she would get more sleep, and I wish she would take care of herself. But I’ve never seen her do that, because she’s always taking care of someone else.”
Manus has come a long way, mentally, spiritually and professionally, from a horrific turning point in her mid-20s. She was living in Switzerland working for an international finance company when she fell in love with a young Swiss baron, true royalty, who promised her a fairytale life. Instead, the fantasy fell apart when she learned he was keeping secrets, including his alcoholism. She says when she confronted him on the phone to call off the engagement two weeks before the wedding, he came home in a drunken rage.
“He beat me to a pulp,” she says, and left her in a bleeding heap. She was whisked back to her hometown of Manhattan and hospitalized in critical condition, so badly injured she feared she would never have children. At the same time, the man she had intended to marry cleaned out her bank account, and gathered all her possessions and burned them in a towering bonfire.
“I was broken. I had allowed a man to break me,” Manus says. “I was so ashamed. I didn’t know how to explain it.”
She couldn’t bring herself to ask for her high-profile job back. (“No one wants to hire someone who’s that pitiful,” she says.) And she didn’t want financial help from her entertainment lawyer father or her literary agent mother.
“I wanted my pride back,” she says, “not for my parents to save me, but for me to save myself.”
She needed to prove to herself that she was worthy of something, of anything. And so she took a job as – of all things – a roller-skating waitress at nightclubs. (And this from a woman who had written her first TV screenplay at 16, studied English literature and dramatic writing in England and New York, landed a job as a talent agent in Hollywood and was named development director at Warner Bros. and Universal Studios – all by her mid 20s.)
“I called it the ‘H and H’ year – humbling and healing,” she says. “It was the most important year of my life.”
After her roller-skating stint, she modeled shoes, then worked the graveyard shift as a receptionist for a year until finally, she felt ready to return to business, this time in magazine publishing for “Upside,” a technology publication in the Bay Area.
By then, in her late 20s, she was ready to say yes when she met a handsome young man at Sak’s Fifth Avenue in New York while she was there on business. He was buying a belt. She was choosing a tie for her father’s birthday.
“Can I help you with this?” Alan Salzman, a lawyer and venture capitalist going through a divorce at the time, asked. They had dinner that night and within two years were married, under a willow tree in a rented home on the Peninsula, with 11 guests. She was able to have children after all, two boys, and with his two young children from a previous marriage, they began to raise their family.
She joined her mother’s literary agency, a small niche firm in New York, opened a Palo Alto office and grew the agency tenfold.
Along the way, she found herself drawn to books about women overcoming challenges. She then began seeking out authors who had stories to tell of tragedy and triumph. “Cane River,” by Lalita Tademy, was on Oprah’s Book Club list. “Geisha: A Life,” was a best-seller. Jerry Rice and Newt Gingrich are clients.
She added California friends to her “broad squad,” a group that started as a circle of her teenage friends in New York who not only supported each other, but also reached out to other girls in need. (They were so earnest they once got lost on their way to Harlem to help a girl they read about in the newspaper who had been abandoned.)
“We don’t whine, we don’t judge,” Manus explains, a motto that has endured for 35 years. “And we’re on 24/7 for each other.”
They now number 42, and support one another like they always have, whether taking midnight phone calls from each other, or volunteering and donating to each other’s causes.
As chairwoman of the Governor’s California Women’s Conference since its inception, she speaks about women’s empowerment across the country. Meg Whitman asked her to lead her women’s coalition for her 2010 gubernatorial campaign, which Manus aptly named “MEGaWomen.” She meets homeless women at churches and abused women at local shelters, and encourages them to see themselves not through a man’s eyes, but also through their own. Sometimes she tells them her own story.
Christina Dickerson, a board member of the Shelter Network that serves women in the Bay Area, remembers the time Manus invited women from a shelter to her garden for an author’s luncheon.
“She makes everybody feel welcome,” Dickerson says. “I think the women at the shelter knew that she understands them and can help them. She’s got a voice that they might not have, and she’s willing to use it on their behalf.”
And on top of that, she said, Manus is pure fun to be around. Every year, she hosts one of the most talked-about parties on the Peninsula – the Valentine’s Ball at her home to benefit the Stanford Cancer Center. The gala is a tribute to her mother-in-law, Helen Salzman, who has survived three bouts of cancer with the center’s help.
Every year, moving trucks arrive to remove all the ground-floor furnishings, and 100 workers build new sets in each room according to theme. Last year, with a “Love Is a Game” theme, actors dressed as a “Barrel Full of Monkeys” welcomed guests at the front door. The game “Clue” was played out in the living room. And that was a year after the elephant was brought in from Southern California. Manus and her husband underwrite the entire evening.
Manus is also on the steering committee for a campaign that is reorganizing and remodeling a cancer clinic to be dedicated just to women.
Manus is rarely in bed before 2 a.m., whether she’s staying up to study Latin with one of her sons or returning from one of their soccer tournaments or football games. She takes midnight swims in her pool. And when an old swing that hangs from an oak tree seems to sway without a hint of a breeze, she’s certain it’s the ghost of a little girl who once lived and died there – a testament to her belief that “the spirit lives on.”
She’s still on a journey, she says, only recently having a spiritual awakening that gave her life a sense of peace that seemed to elude her. After months of soul searching, it was a Biblical quote carved into a church bench that has inspired this newfound peace: “Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all circumstances.”
This year, when Manus and her husband celebrated their anniversary in Hawaii, he rested two chairs on a rock jutting into the ocean and got down on one knee. As the sun set, he proposed again.
“He said he wanted to give me the fairytale wedding I deserved,” she says.
But she told him she didn’t want to live in a fairytale. Even with the challenges she’s faced, it’s the real world she cherishes most.
Here’s the complete slideshow: