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Clancy Sigal’s 20th-Century Road Trip

Marty Roth
September 20, 2017

by Marty Roth

“He was a romantic man, Clancy. The Left was then romantic, heroic, monitored by the ghosts of heroes and heroines.” —Doris Lessing

THE ROLLER COASTER that was Clancy Sigal’s life and career has shut down, the lights turned off. What is still worth savoring? Although he was celebrated as a legendary figure for the New Left generation, the literary establishment judged him to be merely an interesting, minor writer -- only seven books and two screenplays (possibly one masterwork, Going Away), loads of magazine and radio essays and reviews, and innumerable letters to the editor. Very little of his so-called fiction could be called imaginative: Sigal was a self-absorbed writer of fictionalized memoir. One of his female characters calls him a “little red Peter Pan,” a telling epithet. His outlook on life was governed by a pop imagination, by “a literary tradition,” as he wrote, “consisting of Superman, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, Gene Kelly and John Wayne.” On the other hand, his books still feel fresh and are fun to read, which is saying a lot.

Sigal’s life coincided with many of the hot spots of the 20th century: accompanying his labor-organizer mother, Jennie Persily, to work and into jail in the early 1940s; attending the Nuremberg Trials as a GI (abandoning at the last minute, he reports, his plan to assassinate Herman Goering); working as an agent in Hollywood during the blacklist period (excused by HUAC as he sat waiting for his fateful interview); crossing the country by car just before embarking on a thirty-year exile to France and England, where he engaged in an intense erotic and creative entanglement with Doris Lessing; living in a Yorkshire mining village for a short while; taking LSD “anti-psychiatry” psychotherapy with R. D. Laing. Most of these moments were written about in a “novel” or memoir: A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to Be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her Bastard Son (2006) told Jennie’s story; Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos (2016) told about the Hollywood hustle at the Sam Jaffe Agency; Going Away (1961), about the cross-country car trip; and Secret Defector (1992), Weekend at Dinlock (1960) and Zone of the Interior (1976), devoted respectively to Lessing, the mining village, and Laing. By the time you’re through reading each book, you’ve absorbed an energized spectrum of contemporary social history. But please remember: You’ve only Clancy’s word for it.

“Lenin and Stalin may have fallen, but Mr. Sigal still stands,” a reviewer wrote, “dispensing his memories of the left with wit, irony and sheer pratfall comedy.” Whatever his faults as a writer or truth-teller, Clarence Sigal (he was named for Clarence Darrow but the nickname Clancy stuck) was a lifelong advocate for social and political justice, and kept a radical edge to his politics. He joined the Communist Party at age 15 and, after his war in Europe, worked as an organizer for the auto workers’ union before being expelled in a purge of communists and fellow travellers. In London, he ran an underground operation for Vietnam draft refusers and deserters and the occasional underground “Weatherman” in an organization that included Bill Clinton, “scraggle-bearded, fattish and vaguely on our side . . . . always somewhere else when it came to hawking leaflets on street corners.” Sigal rode along with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in rural southwest Georgia on their midnight voter registration drives, worked for Malcolm X’s Black Power movement in Detroit, and later became a “camp follower” of women’s liberation.

“I was born out of Jennie’s movie-loving rib,” he wrote. “The closest either of us had to a religious life was a shared, almost insane passion for sprocket-hole fantasies.” After his only screen appearance in 1951 as a savage in the B movie Bride of the Gorilla (with Lon Chaney Jr.), Sigal became an agent in a Hollywood of fading glamour, threatened by both television and the blacklist. Black Sunset describes the mental and physical gyrations involved in living with the blacklist: complicated systems of exceptions and exile that allowed certain writers to act as “fronts” for the blacklisted many, and the necessary accommodation of informers, those who “named names.”

SIGAL LEFT America for Europe in 1957 after the cross-country car journey written up as Going Away -- a drive from Los Angeles to New York “to look at America and figure out why it isn’t my country any longer.” Sigal looked up old friends from the left and discovered only “sellout, burnout, and despair.” “Crazy as a loon,” Lessing wrote of him, “conversing with Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jefferson, Mother Bloor, John Brown, as well as Rosa Luxemburg, Speransky, Bukharin, Trotsky, and anyone else who turned up.” In his review of the book, John Leonard wrote, “Better than any other document I know, Going Away identified, embodied and re-created the postwar American radical experience. It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.”

He had actually gone to Paris on a literary fellowship to write up Going Away, but on his way home he stopped in London for the weekend and stayed (as an illegal immigrant) for thirty years. Looking for a place to stay in London, he was directed to Doris Lessing’s house, and they remained intensely involved with one another for the next four years. To her, “He was in the style of young Americans then, jeans, sweatshirt, a low-slung belt where you could not help but see a ghostly gun. The lonely outlaw. The lone sheriff battling against the bad men.” They became one another’s literary parasites, repeatedly writing the other into their books. Or as Sigal put it: “Later, when I became an ‘artist,’ I was skewered in all but name by a vengeful but talented lady writer in a play, a novel and God knows what else. Certainly I thought of slugging my ex-girlfriend (or at least killing her). After all, she had immortalized me as a neurotic schmegege -- and who wants to be remembered like that? But living well, not suing for llbel, is the best revenge. Second best is answering back in kind.”

Their crazy dance of literary and domestic espionage was fueled by sexual anxiety. Lessing wrote that “Every woman he ever met he got into bed, or tried, and as a matter of principle.” Sigal was inveterately unfaithful and just as steadfastly denied it, so Lessing took to reading his diaries, which Sigal then fabricated for her . . .

“[She left] chapters of what later became The Golden Notebook around the house for me to stumble on, read and dash upstairs to scribble responses in my journal which she’d then creep up to examine (I always knew when, because the thin black thread I tied between my bureau drawers would be broken) and translate, sometimes verbatim, to her novel, which I’d then discreetly read as the manuscript gathered height next to her typewriter and rush upstairs . . .”

Friendship with Len Doherty, a painter and author (one of England’s angry young men) who worked as a coal miner, led to Weekend at Dinlock, an anatomy of a Yorkshire coal mining village (Thurlock). It was a record of hard lives and the complicated social interactions of a highly stratified community. The book was savaged by the British left because the author was American.

England was also the scene of his psychotic break and therapy with the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, which Sigal wrote up to good effect in Zone of the Interior. Laing believed that schizophrenic breakdown might in fact be a natural voyage of self-reconstitution and discovery. He experimented with LSD as a therapeutic treatment and formed the Philadelphia Association, a charity dedicated to the humane treatment of the mentally ill. When the treatment turned rough, Sigal turned against Laing.

In Sigal’s Secret Defector, a narrator named Paul Blue tries to write like Nelson Algren but it comes out “like Norman Mailer with a hernia.” Indeed, Sigal reminds me most of Mailer, with the tough-guy posturing and East Coast slam style. Doris Lessing, however, may have been reminded of Bellow, since her name for Clancy in The Golden Notebooks was Saul Green.

A personal note: Sigal’s affair with the writer Barbara Probst Solomon began in 1963 in a University of Chicago tavern called The Woodlawn Tap but known as Jimmy’s. I was drinking at a nearby table.

Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine. He recently wrote for us about Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough.